One of the most fascinating aspects of the discussion about the future of filmmaking is that the more involved listeners can trace the origins of that discussion to 1999, when Napster hit the internet and changed how people consume media forever. And while now the discussion has moved into the world of digital distribution, with VOD and Streaming Devices giving both audiences more legal, cost-effective ways of watching independent films and first-run home media and pirates a quicker, easier way of leaking high-definition films to the international market, the discussion had once been similarly on the digital distribution of music via a market that has legitimized itself thanks to Steve Jobs and iTunes whilst also still being unable to curb the widespread piracy relative to the medium. And yet, still, the conversation turns back to Napster and the way that the logical evolution of innovation and technology turned out to be an uncontrollable and philosophically misunderstood beast.
And yet who would have guessed that genre filmmaker and actor Alex Winter would be the one to bring this conversation back to the forefront with his documentary, Downloaded. By going back to the beginning and juxtaposing the cultural boiling points that lead to Napster’s blitz into the public conscience with the ambitious yet unheralded brilliance of Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker’s concepts and social personas, Winter unfolds the most gripping and unbiased take on Napster to date. Whether it be the brains who championed Napster, the seemingly Average Joe’s who created Napster, or those in the music industry who cried for blood, Winter takes each opinion on the controversial company and weaves it into a factual story that’s not to be missed. Winter spoke to Diabolique about the documentary, his work on the cult classic Freaked and much more…
DIABOLIQUE: Your new documentary, Downloaded, chronicles the rise and fall of Napster through those who were closest to the company, for better or for worse. What inspired you to make Downloaded, and why did you choose to do so now?
ALEX WINTER: Well, the short version is that I showed an interest in early technology, at least early for people like you and me, not for hackers and tech people who started the internet in the ‘60s. But around the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I got online, and I got into DPS and News Groups and things like that. I was really fascinated with the whole idea of a global community online, which seemed to be coming. And with Napster in ’98, this was the age of dial-up [connections], so suddenly, you had this overnight revolution and there was a global community that appeared out of nowhere that worked on a much broader scale and much faster scale. And it worked! Most of the stuff online didn’t work, it would either break down or disconnect you.
Napster worked, and it worked big, and broad, and fast and there was nothing even remotely like it at that time. I got really interested in Napster in ’99, and then I met Shawn Fanning and sought those guys out to tell their story in 2001 or 2002. I wrote Downloaded as a narrative, originally, for a major studio back then, but it went into turnaround , so I walked away to make other stuff. But I wanted to make Downloaded as a documentary a few years ago, so I circled back to it, just because I felt the world had become so fractious and divided over internet rights and how, as a world, we use information and share information, which got more heated instead of less heated. So I thought this movie could add to that conversation a little bit.
DIABOLIQUE: There are certain points that Downloaded must make, especially within the frame of a non-fiction narrative, which may conflict with your desire as a documentarian to be unbiased and objective. How were you able to remain objective as to not choose a side within the storytelling? Was this an issue in the editing stage as well?
WINTER: It was. It was a consistent issue the entire way along. [Remaining objective] was the primary challenge of making it, for sure. It was like, “How do I tell this story and not get in the way of the story?” It was important for me to make a documentary that doesn’t ram my opinion down peoples’ throats, but instead make one that had a kind of unbiased perspective. Thankfully, I stand on both sides of the issue. I’m old enough to have come from the analog age, and I’ve made music videos and certainly have been immersed in the music industry for my whole life. So I felt, and still feel, sympathy for the pre-existing model that was totally blindsided by this technology.
You know, I just didn’t want to make a polemic one way or another. That was really important to me. And the people on my team were really collaborative, so I needed them to help keep me from getting too dogmatic. There was Jacob Craycroft, the editor, who also comes from narratives since he cut for Robert Altman, and there was my DP, Anghel Decca, who were my other collaborators on this film. We all had our own opinions, which kept the movie from becoming too one-sided. At least that was my intention, anyway. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: Downloaded really cements that Napster also enacted as the first major peer-to-peer social network, as it brought people together over music in a phenomenal fashion. Did you specifically want to separate this documentary from the other documentaries or narrative films covering the digital social revolution as of late?
WINTER: No. Frankly, I almost felt the opposite. I wanted to add to what I consider to be one big narrative, which is the narrative of the digital revolution. That narrative is that we really can’t underestimate the changes that are going on in our culture right now, and to me, those changes are going to produce a lot of stories, not just this one. So, to me, Downloaded is a part of the community of those stories which includes Steal This Film, Occupy Unmasked and The Social Network. It involves all the films being made on the narrative and documentary sides that talk about how we got to where we are right now.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the strangest parts in the story of Napster is how well business had worked out for Shawn Fanning, who created Rupture and Path, and Sean Parker, who became the Founding President of Facebook and is on the Board of Directors at Spotify, following Napster’s fall. Was it important for you to keep the focus of the documentary on the lifespan of Napster rather than digress too far into the personal lives of Parker and Fanning?
