Q & A with NASA Filmmaker & Conspiracy Theorist John Beck Hofmann
By Ariel Nishli
There’s a fine line between curiosity and paranoia. Curiosity, after all, did kill that cat. How deep should one continue to dig once powerful opposing forces begin to surface? Ask John Beck Hofmann, director of photography for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he’ll most likely point out the lesser-known rejoinder to the old maxim about our feline friend, that “satisfaction brought him back.”
Curiosity has been a significant part of Mr. Hofmann’s life over the last few years, that is to say the Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on the red planet’s surface at 10:31 PM PST on Sunday, August 5th. Curiosity will be doing its own digging, literally, for any proof that life may have existed outside of Earth. Hofmann’s latest film project, a video dubbed 7 Minutes of Terror detailing Curiosity’s mind-boggling landing, has sparked a frenzy of interest in our scaled back government space program’s watershed mission.
You are watching “The Martians: 7 Minutes of Terror”
As for paranoia, it serves as rocket fuel for Mr. Hofmann’s socioeconomic and political concerns as well as his artistic endeavors, all of which blend together in his gripping conspiracy thriller series Tyranny. KoldCast TV airs the Show that attempts to answer difficult questions about where Internet companies’ perpetual mining of personal data will leave us, how large brand conscious corporations exploit individuals for the sake of profits, and why an economic collapse could trigger a new world order. The one asking these questions is Daniel, an artist who undergoes an experimental brain scan. He wakes up to find himself privy to some disturbing information about a dystopian future bleak enough to make big brother resemble a loyal friend.
Daniel and his creator have a lot in common. Aside from being an adept filmmaker, Mr. Hofmann possesses another curious talent – he’s able to predict the future. Tyranny was written over a decade ago, yet its first season chillingly plays like a newsreel from 2008 to the present. A centerpiece of the show’s upcoming second season is Daniel’s foray into the bowels of a secret society comprised of a select group of rich, powerful men intent on controlling the lives of many through technology and economic prowess.
Click to play Episode 1 of Tyranny, “The Beginning of the End”
Hofmann’s life has a funny, if not ominous way of imitating his art. His 7 Minutes of Terror video, now viral, was recently watched during a private gathering of The Bohemian Club, a secret society notorious for bringing together university presidents, future American presidents, military commanders, and media moguls on weekend retreats to discuss matters of national interest. Among those at the viewing was Henry Kissinger, according to a source close to Hofmann who was present at the event.
Tickled, but by no means surprised at yet another example of reality unfolding one step behind his work, John Beck Hofmann sat down with The Sixth Wall to talk about the future, or at least what’s left of it.
Ariel Nishli, Editor-in-Chief of T6W, on the Set of Tyranny with John Beck Hofmann
THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): So John, are you as paranoid in real life as Daniel is in Tyranny?
JOHN BECK HOFMANN (JBH): I used to be. I used to be overly untrusting of every official statement, whether it was from the government or a corporation. This started when I was working for an ad agency, named of all things, “No Comment.” That was in 1994. I kind of sucked at it because I was a bad liar so they fired me. I told all our clients the truth.
T6W: The truth about why their products weren’t that great?
JBH: Like how much things cost to make. I got so mad for being fired that I essentially said, “I hate advertising!” I picked up an Adbusters magazine, which fueled my angst towards corporations.
T6W: Was the reason you were let go ever communicated to you?
JBH: The president of the company, this French guy, didn’t know what to say. He goes, “John it’s like this. It’s like peeing. I show you how to pee and you pee. It’s that simple.” That was my firing speech.
T6W: When did you start getting interested in government conspiracies?
JBH: I researched US history around then. The Kennedy assassination, the real reason for the Iraq war (the first one), what we had done in Iran back in 1953 when the CIA ousted the Shah.
T6W: Was this purely an intellectual pursuit or was there anger behind it that made you feel personally wronged?
JBH: Actually, my girlfriend at the time was working in public relations. We broke up in 1997. I didn’t have any money at the time and that alone made me feel tired of people in big business with a lot of money. I wanted to be the underground rebel character. I did not intend to play a role in Tyranny when I started writing it.
John Beck Hofmann as Daniel McCarthy in Tyranny
T6W: It seems like you were on a crash course to fight the power structure, and yet you were working at NASA this whole time?
JBH: I’ve been at NASA for 21 years. I only took the job at the ad agency when we lost our spacecraft, the Mars Observer, the day before it was to arrive on Mars in 1993.
T6W: And NASA is trying again with the Curiosity rover, set to land on Mars on August 5th. Are they publicizing this mission more than they traditionally have with past missions?
JBH: This is the biggest media campaign we’ve ever had. We have a video game in Xbox where you can land the rover yourself using your body to move it into position. There are all kinds of campaigns they’ve come up with.
T6W: Such as 7 Minutes of Terror,
Click to play Episode 2 of Tyranny, “Evaluation”
T6W: Are they planning on bringing anything back?
JBH: No. We had a sample collection mission that got cancelled. Next will be a manned Mars mission, by somebody else probably. Little do they know they won’t be coming home.
T6W: And why’s that?
JBH: It’s totally impossible with today’s technology. I know there are a lot people that say it can be done. But do you know how hard it is to blast off from Earth in a spaceship? Even though Mars has a third of the gravity that Earth does, it has such little atmosphere. It’s kind of like how a helicopter performs at high altitude. You just can’t get any further unless you have rockets.
