JOE talks to Alex Winter about his new Napster documentary Downloaded and the return of Bill & Ted
JOE recently had the opportunity to chat to one of our childhood heroes, the star of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and The Lost Boys, Alex Winter.
Winter is also an acclaimed filmmaker and his latest release Downloaded is a documentary taking a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Napster - the original social network. Interviewing all of the major players from both sides of the file sharing argument, Winter presents a balanced examination of the battle that is still ongoing to this very day.
And yes, of course we chatted to him about the potential return of Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted 'Theodore' Logan.
Check out the trailer:
JOE: Hi Alex, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Firstly, congratulations on your new film Downloaded, it’s a really fascinating documentary.
Alex Winter: Thank you very much, I appreciate that.
JOE: For the readers, can you just tell us a little bit about why you picked this particular topic as the subject of your film.
AW: I initially got involved in this project about ten or eleven years ago when Napster was just coming to an end. I was just really taken by the extraordinarily seismic and revolutionary nature of what its founders had acheived.
It was clear that the internet was heading this way but, to those of us who were online a lot from the late 80s on, which I was, it was such an unstable, slow, cumbersome space with no community and there was no fluidity to it.
Suddenly, with Napster there was one global commmunity that moved very quickly and fluidly where, for the first time ever, there were tens of millions of people online together.
I was just very taken by that. I understood that it had ethical and legal ramifications because it was a huge, giant leap forward, but one that the legal and business systems hadn’t thought of catching up to.
So I set about telling their story back then, wrote it as a narravtive and sold it to a studio. I was going to make it as a regular movie back in the 2000s but it was very hard to get it off the ground. There was very little understanding about the issues around Napster so I walked away from it.
JOE: So what made you come back to the idea, having already moved on from it?
AW: I think the reason that I came back to it the second time was for slightly different motives. By then, all of the issues that had affected Napster in the late 90s were now clearly global issues and were not about things like file sharing in music.
They had become big issues and were impacting the world on a massive level, like the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, the NSA Snowden scandal, how do we exist online, what are the rights of people online, how do we monetise, how do we protect people online, artists, consumers, whistleblowers – whoever needs protecting.
These big issues had really exploded in the intervening years so I decided to make it a documentary and I could use Napster as a way in to a much broader conversation.
JOE: Incredibly, although the documentary charts the “rise and fall of Napster,” the affect that Napster had and its fallout still hasn’t gone away – its issues of copyright are still current today.
In fact, I’ve actually just come out of a meeting about online legal issues and copyright law to talk to yourself, topics that were hugely affected by the creation of sites like Napster...
AW: Without a doubt.
I mean there’s just been so little resolution in those areas since 1999, and it was immediately clear that there would need to be massive reform in the areas of copyright and the protection of intellectual property – how artists monetise and how consumers take in and move their content.
All of those issues were right smack in our face in 1999 and, 13 or 14 years later, there has been a woefully small amount of progress and even a lot of reverse progress in a lot of ways.
Everybody is paying for that. I think that artists pay for that, content creators pay for that and the consumer pays for it.
JOE: Well, I just want to thank you personally anyway because it means that, by coming out to interview yourself, you gave me the perfect excuse to get out of the copyright meeting – “I have to leave early to interview Alex Winter who has just directed a documentary on this very subject” – the person giving the talk had to let me out. She couldn’t really argue with that.
AW: (Laughs) Well, copyright law is one of the most tedious areas of law that exists there’s no doubt so you’re welcome.
JOE: So it’s actually been quite a long time that you’ve been with the project and you said it was originally planned as a feature film. What did you think then when David Fincher released The Social Network (which saw Justin Timberlake play Napster co-founder Sean Parker) in 2010? In a way, Facebook wouldn’t be around without Napster and it’s obviously a similar type of subject matter.
And did you ultimately prefer going down the documentary route as oppsed to the dramatic once you did decide to come back to it?
AW: I think I would say that, creatively, I dodged a bullet.