WINTER: It was really important to me, once I decided to make Downloaded as a documentary, to focus on Napster and not get too into the interpersonal mechanics of Parker and fanning, or into their personal relationships. I think that would be better suited to a narrative, especially given the subject matter [of Downloaded] which is specifically really big, global issues, and I didn’t want to short change those issues. I wanted to really focus on what brought about the vision for Napster in the first place and what the repercussions were for imposing that vision upon the world. I felt that was plenty of fodder for this movie, and I didn’t want to get lost in Parker and Fanning and their relationships, what they ate for breakfast, when they argued and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t want that to take away from the thematic stuff I wanted to cover.
DIABOLIQUE: As someone analyzing the culture adapting to the digital age, what is your reaction on the sudden digital backlash within certain rising subcultures, primarily those that champion vinyl above the MP3?
WINTER: You know, I think that was bound to happen, and for some of us, that started happening a long time ago. I’ve always been a vinyl junkie. I’ve always made sure I had good turntables and I’ve always made sure to buy the stuff I really love on Vinyl. I think that three things are happening, one of which is that people are rebelling against the imposition of these technologies.
Another thing that is happening is that audiophiles like certain kinds of sound, and sound is kind of like movies in the way that some people don’t want to move on from film until the digital chip is robust enough that it can absolutely replicate all the light latitude and warmth that you get from film. I think that’s the same with music because we mostly move mp3’s around, which are incredibly low quality. Around the corner, we’re going to have a much faster broadband, which will allow us to move much bigger files around. Once that happens, certain people who might have had prejudices against mp3’s or downloading are going to change their tune.
But I think you’ll always have vinyl junkies, like myself. I frankly like listening to my jazz on vinyl; I just do, and I probably always will. There’s certain rock ‘n’ roll that I like listening to on vinyl, because vinyl can carry mid-range really well, and rock is largely about mid-range, and I like my mid-range. But once you get into bigger files, like AIFF and WAV files, those carry the same information, if not more than, analog anyway. So, I think that’s going to change.
The third thing that’s happening, and this is the part to remember, is that this is a tiny fraction of the market. People get lost think that there’s some kind of analog backlash when, really, there isn’t. 99.9% of the consumers out there are not listening to their music on vinyl. They’re not buying cassette tapes. They’re not even using DVD’s that much anymore. They’re all using mp3’s, digital formats and streaming. There’s only a very, very, very, very small part of the population that’s using analog anymore, all over the world. As far as big business is concerned, it doesn’t affect their bottom line.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the subjects covered in Downloaded is that certain unsigned bands had propelled to popularity via Napster without necessarily the promotion of backing that a label would normally provide. This is relevant nowadays more than ever with artists like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scoring #1 singles without a record label through the digital distribution of their work. Do you believe that, even though digital distribution has been adapted via iTunes, Amazon and other major services, the platform is still contentious with major labels?
WINTER: Yeah. A lot of people ask me what the biggest surprise was while making Downloaded, and the thing that surprised me the most was how angry many, many people are from the record and movie industry, and how absolutely adamant they are that things go back to the way that they were, and how unwilling they are to figure out new ways to move [their business] forward. There are a lot of people in those industries who are NOT that way, don’t get me wrong. But I found a lot of people who are just as angry as they were, and I’ve been on this story for ten years, as they were in 2002-2003, despite iTunes and Spotify, and despite the fact that this technology is not going away, whether they like it or not. There were just a lot of people who stuck their head in the sand and said, “No. I don’t accept it. It needs to go away. It’s bad, so are the people who do this, and we’re really, really pissed off.”
That was shocking to me. But it did explain to me why our culture is so divided even today, and why there’s so much arguing over legislation. “Do we use CISPA? Do we use SOPA? Do we arrest people based on our perception that they’re facilitating the misuse of this technology?” A lot of it is this litigious and very, very angry behavior, and that was shocking to me. So yeah, I think a lot of people don’t understand that this technology is evolutionary and that it wasn’t created by a couple of thieves who wanted to steal stuff. It’s not going away, and I think a lot of people don’t know that they can monetize this because they don’t want to bother understanding this technology, which is to their detriment.
DIABOLIQUE: This summer must be extremely exciting for you, as not only does Downloaded hit theaters on June 21st and VOD on July 1st, but your brilliant first feature-length directorial endeavor, Freaked, is slated for Blu-ray release on August 6th. It’s also ironic that Freaked happen to grow in its cult audience via its time on Netflix Instant Streaming, as the film was more or less abandoned during its theatrical release. How did you and co-director Tom Stern come up with the concept for Freaked?
