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To a generation of fans around the world, he’ll forever be San Dimas’ epic air-guitaring airhead William (Bill) S. Preston Esq., one-half of the greatest band of all time with Ted “Theodore” Logan: Wyld Stallyns. But more than a quarter-century on from their last bogus journey, Alex Winter has moved in a slightly more serious direction, carving out a niche as a director behind investigative documentaries.
Having explored the impact of file-sharing on the music industry in Downloaded, the rise and fall of the dark web marketplace Silk Road in Deep Web and the cryptocurrency revolution in Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, Winter turned his attention to one of the biggest corruption scandals — and data leaks — of all time. The Panama Papers (which is airing on Epix this month and being shopped internationally at AFM by Great Point Media) chronicles the story of the 11.5 million documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in 2015 and the nearly 400 journalists from around the world — the largest coordinated act of journalism in history — who would work together in secret to eventually expose how politicians, celebrities and criminals have for years used secretive offshore tax regimes to hide trillions of dollars of assets.
Winter, 53, talked to THR about his hope that his documentary will generate the necessary public outrage by highlighting one key takeaway: how tax avoidance by the one percent directly impacts everyday citizens. And, because it would be rude not to, he also talks about getting the band back together with Keanu Reeves for the decade-in-the-making third Bill and Ted film, Face the Music.
Is yours the first film about the Panama Papers?
There hasn’t been a full cinematic documentary, or even a film, made about this yet. We’re going to get a few narratives coming out soon. I think there needs to be some awareness, and films help that. But we’re the first to get our arms around the global story and get it out in a cinematic doc, which is exciting.
Why did this particular subject interest you?
I knew the story very, very well — I followed it closely and have done other docs in the journalist and whistle-blower space around the idea of data leaks. So it was at the nexus of issues that interested me, and I also felt that the story hadn’t really clicked for a lot of the public, because it’s vast and complicated. And it was somewhat repressed because the villains are not on the left or right politically, they’re both.
Was there any feeling that, for all the shocking revelations that came out of the Panama Papers, they haven’t caused as much outrage as one might have expected?
I think that it’s going to take time for the general public to understand that they’ve been hoodwinked by the propaganda that the rich not paying taxes does not directly impact the general population. Which it does. That’s the vital takeaway that people need to accept. If you don’t have health care, if you don’t have access to education, if you don’t have access to clean water, that’s fundamentally due to this kleptocratic system we have. It is a direct result of that system, in which tens of trillions of dollars are funneled out of the public’s access. I think the vast scope of the story is absolutely impressive as it was, but it made it a little difficult for the public to grasp what the takeaway was. And I think documentaries are very good at distilling that.
Getting Elijah Wood on board to narrate as the whistle-blower was a nice touch. How did that happen?
Elijah’s a friend of mine, we acted together in a film called Grand Piano, which was Damian Chazelle’s first screenplay. I was looking for someone to voice John Doe, and I wanted someone who didn’t sound like the voice of God. A lot of great voices do. Elijah has a great voice, but I knew that he would sound like a person and not some grand authority.
Are you planning something lighter for your next documentary?
It’s a slightly lighter tone, thank god. It’s a big, expansive doc on Frank Zappa, which has never been done before, largely because the family has never sanctioned it. We’ve been granted access to his vault — you’re afraid you won’t come out! But he was a painstaking archivist. And this is material that has never been seen.
I can’t not ask about Bill & Ted. Is Face the Music actually, definitely happening?
Well, we’re in pre-prep and are set to shoot in early 2019. So right now, all systems are go. My old line when Blockbuster was in business was that I’d never believe a film was a go until the video was at Blockbuster. But I don’t know what to say anymore … Netflix?
Given how long it’s been talked about, did you think the film would ever happen?
The idea was hatched by the four of us about 10 years ago – Keanu and myself and Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. It didn’t happen without a lot of work. Most films aren’t easy, but a comedy sequel 25 years later wasn’t a slam dunk for most studios. While they loved the script it took us time to convince the financiers. And when they came on board they really came on board. And you know, they’ve had plenty of time to make the script great. The upside of it taking so long is the script is really good!
Does it feel strange to be skipping from the world of The Panama Papers and serious documentary-making, to Bill S. Preston Esq?
The funny thing is, I was a very serious film student at NYU before I’d acted. I’d always wanted to write and direct, so I went away and studied and then came out to L.A. and acting was my day job. I was just very lucky to land some really big projects. I don’t have any trouble turning off that side of my brain when I go to act. And there’s something about playing Bill that is so playful, it’s almost kind of a balm to all of the seriousness of the work that I’ve been doing, and also the world we’re living in. The characters are like 9 years old, mentally. So there’s an innocence to them that’s very genuine and I’m really looking forward to hiding from the world in that character for a few months.
What was the reaction when Face the Music was formally announced?
It was an interesting litmus test. But the fan response has been enormous. It helped us get the financing because there was an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea of us doing this. Even in the age of internet comment trolling, we haven’t really encountered any pervasive negativity. The concerns that I’ve encountered are totally valid — don’t screw up the tone of the first two, make it a real Bill & Ted movie. And the question of how you revisit these characters so much later, that I’m not concerned about, because we think the comedy works great. Not that I want the film to stall any longer, but in a way, given the plotline, the older we get the funnier it gets.
Do people still shout out Bill & Ted lines at you?
Daily. Honestly, my kids are so used to it they don’t think of it.
What do they think of the films?
My kids think I’m a titanic dork.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.
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