To many, Alex Winter is still first and foremost Bill S. Preston from the Bill & Ted movies. I also will always associate him with Freaked, a weird but hilarious movie he co-directed and starred in that I watched a ton while in high school. For the last five years, however, Winter has made a significant new name for himself as a documentary filmmaker.
He’s not exclusive to the nonfiction mode (he also helmed Smosh: The Movie a few years back and regularly directs for television), yet his tech doc trilogy of Downloaded (about Napster), Deep Web, and this year’s Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain has established him as a major figure in the documentary world.
Lately, he’s been working with Laura Poitras and Field of Vision on more political and journalism-focused films, helming short docs such as Relatively Free and Trump’s Lobby plus the new feature The Panama Papers, which is about the documents leaked in 2015 exposing scandals involving shell companies and other offshore entities. He’s currently making a doc about Frank Zappa.
I recently got on the phone with Winter to discuss his move into nonfiction, what he loves about documentaries, and which specific documentaries he loves and would recommend to others.
Why did you turn to documentary filmmaking?
“I did some documentary-based commercial work, so it wasn’t totally alien to me, but I fell into it somewhat accidentally. I was working on a film for Paramount about Napster. I was very interested in the story and sought them out and acquired their life rights and sold that as a narrative film. This was when Napster was just shutting down in the early 2000s.
“I wrote many drafts, and then the entire division that I was making it for was fired. I found myself in a kind of turnaround black hole and I tried to get it made as an independent, but there weren’t a lot of independent movies being made anymore. I tried to make a doc out of it because I had done so much research to write the script and I knew everybody and I was able to sell it as a documentary.
“I so enjoyed the process. And it was so liberating to the story. The story was so much better as a documentary than it was going to be as a narrative. I just found myself sitting and talking to [Shawn] Fanning and the other people involved and being like, well, this is really the whole thing. It’s what docs can do, all that nuance and all the grey areas and to not have to get stuck in the sometimes more didactic area of the narrative that especially biographies can get into, where you have to fall on one side or the other.
“So I decided to just stay in the space. I was really gratified by the experience and I wanted to keep making docs. I am doing other things. I tend to do stuff that still involves a real story, even if it’s a narrative involving a historical story or some kind of topical or historical component. But unless I can’t get any more made, I don’t intend to stop making documentaries, if I can keep getting them financed, because I really do love the form.”
With your first few features, you have become known for doing tech docs. Is that a preferred area of interest?
“It’s an interest of mine. Just as a layman, I was very involved in the early internet, that Usenet group era of the late ’80s, early ’90s. I came to know quite a lot of people in that space who were doing things. Artists and then the Cypherpunks and other people who were involved in certain internet movements. I’ve always been very interested in internet-based communities and what that’s been doing to broader society, that does interest me.
“I’ve made three tech docs, I intend to stop for a while. They’re all sort of about the same thing. They’re about the grey area of the very early days of the information age and the good, the bad and the ugly within that. The people who are trying to get things done even if it’s quixotic or sometimes misguided or criminal or what have you.”
What do you love about documentaries?
“I like how documentaries can get at the unspoken. I love interviews. I’ve been kind of dismayed by this recent disparagement of what everyone calls ‘talking heads,’ because I don’t intend to ever stop shooting people talking. I love what that does. And there’s just so much to watching someone’s face, not just having their voice over archival where you lose their eyes but watching their face where they may be saying one thing and meaning something completely different. They may be lying to you straight up. And you get so much from seeing them.
“As an audience member and as a filmmaker, that’s something that I really love about the form that you don’t find in narrative unless it’s been manipulated by the filmmaker in a very specific way. I love that aspect of docs. I think a lot of my favorite docs have that kind of depth to them and almost a kind of infinite quality of human nature that isn’t so one-sided.