T6W: Is it an issue with the atmosphere on Mars, the problem described in 7 Minutes of Terror?
JBH: I’m actually not exactly sure since I’m not a rocket scientist. I have heard it said it would be easy if Mars had no atmosphere or if it had more atmosphere, but it has just enough to make it really, really difficult.
T6W: Between the high technology and futurism you’re a part of at NASA, has your work on the missions to Mars bled into Tyranny at all?
JBH: One of the cool little trivia tidbits about NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where I work in relation to Tyranny is that two of the scientists are in the show. There are two doctors. One that first examines all the wires attached to my head, Steve Collins, works on the rover mission. He has worked on all the rover missions. You will see him in mission control. All that lab gear in Tyranny – he made that. He’s the one that said “Waveforms, that’s all thoughts are my friend.”
T6W: What is all that equipment designed for?
JBH: Well in the fictional world it’s supposed to be building patterns based on everything I do, think about, and look at… kind of like Facebook. We don’t even have to wear these things anymore. Facebook and Google are taking care of that because people so badly want to tell the world all the things they like.
Daniel Undergoes the Experiment in Tyranny
T6W: And the next moment you’ll see an advertisement based on that “like.”
JBH: This is my paranoia. It is very difficult to live in this world and not be part of the technological breakthrough, but this stuff is really learning us… knowing us better than we know ourselves.
T6W: It’s getting more accurate at predicting our behavior.
JBH: Eventually it will predict our behavior. This is what Tyranny is about at its core. The first season is really just about where it begins, but seasons two and three will show where it’s going and the technology that comes as a result. I was writing this back in 1999! There was no iPhone, no iPod, no YouTube, no Facebook. I came up with this device called the “IV” that people would wear on their arm. It was always hooked into them and it learned everything about them. It had their phone, their camera, their computer, it monitored their house and everything was in the palm of their hands.
T6W: Do you think people are giving away their personal information too readily to companies requesting email addresses, access to Facebook accounts and the like?
JBH: I think that there is a healthy paranoia that we should all be exercising and we don’t. It is going to be too late.
T6W: Too late in what sense?
JBH: We are a very trusting people for some reason, which is amazing given the amount of bad things we’ve done, are capable of doing, and have seen other people do. Being American, we think we’re immune. What if the Nazis ran Facebook? What if a cult ran Facebook? We would all think, “Oh my god I cannot give them my data.” But for some reason we trust these unknown people with our information. Try calling Facebook. Try even finding the number, which will take you a long time in itself. When you do find the number, you will never get a person on the phone and never be able to leave a message.
Daniel in the French Quarter
T6W: How ironic for a company that is recording human history and connecting people.
JBH: It’s kind of Kafka-esque or what you would expect in a Woody Allen story. This is the most powerful network and it has control over everyone’s lives. You can’t live without it. These are your friends. This is your Rolodex. This is how you communicate!
T6W: Facebook is also becoming our personal branding tool. If I go to John Beck Hofmann’s Facebook page, I’ll get a feel for what you are all about, or at least what you want me to think you’re all about.
JBH: I don’t think we’re friends… It’s weird. People are looking at themselves in kind of a corporate way – I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the future people become trademarked and incorporated as an entity. I am John Beck Hofmann, incorporated. This is my face, this is my identity, and if you use my name or my face you are using the corporate logo. I don’t know why movie stars don’t do that.
T6W: Kim Kardashian gets paid $10,000 per tweet.
JBH: Well that’s shocking for a host of reasons. All the things that are in Tyranny are still ahead of what is currently happening in the world. It’s just not as shocking as it once was though. One of the things that the future world of Tyranny holds is a big economic collapse. No news there.
T6W: How does Daniel interact with this dismal future?
JBH: In the story, Daniel and his underground group have devices that spoof the world’s grid sensors. The grid reads and records everything. They go out and take grid readings, making sure they know the exact patterns so they can have some kind of freedom to walk in public. Their IDs are replaced so as soon as they walk pass a camera it will distort their picture. Things like that which give them a little freedom temporarily. There is always a glitch in the system somewhere.
T6W: They play the angles to exploit the grid?
JBH: They do, but towards the end of the story there are new security measures that they were unaware of and can’t get around. They start to think, “If we are ever going to make our move, now is the time.” It starts to feel like this is almost the perfect storm and maybe they are being set up to move. Maybe they were being watched all this time and just didn’t know.
T6W: And who’s doing the watching?
JBH: There is this “Committee of 600,” and not much is known about them but Daniel is starting to figure out whom its members are. The committee has secret meetings in their underground headquarters in Prague, where they start to think they have to do something about Daniel. That is the tension that will climax at the series’ end, and that climax is actually what Daniel’s trying to remember in episode one, where we see him talking to that strange doctor in the lab coat, struggling to remember what happened.
Daniel on a Bridge in Prague
T6W: Were you inspired by any Orwellian, big brother conspiracy movies?
JBH: Yes! Actually in episode two, Daniel is reading 1984 on the subway. You can barely see it. The book and movie Twelve Monkeys are both huge influences.
T6W: You said you used to be paranoid. Have you exercised your demons through Tyranny or are you not letting your guard down just yet?
JBH: I’m less paranoid, but very prudent in who I am going to believe in. I don’t trust anybody in the professional world, or anybody that has any kind of power. Let’s just say I am highly suspicious.
Filmmaker John Beck Hofmann on the Set of Tyranny
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this magazine.