How ‘The Net’ Ordered Pizza Online Before It Was a Reality — An Oral History of Pizza.Net

     July 25, 2020

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A young woman, sitting alone in her apartment, goes online to order a pizza. In 2020, it’s the most common of occurrences — 25 years ago, it was a character-defining personality trait, and maybe even a groundbreaking moment of film. In 1995’s The Net, celebrating its 25th anniversary today, visiting www.pizza.net is one of the first things we see shy yet brilliant hacker Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) do on screen, as she settles in for another night sheltered from the outside world by her many computer screens, unaware that she is about to trip headfirst into a deadly conspiracy that will completely change her life.

Over the course of The Net, directed by Irwin Winkler, Angela spends more time on the run from Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam) and the mysterious forces he works for than she does actually sitting in front of a computer, but to this day the memory of her using the Internet to order a pizza stands out — if only because for many Americans in 1995, the Internet was a relatively new presence; certainly, there was little clue as to what a world-changing force it would become. After stealing scenes from Sylvester Stallone and Keanu Reeves in Demolition Man and Speed, The Net is considered one of the films that confirmed Bullock as a brand new star, and Angela’s friend the Internet in some ways came along for the ride. While it’s through the use of technology that Angela’s identity gets stolen, the movie does still showcase some early practical uses for the web, including ordering airline tickets, chatting with friends… and yes, ordering a pizza.

To pay tribute to pizza.net — not just what went into its creation, but its significance to the story — I spoke with credited writers Michael Ferris and John Brancato, producer Rob Cowan, computer graphics supervisor Todd Marks, and technical consultants Alex and Harold Mann. (Bullock did not respond to requests for comment. Winkler was unable to participate but sent his regards.) While sometimes memories were a bit shaky as to what happened when (which is totally understandable given that 25 years or more have passed), they were all very happy to discuss their contributions to a perhaps overlooked moment of film that may have broader implications.

“The Whole Movie Should Be About That”

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Image via Polygram

Things began when their spec script for what would become David Fincher‘s The Game got writing partners Ferris and Brancato a meeting with director Irwin Winkler.

MICHAEL FERRIS: Irwin Winkler wanted to do a movie about a woman who hires a guy to do resume tampering and get her a job at a high-powered advertising agency. We dutifully wrote a draft of the script, even though we thought the premise was a little boring, but there was definitely something in the idea of a character who can mess around on the Internet and change things at will — which in the early nineties was slightly more novel than it is now.

JOHN BRANCATO: I remember thinking this concept of identity theft was pretty new. I think like one book had been published about it, which we’d come across in researching resume tampering. I thought, well, what if you just take that literally as a concept, that you have a character whose whole identity in life was stolen from her? That immediately seemed like a movie, rather than somebody who fakes a resume to get a job.

FERRIS: There was a moment in the first draft where she turns against the guy who’s been her controller figure, and he retaliates by erasing her identity. And she goes to an ATM or something, and she can’t get any money, and she finds out that she essentially is a non-person. We thought, that’s a really cool moment. The whole movie should be about that instead of all this other business of resume tampering and ad agencies and shit. So, we went back to Irwin and we said, “Look, we think we’re onto something here, but this movie should be about something different.” And to his credit, he bought that. I mean, it’s rare that you can get people to change their visions. He was suffering a rotator cuff injury at the time from tennis or something. I think he might’ve been on painkillers. So, maybe that had to do with it, but he said, “Okay, go for it. Try it your way.”

“Well, Maybe This Thing Will Catch On”

With the script’s new direction in place, the team, including Cowan, began to do research into what would become the world of its protagonist.

ROB COWAN: We found a guy out at UCLA, and he had a very old-fashioned computer that we went and sat down at. He explained what the World Wide Web was to us, because we really didn’t fully understand it. We started working with him and he started showing us how you could track people down. He was pitching the idea that, down the line, everybody would have access to the Internet and would be able to do all manner of things — without really pitching what that might be, because it was still very early days. Maybe AOL was around, but very, very early on. As a matter of fact, when we went in and pitched the movie to the studio, we literally had to go in and pitch, “There’s this thing called the Internet,” and they would look at us and go, “What’s that?” We go, “Okay, here’s what the internet is all about.” When we were shooting the film, I remember we were up in San Francisco and an article came out on Time Magazine and the cover was literally the word “the Internet” and the whole issue was about the Internet. I thought, “Oh, well, maybe this thing will catch on and this movie will have some basis in reality.”

FERRIS: We were talking to people a lot about the Internet at that point, just the idea that you could sort of do anything. I mean, booking the plane tickets, you know? None of us had ever done that. We’re like, “Yeah, okay. Why couldn’t you do that online?” That’s also selling the good points of the Internet before you hit them with the less good points.

BRANCATO: The idea that she does everything on the Internet, even if it was stuff that wasn’t actually happening at the time, we figured, oh, it’s bound to happen eventually. Why not? You can order airline tickets — I think that was a new thing at the time. Why not, if you never want to leave your house, have people bring food? Do it over the Internet. Why use a telephone? It’s so primitive.