The Social Network is a great movie. The reason The Social Network is a great movie is that the inter-personal politics of Facebook are what make that story worth telling – it was primarily a very big Silicon Valley success story.
The Napster story is exactly the opposite. The inter-personal politics of Napster are interesting to the degree that I talk about in Downloaded – what happened to Sean Parker, how it distruped the friendship. I would have had to have really lied to take that farther. Even after Parker got fired, he and Shawn Fanning lived together for years becuase their friendship wasn’t destroyed at all, it just rumbled along as it was. The film would have made a very banal drama (laughs).
All of what makes the Napster story interesting lies in the macro, not in the micro. It all lies in the big topical issues becuase Napster was a revolutionary technology that completely changed the world and was created by a handful of very brilliant but, from a business standpoint, quite naive teenagers.
That’s really where that story lives and that’s why I think it’s much more compelling as a documentary. Because the people on all sides of the argument are so idiosyncratic and so bright I just let them talk about this larger-than-life event that went down.
JOE: That’s one of the things that comes across from the documenatry, jut how bright the Napster guys actually are...
AW: (laughs) Yeah! It was very intimidating! Because we shot a shit-load of footage and we would come out of these interviews and often times, people who I knew, socially or tangentially, from working on the movie, would just be gobsmacked by the level of insight they had into the world and how brilliant they were. That really stood for people on all sides of the debate.
JOE: As you said, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning continued to live with each other even though Parker wasn’t working with Napster anymore, but how difficult was it to get all of the subjects together to get them to talk about the subject matter. Did you find them enthusiastic or reluctant or did you have many obstacles in your way?
AW: They were a little reluctant. I mean the fact was that they knew me by then. I had done a lot of work on the narratve when I wrote it at the studio so, like a writing a magazine article, I’d spent a year just doing research and interviewing them. I’d gotten to know Fanning, Parker and the people in the record companies quite well but to go back to them and say “I want to put you on camera and have your testimonial and have your take on what went down.” It’s interesting, there was a little bit of reticence on all sides and everyone was like “oh shit, do we really want to revisit this extremely painful time in our lives?”
The truth of it is, Napster at the end of the day, and certainly Downloaded in essence, is really a tragedy. I mean, no one really won in this story. The tech guys lost, the record industry lost, the consumer lost, the artists lost – I feel like everybody lost.
So pretty much all sides of the debate when I did go back to them were “oh God, this was such a miserable part of our lives,” (Laughs) whether it was the Napster people or the record label people.
I think that ultimately that worked in my favour and I think that people came to understand that I really wanted to tell a story from all sides and had compassion for all sides.
That ultimately helped me I think because everyone knew I was going to give them a forum that they felt like they’d never been given before.
JOE: Well, it definitely comes across that the documentary is very balanced and is from the record companies’ and the Napster lads’ point of view.
I was thinking, just when you mentioned the reluctance of some people to talk to you, it was very interesting to see that Parker just seems so confident all of the time in all situations but, when it comes to Fanning, there seems to be something very vulnerable about him.
Did you find that difference when you were talking to them yourself?
AW: Yeah, I’ve known Fanning a really long time and, to be fair to him, there was a component of him having to come back face to face with a period of his life that he had largely blacked out. I think that you see him on screen reconciling with those memories as they’re being pushed back in his face, so the vulnerability is real. But also, to be fair to Fanning, he is a very gentle soul by nature and so he can come off that way even if he’s talking about a baseball game (laughs).
I think that it cuts both ways, I don’t want to oversell it. It could be great if I could say “I stripped his soul bare and exposed it for the world to see!” I’d love to take credit for that but it’s not wholly true. Some of that is just his temperament.
He and Parker are kind of like Lennon and McCartney, like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones – just like two guys in a band. Two people who are really, really different with very different views of the world, yet they’re both so bright and none of this would have happened without the two of them synergestically working together.