WINTER: I’m gonna give you the long story, and feel free to edit it down to however you’d like for your readers. When Tom [Stern] and I first started, we were at NYU film school together, and the type of movies that we liked to make were generally very extreme, with a nod to Tex Avery and a nod to R. Crumb, using some of our favorite horror elements with things that were theatrical and hyperviolent. So it was this mixture of violence and comedy, kind of the way Bugs Bunny was, but for an older audience, although the really good Bugs shorts were violent. And there were other people, even as we were in film school, who were beginning to do this, like Sam Raimi, who would be my best example.
[Tom and I] made a short film at NYU called The Squeal of Death, which is actually on the [now out-of-print] Anchor Bay DVD release of Freaked. The Squeal of Death was our senior project, and we were trying to create as close to an animated aesthetic in live-action as humanly possible. It wasn’t as horror oriented as Freaked, but it certainly has those hyperreal elements. That did quite well for us, and that put us on Sam Raimi’s radar. We first worked with Sam and Rob Tapert when we first got out of school, and we tried to get a bunch of movies made together. We would write them, and Sam, Rob, Tom and I would go around town trying to produce them.
We couldn’t get any of [those scripts] made. It was a really difficult time to try to tell these kinds of stories. There was no Tim Burton yet. There was no South Park yet. There really wasn’t a lot of stuff like [our work], so it was hard to get the studios to try to pay attention to us. Freaked, actually, began with a short film we had made with The Butthole Surfers [Bar-B-Que Movie] where this family, in which John Hawkes plays the Dad, goes down to Texas and ends up getting abducted by the Butthole Surfers, who torture them, cage them, drive them crazy and then eat them. It certainly was very horror-comic. We ended up taking that short we did and wrote it into a feature with Gibby Haynes, and we wrote the movie, called FREAK in those days. Back then, it was about a family that stops at a roadside carnival run by the Butthole Surfers, and the whole family gets turned into freaks. It was like taking Tod Browning’s Freaks, which is a big favorite of Tom and I’s, which I feel is the beginning of the horror-comedy genre, even before Abbott and Costello, and we took that element and fused it with Beach Blanket Bingo and those weird, Corman-esque rock movies of the ‘50s and ’60s but with a Sam Raimi-esque horror-comedy quotient.
And nobody would touch it. It was totally unproduceable. It wouldn’t have cost anything, and we wanted to make it for $150,000. We could not find $150,000 to make this movie. So by that time, I’d done Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and I think we were getting ready for or had already completed Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. So we were thinking, “What if we age it down from an R to a PG-13, and make it a little more mainstream and take it to a studio?” So we did and we sold it to [20th Century] Fox. We were very up-front, we had storyboards, we had the whole thing scripted out, we had animatics. Screaming Mad George did some special effects designs for us, as well. So we sold it, and we went from trying to make a $150,000 Butthole Surfers movie to an $11-12 million major studio movie.
DIABOLIQUE: Freaked definitely had an amazing cast and unbelievably good special effects design for a film that appears to be a labor of love. Was it more important for you the achieve the visual success for the film or were you more concerned with the storytelling?
WINTER: We were really intent on hitting everything. An enormous amount of labor went into the pre-production on that thing. Tom and I spent a year in pre-production getting the script right, the effects right and the cast right. We were not leaving anything up to chance. It was a very designed movie across the board. It was really important to us to assemble an A-team. Tim Burns, who wrote on The Idiot Box with us, came in to write the script with us after Tom and I put the story together. Tim was a really really good writer who came from writing on Letterman. He’d written for [Jim] Henson in the past, and we really trusted him with keeping the narrative focused.
Then, we’d assembled, undoubtedly, the greatest Hollywood talent, at the time, for prosthetics make-up. I’d done several big Hollywood movies by then, like Lost Boys and the Bill & Ted movies, so I’d really gotten to know who was who in town. We’d gotten Screaming Mad George, Tony Gardner, Steven Johnson, and Bill Corso, who was working at the time. The three studios between those men all worked on the movie, each one having masses to do, so [the set] would look like an army base with all these tents everywhere. They were, hands down, the greatest talents in their field at that time. Then we brought in [eventual Twilight director] Catherine Hardwicke for production design. This was long before she moved over to directing, and she was one of the best production designers in town. So for two punk 25-year-old kids who had never shot 35mm film before, we had an extremely high-end team put together for Freaked that we collaborated with to make sure that we didn’t fuck up, for lack of a better way to put it.
Alex Winter’s Downloaded will hit City Cinemas Village East (181-189 Second Ave, New York, NY, 10003) today, June 21st, and will hit Video-On-Demand from VH1 and AOL on July 1st, 2013. To learn more on the documentary, visit www.trouperproductions.com, and you can follow Alex Winter on Twitter: @alxwinter. For more on Downloaded, Freaked and Winter himself, keep your eye out for Part Two of this interview, hitting DiaboliqueMagazine.com soon! Also, keep an eye out for Winter in DIABOLIQUE #17 in our article, THE EVOLUTION OF HORROR COMEDY, hitting stands this July!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.