Interview: Alex Winter on Napster Documentary 'Downloaded'

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Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker & Alex Winter at SXSW 2012 (photo courtesy of www.platformgrp.com)
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Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker & Alex Winter at SXSW 2012 (photo courtesy of www.platformgrp.com)

At SXSW 2012, filmmaker Alex Winter moderated "Downloaded: The SXSW Interview," with Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker for his upcoming documentary "Downloaded." It's an insightful look into how two smart yet unsophisticated kids revolutionized an industry.

At the SXSW interview, Parker jokingly said, "We only took the meeting with [Alex Winter] because we'd seen 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.'"

Most of us may know Winter as Bill S. Preston Esq. from that cult classic, but his films "Freaked" and "Fever" proved he was an actor/writer/director worth expecting more from. I caught up with Winter putting the finishing touches on "Downloaded" for the "VH1 Rock Docs" series.

As a filmmaker who's been in front of the camera and in the director's chair, how did you first feel about Napster and peer-to-peer sharing? Did it worry you as a producer of creative content?

I was immediately taken with Napster when it appeared. It was clearly a revolutionary technology and it blew open my musical experience, reuniting me with music I hadn't listened to in years and exposing me to a lot of music I either didn't know about or didn't appreciate before.

The creative-content issues didn't occur to me at that time, because personally Napster spurred me to go out and buy more music than I ever had before or since. The copyright issues and broader implications became clear to me much later.

When did you know it was time to tell Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker's story?

I first met Fanning back in 2002, as Napster was crumbling. He was open to telling his story, and I was well aware of both the Napster story and Fanning and Parker's personal journey and felt it all would make an incredible film. The movie business being what it is, 10 years later here we are.

Why do Parker and Fanning trust you to tell Napster's story?

I think it's because they were aware from the beginning that, regardless of the legal issues surrounding Napster, I understood the magnitude and revolutionary nature of what they created and launched. I was very clear with them that I intend to show all sides of the argument, not just theirs, but I think they trust that I have their backs.

On your website you note the milestone of Justin Frankel using a Butthole Surfers song, "Pepper," to launch Winamp, a precursor to Napster. Is it somewhat fated that your directorial career was launched by making films with the Butthole Surfers? Is there a connection?

You can run from the Butthole Surfers, but you cannot hide.

When you set out to make a documentary, the story can largely take shape as you are filming, interviewing, and editing. What have you seen take shape that you weren't necessarily expecting?

I originally wrote this as a straight narrative movie, which requires a certain amount of dogmatism and tying up of loose ends. A doc is the opposite. There are so many legitimate sides to this story and so many very bright and interesting players from the tech side, the music side, the labels, etc.

I was constantly learning, constantly having my beliefs challenged and expanded. And that is exactly what I want the viewer to experience. This movie is meant to ignite the conversation, not end it.

Do you think perceptions of Napster, and the evolution of downloading from Winamp to Wikileaks, will change after seeing "Downloaded"?

I think most people have a fairly hazy grasp on the technological paradigm shift that is occurring globally. I hope the movie sheds some light on these crazy times we're living through.

Rumors have been confirmed for "Bill & Ted 3," but I'm for one stoked to see you back in the director's chair; what's in store for you as far as directing?

I'm deep in post finishing up this one. And shooting on several TV shows this summer. My next movie is a 3D remake of "The Gate," a kid's adventure movie with teeth. Very excited about that one.

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