“That was my process when I started working on Downloaded and I realized that I didn’t have to tell a black and white story. These guys did good things, they did bad things, they did things in between. But it wasn’t like you had to walk away with having checked one of those boxes. It was all of those answers are correct. Their story got at something deeper than the sum of its parts. That tends to be what I try to seek out with the docs that I do.
“I tend to make very different documentaries than the ones I love the most. I’m not sure what that says.”
Here are those documentaries that Winter loves the most:
Land Without Bread (Luis Bunuel, 1933)
“I love Land Without Bread, and Bunuel period, but I just love what he did with that.”
Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
“Obviously. My formal approach is so different from Wiseman’s, but that’s probably just because I can’t do what he does, because it’s magic. I think a lot of people have tried to get up on the log that Wiseman is on and rolled for maybe a quarter of a second before plunging into the river. He is probably the grand master of this form, and I do love what he does.”
Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972)
“I don’t make music docs, but I’m making this Zappa doc and I’m making it with almost all archival material and Robert Frank was one of my idols in photo school. It’s really one of my favorite docs because they just let people film, and he has such a good innate narrative sense that you really come away with a real sense of time and place. But also I love the kind of narrative arc of that film in terms of showing the level of decadence and the reaching for artistry, the kind of Sisyphean mission to make great art and not completely succumb. I just love that film, and I don’t think anyone will notice when they see Zappa, but it’s been something that’s been driving me while I work on Zappa.”
Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
“This had a big influence on me. I think it was one of the first times that I saw a documentary that felt like a movie. And not in a corny way. Not like someone was trying to be grandiose or elevate themselves or shift genres, but it just so beautifully blended the Direct Cinema that was occurring — the real-life stuff — with this kind of overarching sense of narrative. That was inspiring for me.”
Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
A.K. (Chris Marker, 1985)
“I grew up and was always a Chris Marker fan since I was really young. Sans Soleil, La Jetée, A.K. I love Chris Marker. He’s another person like Wiseman who I would never attempt to do what he does because it’s just not possible for average human beings, but it is really lovely and unique.”
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Marcel Ophuls, 1988)
“Growing up, I was very taken with Marcel Ophuls and the way he told stories. Hotel Terminus, specifically, had a very big impact on me. I felt like outwardly it pretended, in a way, to be this bog-standard TV-style documentary. ‘Here’s one side, here’s the other side, here’s the synthesis.’ But it’s a sneaky doc, and I kind of feel all of his films are this way where there’s a lot more going on than what you see on the surface. It’s a lot more playful. And he’ll let an unreliable narrator talk. That’s something that has been very influential for me.”
Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
America to Me (Steve James, 2018)
“I love Steve James. I love America to Me and Hoop Dreams, and I love The Interrupters. I love that movie so much. I actually pestered him once on the street to tell him what a big fan I was of that film.”
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
“Growing up, Herzog was one of the people who made me want to make films in the first place. I think I was 13 or 14 when I saw a double feature of Stroszek and… what was playing with it? I’m trying to remember. Anyway, Stroszek blew me away so hard I don’t even remember what the other film was. I became a really big Herzog fan when I was pretty young and love Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It’s always been a favorite of mine. Again, it’s a cliche to refer to him as idiosyncratic, but he has a very specific artistic and I would say social POV that I feel a real affinity towards.”
Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
“I love Decasia. I love Bill Morrison. One of my favorite filmmakers. Just kind of magic, what he does. I love Dawson City: Frozen Time so much. I was completely blindsided by that movie, it’s so beautiful. And I love Brakhage. When I was in school, I got to see him talk quite a bit. I love things that actually play with film itself.”
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)
“I’ve been working with Laura Poitras for the last few years, and Citizenfour had a big impact on me because of my own political activism, and I felt like someone was finally marrying a political point of view with an aesthetic point of view in a way that felt very natural. That was very inspiring.”
“There are so many. The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (Alexsandr Sokurov, 2008), The Gleaners & I (Agnes Varda, 2000), I could go on and on and on. But the ones I mentioned had a big impact for me for one reason or another and tend to be the roundup I recommend to other folks.”