Although he will be forever known as Bill S. Preston, Esquire, in the classic flick ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,’ Alex Winter is anything but one-dimensional. For well over two decades, he has been hard at work behind the camera both a writer and director! His impressive body of work includes MTV’s groundbreaking series ‘The Idiot Box’, the comedic cult classic ‘Freaked’ and a series of live action films for Cartoon Network’s ‘Ben 10′. Serving as a true inspiration to many young filmmakers, Winter has managed to remain grounded despite his success and critical acclaim as he continues to fuel his creative fire! His latest project is, without a doubt, his most challenging and impressive directorial undertaking to date. “Downloaded” traces the rapid rise and dramatic fall of Napster, the game-changing peer-to-peer file-sharing service that flourished in the 1990s, along with its controversial pioneers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. The digital revolution ultimately created a technology paradigm shift and upended the music industry. In this kinetic and thought-provoking film, audiences will hear insight from well-known music artists and figures within the music industry including: The Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Noel Gallagher, Henry Rollins, former Sony Music Chairman, Don Ienner, former record producer and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and Hilary Rosen, former CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. An impressive piece of filmmaking, “Downloaded” captures the story behind the revolution which happened in the blink of an eye and demonstrates how dedication to creativity can change the world. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Alex Winter to discuss the origins of the film, the challenges of creating such a detailed documentary and what lies in store for him both in front of and behind the camera.
Obviously, most people are going to instantly recognize you from your films roles but many people still might not know how busy you are behind the camera. Going back to the beginning, what intrigued you about the world of filmmaking?
I became really obsessed with the movie at an early age. As long as I can remember, I have always loved the movies. My Mom taught at a university and they would play a lot of movies. At a really early age, I would go into that theater and watch Chaplin, Keaton, old Hitchcock movies and Fred Astaire. All I wanted to do was tell stories. I started making little movies when I was seven or eight years old. I enlisted everybody in my neighborhood and we had a little de facto film troupe! [laughs] I fell sideways into acting when I was very young. I was ten years old when I started acting professionally. I liked being on camera and around people who were shooting. Even as a child actor, I always fundamentally wanted to direct and write. I quit acting, the first time, when I was seventeen to go to NYU film school. I came out of NYU broke and started acting again and very luckily got all of these big movie roles. When I was directing and writing by then. I was with a big commercial production company and I was directing. My career as a director started pretty much after I got out of film school but I was acting and that was much more public than anything I was doing behind the camera.
Who are your biggest influences as a director?
It is hard to say because I love so much stuff. I really was so heavily influenced by so many things growing up. It is really hard to pin it down to a definitive list because I would be telling you almost everyone from Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Cocteau, Kubrick and The Cohens. Now we live in a world where there is so much interesting stuff going on in TV. You have some genius creative forces in television like David Simon, the whole team behind “The Sopranos” and the guys who made “The Shield” and “Breaking Bad”. It is a golden age for storytelling right now, although it is very hard to get things made, so I don’t know if it is a golden age for being an artist! It is certainly a golden age for storytelling in that we live in such extremely charged times that there are a lot of good stories in there.
That is precisely the case with your new film “Downloaded.” What initially inspired you to pursue this story as a film?
I was really taken with Napster, I always have been since the early days of the net. I was very fascinated with these two very young guys who were caught in the middle of a global revolution. On those levels I was very interested in the Napster story. I think the reason I took it on and became very intent on making it, over the course of however many years it took to get made, because thematically I just love these kinds of story because they are very extreme. You are dealing with a couple of guys who really believed in their invention and you could really call it an invention. Whether you like what they did or not, it had a seismic impact on the world. That is a pretty cool story! It is an interesting story that raises a lot of questions about creativity, innovation and ethics. It is fascinating to me on so many levels.
You had originally planned to tell this story in narrative form. What made you decide to pursue it in documentary form?
Very simply, it didn’t initally get made as a narrative. I wrote it as a narrative twice. I wrote it for MTV TV back in the early 2000s. We were going to make it but that entire division of MTV was closed. They stopped making movies there period. Then we went over to MTV Films at Paramount and I wrote it there as a much bigger movie. Then they stopped making movies. My film went into what is called turnaround. That was years ago, 2005. I really didn’t have the energy at that point, because I was busy with other stuff, to start some kind of battle. I walked away from it and went on to make other stuff. I had an extraordinary experience writing the film and researching it. I had met everyone involved and gotten quite friendly with a lot of people on both side of this battle. I learned a lot. Just a years ago, with all the contention around the internet and the fractiousness, I just felt like people would really understand this story today in a way they couldn’t have possibly understood it back in the early 2000s. We were just to knee-deep inside this revolution. Post-Arab Spring, post-Wiki Leaks, post-SOPA, post-iTunes revolution, I think it is much easier for people to grasp the weight of the Napster story. That is why I became interested in making it as a documentary. Creatively, I am so happy I did that way. It was like a light bulb going off when I finally got my head around it because everything is interesting about the Napster story even on an artistic level, it is all the big macro-issues oriented stuff. The least interesting stuff to me is the personal relationship stuff. A documentary is very well suited to focusing on those elements and not having to get bogged down with the personal elements.
