Interview: Filmmaker & Actor Alex Winter on Making Documentaries
by Alex Billington
March 12, 2019
"All I want is for people to understand the human implications." Some may known him as Bill S. Preston, Esq. Others may known him as the director of the acclaimed technology documentaries Downloaded, Deep Web, The Panama Papers, and Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain. His name is Alex Winter (you can follow him on Twitter @Winter), and he's an actor, a writer, a filmmaker, a producer, a journalist, and much more. I have become a big fan of Winter's documentaries over the years, he's one of a few filmmakers who actually understands the internet, and presents it in an intelligent and digestible way. Last year, two of his new documentaries premiered - The Panama Papers, about all the journalists who reported on the Panama Papers leak; and Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, about the origins and implications of blockchain (aka encrypted digital distributed ledgers), the latest technology fad that's sweeping the world.
Alex Winter is most famously known as Bill S. Preston, Esq., one half of the iconic time-traveling duo from Bill & Ted (with another sequel to begin shooting this year). But he's not just an actor. While he did get his start as a child actor in the 80s and 90s, his true passion has always been directing, and storytelling. In the midst of his acting career, he made two feature films - Freaked (in 1993) and Fever (in 1999) - and later directed Smosh: The Movie (in 2015). But over these past seven years, he has been making documentaries, starting with Downloaded, telling the story of Napster and how Shawn Fanning created this disruptive web app that changed the entertainment industry forever. If you haven't seen any of his docs yet, I recommend watching all four that are available now, including his most recent two - Trust Machine and The Panama Papers. I've been looking forward to interviewing Alex for a while, and I'm so glad I finally had the chance.
I met up with Alex Winter at the IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam last fall. He was there to present his film The Panama Papers, with an extensive discussion afterwards (a "doc talk" conversation), featuring a few of the journalists profiled in the film. It was a fascinating discussion and helped me gain even more insight into the film and how much work all these journalists put into investigating the truth. I met Alex afterwards for a lengthy chat about filmmaking, documentaries, technology and the internet, covering as much as I could. We had an open conversation and I was glad I could cover a number of topics, including his background and his connection to Bill & Ted, in addition to his understanding of the web and his tech docs.
I have to ask - how are you so knowledgeable about the internet and technology? Were you always a geek? Did you get into it later in life? What's the truth behind this?
Alex Winter: I got into computers in the early '80s. And I've always been fairly technologically-minded. I'm not a coder or anything. But I got into computers fairly young. I was post-college and all of that, obviously. But when they were really starting to become user friendly for the "interested, regular person". I found the internet pretty much right away, in the '80s. And I worked my way to being fairly active on the BBS Usenet groups at that time. You mentioned Dragon Tattoo, it's interesting because… Speaking for myself, it's not about having extraordinary expertise as much as having legitimate experience. You know what I mean?
I've been in those communities for almost my entire adult life. Very aggressively. I came to know a lot of coders and hackers and political activists and cyber punks and computer animators. That whole world is very small. And Dragon Tattoo is obviously written by someone who was dealing with that world firsthand. And he was dealing with very intense political situations that were directly impacting him. And so I think when you get stories that are being told by people who have been in those communities, they by nature have at least some affinity for what those communities mean. I'm not being falsely modest, I'm just a member of those communities. And I care about them and I know how they work. And they've been very important to me my whole life. I've made a lot of very close associations in that world. And then I came to be interested, because I'm not a coder and I'm not a hacker, once Napster happened… There was always a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about the technological revolution. It's not about good or bad. Just, wrong.
It's not like I think the internet is this incredible thing that's only great. It's just been so wrong. And the response to it has been so completely inaccurate that that really motivated me to tell the [Shawn] Fanning story [in Downloaded]. Because I had issues ethically with what they did, but it was so misrepresented that I felt someone should talk about what actually happened.
And that's essentially what I wanted to get into more. Your documentaries take the internet (and technology) and present it in a way that's much more understandable, to those who may not understand it. But they don't dig so deep that you lose viewers, and I enjoy that balance. How do you figure that out? How do you decide who your audience is?
