Napster is perhaps the most infamous rise-and-fall story of the dot-com age, but with his new documentary “Downloaded,” actor-director Alex Winter retells the saga you thought you knew with fascinating details from the people who lived it.
Best known as Bill S. Preston Esq. from the popular 1989 movie “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Winter steps behind the camera to recount the birth, phenomenon and subsequent dismantling of the controversial file-sharing service. The doc includes interviews with Napster creators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the moguls who dumped millions into the venture, the lawyers who defended it, the record executives who loathed it, the musicians who feared it and many more.
On June 24, Winter will appear at Philadelphia’s Awesome Fest for a double-feature screening of “Downloaded” and his classic ’80s adventure “Bill & Ted.” I recently caught up with the filmmaker to discuss the new film and reflect on his past as a most excellent time-traveler.
David Onda: Why did you decide to make this documentary “Downloaded”?
Alex Winter: I was just really into technology back in the day. Just as a layman, I was interested in sort of burgeoning Internet communities showing up online. That was in the early ’90s, and then when Napster showed up in the late ’90s, it was still the age of dial-up and very little had really moved forward. Despite AOL and a lot of other things coming along that made the Net more ubiquitous, it was still incredibly slow and unstable, and any kind of Internet community was incredibly unstable and clunky. So, Napster was just such a fluid and robust and fast Internet community – it just exploded out of nowhere. And then, obviously, all the stuff that happened legally as it became clear what a legal minefield it was, and then I started paying attention to the story on a cultural level. Watching what was going on with Fanning and Parker really felt like these two unwitting kids, teenagers, were sort of at the middle of a big, global paradigm shift and didn’t know what hit ’em. It really struck me as in interesting story to tell, and that’s why I approached them to tell their story way back in 2002.
Onda: It’s amazing that the Napster debate still continues. Do you stand on either side?
Winter: Not really, no. Part of my reason for making the movie was that I thought the whole thing got turned into this divisive fight between the pros and the cons, you know? I’ve never seen the situation as being that simple, because that presupposes that all the people who are pro-Napster are pro-piracy or pro-free or pro-all the negatives that get thrown at Napster. It also presupposes that everybody who is “anti” is sort of anti-technology or anti-innovation and like all of these other negatives, right?
Winter: I think both of those ways of looking at it are completely inaccurate and unfair to both sides. I think the reality of where we’re sitting is that the world is going through a lot of really big and, often painful, but largely positive changes. And these are growing pains and we all need to work together and make sure that everybody is adequately taken care of as these things happen. I think the worst thing we can do is to break off into these two imagined camps and just throw rocks at each other, which is largely what’s happened for the last 12 years.
Onda: Do you find it ironic that this documentary focuses on music’s impact on the world, while Bill and Ted also created music that one day saves the world?
Winter: I don’t make too many parallels between those movies, I have to say. But, I mean, I like music, if that’s enough of a thread to connect them for you. [laughs] But, not actually being that character, it’s, you know…
Onda: When you’re out trying to promote something serious like this documentary, does your notoriety from the “Bill & Ted” cause frustration for you? Do you find it hard to escape that?
Winter: No. Actually, other than this Awesome Fest, where it seems to have become inextricably linked, I haven’t had it at all [laughs].
Onda: Honestly, that surprises me.
Winter: Yeah, because they’re showing the movies together, which may have been a mistake on my part to let happen, I’m getting bombarded with these kinds of questions. Honestly, for the last year I’ve been working on the movie, it has not come up at all. People ask me if I enjoyed working on [“Bill & Ted”], but it really hasn’t been an issue. They’re so radically different. I didn’t act in this, and, you know, I’m not actually Bill, so I don’t really have any philosophical connection between the two. My filmmaking world and my acting world have always been pretty separate. I enjoyed the movies. I don’t know what else to say. They were a lot of fun, but that’s kind of where it ends.
Onda: Well, I guess I won’t ask you if the Wyld Stallyns would have supported Napster.
Winter: [laughs] I don’t know, you would have to ask the writers. I can’t tell you. Those guys are so clueless they wouldn’t have known how to plug their computer into an Ethernet jack.
Onda: People have commonly stated that it’s hard to be sympathetic towards Napsters’ most vocal detractors, Dr. Dre and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, because they are millionaires complaining about losing money.
Winter: That’s true but, to be fair, that’s true of the other side as well. I’ve had more animosity thrown back at me because Parker and Fanning are millionaires. A lot of people who are anti-Napster just don’t like all these rich guys taking over the Internet – you know, like the Google guys, Fanning and Parker, people like that. You can really find a lot of aversion on all sides, and I think that’s why it’s incumbent upon people to sort of look at the gray, where you kind of go, “Okay, so Lars and Dre maybe are not the most sympathetic people in the world, but, by the same token, they may be speaking for a lot of artists who are too scared to say anything and don’t have any power.” You don’t know! I don’t know. I really don’t know the answer to that.
Onda: Why should movie fans check out “Downloaded”?
Winter: I think the cool thing about this movie is that it’s the first time we’ve had a documentary that tells the story of the birth of the world we live in today. You know, how we got our iPads, how we got our iPhones, how we moved information around on the Net – where this stuff started. Napster was absolutely at the very front of this revolution and I just think it’s a really important story to communicate the world we live in today.
See Alex Winter introduce an Awesome Fest double-feature screening of “Downloaded” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” at the Trocadero Theatre on June 24, starting at 8 p.m. “Downloaded” is open in select New York theaters now.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.