The film is extremely detailed. How long did you spend researching and digging up material to get what you needed? What is your approach to such a huge project? I not sure where I would even begin!
The benefit of having first written it as a narrative was a big help. I had written so many drafts of the narrative. I had found what I thought what was an iron clad structure for what the Napster story was. I basically transposed that onto the doc and it gave us a big head start. Rather than just fumbling around in the dark and trying to craft a structure. We had a basic structure. It wasn’t long before we broke it up all over the place and rerouted it wherever we needed it but we had a foundation to work from and it definitely sped up our process. I shot 150 hours of interviews and we had over 200 hours of archival, so we were looking at a shitload of media! [laughs] That is where Jacob Craycroft came in. I specifically wanted an editor who was not primarily known as a documentary editor. I wanted an editor who, while having shot some docs, was primarily known as a narrative editor. He has cut for Robert Altman and a bunch of other people I have admired. I really wanted someone who was going to find the drama in the issues and the topics, which is really what I think is cool about the potential of this movie. That is what I was aiming for — making something dramatic out of facts, rather than making something dramatic out of personal history.
You had the opportunity to get to know Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning in the year leading up to the making of this film. How do they differ personally from what we have come to know in the media?
Frankly, I think the movie seeks to answer that question. They are radically different. I think the media only has so much information to work with. That amount of information is next to none. The rest they just make up. They have to, that is their job! I don’t begrudge them that because they have no choice. I have nothing in common with Fanning or Parker because they are geniuses and I am fundamentally not a genius. However, the one thing I did have in common with them at the beginning, which is one of the reasons I think I bonded with Fanning so early, was living through the surreal experience of a complete and utter disconnect with who you are and who the media is presenting you as. That is exactly what had happened to me through the “Bill & Ted” experience. I didn’t mind it, I didn’t mind it and I didn’t care but unlike Fanning, I wasn’t being vilified. My stakes weren’t very high but it was surreal. It was laughable. The things you would read in the press about yourself made no sense and had no correlation whatsoever with your own reality. It was very surreal to live through. I got it and then imagining what that would be like on a grand scale where you are on the cover of Time magazine at the same time you are being branded as the kid who has basically destroyed American business is pretty heavy duty! I certainly identified with him on a small level and sought to express himself on a more personal, more fundamental level.
Did they have any apprehensions about taking part in this documentary?
Maybe a little. I don’t think it was apprehension. I think it is not the most pleasant memory for a lot of those guys, even though they did something extraordinary and arguably, on some level, changed the world in an irrevocable fashion, whether you like what they did or not. I happen to think it was largely for the good. It was a painful and traumatic experience. I think there was a little apprehension around that but I think they knew I had their backs.
Another very cool aspect of this film I didn’t want to overlook was it’s soundtrack. Can you tell us about how that came about and how it helped to weave things together?
It’s interesting. I was really eager to find one composer who could create a tonally, 90s internet vibe. That is what I really wanted people to experience — what the world felt like then, even subconsciously. I’ve known Paul Miller for years [aka DJ Spooky], not very well but I knew of him and had seen him DJ over the years and I knew he was extremely smart. I knew he was really talented and had a lot to say about internet issues, so I definitely wanted him as an interview subject. While he was sitting in front of and talking to my camera, I thought “Well, hell! Why doesn’t he just score the movie?” I asked him right then and there and that was it! Paul was really perfect because he gets the movie thematically and artistically. He was able to create this really, at times very claustrophobic orchestration that invokes what the net felt like in those days.
Was capturing the feel of the net at the time with the footage and music the biggest challenge you faced for this project? It seems like quite an undertaking.
I think the biggest challenge was not that. For me, the biggest challenge was really carving through all of the information that I had of all these people stating their case on how they felt about this stuff and making it really clear to people what happened. I think it was really important that all of the facts got conveyed in an entertaining and clear manner so that people could start to formulate opinions for themselves about just what has happened in this revolution we have lived through. That was the biggest challenge for sure!
One of the biggest things you see in the documentary is how the music industry totally feel apart due to the rise of Napster. Here we are over a decade later and it is pretty amazing to see how they still haven’t picked up the pieces. Is that something you find surprising as well?