Alex: I honestly feel, and I've always felt this way… As a narrative filmmaker I feel this way — often my stories are more pure, in terms of my own interest and expression, when they are more — I wouldn't say broad — but more for an audience that isn't so narrow. And I don't have a lot of interest in preaching to a choir or to an extremely narrow niche. Though what I try to do with all of my films is tell a good story. And my motive first and foremost is always just: to tell a good story. And to tell a good, classical, three-act narrative that's satisfying… That has nuance. That has that balance but in an aesthetic way, not just in a journalistic way. And I'm not trying to hammer home some political agenda. I actually don't really have one. Other than I'm not a Fascist, I see all sides of most sane arguments. I do draw the line at outright Fascism.
Alex: Such as the type we are currently living through in the United States. So it's the same with my Zappa film I'm working on now, is that when I pitched it to Gail [Zappa, Frank's wife], I think the reason she liked me — which I didn't know if she was going to or not, I assumed she was going to show me the door, which she had done to everyone else. I said, I'm not making a music doc for the masses and I'm not making a very narrow Zappa fan doc. I really want to tell a really good story about Frank. Almost as if you read a Tom Wolfe novel about someone who lived through the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, as engaged with the times as he was. So that's usually what I'm trying to do, is just tell a really good story. I don't ever start with an agenda of, is this going to be — with the internet stuff — is this going to be broad or narrow. I do know, I don't like infotainment. So I do know I'm not going to stack it with infographics. I don't care whether you understand the technology or not. In fact, I hope that you don't spend 90 minutes trying to understand how blockchain works. That would be really depressing.
But you do explain it well enough that I thought, well okay, now I have a better picture of it.
Alex: Sure. Well, all I want is for people to understand the human implications. And that may be because I do trust my own interest in technology. I'm going to misquote horribly, but I think it was Bob Dylan who they once asked him about motorcycles, what he was doing. He had that horrible motorcycle accident back in the day and they asked him what part of his bike screwed him up? And he's like, "I don't know how the fucking engine works, I just like riding it." Right?
And that's how I feel about technology. I know probably more than the average person how these things work. I obviously do know what a blockchain is and how it grew out of Satoshi [Nakamoto] and even the people before Satoshi, things the public doesn't need to understand. But it's the implications that are that I think are not just important, but have narrative significance, that merit having stories told about them. When Napster happened, I didn't think it was important to understand exactly how peer-to-peer file sharing worked, nor did I think it was that important to get into the ethical nitty gritty of piracy, what I thought was important about Napster was that this kid from this really fucked up background had found a community online that really helped him and he was so intelligent, not even thinking about the ethics, that he created the first totally usable, global internet community. 70 million simultaneous users. That's a revolution of unheard of proportions even today. That to me was the story that I wanted to tell.
What I was fascinated by with your most recent two films was the anonymity of the original person. With Napster we know who was behind it, but with both blockchain and the Panama Papers, there's an anonymous source. Which is due to the fact that whistleblowers are under so much danger. But now it becomes everyone else's story once they're affected by it. And I think your film's very effectively show how that fire can ignite and cause a global impact.
Alex: Right. Yes. And that's the idea is that with the Panama Papers… It's those two things, but the secrecy, you understand the secrecy of the whistleblower in that instance, especially in the post- Assange, Manning, Snowden world.
Alex: And then watch what happened… During the course of Panama Papers there were more leakers that were indicted and treated poorly. So there was an obvious need for secrecy. And then you're dealing with someone who's exposing cartels and the types of people that will easily assassinate you. But yes, to me what is interesting is the expansive nature of how that information spreads in networks. What I was fascinated by was — and this is what interested me about the Silk Road as well — in this case you had the, you can't call them all criminals, because some of this behavior is legal, it's just unethical. But — you had the tax evasion people and this [big] network of corruption. It's inarguably corrupt. Operating in what they believe to be anonymity and secrecy. And then you had this network of journalists operating in what they believe to be anonymity and secrecy. Working in basically opposite aims, one to maintain their secrecy and engage in corrupt activity, the other one to expose that corrupt activity.