COWAN: As we were developing the story and coming up with different things that Sandra Bullock’s character could be doing, that she was working at home and we also wanted to express her loneliness, it was actually Irwin, the director, who came up with, “What if you could order pizza over the net?” I remember at the time I was thinking, “Well, why would you want to do that? You can just call somebody and just order pizza.” [But] what we wanted to say is that she doesn’t want to have any contact with any humans directly. She does get a phone call from a guy at the beginning, but she would rather not have to talk to somebody. She really just felt more comfortable dealing with a computer than she was with a person. This was one way of us being able to tell that.

BRANCATO: The whole thing was to set up a character sufficiently isolated that you’d buy that somebody could actually steal her life. Everything was in service of that identity theft concept. So the more that she’s removed from human contact, the more believable it is somebody could take her place. That was the whole theme of the movie.

V.I.P.A.L.

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Image via Columbia Pictures

To create Angela’s digital world, Cowan brought in Marks, who in turn brought in Harold and Alex Mann. Marks originally met Harold through Marks’ own brother, and brought the pair on to do graphics for the films he was working on.

FERRIS: There’s an awful lot of tech stuff going on in that movie that we had nothing to do with. I mean, when she’s hunched over a computer typing — we didn’t write all that. We sort of like… “Her fingers fly over the keyboard,” and somebody will figure out what it is she’s actually doing. It’s like writing fight scenes — “then, a flurry of fists and feet ensue.” You figure somebody will choreograph that shit.

TODD MARKS: There were a handful of people who were doing it, but it was still a developing field — it certainly evolved over time, but there are certain aspects that are still key to using graphics on-screen to help tell the story. The acronym I came up with is V.I.P.A.L: visually interesting, plausible, and logical. Because sometimes graphics that you see just are cartoonish or illegible, because at one point, people, they didn’t know better, because they weren’t familiar with computer technology.

ALEX MANN: The projects always came the same way, we’d get a script in the mail and the idea was to break it down, so you’d find every scene that called for a computer shot of any sort, and you roughed out a vague idea of what you might do and you bid it out. If they liked your number, you got hired onto the show.

HAROLD MANN: My brother and I had had experience with technology for many years, and so they wanted our advice on how to make the film be relevant and realistic. We were introduced to the world of technology in the late ’70s, because our cousin was at MIT, so we were really fortunate to be fluent in all of that technology, and then be able to help advise on what could be done with it from a fictional standpoint, if you’re making a movie about it. But the goal of this movie was to make it seem believable. So we didn’t want it to be too far out there.

ALEX MANN: You’ve got to imagine being one of these nerdy people who would go to the films and say, “That’s totally unrealistic. If I could be in charge of this, I would make it totally realistic.” And then it turns out you get a chance to do it, and you realize that realism is incredibly boring and the audience really needs things to be entertaining. The Net made me pivot real quick to the importance of balancing some amount of realism with the need to keep things moving, and in just a couple of seconds, play off a complex plot point or whatever. I have a lot more sympathy for the people that I probably criticized for most of my childhood.

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Image via Columbia Pictures

“Of Course, That’s What It Should Be”

While Cowan credits Winkler with the initial idea, there was a pilot program created by Pizza Hut that began testing the idea of ordering pizza online in 1994. However, for those wishing to nitpick the headline of this article, the PizzaNet program (seriously, that’s what it was called) was limited to Santa Cruz, while Angela lives in Venice, CA. Also, visually it was a lot more crude than the film’s pizza.net, and the team wanted to do better.

HAROLD MANN: We were brought in as script consultants upfront, just while they were figuring out, “Is this possible?” Or, “How would this work?” And then we would help them storyboard the ideas and come up with the actual graphics.

ALEX MANN: For almost everything in this movie, we tried to project what we thought a more interactive and colorful Internet might look like at some point a couple of years out. We really thought about not trying to make this look like particular year or a particular moment or particularly dated.

HAROLD MANN: The graphic software we were using was early versions of Adobe Photoshop and then Macro Media Director, which was what we used to create the animations that we put in all these movies. It would simulate how a computer was working, so that when you would film the computer it would always behave very consistently and the actor wouldn’t have to do everything perfectly.

ALEX MANN: It’s funny, most of the scenes I recall a lot of back and forth on, but not the pizza. Once we put something together in a mockup, it seemed like everyone liked it straight away, because it’s a pizza. The visuals on a pizza are about as simple as it gets. It’s like, you pick your size, you pick your topping, you hit pay and off you go. And everyone was just like, of course, that’s what it should be.

HAROLD MANN: I’m very pleased that our practical approach ended up being exactly what you see now when you order a pizza online. It was nice to see that it wasn’t too gratuitous, in terms of the actual process.

“She Could Click Anything”

The job didn’t end with building the on-screen graphics, but continued into production, with Marks on set monitoring video playback. 

