SXSW 2014 Interview: Lee Pace and MacKenzie Davis on ‘Halt and Catch Fire’
South by Southwest has added a television component to the film festival, premiering new pilots for shows coming out this year. We got to speak with the cast of AMC’s computer industry series “Halt and Catch Fire” while they were in Austin to premiere their pilot.
Lee Pace stars as an ex-IBM executive breaking away to build a new system in the early ‘80s. MacKenzie Davis plays one of the technicians he picks to build it. Pace and Davis told us about their show, which joins the AMC roster this summer.
CraveOnline: What are your roles in “Halt and Catch Fire” as they pertain to the PC industry?
Lee Pace: I’ll start about Joe MacMillan. Joe is someone who comes from IBM. There was this phrase that our advisor told me about, The Wild Ducks. The Wild Ducks are the ones who left IBM and tried to start something else. There were a lot of them. So that’s what Joe is. He’s someone who’s leaving the corporate structure because this technology is such an exciting, fun wave.
He’s looking down the road and seeing the potential of this technology. In the pilot I have a line that sticks out. “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” I just need to get people to build the computer that I want that I’m going to bring to the world. That’s why I get together with Gordon Clark and Cameron, so they can build my computer. So we’re making a computer. It’s really simple.
We’re just trying to make an awesome computer because in the world of tech, you’re either the most awesome or you’re out of business. Either you’ve got something that people want to spend your dollars on because everyone’s trying to fight for the same dollars.
So how do you get to be the guy who gets them? The show is very much about how now these phones in our pockets are such ubiquitous parts of our lives, and they’re great. They give us so much freedom and do the things that we need them to do but someone made that happen, lots of people working very hard together and fighting and collaborating to turn the mainframes into these.
Mackenzie Davis: I think Cameron represents a sort of intuitive next wave into the computer industry moving away from computers just being functional machines and starting to have a little bit more personality and anticipate the needs of the user.
I think a lot of her journey in the first season is about trying to apply herself and her ideology into this sort of nondescript box and trying to get it to interact with the world the way she knows it has the potential.
We think of computers as very technical. Do people realize how much drama there is in the industry that produces them?
Mackenzie Davis: They will now. It’s like any industry I would think.
Lee Pace: They will now. It’s an extraordinary thing, a computer, really. It’s electrons moving down those passages and somehow that equals information. As much as this show is a show about computers, because the people in the show care about computers so passionately, love computers, love computational thinking, love the programming of it, love the potential of it, it’s really a show about these people. They’re going into the wild west. That’s what they’re doing with this endeavor.
There’s a great innocence to the show that I really love. There’s an innocence to innovation in a way because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen to these people. They have high hopes to build this impossible machine but they don’t know if they’re going to succeed, and it takes an insane person to enter into that proposition. That’s Lewis and Clark trying to break into the west.
Mackenzie Davis: They’re unbelievable idealists. They’re going into this project thinking that they’re unleashing something purely beautiful into the world. It’s a very, in their minds, noble pursuit.
It’s going to take the public a lot longer to see the beauty of it, so is there a conflict between these creators and the public?
Mackenzie Davis: Yeah, I think that’s some of the struggle as a creator of a technology that’s really hard to access as a layman, is to try and create something that you’re so passionate about and are so moved by and have such an emotional connection with and try to infuse your personal experience of that machine into the machine so that it can then be transferred to your audience.
Just like “Mad Men” is about advertising but not entirely, and “Breaking Bad” was about drugs but so much more, is technology a launching point for “Halt and Catch Fire?”
Lee Pace: This season is about computers. We’re about making this one computer but it’s about innovation, which is one of the issues of our time. The computer is important to him but there’s a personal drive to be a significant man in this world. He’s looking towards the millennium, 2000, and the possibility of that future as his life’s work, bringing that about.
There were a bunch of guys at the time who were hustling to get into this incredible industry and the ones who succeeded are now very, very wealthy and have influenced our culture in a profound way. Joe wants to be among them. Joe sees the potential of the technology, and forging ahead with that is insane.
What we do with this company, this maneuver I pull with IBM, is insane.
Because it’s fictional, is there more license with that or limitation within the real history?
Lee Pace: The scripts that are coming in are pretty hot. I don’t feel that the writers feel [limited].”