That to me was really fascinating in terms of — there's never been a time in history where you would have, because they were both very big networks. It wasn't just four journalists communicating with each other, it was ultimately over a thousand journalists, even after the break. They added more and more and more… And then in between them you had the nexus of that, this anonymous person who has facilitated all of this to happen. What that speaks to is this amazing moment in time because the implications of that are are gigantic. And whether that person's anonymous or not, that act has such enormous consequences and we're going to be seeing more and more [of these leaks happening]… This is something that Laura Poitras and I discussed when we first started, when she came onto the project and we started discussing what I was going to do was — the size of the data leak doesn't really matter. The size of the data leak is drive space. It gets talked about as the biggest data leak in history. Which just means that many more drives. Who cares, really? But the significance, of course, is the scale of corruption and then the scale of the journalistic operation and then the scale of its reverberation out into the world. That is significant. And, I think, indicative of where we're headed, because it's how information works. And the implications are huge. I did want people to feel that weight.
From a filmmaking perspective, what are the most important resources while you're making these films. Is it your sources, is it your crew you work with, is it your editor specifically?
Alex: I have a very small team. I've often worked with different editors, though they're usually people I know very well. It's someone I've worked with in some capacity. Because obviously the editor and I are working, day in, day out, the most closely together. We're building a film together. That being said, my research and archival team is very tight knit. I do a lot of research. I literally work with a laptop on my lap. Because the stories are always breaking and we want to be ahead of them. And then my sources are extremely important to me. Many of them are not known. We're pretty good with encryption, as good as anyone can be. But we're good at keeping a low profile and I've been good so far at keeping my sources protected. Especially on Deep Web, we had some very high level sources that were obviously not in the film that I was getting information from that I needed to keep protected. And in this case it was a question of gaining trust from the journalists who, many of whom were still under threat when we were shooting [that film]. And then, of course Daphne [Caruana Galizia]'s death and dealing with the Galizia Family and all of that. So it's kind of a mixed bag. Though obviously, creatively, the real double act is me and editorial.
Are you afraid or concerned for your own safety by being someone who, although you're just a filmmaker, it's still related to the people who are now under threat from the forces that be?
Alex: I haven't been… For the simple reason that I am very careful. I travel everywhere other than to the countries where I'm concerned I won't get out, or even greedily, that the media won't get out. The threat to you as a filmmaker can come from surprising places. I was more concerned on Deep Web than I was on Panama Papers because pretty much everything I was describing had been covered extensively in the news already. So I wasn't breaking stories in that way. I'm amplifying them, but there's a lot of people who are going to be amplifying. People are making documentaries just about Daphne now and, it's going to be out there all the time. I'm hardly the only person shining a magnifying glass on the state capture of Malta.
Alex: But working on Deep Web, I was dealing with some hairy sources and I was dealing with some hairy implications. And it was very much a counter-narrative and it wasn't a narrative that the government at the time, certain actors within the government, wanted exposed. And there were certain criminal elements as well. That was probably as close to the edge as I ever really wanted to get. I almost got arrested on another project, and that was surprising. I don't really want to get into that… But on Panama Papers, no, I didn't actually feel that way. Really, it was a story about journalists, at the end of the day. And the implications that I'm raising through the macro story are common sense. So I didn't really feel like I was shining a light on anything. And the other thing that we tend to do is — we're pretty equal opportunity in terms of exposing corruption. So it's not like I'm just picking on Russia or just picking on China. Frankly, the US and the UK are the two biggest offenders of this corruption in the world. And I'm not afraid of being hurt by [them].
For you personally, do you feel better suited as a director now? Is this something that you've always wanted to do — more than acting, more than writing…?
Alex: Well, I love to write and I'm always writing. We're writing a narrative show for HBO right now. So I never really let that go.
A feature show?
Alex: A one hour drama, yeah.
I've been making films since I was a little kid. And I was a child actor and then I saved up all my money from child acting and went to NYU Film School on my own dime. And then I came out of NYU Film School and acted in those movies while I was directing and building my career. And I stopped acting professionally as soon as I could pay my rent without acting. Though I love it, and it's fun, and I grew up doing it, and I have enormous respect for the art. In terms of personal, creative expression, I'm by far — I've always identified as a filmmaker since I was really young. And it's all I've ever really wanted to do. And the docs have been — while I do other things — the docs are incredibly satisfying, creatively. I was a film major and a photo minor at NYU. And I love photography. I love going out with just — my crews are really small. It's really like two photographers and a sound guy, me being one of them. So it is very much like doing photo missions or photo projects in a way. That's why, I hate the term so much, but that's why I love talking head interviews, which are being considered persona non grata in docs right now.
