Skip To Content
  • SXSW badge

How Alex Winter (Yup, Bill S. Preston, Esq.) Made A Doc About Napster

Also: A Bill & Ted movie update!

AUSTIN — With the Kickstarter campaign for the Veronica Mars movie currently breaking all kinds of records for crowdsourced fundraising, it may be hard to remember a time when it wasn't possible to connect instantly with like-minded people worldwide. The new feature documentary Downloaded, which premiered at the ongoing SXSW Film Festival, chronicles how we got to this point thanks to the breakneck rise and ignominious fall of the first online global community: Napster. And it was made by the dude from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. No, the other dude: Alex Winter.

The actor/director first approached Napster creator Shawn Fanning in 2002 through a mutual friend, with the idea of turning his story into a narrative feature film, à la 2011's The Social Network. Winter's pitch won over Fanning and cofounder Sean Parker (i.e., the guy played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network), but his script first bounced from MTV Original Movies at the network to MTV Films at Paramount Studios before it languished in turnaround and Winter walked away.

In researching the script, however, Winter had developed so many relationships and amassed so much material, that three years ago it hit him: Why not make it a documentary?

"It was one of those funny Hollywood stories," he said in Austin. "For eight years, I tried in vain to get it made as a narrative, and I think within about 12 hours of coming up with the idea of doing it as a doc, I had sold it, and I had a ticket to start shooting."

The film's Sunday night premiere played terrifically at the enormous Paramount Theater in Austin, where Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker both joined Winter on stage afterward. "I came out of it that Alex had a better understanding of it than either of us," said Fanning. "It felt like watching it from the outside."

Parker agreed: "The guys in front of me were really into it, because I was whispering to my fiancée and they told me to shut up."

The youthful, buoyant Winter is especially pleased that both Seans seemed to enjoy his take on the defining event of their lives (not to mention the lives of music labels and musicians all over the world). "I personally feel like I dodged a bullet in not making the narrative, because this is way better," he says.

But how did Winter convince not just Fanning and Parker but the (former) heads of several major music labels to participate in his film? And what is the deal with the new Bill & Ted movie?! Read on to find out.

Adam B. Vary: I can't imagine you were the only person who was approaching Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker to tell the story of Napster. So what was it, do you think, that it was about you that they were like, "This is the guy we want to work with"?

Alex Winter: I think that there were two things going on. First of all, I was really interested in the internet from the early days. I got my first computer in the early '80s, got online immediately in the early '90s. I was big into BBS [bulletin board systems] and newsgroups and was really fascinated with the idea that the internet was clearly going to build global communities in ways that we'd never had before. And when Napster showed up in '99, suddenly we had a global community where there was none the day before. It's just impossible to describe how abrupt it was. So it wasn't like I was so partisan, like, "Oh, I want to make a movie because I think you guys are right, and, you know, fuck the labels." It wasn't like that. I wasn't even that interested in the music, to be honest with you. I mean, I like music. But I think everyone got the Napster story completely wrong. To me it was about this somewhat isolated teenager who not only found his way online but was so brilliant that he found a way to create a workable global community. What Fanning and eventually Parker really wanted to do was bring the world together online, and it worked. Everybody was trying to do that, but theirs worked. His vision had nothing to do with music. Music was a delivery system. I think that's why they trusted me with it. They realized that I understood what their vision was.

And frankly, personally, I'd been in the entertainment industry since I was really, really young. I knew what it was like to become very, very famous very quickly, very young, and to be kind of under that kind of press scrutiny. I really had a lot of empathy for Parker and Fanning, and when I met them in '02, they were pretty bloodied. They were broke, they were vilified — it was not pleasant. I was in Bill and Ted — it's not like I ever got vilified, you know what I mean? So it wasn't a complete identification, but I certainly allowed for an enormous amount of empathy.

ABV: You do have a very clear point of view on the good that Napster was trying to do and how misguided a lot of the label efforts were, but you still got pretty much everyone involved in those efforts at the labels to talk to you. What did you say to them to make them feel comfortable with sharing their side of the story?

AW: That's interesting. Documentaries do have to have a point of view, otherwise you're just lying. Even my website was like, "I've been friends with Fanning and Parker for years." But by the same token, I'm not a full-blown free-culture guy, nor do I think that the labels and the movie industry and everybody else are just a bunch of stupid old people who couldn't get with the program. I understand how complicated it is to create large industries and how internally conflicted those industries are. Like, [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Lenner's a friend of mine. What Donnie explains really well in the movie is, it's not like the label guys are just going, "Oh, screw them." They're saying, "Well it wasn't just downloading. It was the corporatization of our industry; it was Wall Street coming in and taking over creative companies; it was not being able to create artist development because we were beholden to stockholders who just wanted quarterly returns, and suddenly a band got one strike and they were done."

The story's about change and evolution and how little the people involved actually know what they hell they're doing. I think you can say that about the Napster guys and you can say it about the label guys. I don't think the Napster guys had some ironclad, perfect business model that the labels just looked it over and went, "No." I think it was just like, "What the fuck is this?" So out of fairness, I think that I was interested in examining the gray, while I clearly support the Napster guys.

ABV: Seems like you're getting a fair amount of attention for it here.

AW: Yeah, so far. You know, showing it in front of 1,200 [people at] SXSW, it's cheating. We're never going to have an audience that good ever again.

ABV: Yeah, between the interactive people and the music people in the audience and then all the film people too, it's an unusually fertile ground for the film.

AW: It is. They got everything. They were laughing at jokes that a lot of people aren't going to get. I mean, my wife, she's like, "I didn't know that was funny." You know, talking about bus overruns and breaking URL systems is not exactly comedy to most of us.

ABV: Finally, you may be getting this question a lot, but there's been a lot of fun talk about another Bill & Ted movie —

AW: Yeah.

ABV: Where is that at for you?

AW: I don't mind talking about it. What happened was me and [Keanu] Reeves and the two writers over the years have kicked shit around, basically, and tried to find a way in. We were like, "If we find a way in that we think is valuable, we would do it." Or at least have fun writing it, right? Because we're all really tight, it's been a fun thing for us to just revisit the characters and kind of improv the characters again. It started just as that. I think it was a little frustrating because it got leaked to the press kind of early, so now we have to sort of excuse ourselves for not being farther along. But the reality of it is we're just working story until we feel we've got something that couldn't get ruined, and frankly has a reason for getting made in the first place. When we do, we'll hopefully put a deal together and get it made. But it's really just me and Reeves and the two writers.

ABV: I'd read that the idea is that Bill and Ted are freaking out because that amazing, world-changing song they were supposed to write, they haven't written yet?

AW: I think it's Keanu that's guilty of spilling that much information. I've been trying to keep my mouth shut. Yeah, basically.

ABV: It's a great idea.

AW: It's a really good idea.

ABV: I don't think people knowing it is a bad thing. A good idea begets more interest.

AW: Yeah, I think you may be right. I mean, it's like, we were trying to think of the funniest comic scenario we can dump them back into 20 years later, was like if none of those ambitions were realized. Especially given who they are, because they're not ego-driven guys. These aren't normal human beings like you get in a [Judd] Apatow [film]. This isn't This Is 40, you know what I mean? This is —

ABV: A little more high-concept than that.

AW: (laughs) I think so. And a little more emotionally stunted than that.