JOE: Well, I definitely think that “I stripped his soul bare – Alex Winter” would be a great line for you to add to the film’s poster...
AW: (Laughs) Yeah! I will do!
JOE: One of the things that I found most surprising about the documentary was how nostalgic it actually made me feel, right from the opening dial-up noise to seeing the loading hour-glass icon on the screen again. Nostalgia plays such an important part of Downloaded for people who are watching it...
AW: Yeah, I think so. I think that the nostalgia came from my experience.
I was a very big Napster user. I was big into early technologies and so that modem sound immediately flashed me back to that period because I had heard it all day, every day, for years.
The nostalgia was my entry point into the story – my deep, emotional connection to the explosion of the digital revolution and so I think that the film tends to work on three levels.
One is for people who don’t have any investment in technology whatsoever, but may be interested in learning the origins of how we got to where we are.
People like me are in the middle – a bit older, who do have an interest in technology and who lived during that dial up era.
And then there are people like my kids who are super invested in technology who were not born yet, or just born when Napster happened, and have no flippin’ idea what existed before Twitter and YouTube. For them it was really an eye-opener.
JOE: Even for myself it was an eye-opener because when I was using Napster halfway across the world in Ireland, I had been primarily downloading music, I had never actually used the chat room element. By watching Downloaded I discovered that Napster chat was, in a way, the first of the social platforms that then moved into Friendster, Facebook and Twitter as well...
AW: It was absolutely the first. It was the very first time in history that you had tens of millions of simultaneous users in one community online at once. It just had just not happened before.
Of course you had services like IRC (Internet Relay Chat), you had areas where people would gather online, and you had hacker communities that were quite robust, but nothing existed on this level. They did not have the kind of reach that Napster had.
it was the difference between being an Internet community and a fully-fledged social network which is why Napster was absolutely the first social network.
JOE: I think that the other thing that really comes across is that, although it’s cool to be a geek or nerd these days, back in the late 90s, that wasn’t the case. The Napster guys were the exception though, they were almost rock and roll stars.
Even in my school, the first guy who discovered Napster went from being a geek to being a bit of a hero because he was able to make personalised CDs for people with their own playlists.
Napster really did wonders for nerds the world over...
AW: (Laughs) Yeah, I think so and that’s the way Silicon Valley perceives it.
The world thinks that a tech entrepeneur is some 19 year old whizzkid who has dropped out of college and went and made a billion dollars. But when Fanning and Parker got to Silicon Valley there was no Google or Yahoo or Facebook. These guys were perceieved as the first rockstar entrepeneurs under 30 that ever existed in the tech world. Ever.
What I find interesting about that point that you raised is that the idea of a geek of being someone that is asocial, sort of the way that Zuckerberg is portrayed (by Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network. The portrayal is somewhat sociopathological, asocial, almost Asperger’s driven, kind of robotic – a machine of a human being.
That’s a myth that I really tried to help break with the movie because I’ve known these guys for a really long time and you know what, Fanning was an all-star athlete and the people you’re delaing with are actually a hell of a lot more interesting in truth than it is in mythology – these people are just incredibly fucking smart. It’s the one thing that really sets them apart is that they’re just insanely bright. These guys have regular girlfriends, totally robust social lives, can play sports.
They just happen to be blindingly, disturbingly and intimidatingly smart.
JOE: As well as being so bright I suppose they also had that youthful exuberance that went along with being the right people, in the right place, at the right time to stage this online revolution...
AW: Oh yeah, totally, that’s it exactly.
JOE: And linking back to your own musical history, on the big screen at least, do you think that Bill and Ted’s Wyld Stallyns (portrayed by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) would have approved of Napster’s file sharing system? Or would they have fought against its existence like Metallica famously did?
AW: (Laughs) You know, the beauty of those two guys is that, no matter what’s going on in the world, they haven’t the slightest idea. They can’t even plug their guitars into their amps, never mind an Internet cable into their computer. I think they would have been completely and utterly clueless...