Well, not entirely…
Alex: Yeah. And I like portraits. I like human beings. I like seeing them talk. I like the way their faces look. I like watching them lie, and tell the truth. Call me old fashioned… So it's been a really great way to mix all of the things I like, which is narrative filmmaking, and photography, and these issues and real life events.
From my outside perspective watching what you do now, you seem not only more confident, but much more comfortable in this current era of your filmmaking career. And that's actually why I'm so excited for your films every time. It doesn't seem like you're struggling, you're doing exactly what you want all the time. I know it's a task to get everything completed…
Alex: Yeah, and they're staggered. They both get released at the same time. And the same thing's happening with Zappa and another one I'm starting. I'm sure they're probably going to to both come out at the same time, but I only made one at a time. Yeah, it's a funny thing. I've been around a long time. I've done a lot of assignment work. I've worked in advertising for 20 years. I had my own production company at one point.
You've done everything at this point?
Alex: But you have to…! My narrative focus has always been the same. I've always written the same types of stories. I've always worked on trying to tell the same types of stories. Where we are now in terms of the media, both with the sad reality of there being less mid-to-low budget for-adult independent films, and what happened with the burst of digital and all of these buyers moving from reality television into more boutique doc media, it's obviously a boon time for docs. So it's not always going to be the case, but at the moment it's easier for me to get funding for the type of stories I like to tell. It doesn't mean I haven't spent decades beating the bushes to try to tell these stories. I tried to get my first doc off the ground in 1994. I wanted to do a doc on Bill Laswell and the incredible music scene around him, and I had it setup with Channel 4. And it was very similar to Downloaded. It wasn't like I discovered this whole side of myself that I didn't know, there was just no market for that kind of documentary. So I was doing music videos and commercials and other things, I went back to doing my stuff. But the timing is good and I'll keep doing it until they don't let me anymore.
I don't want to open this door to this discussion because we could spend hours on this, but… Do you think Netflix and the streaming concept of more content is better is really better?
Alex: The thing about Napster that I think is really misunderstood, which I don't really care whether people understand it. It's not like I'm on a mission to get people to understand Napster. But — they weren't trying to flood the world with content. There was a curation component to that, but that was democratized. I remember talking to someone at Columbia Records in the late '90s, who were freaking out about Napster [at the time], but they said to me honestly, behind closed doors, we were able to complete our Coltrane library because of Napster. We were able to find extremely important pieces of his music that existed in different parts of the world that we did not know there were recordings of, that were meticulously well-recorded.
So, for all the ethical issues, and two kids being reckless, blah, blah, blah, all the obvious stuff, there was a democratized nature to the curation of that content. And the promise of what that could have been. That's never been made good on. What we have, albeit people are trying to fumble their way towards some form of a system. There is no real tangible business model to the current online distribution system. There isn't. Everyone has to fudge. They won't show you the data. They won't tell you how many people are watching what. They won't tell you whether subscription rates go up if they sell X or Y. Now, they're doing some amazing things, so I don't totally think they're all bad people. It's evolution. They have to do these things to get themselves to wherever they're going to get to. And everyone is trying to drive towards wherever they're going to go. So I don't disparage Netflix. They're doing some incredible work. And they've done things that I absolutely adore. And they're helping filmmakers and they're making some amazing stuff. However, we're not where we're going. And this idea that we've arrived is the misunderstanding. We haven't arrived. And everyone's bluffing a little bit. And they're hoping they can bluff long enough so they can get mechanisms in place that actually are functional. To be fair to Netflix, the film studios in the heyday did the same thing.
Alex: They made a ton of stuff. They threw it at the wall. If it didn't stick, it disappeared. Citizen Kane was a flop. Night of the Hunter was a flop. Arguably two of the greatest American films ever made, if not the two greatest American films ever made. So it's not wholly a new thing. Even in the heyday of the independent film scene, certain of the independent studio magnates who shall remain nameless till they are no longer under indictment were notorious for buying rafts of films and then just disappearing 80% of them, and then re-cutting the other 10%, and then putting out the last 10%. That's always been an issue. And so I don't have a particularly Pollyanna or rosy view of the past. I fought in the past, when we made Freaked we got caught up in a studio administration shuffle. We basically self-distributed a $13 million movie, which is equivalent of a $40 million movie today. So I have struggled with the old system doing unique or irreverent types of storytelling and realizing the difficulty of that. I think clutter-busting has always been a problem. I think, to your point, the internet is a noise floor unlike any other.
