When the opportunity presented itself to interview filmmaker Alex Winter about his new documentary, Downloaded, it was a no-brainer to accept. Nevermind that Winter holds a special place in my, and many others’, heart for his portrayal of Bill S. Preston, Esq. in the Bill and Ted series, but he’s also a man whose appearance in the pages of Film Threat Magazine, and on one of the most memorable covers, was a big part of my appreciation of FT, long before I came to work with (and eventually own) the company. In other words, in my more formative years, when I was consuming any and everything about indie and underground films I could find, one touchstone to the memory of that time will forever be Alex Winter… and the face he made on the cover…
But I digress, and this isn’t really about my nostalgia or Alex Winter making goofy faces, it’s about Winter’s latest film, the documentary tale of Napster. It’s a story that we all probably thought we knew: two tech-savvy teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, create a way to share files between computers networked over the internet, specifically mp3s, call the service Napster, and users then use said service to trade copyright-infringing material, which pisses off music labels and artists like Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who then go after Napster, and Napster users, in court. To quote a classic internet video at that time, “Napster BAD!”
Only, of course, the story is more complex than that, the facts far more interesting and the human side more compelling. In Downloaded, Winter manages to establish the story of Napster from the mouths of those who were there, including Fanning and Parker. And not just by utilizing their recollections, but by juxtaposing interviews they did at the time with their thoughts of today. The result is a more complete picture, even if certain elements remain murky. It’s a wonderful documentary for a number of reasons, the least of which may be its historical significance in finally giving us the facts to explore beyond simply “Napster BAD!” The landscape, and culture, of the internet was forever changed due to Napster, and the fallout, for better or worse, is still being reconciled (and likely will be for years to go). And with Downloaded‘s premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival coming up, Winter let me pick his brain about it all. Listen to the Spotify playlist the filmmakers put together of music relevant to the conversation, and read on…
First off, just want to compliment you on making a movie perfect for SXSW…
*Laughs* Right? It is music, tech and movies so… it ticks all their boxes. Not intentionally, but I’m not complaining.
I read that this was originally going to be a narrative feature. How early was that idea conceived?
2002. I was really into Napster, and not just because I was a gluttonous mp3 fanatic, which I was, but I was old enough to have been around before personal computers, period, and then I was very into personal computers, and then I got onto the net as soon as there was a net. I was into the BBS era, the newsgroup era. Internet communities were really fascinating to me. That was something I was a part of and Napster just hit me like a wet towel in the head. It was such a seismic leap forward, in terms of… now I had an internet community, now I could real-time chat, now I had the ability to talk to people all over the world and share stuff with them and common interests. It really was huge. It’s hard to convey the change, especially in the era of dial-up. It was something that mattered to me and I also saw the challenges that it had and I understood why it was such a massive headache for pre-existing businesses and cultures and governments. I got it. A lot of people did, but not as many as one would think.
So I met with Fanning and I pitched him a way to tell the story, and he was really interested, and I sold it to Paramount and wrote it as a movie there, did a ton of research and became friendly with him and Parker and record industry people; everybody involved, it was sort of like writing a big Rolling Stone piece. For a music tech geek, it was paradise, but it went into turnaround, which movies do, as you well know. And I was, “Okay, that’s fine, screw it and keep moving,” which I did. So I just walked away. I stayed friendly with them but didn’t really think about making a Napster movie anymore.
Years went by and, frankly, about three years ago, way before the whole SOPA thing kicked off, it was hard to ignore how noisy the argument had become. I really had thought, in 2004 or so, when I put a movie down that, surely, with iTunes, now everybody, in my opinion, seemed to understand that this was here to stay and it does monetize and no, the public aren’t thieves, they just needed a better distribution model and now they have one and they’re using it but… no *laughs*
The players that I know are the ones who built this stuff and are still immersed in it, so it wasn’t just retro. But it seemed completely wrong to do it as a narrative. What we need is a chance for all these guys to get together under the umbrella of a doc and just say what they think about what happened and where we’re at. That’s why I decided to do it as a doc.
For my own context, I knew the broad strokes about the entire Napster thing but its infamous hey-day was in a period where I was hit-or-miss with internet, either because I was working on films or was stuck with dial-up. My years downloading were prior, when I was in college and we could use the network to share between our in-dorm computers. I only got the news footage and didn’t actively use Napster personally, which turned the story into basically Metallica versus these two kids. While watching Downloaded, I realized how ignorant I was about Napster, and I don’t think I’m alone in that ignorance. How challenging is it, when you’re making a documentary, when the main narrative has already been established in people’s minds due to the way the news reported on it at the time and, second part, as a documentarian, how hard is it to remain objective knowing that the other, strong narratives exist, whether they’re accurate or not?
To answer the first question, that part was easy because I felt that A) nobody really understood what actually happened and B) it had never been contextualized where… I wasn’t just going to come out and tell the Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker story. I really wanted to look at the labels, and their history, and just put all of that under one umbrella. I personally hadn’t seen it. I’d seen different stabs at it, but not under one umbrella and not now, not with all the context.
