Published: Friday, 12 March 2021 12:29 | Written by SciFi Vision
Available starting today on digital and On Demand and on March 16th on Blu-ray and DVD, Dark Web: Cicada 3301 is an action-thriller based on the real-life famous online puzzle of “Cicada 3301.” The film stars Jack Kesy as Connor Black and and Conor Leslie as Gwen who discover the mystery of the puzzle, and along with Connor’s friend, Avi (Ron Funches), race to follow the clues while avoiding NSA agents, led by Agent Carver, played by Alan Ritchson.
The film was directed by Ritchson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joshua Montcalm.
Ritchson and Leslie recently talked to SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about working on the film.
Be sure to watch Dark Web: Cicada 3301, and you can also read the full transcript of the interview following the video.
Zoom Interview Dark Web: Cicada 3301 Alan Ritchson and Conor Leslie
February 22, 2021
***Some unrelated content from the video was removed from the transcript***
SCIFI VISION:Thanks for talking to me, guys. I appreciate it. I really enjoyed the movie. So, to start out, Alan, I know that you are a writer as well as director on this. How did the idea come to be? I'm not sure if it was originally your story or the other writer’s, but can you talk about how the idea came and [moved] from idea to screen?
ALAN RITCHSON:Yeah, yeah, sure. Nice talking to you today. I stumbled upon the "Cicada 3301" thing. I was looking for something to write about and didn't want to write about myself. So, [I] discovered this phenomenon, this international scavenger hunt for geniuses. This game felt like a recruitment game; people would speculate it was for NSA or CIA. It was just a kind of interesting internet phenomenon that took the world by storm. I started studying it and researching it. I took a pass writing a version of a script about the subject matter, and it took itself a little too seriously as more of like a big budget, big studio tentpole, 007 kind of movie. I brought in my buddy, Josh Montcalm, who's a brilliant writer, and he really helped find the fun of it, and it became what it is, more of an action-thriller-comedy, this genre-blending escapism, a good fun adventure.
SCIFI VISION: It is very funny. So, Conor, can you talk about how you became involved?
CONOR LESLIE:Alan reached out to me shortly after we had worked together on Titans and gave me an idea of what Gwen's story was, but also this world that I knew nothing about. I think I asked probably twice, "Is this really a real thing?" because it just blew my mind. He said, "Do you want to come back up to Toronto?" and I got on a flight a couple days later.
SCIFI VISION:Yeah, I was really surprised to find out it was real, too. I hadn't realized that. Out of curiosity, the puzzles that are in it, were [any of] those actually real puzzles? Or was that all made up for the script?
ALAN RITCHSON: It was inspired by it. Our game was inspired by it…I think what made "Cicada 3301" so interesting was that it started as sort of an online recruitment game, and one of the puzzles unlocked GPS coordinates to, I think it was, twelve countries around the world, all at the same time. So, people that were following this and tracking this online realized they had real GPS coordinates, and everybody kind of went up to the surface, and the game continued from there. It wasn't just an online game anymore at some point. So, we depict some version of that in the film, but the vast majority of the puzzles themselves just took a little inspiration from the the actual game.
SCIFI VISION:Conor, obviously, you got a lot from the script, but other than the script, was there anybody else who inspired the character at all?
CONOR LESLIE:No. For Gwen, I hadn't really found, I mean, I think we see so many versions - Well, I'd like to see more, but we see versions of strong female badass characters, and we've talked a lot about this, but they typically rely on just that statement as a whole. What I loved about Gwen is that she was already so different that I didn't really want to pull that. I think if I want to be inspired by someone else for a character, it has to come pretty quickly, and otherwise, I like to really go by what's on the page. Gwen was so strong in her own way, just being brilliant and being a hacker and loving these puzzles and being as invested and mesmerized by them as Connor Black is. I really just went with what was there and what Alan explained to me, his idea of who she was, and I went from from there.
SCIFI VISION:Alan, I guess your answer is going to be different, because you also partially wrote it, but is there anybody that any of the characters represent or that you were thinking of when you wrote it?
ALAN RITCHSON:Yeah, I wanted to write a smart, original film for myself. I historically have played a lot of characters that are just dumb as rocks, which is a lot of fun, but I just wanted a different color for a second, and that's where this came from.
I wrote the first draft of the script in 2014, and between the time I wrote it and we started filming, I'd started directing and really enjoyed that more than my desire to play the part. So, the Connor Black character is a vehicle that I really loved and felt was very personal, and I was lucky to find Jack Kesy, who's, I think, better than I am. I think he really brought it to life in a great way, and it all worked out for the best, but I really wanted to direct, and, of course, I enjoy doing what I do. When I felt the need for that same kind of character that I play, I felt like it was appropriate to jump in an Agent Carver-type of situation with kind of a dimwitted NSA agent. I think it was all meant to be; it feels well-rounded.