You've probably been asked this before… Does it bother you at all that you come from Bill & Ted roots? Yet it doesn't truly represent who you are today, as a filmmaker/storyteller?
It really doesn't [bother me]. I started acting professionally when I was eight, nine years old. I went to high school and I was that kid who was on Broadway, and I was tagged with that. I went to a regular suburban high school and played on the soccer team and stuff. And dealt with that as a kid. And then I completely quit the business and went to film school and came out and was just making shorts and commercials and stuff, and then Bill & Ted took off… And I was back in that thing again, where, oh you're known for this globally and it's not really who you are, but it's sort of your identity. But I'd had practice with that as a kid. And I'd gotten very at ease with the disparity of my private life and my public life.
I was well mentored. I was in "King and I" with Yul Brynner when I was really, really young. And worked very closely with him and he was incredibly helpful to me in terms of how to deal with the business and how to deal with reviews, how to deal with, when you walk outside and people want your autograph and you may be in a bad mood. I was in "Peter Pan" with Sandy Duncan for three years. And it was similar. I was in my early teens and through my teens. So I really saw how people who I admired dealt with that disparity. People who are a lot more famous than I am who have to deal with it. I look at Keanu [Reeves], who I've known for so long, and Keanu is a very private person. He's very solitary. People don't know him at all. The public, they fashion things, they create lives for him because they don't have any access to his life. And he deals with it really well. It's not like it's never stressful. I've never had a problem with the disparity. Perversely, one part of me I think actually likes it. If you want think of me as an idiot, hey, that's all good.
There's worse things to be known for…! Bill & Ted is awesome.
Alex: That's exactly what I was going to say! I have friends who have played villains in movies who, I'm not kidding, they get spat on in public. People hate them. Kids cry across the street when they're walking down the street. I have the exact opposite effect. I have little kids coming up and they tell you that you're their hero. You'd have to be really cynical for that to not be… It was a very sweet part of my life. I had a really good time doing it. We had a lot of fun. The people involved were very sincere. They were not easy films to make. They were hard. They had a lot of challenges. You're known as somebody that makes people happy, for some reason, even if it doesn't feel that connected to you, because I didn't write the movies, I just said my stuff. So I have a lot of affection for them and I have a lot of gratitude that I got to do them. So it's never really trickled into [anything else]. And let's put it this way, the first independent film I made after that period, which was Fever, was in Director's Fortnight at Cannes. I realized early that nobody who mattered cared. It wasn't like, well we can't have you in Cannes, you are the guy who plays the air guitar! [Laughs]
Will you get back to making narrative features again?
Alex: I'd like to. Yeah. My agent keeps telling me, "when are you going to stop just doing docs?" I mean, honestly, Alex, it's not easy. It's hard.
Narrative more so than these docs?
Alex: For me, right now, it's easier for me to get a doc off the ground than a narrative. And Downloaded started as a narrative and it went into turnaround and I wrote 90 drafts of it at Paramount and we couldn't get it made. And they just weren't making medium-to-low budget movies like that, at all. So I made a doc and I was very happy with that experience and wanted to keep going. But yes, I will make narrative features. I absolutely do want to do that. I don't want to do hired gun work. I've been a little slow, because I've done that sometimes just for fun or to experiment or play with things, but movies are a serious business. I don't want to step into that and do something I really don't like or I feel either ashamed of or not proud of.
And my taste is, not narrow, but it's specific. So finding the thing that I want to do that I think can actually get made… Oftentimes I'll go sell it as a one-hour. We've written several cable shows about pretty interesting things. But yeah, the short answer is: I would absolutely [make more] — we are looking at some stuff to do. I wrote a movie I was going to do as a narrative, a political film, all last year on spec, and then Trump got elected. And I can't say what the film is because I may circle back, and try to do it. But it obliterated what I had, because the political world has become so completely exploded by his entire administration that if you're writing something pre-Trump it has no relevance. But I'd like to find the right thing.