ALEX MANN: Everything we did was practical. That’s the thing that most people don’t realize. It wasn’t something that was done in post. These are practical effects. We were known as the guys that could do the interactive stuff so it could be actor-driven, click on the keyboard and it always comes out right, but the camera never looks false because it’s actually driven interactively and live. And that’s why our software was cool, and it just was easier to work with because you didn’t have to budget for a bunch of work in post. You could get your shot in the can as long as the camera and the monitors were in agreement.

HAROLD MANN: When it came time to shoot, we would come on set, put the graphics on the computers, and then give them a keyboard, and then we’d have another keyboard in the back, sort of like driving school, where the person has their own steering wheel and you have yours. And we could help them make sure the shots were happening nice and consistently.

MARKS: Giving actors the ability to act and react adds another layer of authenticity that you won’t get just with them randomly hitting numbers and letters and stuff, or moving the mouse all over and not. People can tell when it’s not connected. It helps sell the intimacy of the experience.

HAROLD MANN: We wanted it to feel as interactive as possible, so we made it so that she couldn’t make typos, because that would be awkward to have to do during filming, but that it would respond as though she were actually doing the work. When you do that in animation software, it provides for a very realistic looking thing, because the sound of the keyboard clicking matches what’s coming up on the screen. We could even move it ahead for her if she forgot to keep typing.

ALEX MANN: [But the pizza.net] interface was totally interactive. She could click anything, it would do the correct action depending on what she clicked on. So it let Sandy have a little bit of reality, because she mutters what she’s doing while she’s clicking, and she played with it during when the camera wasn’t rolling.

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Image via Columbia Pictures

Sandy the Nerd

You can’t talk about this movie without talking about its star, who proved to be more than game for the film’s technical aspects.

ALEX MANN: She could act with the computer. That sounds I guess simple because it’s secondhand for everybody now, but again, back then, some people could say lines or they could click mice, but they couldn’t do them at the same time, and that was always super awkward. Sandy was just a natural.

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Image via Columbia Pictures

HAROLD MANN: Yeah. I think she’s a closet nerd, deep at heart. She was great, extraordinarily kind and considerate. She was still early on in her career, but I think that’s just the way she is.

ALEX MANN: She definitely had an above-average level of ease and fluidity. You’ve got to think of actors — you put a mouse in their hand, they don’t always know what to do. [On the 1995 film Species], I handed Ben Kingsley a mouse and a keyboard and it was a little rough. Sandy was definitely way above average in that regard.

HAROLD MANN: She was a real joy to work with. We definitely worked with more difficult personalities over the years. She just was really thoughtful, in terms of how she used the tools. And it was so fun in between takes to be able to type to her, because she’d be looking at the screen. There’s a lot of waiting around that happens on sets, and so she would be sitting in front of the screen and she would type to us. She didn’t exactly know who she was talking to, because we were in the back. But she would type to us and we would type back to her.

ALEX MANN: We put messages up on her screen and we’d make her laugh. It was a riot, and that doesn’t really happen today because most effects today are so elaborate and so sophisticated. This was just so primitive and simple and easy to do that the actor could literally engage in it. We just had the most fun.

“People Have to Decide How to Live Online”

25 years later, we shelter in place during a pandemic, with one of the few bright sides to this global crisis being the fact that like Angela, we may be staying inside, but like her we at least have some way of connecting with the world. Like her, we’re doing our best to pretend it’s just as good as the real thing.

COWAN: I think what it is more than anything, and I hope why The Net doesn’t feel dated, is that even though the computer elements are very nascent and in the early stages, and we were making stuff up as we went along, is that it’s still a very prevalent story about… I think every parent worries about their kid bearing themselves into a Nintendo game for the whole day, or watching YouTube videos, or getting caught up in TikTok.

HAROLD MANN: Obviously a number of movies have tried to address the idea of us living online, but all it takes these days is one person with a camera catching one person behaving badly, and their life can be absolutely ruined. So I would say the concepts that The Net addressed are timeless in an age of judicious connection. And I think the challenges are the same. Some people choose to live online. And they live inside of Fortnite, or Minecraft, or World of Warcraft, and that’s their world. People have to decide how they’re going to live online, how much anonymity they truly have, and how safe they feel with that anonymity.

ALEX MANN: The parallels with the isolation today are eerie and uncanny… Irwin just got it. He got this relatively self-removed character. The dialogue in the chat room scene — people invite her to engage, go out, do stuff, and that’s not what she’s going to do. She’s going to stay in and work her ass off. How many of us are doing that right now?

For the most part, our memories of The Net remain fond, even if Bullock’s casting did require you to suspend disbelief in one specific regard.

BRANCATO: Right after the movie came out, I was on vacation in Hawaii at some ridiculous luau thing, and this woman that I happened to be sitting next to was chatting with me. “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a writer.” “What do you write?” “Oh, you know, movies.” And it came out that I’d written The Net, and she was a huge fan. She loved it, because she, herself, was a computer person.

But she was a heavyset woman, and she said, “The one thing that really bugs me about that film is if she’s ordering pizza online and eating it there, and she’s not even exercising, she’d look like me.”

I said, “Well, you know, it’s Hollywood. They do stuff like that.”

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Image via Columbia Pictures

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