He may have become famous playing Bill S. Preston Esq., the man who once described Caesar as "a salad-dressing dude", but Alex Winter is not one to rest on his non-non-non-heinous laurels. Since directing carnival-comedy Freaked in 1993, he's put acting on the backburner, concentrating on picking up skills behind the camera. Now he's releasing his first documentary, Downloaded, a slick and very entertaining film which charts the rise and fall of file-sharing service Napster. Empire met up with him at a New York coffee shop to hear what inspired him to make it, and where things are at with Bill and Ted's next excellent adventure...
Why make a film about Napster?
I'm a huge tech-head. I got online in the early '90s and became very interested in the potential of the internet. When Napster erupted in 1998 / '99, it was clear the dam had burst. The world had changed and there was no going back. At the time I was primarily working in the UK, directing TV commercials. I had an office on Frith Street and was such a Napster junkie that when they announced, "In three days, Napster's going offline", I went in on the weekend, powered up all 30 computers and spent three days trying to get every piece of music I could. I think I fried half the equipment! People were coming in and going, "What's up with my computer? And why do I have a weird reggae version of For What It's Worth on my desktop?"
When did you start working on Downloaded?
I first decided to do it in 2002, as Napster was crumbling. But back then I intended to make it as a narrative film. I sought out (Napster co-founders) Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, became friendly with them, bought their life rights, sold it to a major studio and wrote the script in 2003 and '04.
Why didn't that version of it pan out?
|The Arab Spring in 2011, Wikileaks, Bradley Manning and the NSA scandal. It became clear that this new global community had far greater implications than if I could get the new Madonna track a week before it shows up in the record store.|
Once it got up the food chain, I think people high up were like, "Whoa, what? We're making a movie about these crazy pirate guys?!" You know, no-one really understood the technology: we didn't have iPads or iPhones then and Napster was regarded as this rogue, renegade thing. So I walked away from it and went on to other things, but then in 2009 I circled back. Because it felt like all of the issues Napster had raised were in even more of a mess. They had expanded beyond file-sharing into global transparency, citizens' rights, internet rights, privacy rights. We had the Arab Spring in 2011, Wikileaks, Bradley Manning and the NSA scandal. It became clear that this new global community had far greater implications than if I could get the new Madonna track a week before it shows up in the record store.
Had you got as far as thinking about casting back in 2003?
It was going to be Shia LaBeouf as Shawn Fanning and someone like Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg as Sean Parker. As for Lars Ulrich (the Metallica drummer who famously sued Napster), I was actually going to play him myself, if we couldn't get Lars to do it.
When you decided to make it as a documentary, did you study a lot of other docs to prepare?
I did to some degree. The ones I love most are from the '60s and '70s. Movies like Don't Look Back, Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones documentary. That's an amazing film; it's hard to find. I looked at a lot of docs from that era because I didn't want Downloaded to be a polemic: "Here's my opinion on downloading - I'm gonna beat it down your throat for two hours!" I just wanted it to be a human story of two guys who invented this incredibly disruptive technology. I also looked at movies like All The President's Men, which have a journalistic rhythm to them. And I specifically hired a crew who weren't documentary by nature. My editor, Jacob Craycroft, cut for Robert Altman. My DP and I have been working together for years on commercials, and we did the Ben 10 movies together!
It's crazy that you directed those.
I know! I have three boys, so I had a gun to my head at home. It's like, "We love all this crazy hipster stuff you do, but go do something we can watch or don't bother coming home." And I had so much fun I did two.
How did you dig up all the clips about Napster, from Jon Stewart jokes on The Daily Show to David Bowie admitting that he likes it?
I'd already done an enormous amount of research while working on the script. I knew where most of the good bodies were buried. And then, when I got going on the doc, I hired the best guy in the business, Jim McDonnell. He's honestly a magician: he did the Rolling Stones documentary with Scorsese and he's renowned for finding gold. We ended up with 200 hours of archival material, plus 150 hours of new interview that we shot. A ton of stuff.
|Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning|
Metallica refused to be interviewed for the film. Did you also try to get Dr. Dre, who the film shows saying menacingly that "Napster needs to take a nap"?
He didn't even return our calls. There were a lot of people who just said no. There's a list as long as my arm. To be fair to them, I think that's one of the situations when there's really no good press. There's almost nothing you can say in hindsight, knowing that we have archival of them from the era where they just go off. If it were me, I'd say, "No, thanks."
It's an interesting coincidence that Keanu Reeves was making his own documentary, Side By Side, while you were doing yours...
|Side By Side is a beautiful movie about the end of one era and the beginning of another one. And my film is a bloodbath about the same subject!|
I saw a lot of cuts of Side By Side while he was working on it. I love that movie - it's very close to my heart because that's my industry, and I lived through that. I went to NYU film school when it was all analogue, and I go back now to talk to students and there's nothing analogue in that building any more. Those kids don't even know what it means to cut film or shoot film. I'm really glad I got to live in that world for a while, because it's gone. Side By Side is a beautiful movie about the end of one era and the beginning of another one. And my film is a bloodbath about the same subject! In a weird way, they represent both of our temperaments perfectly. And also Reeves had read all of my early Napstergraphs, going back ten years. We're always sharing work with each other. So he lived through that long ordeal of it getting made.
Do you have another documentary idea brewing?
I'm building another one right now. It's a doc about children in show business. My producers are the Zipper brothers - they made Undefeated, which won the Oscar in 2012. It's going to be a very unvarnished examination of the entertainment industry through the eyes of child stars, from the beginning of show business to the present day. There are some great people who have already shown interest, which I'm very excited about. And that's how I started, so I have a lot of experience inside that world from a very young age. I started out at ten and saw some stuff, as they say!
Hopefully this one won't take ten years...
It could. I'm directing a lot of episodic TV and commercials, and I've written a TV series that I'm hoping will go this year, for AMC. But I'd love the next movie I do to be that. We've already started to shoot little bits and pieces.
|Alex Winter with Keanu Reeves in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure|
Your career is extraordinarily eclectic, going from starring in the Bill & Ted films to directing Freaked and now these documentaries. Do you ever consider making a full-on return to acting?
I quit acting in '93 after Freaked, because I just wanted to focus on shooting and writing, and I've been happy doing that ever since. Every once in a while I'll jump in if someone asks me to do something. My first movie since Freaked is called Grand Piano, with John Cusack and Elijah Wood. I'm one of the main bad guys in that. It was just a great concept, I loved the cast and the few months in Barcelona didn't suck.
Was it weird to be in front of the camera again?
Nah. I've been doing it since I was nine, so it was like falling off a log. It was a really fun shoot. I would never want to set my shooting and directing aside to do just that again. But if we can get that damn Bill & Ted movie off the ground, I will definitely do that.
What's the latest with it?
We have a script and I believe we will get it made. But we're in that zone of putting it together, which maybe Dumb And Dumber To was in for a while. Chris (Matheson) and Ed (Solomon) are two very sought-after Hollywood screenwriters and we're waiting for them to come back with another draft. It's just the four of us: it's not like there's a big, cigar-chomping money guy interfering. There are people with money who are interested, but the ball is in our court as to how we want to organise it financially. I hate to say this because it might tick off the fans, but it doesn't really matter if the movie happens now or in a couple of years, given what it's about and how it plays with what's happened to us. There's a sweetness to that which will get only better with age. That somehow we haven't changed in 20 years - life has grown up around us and yet we're untouched.
Downloaded is available on iTunes now, and plays at the Raindance Film Festival in London on September 29.