Interview: Alex Winter

Downloaded - Alex Winter - Hot Docs 2013

Coming to Hot Docs after a deserving warm reception at South By Southwest, Downloaded is the documentary about Napster that we’ve all been waiting over a decade for. The story was the most dramatic of the initial Silicon Valley explosion: a pair of teenagers invented a new means of digital music distribution that almost overnight led to the decline of the record industry. Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, and of course Lars Ulrich were plastered all over the media during Napster’s brief reign of notoriety and yet there was always a sense that we never heard the whole story. Thankfully that’s exactly where Alex Winter’s Downloaded comes in to fill in all the gaps. Through surprisingly candid interviews with all the major players in the Napster controversy (well, except for Lars, but that’s probably a good thing) audiences are treated to a definitive take on a monumental slice of internet history. We got a chance to chat with director Alex Winter about his experiences and reflections on making the movie and since his former career as an actor also included some most excellent adventures with Keanu Reeves, we also touched on the long rumored Bill And Ted 3 as well as a 3D remake of The Gate that he plans to direct.

DS: The first thing that kind of boggled my mind about the movie was how detailed your research was. So I’ve got to ask, how long have you been working on this?

AW: It’s a long story. The short version is that I actually wrote the story as a fiction film initially. I met Shawn Fanning in 2002 and pitched this as a movie to him back then. I wrote it as a narrative for a big studio and once it went into turnaround, I walked away. I came back to it a few years later to do it as a doc, but by then I was dead set on that format because I felt I could get more into the nitty gritty. I’d done so much research while writing it as a narrative that I had a massive storehouse of information by that point.


DS: How close was the documentary to the script you initially wrote. Obviously they are very different forms, but I was curious if the arc or intent of the movie changed once you started interviewing all these people on camera?

AW: Actually, there’s a great deal of similarity and differences. Obviously the narrative was more focused on the interpersonal stories and not the topical material. That’s why I wanted to make it doc to focus more on the topical stuff. Other than that the structure was pretty well identical. I took my script and turned it into a treatment and that became my structure for the documentary. The first, second, and third act of my doc are exactly the same as my old script.

DS: Would you still have any interest in making the narrative version?

AW: Absolutely not. I think that it was a great wake up call when I realized how much better it would be as a documentary than it ever would have been as a narrative. I’m really grateful frankly that I had that realization and acted upon it. (Laughs)

DS: Sean Fanning comes out of the movie as a bit of a tragic figure who changed internet file sharing and music distribution forever, but came out of it with only notoriety and legal fees. So, I was curious after spending so much time with him if you got the sense that he regrets creating Napster or if can still take pride in what he accomplished?

AW: No, there’s a lot of pride in him. Sean is very smart, so he’s well aware of the fact that their technology contributed to some interesting world changes. There’s no doubt that the experience for him was really hard and traumatic. He was really young, he was shoved in front of a lot of press, he was vilified. There’s no doubt that was all intense for him. But having said that, he’s a smart enough guy to recognize that he created revolutionary technology that really no one has matched since.

DS: Were Fanning and Sean Parker and everyone else involved with Napster excited to be a part of the doc since their side of the story got lost in the controversy or was there any apprehension there?

AW: I’ve known those guys for a really long time now and they all watched me work on this as a narrative. I think that they were very relieved to see the movie finally and see that it didn’t cast them in a bad light or anything like that. I think it was probably a double edged sword where they were happy to see the film get made, but it must have been uncomfortable to relive some of it since that was such an intense period in their lives.

DS: Did you try to get Lars Ulrich involved? I’m sure he must be at least vaguely embarrassed by that now.

AW: I asked Lars if he would do it, but frankly I think that frankly Metallica Inc. was probably not overly eager to get into the Napster discussion again. (Laughs) I wasn’t terribly surprised that he didn’t do it.

And there’s so much footage available of him from the time, it’s not like there’s a gaping hole in the movie with him not being interviewed.

AW: Exactly. He did so much talking about this issue for so long that I had more Lars that I knew what to do with it.

DS: This is more of a hypothetical question, but I was curious to hear your opinion. Do you think it would be possible for the music industry to have supported Napster and turn it into a proto-iTunes. I’m not so sure. It sounds like an ideal solution on paper, but as a teenage user at that time, so much of the appeal was the fact that it provided free music and I feel like the Napster wannabes like Kazaa still would have popped up regardless.

AW: Well, you can understand why the company was attacked. You can understand how freaked out the recording industry was by the overnight arrival of this program that worked perfectly. Nothing else like it had ever worked before. I think it’s summed up best by Chris Benner in the film when he says, “looking back there’s no way in hell that the music labels ever would have done a deal with Napster.” I can’t envision a world in which Napster would have been anything other than obliterated.

