Alex Winter has directed a number of movies and TV shows - stuff as diverse as Freaked and Ben 10 - but Downloaded marks his first attempt at a whole new form: the documentary. The subject is Shawn Fanning and the rise and fall of Napster, the original file sharing service, which really shook the culture in a big way. Winter was at one point going to make a narrative film about this - The Social Network, but for file sharing - but has instead gone the non-fiction route.
Watching Downloaded I was suddenly gripped by nostalgia. Napster really was unlike any other file sharing stuff. When I was using Napster I wasn't grabbing new releases, I was almost exclusively getting bizarre b-sides, obscure live tracks and strange cover versions. The way that Napster allowed me to poke around the libraries of people who had similar tastes expanded my musical consciousness in ways that no other service has been able to do. I have a much more diverse taste in music in 2013 because of Napster in 1999. Piracy is bad, etc, but Napster was something more than just piracy... or at least it was for some people.
Winter is going to be at the new Yonkers Alamo Drafthouse tonight showing Downloaded at 7. Be there! Buy tickets now! And stick around - he's also showing Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure at 10.
Why a documentary on Napster?
When Napster first showed up in 99 I was blown away by the whole service and what it represented in the bigger picture - what global changes were coming. They were becoming evident in the early 90s to the layman - I’ve always been interested in technology, but I’m not a hacker. I was interested in emerging technologies, and I was using them a lot for FX work, which I do in my directing work. We started using the internet that way early, late 80s, early 90s. But Napster was like the big giant event that upset everything. It was clearly about a lot more than the spin and media story, which was “Oh my god, people are using it to download Madonna tracks.” Which they were, to be sure, but that’s not what was interesting about it. We had the first global community where you had upwards of 60 million people simultaneously connected to each other, we had never seen that before. We had real time chat. We had people moving all kinds of stuff around quickly to each other. It wasn’t the reason [social media] happened, but Napster was first in the space. To me this is a really good example or allegory for the present day skirmishes we’re in around global culture, transparency, privacy, freedom of information on a much bigger level than file sharing. That’s why Napster.
When did you realize it was a documentary and not a narrative?
It was a messaging thing. I met Fanning in 2002, immersed myself in what was going on then, which was really the death throes of Napster and the beginning of what would become Snowcap, the company he founded after Napster in an attempt to solve the labyrinthine issue of copyright... which nobody has solved yet. He got smashed on those rocks. At that point I was really focused on trying to tell this extraordinary story that was happening in real time, but it was way too early to tell the story of a digital revolution while we were still in the digital revolution. I sold it to a studio and I wrote it there and it went into turnaround and I walked away from it. In about 09 I was still very close with all the Napster guys and the record company guys and the tech guys, and I was looking at a lot of these issues that were not only getting not resolved but were getting worse and more contentious and I thought we should tell the story. It was the perfect way into these issues. At this point I decided the messaging would be better as a doc than as a narrative, where you’re forced to focus more on interpersonal relationships and the soap opery aspects of the company. I wanted to clear all that away and focus primarily on these four or five brilliant guys, whether they were criminals, naive or disruptors - whatever you thought of them. Why they built what they built and what the experience was like and what the aftermath was on a more macro level than on a micro level.
You have a ton of narrative directing experience. How different is directing a documentary?
It’s completely different. [laughs] It was really fun, it was incredibly challenging. I had spent so much time writing the script that I had a pretty good idea what material would be interesting, so I used that script a template, but I had to throw that out at a certain point. I specifically did not hire a documentary editor. Jacob Craycroft has edited some docs, but mostly he’s done narrative for people like Altman. I still felt at heart that this was classically a dramatic story, and while it was a doc I wanted it to feel like a narrative on a certain level in terms of the rise/fall/rise of Fanning and the guys who built this thing.
Was this going to happen anyway? Was Fanning just the guy standing in front of the train?
No, it’s not that simple. Fanning was the train. That’s what I think doesn’t get understood, and I hope the film clears that up. You can certainly say that technology was moving in this direction, but you could say that about the incandescent light bulb and it took Edison to figure that out. You can’t really minimize Shawn’s genius, whether you like it or not. There’s no discounting the level of achievement that Napster was, and there’s nobody in the tech world who thinks Shawn Fanning was just at the right place at the right time. It took an enormous amount of coding brilliance, visionary know-how and of course lightning in a bottle that always has to happen. It was this one moment in time when all these brilliant guys fell together at once, all these guys that went on to run companies. These weren’t members of LULSEC that went on to DJ and work at Starbucks. These are brilliant guys. People who say there was file sharing before Napster - well, there was and there wasn’t. It was very hard to pull down any mp3 or form of media before Napster. It usually was unstable, took 12 hours at minimum, would often break in the middle. There was no social networking component at all. Nobody was bringing it all together in one big giant global community. And it didn’t work. What Shawn built was so ahead of its time that we still don’t have anything like it today. There’s nothing that exists that has the level of service Napster had in those days. You’d have to combine YouTube, iChat, Facebook, Spotify, iTunes store all together in one service that worked really fast. And it was back in the age of dial-up! There’s no service to find really weird, rare tracks that never been released - you could find it on Napster. It was an extraordinary resource for finding extraordinary content and likeminded people. We don’t live in that world today. We live in a mess.