JOE: Well it’s great to hear you’ve so much faith in them anyway...
AW: (Laughs) They’re the opposite of a geek, they are not blindingly or intimidatingly smart on any level – they’re like the anti-geek!
JOE: There was actually one thing in the documentary that I did want to take issue with...
AW: What’s that?
JOE: One guy who was interviewed said that “nobody is downloading Celine Dion from Napster.” I beg to differ. I was sitting in my house in Ireland in the late 90s watching my Celine Dion tracks downloading. So there you have it, there was actually one Celine Dion fan out there...
AW: (Laughs) We found you! Yeah! We found you!
JOE: Downloaded will be screened at the Raindance Film Festival that’s coming up in London, you must be looking forward to that...
AW: Yeah, I’m extremely excited. My last film was there as well and I love the guys there. They are some of the most supportive and connected people in the film world and they’ve really grown that festival well. It’s great that we’re getting a chance to be shown there.
JOE: Even looking at the history of the festival, there have been some really iconic screenings there, things like Pulp Fiction and Memento, so it’s obviously a great festival to be part of, especially for films to come in under the radar and then explode onto the mainstream...
AW: Yeah, the guys that run it have really good taste and tend to know what’s going on as or before it’s happening , but they’re also daring. What I like about Raindance is that they’re supportive and they’ll help young, up and coming filmmakers that they believe in, long before a lot of other places will, so I think that they claim credit for showing people like Chris Nolan and Edgar Wright beofre they’d really made it. These guys really knew what they had on their hands.
Often the film community is very fickle and if you had a big giant hit the year before and you seem to be an industry darling then you might get a slot, otherwise you’re just trying to claw your way up.
JOE: With Downloaded, the subject matter is still very relevant as it’s an ongoing process so would you ever think about doing a follow-up documantary?
AW: It’s possible, I think I’d be more interested in coming back in ten years or so and looking at where the tech landscape is then.
JOE: Because you’re behind the camera a lot of the time now, are you considering to going back in front to do some acting? I was reading that there are reports that the third installment of Bill and Ted might be released in 2014, can you tell us a little bit about that?
AW: Yeah, we are working on a draft so it is possible. If we get it to a place to where everyone likes and we get the money together then we’ll do it, yeah, we will suit up again.
JOE: Totally excellent, we’ll look forward to that. You could bring the two dudes to Ireland, they haven’t come here yet...
AW: I’d love that. I’d love a loctaion shoot not to be on a sound stage in Burbank for a change!
JOE: Whenever you’re walking down the street what is it that people shout at you from your films?
AW: It’s funny, the small numbers of movies that I have acted in, they have survived the test of time so I get things yelled at me form Bill and Ted of course, Freaked, The Idiot Box, The Lost Boys, everything. People seem to know all of my stuff which I find amusing and sometimes, actually, genuinely terrifying!
JOE: Yeah, it seems that films you’ve been involved in have really struck a chord with people...
AW: Yeah, they have and I’m really happy about that, I think it’s cool.
You really don’t know when you’re doing those movies how they’re going to be received. They were super low budget and we never thought that anyone would ever see them again and that includes the first Bill and Ted. It’s something that I’m grateful for and it’s something that you don’t have any control over.
JOE: And do you actually play the guitar like Bill S. Preston Esquire?
AW: Oh no. No. (Laughs) That’s method. That’s all method acting – I was able to look like a really bad guitar player by doing an enormous amount of acting work
JOE: That’s very impressive. And so, when people shout “Wyld Stallyns” do you automatically have to do the guitar riff from the film?
AW: Thankfully no, I don’t have to do that. My arm would get too sore because that happens to me all day long!
JOE: Well Alex, thanks for taking the time to chat to us today, the best of luck with Downloaded and its release, we’ll be spreading the good word here at JOE and hopefully we’ll see Bill and Ted back up on the big screen again some time next year too. Lovely to talk to you.
AW: You too man, thanks so much, I appreciate it.