I honestly feel like I dodged a bullet; I’m really that glad that I didn’t make a narrative and I didn’t make it in 2004. I think it’s the wrong time and the wrong format. I felt very comfortable that now was the time to tell the story and, frankly, I don’t even feel like I was in a rush. I feel like you could tell this story in another 10 years… the history is unfolding.
To your second point, I would just say that the good thing about a documentary is that it’s not just my game; it isn’t just my voice. There are documentarians who do that, and who frankly do it well, but those aren’t even my favorite documentaries. I come from… I’m a really old fart so I like Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter, and I like a lot of stuff that Pennebaker did and the Maysles, and this notion of being an eye on the world. So it was totally liberating. My editor has a huge hand in crafting this story, my DP has a huge hand in crafting this story; everyone had opinions on this issue and they sure as Hell got more educated quickly once they got on board, because it’s fascinating. I was really open to it taking on that life of its own.
I did not want this to be just my opinion of the Napster debacle; it would’ve been very different. And that’s one of the first things I said to my editor, “please continually tell me if I’m butting in with my opinion so that it doesn’t wind up becoming an essay.”
“…they weren’t bank robbers. They might’ve been naive; they might’ve had some misguided notions on copyright law, but they were not bank robbers.”
It’s an interesting point, as certain documentaries, while they don’t become propaganda pieces, they can become one-sided essays. This was very even-handed. I think it’s quite a good, and very complete, film, so if I praise the editing, I don’t want cinematography to feel ignored, but I really liked how the film weaved the footage of the subjects as young adults with them as older adults, so it didn’t become a talking heads experience so much as a dialogue between youth and… still youth…
*Laughs* Yeah. Goddamn those 30-year old billionaires! Yeah, that was absolutely one thing that occurred to me when I was writing the narrative and researching it, what a wealth of archival there was. I was using all that for research when I was writing, just to find their voice, so I have all this media of the guys as kids. So I knew that existed.
It was interesting because that was, if I had anything that was thematic to me on a personal level, it was exactly what you just said. I was very drawn on a personal level of then and now from their perspective. What does it feel like to be 31, 32, been through this trial by fire and, frankly, some very difficult years after that and then some successes after that and then looking back.
That’s the first thing Parker said when I did the South by panel last year; he’d never seen anything and he saw that clip and was like, “Holy s**t! We were so young!” It is kind of jarring, and that really interested me. What that did to their friendship, what it’s like as a human being to go through that. Whether you agree with them or not, on a purely compassionate level, it was a lot.
Because they weren’t bank robbers. They might’ve been naive; they might’ve had some misguided notions on copyright law, but they were not bank robbers. They wanted to create a global community. A lot of their motives were pretty egalitarian, so that really interested me from a human standpoint. If there’s anything thematic that I stuck to on my own, I do care a lot about both those guys. It doesn’t mean I have to completely agree with them, but I have compassion for them because I’ve known them since they were going through some really intense stuff.
It’s hard not to be empathetic, particularly with Fanning, when you see the juxtaposition between the earlier footage and now; he looks like he’s dealing with some post-traumatic stress concerns, which is hard to watch. He was sticking up for what he thought was correct, and to see how all that fighting wears on him, is challenging to watch from a human standpoint…
Yeah, I know. And life is life. Thankfully he’s a wonderful, centered guy. He’s a healthy person spiritually, but I do think there’s no doubt that having to re-live this entire experience was definitely an emotional thing for him. I don’t know if he’d admit that, but I think it’s certainly fairly evident, and of course it would be. Because it was trauma, and it was trauma that went on and on and on and on…
It was something I was trying to be mindful when making it, that I wasn’t just rubbing him and his family’s face in some grim stuff, but the reality of it is that he also invented something that changed the world and is pretty amazing. I think the Napster legacy, when the dust settles, again whether you agree with downloading or not, will still be pretty profound.
Do you have any expectations for the SXSW premiere screening, because it’s at such a crux of Interactive, Film and Music; what the experience will be like for you, but also for your two main subjects? They’ve been lionized and hated by various segments of those three groups over the years, so the environment could be anything…
I think that, because I’d done the South by thing last year, and I saw how well they handled themselves… it was not by any means a slavishly partisan audience; there were people asking them some tough questions. They’re pretty damn good at handling themselves. They’re both entrepreneurs, they both deal with vast amounts of money, they both have to sell big ideas to people asking them tough questions; I think they’re going to be fine.
And because the movie is not… the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve would be to create more contention and more divisiveness. It’s not like we’re going into this thing creating panels like “Round One: Columbia Records vs. the Napster Guys.” *laughs* I think they’re going to be in a very safe environment, certainly one they can handle, however tough the questions are. Also, they have an elder statesmen… they’re not currently at the center of the SOPA debate, or what will now be the CISPA debate, that’s not who they are. In fact, in a way, like what happens with every revolutionary, they’re kind of establishment. Parker’s spending most of his time doing deals with labels everyday. Fanning has been entrenched in the gaming industry for years. They’re kind of establishment, which has its own implications.