Yes. Very much so! [laughs] Very much it surprises me! It is absolutely astounding that as late as 2008 or 2009, whenever it was I decided to make the doc, I was astounded that we hadn’t come further. I was surprised there wasn’t more understanding and more resolution. I think I became less shocked once I made the movie and really got to understand even more about all the sides and what the implications were for all of the sides. I still think it is shocking that we don’t have a really good monetizable, artist friendly, curatable internet experience for consumers. I am also shocked there seems to be so little understanding or even willingness to understand the technologies that are at hand. I think that is shocking. I also find shocking the lengths people are going to try to break the internet or stop people from moving freely online. The times are trippy for a whole host of reasons!
You have been able to accomplish so much and explore so many facets of filmmaking during your career. How do you feel you have evolved along the way?
I don’t know. I think it is goes up and down. I do so many different things in so many different areas. There are things I am less interested in today than I was interested in previously. These days, I am just focused more and more on story and areas of narrative that I find compelling. I really enjoy digging into and doing things with those. I certainly do stuff as zany as I used to! [laughs]
Are you open to exploring the world of documentary filming more or do you have you eyes set on a narrative project in the short term?
I am working on a number of narrative projects for television and I hope one of those gets made. I think one of them will. A lot of my labor is focused on that world. There is another documentary I am building now that I would love to get made this year. Getting docs made is hard work, so we will see. It is not a big, monetizable area of the entertainment industry, so you really have to find people who are committed to telling the story you want to tell.
As a filmmaker, I was curious to get you take on the use of crowd funding to bring films to the screen?
I think that anyway you can get your project made is valid. That is what I think. I would love to see aspects of crowd funding become more investment friendly and by that I mean a way for people to become part of the investment team, so you get more than a baseball cap if you invest in a movie that goes on to make a fortune. However, it is still in it’s early days. I think it is better that we have these things than we don’t.
Last time we spoke, you had a few projects in the works. The big one I wanted to follow up on is “The Gate”. Anything to report there?
None. The producers of that are trying to close the financing. When they do, I will get to make it. I really hope they do one of these days because I would love to make that movie.
Of course, people ask you all the time about a third “Bill & Ted” movie. My next question focuses on the fans who are really clamoring for it. I know you have had the opportunity to take part in a lot of fan conventions over the past year and a half. How has interacting with the fans effected you?
Yeah, it has been really fun! Interacting with the fans has been incredibly fun. I spent a lot of time after I stopped acting professionally full-time, so dug into my world, I really had lost that connection. The social networking world has sort of re-introduced me to my fan base. That made me want to get out and actually into the actual human interaction portals of interacting with your fan base! [laughs] How is that for a novel idea! [laughs] It has been great and it has been really cool to see the impact and influence some of these projects have had on people. I also get to meet other comic book artists or artists who make stuff related to the movies or stuff inspired by the films. It really becomes more of a community that way, which I really appreciate.
This year, your film “Freaked” is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. That is a pretty big milestone. Any big plans to celebrate?
Yeah! We are doing a few things. We are doing a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin on July 1st. The film is coming out on Blu-ray and will be released on DVD on August 6th. Anchor Bay is doing that. So, yeah! It’s alive! Crazy enough, it’s alive! [laughs]
What are your fondest memories from that period of time?
Oh, man. I get asked that a lot but the reality of it is, every day was awesome! It was painful, challenging, stressful and difficult as hell but it was awesome! It was two twenty-five year old guys making their dream project with all the money and talent they needed. Every day was just insanity, whether it was something with Mr. T, Randy Quaid or what the effects stuff was doing. I had gone to film school by then but I really cut my teeth on “Freaked”. Since every day was such an huge challenge, I learned an enormous amount. I really did!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring filmmakers in today’s climate?
Learn to tell a story. Don’t fetishize the medium. I think there is a lot of that going on right now where people are fetishizing the past, like “Film is going away.” And they are tearing their hair out. There are also people fetishizing the future and the technology they have, like “Isn’t it cool I can make a movie on my iPhone.” Well, no. Not if it sucks! Frankly, all it is have ever been about is story. The medium doesn’t matter. What matters is how you tell a story, so put all of your energy into learning how to tell a good story. At that point, you can pick up your iPhone and make a movie! If you know how to tell a story it will be good!
Absolutely! Solid advice. I know you have a busy schedule. Anything you want to add before I let you go?
“Downloaded” is coming out on iTunes and VOD on June 21st. Please check it out! After that, it will be streaming by AOL in early Fall. It will be visible many ways. Eventually, it will be on VH1, after our theatrical and streaming window.
We will be spreading the word on “Downloaded”. It truly is an impressive film. To be honest, it is amazing how much happened during that period, which I lived through, and totally missed!
I know! I completely agree. It serves as a capsule!
Thank you for capturing that and shining a light on it! We really appreciate your time today, Alex.
No problem. I really appreciate you checking in. Take care, Jason!