Mackenzie Davis: I feel like the pilot episode is the tamest episode of the season. It’s just so sweet. We are monsters after this. Not really.
Do you get any cool props to play with on “Halt and Catch Fire?”
Mackenzie Davis: Yeah, the computers are amazing. It’s like a playground. That set’s amazing.
Do they work?
Mackenzie Davis: No. Some things do.
Lee Pace: No, because I tried to turn on the Osborne that they brought in and it didn’t work. Actually, I have this picture of my mother in ’83 sitting behind an Adam Osborne that my father bought and she thought it was a big waste of money and a fad. There she is, sitting in front of this. It was luggable basically, a portable computer, but it weighed 28 pounds. It had a big boob tube in the middle of it, two disk drives.
The one they brought on set, the quality of it is so poor. My mom’s got the programming book open next to it because that was when if you wanted your computer to do anything, you had to program it yourself. There was some software that you could buy but most of the time you’d have to input the code yourself. Yeah, there’s fun stuff around. I love it.
Mackenzie Davis: I feel like you’re always touching the individual things. You can interact with a lot of stuff.
Lee Pace: A cool car.
What kind of car does Joe MacMillan drive?
Lee Pace: Porsche 911.
What are the personality conflicts within the team?
Mackenzie Davis: I think at least for Cameron, she is somebody who does not take kindly to being told what to do but she’s working for a very old school corporation so obviously drama is going to come out of an anarchist existing in a corporate world.
She needs the corporate world because she has a great vision for something she wants to create and doesn’t have the funds or the material to do it by herself. She also does not tow the company line. She’s not taken under Joe’s wing as he’d like her to be.
Lee Pace: Really?
Mackenzie Davis: Yeah.
Lee Pace: It’s nothing but conflict. It’s actually nothing but conflict. What they’re so good about is that conflict pits us against each other. This endeavor is so shaky from the beginning. I’m pinning my hopes and dreams on Gordon Clark, this alcoholic who presented a losing computer two years ago, to make this happen. I plucked her out of the back row of a classroom because there’s something about her that I can’t make this computer without. I don’t know what it is but my instinct tells me that you’re what I need. I need courage to make this thing happen.
Were the early ‘80s a heyday for the anarchist movement?
Mackenzie Davis: It was a huge time for punks and the anarchist thing comes about from bucking social norms and the late ‘70s bleeding into the ‘80s. There was a huge punk scene in Dallas and Texas that was very distinct from the punk scene in New York, the punk scene in California in the ‘80s.
So yes and no. I think there’s always a very vocal, if unseen, anarchist movement. It just depends where you look and this show does look to that.
Lee Pace: I think Joe’s got a little bit of that too.
Mackenzie Davis: We want to write our own rules.
Lee Pace: He’s coming in to burn the house down. Innovation is about destroying what was not working, and that’s IBM, those rich white guys in suits who call the shots, is part of what Joe wants to dismantle. That’s why he’s chosen the Silicon Prairie. It’s isolated, there’s a lot of money out here in Texas.
There are a lot of smart, smart businessmen and that’s what Joe’s trying to take advantage of and it’s isolated. It’s not a part of Palo Alto, it’s not a part of the east coast tech world. It’s its own microcosm and
I think that’s what Joe is taking advantage of. He knows Steve Jobs is over on the west coast working on something very, very cool and I want to beat him. I think we can. All it takes is a good idea and good execution. That’s all we have to do. We have to connect the dots.
For one Guardians of the Galaxy question, is your Ronan the Accuser based on any specific era of the comic books?
Lee Pace: It’s a character that has changed so much through the years and a character that the readers of the comic books love and love to watch him change. That’s the quality of Ronan I think we’re [going to see]. It’s a very cool character.
Did you have to do any additional shooting for The Hobbit: There and Back Again?
Lee Pace: Not yet. Summer’s not over. Not yet, not yet. We did quite a bit last year so we shot a lot of very, very cool stuff.
Based on the original plan, it would have been finished as a two-parter by now. Are you excited another whole movie is still coming?
Lee Pace: Yeah, it’s such a special movie that people connect to. It’s such a great thing to be a part of and I’m very excited once this final piece falls in place of seeing all of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as one movie.
Does it connect up at the end?
Lee Pace: I’m not going to tell you that. [Laughs]