“I think this is a Golden Age for documentaries. I think this is a Golden Age potentially for all kinds of independent cinema where you have the ability to distribute, depending on what type of movie you’re making…”
Knowing the status of film distribution and and independent filmmaking in general, which is in constant flux, where do you come down as a filmmaker in this world? You just made a documentary film, you want to get it out there, you’re going to have a high-profile premiere, you’re with VH1 Rock Docs, which is a step-up but… coming from a filmmaking perspective, what is your idea of the landscape for distribution and what people can do to succeed right now? What is the technological impact on the success or failure?
My opinion on that may be too mundane to print, in the sense that I don’t see any correlative yet. “Yet” being the operative, between the downloading revolution and the death of independent film. We know what happened; the majors bought out those companies and killed them. It wasn’t KaZaA.
For me, I think this is a Golden Age for documentaries. I think this is a Golden Age potentially for all kinds of independent cinema where you have the ability to distribute, depending on what type of movie you’re making… God knows there’s no lack of fantastic documentaries every year. There were so many [last] year I didn’t get to see all I wanted to see, and every one I saw blew my head off. People were like, “What did you think of The Hobbit?” and it was like, “I don’t know. I’m still nine documentaries back before I get to The Hobbit.”
It’s really hard to sit here and kvetch about the state of that stuff when it’s doing so well. You could certainly complain about independent cinema being almost impossible to make a living in, but that’s been a problem for years and, to me, it has nothing to do with the technological revolution. Also, I even would say to that, that’s cultural ebb and flow because I don’t really develop indie movies anymore, I develop TV shows. I’ve got a show at AMC I’m writing right now that would’ve been a movie five years ago. Instead I pitched it as a TV show. There’s great content, you just have to find it, but there’s great content on TV, there’s great documentaries, there’s great big popcorn movies. That’s the upside.
We absolutely live in a world that is in massive flux, and it’s not all getting monetized so, for me, sure I wonder about the fate of the music artists, sure I wonder about the fate of independent filmmaker who doesn’t want to be told, “You either work in TV, or make docs, or put your stuff up for free or just go get a job teaching film at some university,” because that’s not how they tell stories. I think that’s sad, but I also think there’s a lot of reasons for that that don’t just fall on the shoulders of Kim.com.
I’m always curious; I talk with a lot of filmmakers at various levels, and some really embrace how things are now, such as putting their movie out there for free to build an audience, or selling VOD, so it’s always interesting to get the lay of the land. I think it’s reflected in your documentary that there’s always that older business model that, for whatever reason, people re-imagine the past as better than it was, as if the older independent film model always worked. And it didn’t. The pipe dream of the Sundance early-90s success story, for example. Yeah, it happened, but it didn’t happen every year…
Yeah, and nor did it happen to that many people. It was like winning the lottery. I have many, many friends who are independent filmmakers who never made a living through that hey-day doing their art, who make movies that you love, that are on Netflix. I’m not just talking about the fringes, I’m talking about stable, well-known filmmakers who did not have a pot to piss in during that period.
I think that… look, the reality of it is that, if you decide to make art for a living, it is a very bold choice. It always has been, and probably always will be, and I think the reality of it is, and this is something that I am concerned about, I think what we need to be watching out for now… I just wish some of the older paradigm industry weren’t so ignorant and just caught up a little better, so that we could be having more intelligent discussions about monetizing these industries instead of really stupid ones like “how do we block these websites,” which make no sense. We should be having discussions about, “okay, this stuff is here, how do we build an infrastructure that monetizes for us and doesn’t completely f**k the artist?” Because that’s what’s gonna happen, and that’s my biggest fear, that the new boss is going to be as bad as the old boss, and the artist is going to get screwed. That would be a shame.
Right, I remember watching the news when Metallica was getting after Napster about screwing them and other music artists and thinking, wait, isn’t that what the music industry does to you now?
We let Jon Stewart make that point in the movie. Come on, we’re talking about an industry that used to use the mob to break people’s knee-caps if they wouldn’t play singles.
Not quite a question but a digression based on observation, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every time Chris Phenner is onscreen talking about something, if there’s someone else in the frame, they’re either rolling their eyes or look like they’re trying to hold back the urge to punch him…
*Laughs* Phenner’s a really good friend of mine… it was like putting the Beatles back together. This was a band, and they loved and hated each other. That’s a whole other movie which I didn’t get into. The internal company politics was actually what my narrative was about, because it’s hilarious and dramatic and has its own stuff going on, but it had no place in a documentary.
I was watching, and I was like, “There are stories here…”
Oh yeah, and they’re still going. They’ll stop talking to each other, and this guy won’t talk to that guy and he said this and… it’s a comedy of errors dealing with these guys sometimes, but it’s like anything else.
Downloaded premieres at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival on Sunday, March 10, 2013. (This interview was originally posted on March 9, 2013.)