I feel like timing with political stuff right now is key, because this moment is so anomalous. But to your point, the benefit is if you make a good movie it'll stand the test of time and people 10 years later they'll go, oh we gave that movie a hard time because Trump had toxified the air. Because the story I wrote I actually do want to do at some point, but it feels downright quaint at this point. We had another show we wrote for the Russo Brothers about investigative journalists, dealing with the beltway, that also became completely impossible in the Trump era. So I'm not going to go down that road because that's just too fraught.
One last thing I want to ask is related to what we've been talking about, which is, your films don't present the internet as black or white, good or bad… But there's so much discussion nowadays about it being bad. Can the internet be used for good? Will, with more time, we see the positive impact of the internet changing the world for the better?
Alex: I think that the problem is — the way technology is [discussed] in the media, and the way it is not understood by the general media and the public, makes the narratives around technology very inaccurate. Meaning, and no offense to your question, but in a way it's not the right question. The question is really: will the general public and the general news media get to a point where they actually understand how much good the Internet has already done? Which is a vast amount of good. Vast. Incalculable.
Alex: Bad, yes of course. You know, we're human. We focus on Zuckerberg being an asshole. And we've been doing that since The Social Network. Which is a great movie. And sure enough, it turns out hey, guess what, he turned out to actually be an asshole. But all the people that I know that are complaining about Zuck are people who, and I'm not even on Facebook, who live on Facebook. Who have reconnected with their friends and their family and they all stay unified and they're in this global community, and their family lives and their connection to Instagram, are now second nature to them. They don't even think about it. And yet Zuckerberg is an asshole and they've done these horrible things. And that exemplifies the whole thing, which is that the internet just is a tool. And it can be used for good things and it can be used for bad things. If you're saying the internet is bad because of Zuck, while at the same time it has served you all these things from Google to the fact that it runs every single aspect of your life today, unless you literally live in a cave, then you're missing the whole point of technology. And that's kind of the theme of the Trust Machine doc.
Yeah, I understand. This is why I love your docs, and tech dogs in general. They're not saying, oh the internet is bad and this is it. It's rather — here is the internet, here's the good and the bad, here's all of it. Let's look at the impact it has had and then question further, as you've done with your films, how it affects individual people and how it affects the world.
And I want to know if your films can remind people that there is more going on here.
Alex: I think it does. I think that people are naturally inquisitive and that most people are actually incredibly smart. And you realize that, there's a prevailing narrative and then there's an under-narrative. Not even a counter-narrative. Just what's underneath the prevailing narrative. I always find that the people who are writing me, at the festivals, or whatever, they're getting it. I'm not blowing their minds, but it's human. Movies are good at giving a human way in to something, better than reading a magazine in some ways. Showing you the human people involved, the implications. I think people do get it. I think that you walk away and go "oh". It's nuanced. It may be, "I don't totally understand," which is okay. But I think people do get it. I'm really not trying to create a revolution. I don't care whether we have these movies — I'm sure my financiers would love it — that have some kind of massive zeitgeisty movement. The zeitgeisty movement, if I was making tech docs, would absolutely to be negative. Because everyone loves the Frankenstein story. They love it. They can't get enough of it. A.I.'s going to kill everybody. Robots are going to kill everybody. Military technology is going to kill everybody. That's like feeding chum to the sharks. And I will never do that. But by the same token, I do believe that if a handful of people get some sense of it, they get a little less biased. If they get a little bit less programmed to that kind of prevailing narrative, that's a good thing.
Yep. When I heard you say that during the Q&A at IDFA, I was thinking, I hope this is true.
Alex: It tends to be my experience. Most people are really smart and they'll be like, oh I didn't realize that, or "wow, Shawn Fanning's such an interesting person." Yes, he really is. I still have problems with certain things he did, but I think he's a really interesting guy. Ross Ulbricht is in jail, likely for the rest of his life, he committed crimes. I'm not saying he didn't, but it's really fascinating what he created. Let's have a look at it.
Thank you to Alex Winter for his time. And to Sunshine Sachs for coordinating the interview.
Alex Winter's latest documentaries are out now - Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain (official website) is on Breaker.io; and The Panama Papers (official website) is on Epix / Hulu / Amazon. Watch them both.