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The story behind Napster: an interview with Alex Winter
Next month, the North Texas Daily will be in Austin, covering the South by Southwest Film Festival. One of the many films premiering is Alex Winter’s “Downloaded,” a documentary about the rise and fall of the world-changing company Napster and the start of a digital revolution.
The documentary provides firsthand accounts from its controversial pioneers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, as well as detailed perspectives from music artists such as Mike D of The Beastie Boys, Henry Rollins and DJ Spooky.
Winter, known for his role as Bill S. Preston in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), has been directing films ever since Joel Schumacher’s cult hit “The Lost Boys” (1987). Since then, he’s directed such films as “Freaked” (1993), “Fever“ and several TV series’ episodes.
The North Texas Daily recently spoke with Winter about working on “Downloaded” and how Fanning and Parker’s story impacted him.
Were you taken with Napster when it first appeared?
“I was completely hooked from the minute it appeared to the minute it went offline. I was 100% hooked. It was a very big, profound moment for me in my own cultural history. I lived through the shift from analog to digital and all these other ways. I’d been on the Internet for almost 10 years by the time Napster came along. It was a fast leap forward in the way that we did everything. There had never been an Internet community before. On every conceivable level it was a humongous leap forward from where we were before.”
When did you first approach Fanning and Parker about telling their story, and how did you get everyone to agree to do the documentary?
“In 2002, when Napster was still going but pretty much dead. I pitched them a way to tell their story. I knew a lot about it because it was an interest of mine. You know, we all came to an agreement and I sold it to a major studio. I was going to do it as a regular narrative movie. I wrote it and it just didn’t get made. I’ve done major studio stuff before and some of it gets made, some of it doesn’t. I figured this is one that wasn’t going to get done so I moved on.
Some years later, I kind of looked around and realized that none of the issues that were kind of kicked off by the Napster era and the rest of the digital revolution that came up around that time were not only unresolved, but they seemed to have been getting worse. I thought rather than doing it as a narrative, why don’t I do it as a documentary and use all the actual people that I met while I was writing my narrative, and let them tell the story themselves and give a voice to all the sides of this debate.”
Did they seem to show immediate trust with you about doing the film?
“Yeah. I think Fanning and Parker both knew that I had their best interest at heart. I do like those guys. I like the people from the record industry, too. I think people realized that I wasn’t setting out to make a polemic that was going to take a potshot at either side. There’s enough of that going around already. So I did garner some trust. I was mindful that I didn’t really want to tell that kind of story.”
Because there are so many sides to this story – how did you go about balancing the different perspectives? Did it require a lot of careful planning?
“Yes! [Laughs] It was not easy. It really wasn’t. One of the things I said to my editor, Jacob Craycroft who cut the film— you know, editors are a very big part of building a documentary— and one of the things I said to Jacob was just, ‘please, if you see me exerting too much of my own opinion just slap me upside the head.’ I really wanted it to be balanced because I wanted to give voice to all these sides and get my own opinion out of it as much as possible. So, it wasn’t easy. It was a very complex thing to cut because we had a lot of material— and a lot of people had very strong opinions. But it was fun. I won’t say it wasn’t enjoyable; it was just very challenging.”
With all this technology today, we have desire for everything to be instantaneous. If we want to watch a movie, we watch it on Netflix or Video On Demand, which has hurt video store companies, like Blockbuster. Since Napster sort-of spawned this digital revolution, do you think movie theaters will diminish?
“I don’t think so, for the simple reason that from the dawn of civilized man we’ve been gathering to watch stories be told. And I think that— you know, we certainly don’t get into this in the movie— but personally I feel that we live in a multiplatform world. I think one of the hardest things for the people from the old paradigm to get their heads around is that there is room for more than one way to get your information, to get your media, to talk to people. It isn’t just about movies and music; it’s about so much more than that. If you look at Arab Spring and wikileaks and all the other controversies going on right now that are all spawned by Internet transparency. So, I think that a lot is still going to change. I do think that certain businesses are going to have to adapt much better than they have so far, or they will just be replaced. But do I think that people will go sit in a room and watch stuff? Absolutely. I think they will do that for forever.”
“Downloaded” can be seen at the Paramount Theater, Sunday, March 10th, in Austin at SXSW.