SCIFI VISION:Can you talk a bit about working with Jack? I [keep] wanting to call him Connor, but Jack.
ALAN RITCHSON:Yeah, it was confusing on set. [We had] Connor Black the character; we had Conor, the girl. We call her Conor Girl now; she's Conor Girl.
CONOR LESLIE:Still Alan's nickname for me is “Conor Girl.” I've done a couple projects now where there's another Conor, so it always provides for confusing moments for PAs and crew members, but working with Jack was so much fun. He plays this character so well; he just slips right into it. So, as someone working opposite him, it just made it easier to slip into it even [more] for me. It was a really fun experience to work with him, because he just embodies - I know Alan has mentioned this, but he embodies this character so naturally. I think there's a bit of a brashness to him that complements Gwen's character that I think provided for a really interesting duo.
SCIFI VISION:...Are either of you - and obviously you don't have to be, to be in the movie, but I'm just curious, are either you into puzzles like this kind of thing or even just puzzles in general?
ALAN RITCHSON:I don't think I'm bright enough to solve these puzzles. I tried a few. I could figure a couple out.
CONOR LESLIE:I'm not; I think I would just get so frustrated. Jigsaw puzzles, you know, 1000 piece puzzles, I can murder, but all this stuff just makes me feel stupid. [laughs] Like I'll be trying to figure it out, and then you'll find out the answer is right in front of you.
ALAN RITCHSON:An example, for people watching that don't know, one of the first puzzles that they put up, it was just an anonymous image. It was just a black image with white text. It was just a picture of words, and it was a kind of a riddle with a signature by Cicada 3301. Somebody figured out that they could run that through a program that pulled pixels out of the image, and there was another picture inside the picture, which I never would have thought to even do that had I seen it. I just wouldn't even have given it a second thought.
So, that's kind of what kicked off the party and made people realize, “Oh, something's going on here, and somebody's playing a game.” The kind of people that figure that stuff out and put it together, I have huge respect for, because I just wouldn't have thought to do it, you know?
SCIFI VISION:I'm not sure if they inspired a lot of web games or the other way around, because I know there's some of them floating around where you have to use steganography and that kind of thing [like in the film].
So, what was the most difficult part?
ALAN RITCHSON: Of making this movie?
SCIFI VISION:For you, making it or being in it. You have both.
ALAN RITCHSON:Making this movie was hard. [laughs] It was a tough one…Every project is like this; just when you think you've figured out the business and how to produce and how to look ahead and avoid problems or solve problems before they start, there's some unique version of that on every film, that you just can't avoid all the issues that you're going to face. So, this was a tough one to make. There're a lot of visual effects in the film. For people that haven't seen it, it's a bit of a fantasy world that we enter, because it's told through this unreliable narrative device that our protagonist uses. In retelling a story, he's not always honest, and crazy things that happen in your mind, happen in the real world, and you're trying to put together the pieces [of] what's real and what's not. So, there're a lot of visual effects shots, you know, VFX shots, and it was hard to get some of those done, because they're big. So, a lot of the time, we're trying to cut the movie together, and we don't have a hundred of the shots that we need. Some of them we never got, so we had to retell the story a little bit. You know, it's tough. It was a tough process, because it's a big film with a lot of scope. I think we had about five million to make the movie, and movies that have those kind of budgets are usually just people in a room talking, and it's still hard enough to make those on that kind of budget. This is not that kind of movie, so it was challenging to put it together, but with a little time and perseverance and some amazing people around us and a great cast, we got it done in a good way.
CONOR LESLIE:Alan had to do all the hard stuff, but as far as the challenging bits, and as for me, I think so much, like he said, it is a lot of conveying what's on the page or what's in his head or what the idea is of me just clarifying, "Okay, so what are we looking at?" and just so I'm tracking the right narrative for all of these viz effects. That stuff always requires you to have an active imagination; you just want to make sure your imagination is synced up to the right thing, that you're imagining the right thing.
CONOR LESLIE:I've had directors explain things before, and then I see - and it wasn't on this but other projects - I'm like, "That is not what you described." So, whenever you have viz effects and green screen…I honestly think that is what helps about having Alan [understand] so much of this script. My whole thing with directors is just, "Please know what you want, and please explain it so that we can do our jobs." So, that was relatively easy for me.