DS: It’s amazing looking back through the movie at how quickly everything happened. There really wasn’t even time for the record labels to properly consider it’s potential before the lawsuits were filed.

AW: Yeah, definitely. I was very present during that era and it came and went very quickly. People forget.

DS: Was it difficult to find people from the record industry who were willing to participate in you movie since I’d imagine it’s not a period of time they like to look back on for a variety of reasons?

AW: You know, it wasn’t that hard. I think that the labels just like the Napster guys felt like they didn’t get a fair shake in the media at the time. Nobody was crying victim. Everyone understands that mistakes were made and that there were a variety of multi-pronged reasons for why it all went down the way it did. It’s not a black and white issue for anybody and that’s something that I wanted to show in the movie.

DS: I was really fascinated by the deposition from the creator of Gnutella in the film and found it eerily prophetic even though it was kind of dismissed at the time. What’s happened to him? Did you try to contact him?

AW: Well, I’m sad to say what happened to Gene Kan is that he committed suicide shortly after that.. He was an incredibly brilliant guy and died in 2002. It was really tragic and rocked that whole world, but I didn’t really go into it in the doc because it’s kind of unfair, but I went into it in detail in the narrative. His death marked the end of that first era of the silicone bubble. His death marked that everything was going wrong for everyone. But yeah, it was very sad and we’ve actually dedicated the film to him.

DS: Were you interested at all in speaking to people involved with the more openly illegal file sharing sites that have come since Napster like The Pirate Bay?

AW: It wasn’t something that I wanted to get into because it’s like a thread on a sweater and if you pull it, there’s a whole other movie there. There’s a whole other movie about Anonymous. There’s a whole other movie about Pirate Bay and there should be. Those stories merit their own movies and once you start going down that route in detail, it gets difficult. Napster was not a creative commons company. They were young businessmen trying to create a company in which their only possible means of survival was to make a deal with the record industry. I’m really fascinated by creative commons and pirate bay, but there was just no way to do that material any justice within the Napster story. It’s just too big.

DS: It was very entertaining to Sean Parker live up to the image created around him and I was curious if he picked where he was interviewed? Because those locations really lived up to his legend.

AW: (Laughs) Well yeah, that’s his house. Whenever possible I tried to shoot people either in their office or in their home so that it would be more personal. I didn’t shoot anyone in a studio environment because that just feels too impersonal. So yeah, that’s him alright. (Laughs)

DS: Has it been gratifying that your directorial debut Freaked has gradually become a cult classic over the years?

AW: Oh yeah, very much so. That’s the audience that we made it for, so it really couldn’t have had a more perfect trajectory. I’m very proud of that movie.

DS: Are you still in touch with Mr. T?

AW: You know, I’m sad to say that like distant relatives we don’t connect the way we used to.(Laughs).

DS: I’ve got to ask about the 3D remake of The Gate you’re working on. What’s your take on retelling that story?

AW: It’s a movie that I’m really hoping gets remade because it’s something that I care about a lot. I’m not the producer, so it’s not down to me. But I’ve done a lot of work it. The thing I love about The Gate is that it’s a horror movie for kids with an edge. They just don’t make movies like that anymore. You know, I’ve got three boys and I know what they like. I would love to see a movie get made for kids that’s actually scary and has some edge on it. I think it’s high time that we made some movies for that age group that have some balls for lack of a better term. (Laughs).

DS: I know what you mean, I grew up on things like Monster Squad and Poltergeist.

AW: Yeah, exactly and Poltergeist is a great example. I think that today Poltergeist might be a straight up R, but that’s for kids and there’s no reason why we couldn’t make those movies anymore. So, that’s my aim. I want to make something that really scares the shit out of little kids. And also from a cinematic standpoint, I loved how the original was told entirely from the children’s perspective. There are really no adults involved and it feels like a child’s nightmare. I like that idea as a director as well.

DS: I’m sure you’re tired of being asked about this, but I do have to bring up Bill And Ted 3. Specially, I always wonder if that’s something that you guys are seriously pursuing or is it more just like old friends getting together and having a laugh?

AW: It’s something we’re seriously looking into. Unfortunately, I don’t have any news on it. I feel like it’s already been over-hyped. But it is something we’re playing with and if we can get it done we will.

DS: Would you be interested in directing it?

AW: I don’t know. It sounds ludicrous, but playing those characters is kind of a full time gig and I don’t know if I’d want to be splitting my energies like that. But you know, it would be really fun to do if we can find the right way in, so hopefully we can.

Downloaded screens again one final time at Hot Docs at 9:30pm on Friday, May 3rd at the Fox Theatre. Tickets are Rush Availability only.

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