Alex Winter on documenting journalistic coup the Panama Papers and re-uniting with Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted 3
Best known for his titular role in the Bill & Ted movies, Alex Winter is now an acclaimed documentary film-maker. The Panama Papers reveals how in 2016 an international team of journalists exposed a global off-shore tax evasion industry worth billions of dollars using information gleaned from a massive data leak at Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story resulted in high profile political downfalls, arrests and murder. David Roy quizzed Winter about this Docs Ireland selection
HI ALEX, congratulations on The Panama Papers. Why did you want to make this film?
A company approached me with inside access to some of the journalists involved [in breaking the Panama Papers]. I already had other journalistic contacts from short documentaries I'd made about the threat to journalism in the pre-Trump world, so I figured I would actually have a pretty good shot at capturing a kind of personal 'inside view' of what it was like to break this story.
The Panama Papers story broke in April 2016 and involved almost 400 reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, US investigative journalism outfit McClatchy, German independent newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and others working together in absolute secrecy. Was that part of the appeal for you as a film-maker?
When I approach a doc, I'm usually looking for stories of some kind of cultural or political significance that I don't feel has been told, or a perspective that I think is important that hasn't been told.
The Panama Papers was a very important story which broke around the world and was in a lot of outlets – but it still felt like the average citizen didn't know the full story of the risk the journalists took to break that story and the threat against them, or of course the significance of the papers themselves in terms of income inequality and what they meant.
It didn't help that the whole thing was also incredibly confusing – it was such a vast, complicated matter that people's heads kind of melted. Docs can be a good way of distilling things and I come from a narrative background, so I'm always looking for a very firm three-act structure that can be absorbed like a narrative film would be absorbed.
I make movies that I want people to watch 20 years from now – I don't want to just make something that has a topical buzz and then vanishes.
Given the political subterfuge, murder and other criminality involved, The Panama Papers plays almost like a thriller – presumably that was intentional?
Yeah, my influences going into the film were people like John Le Carré and Frederick Forsythe's novel Day of The Jackal. Their stories are deceptive, because they feel like 'A+B=C' but there's kind of an undercurrent of suspense that's kind of pulling the whole thing along.
The narrative agenda was always to make a political thriller in the 21st century. The 'bad guys' are using this online network around the world to create this system of corruption and the 'good guys', the journalists, were creating pretty sophisticated tech in order to get the story – but they are still just people.
I wanted to show that, even though we're in this very new world of technology, behind each keyboard is still a human being operating pretty much the same way human beings have always operated. The journalists are still sniffing things out like the bloodhounds they've always been.
Donald Trump was named in the Panama Papers along with scores of other rich and powerful people, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Icelandic PM – both of whom subsequently resigned – and media moguls whose major publications refused the story when approached by the whistleblower, John Doe.
Yeah, I call it the Murder on The Orient Express – where everybody is guilty. And Trump becoming president amplified my desire to tell this story... he's the living embodiment of the heart of the problem.
How quickly were you able to start shooting?
Very. I have a nimble team and we're used to working on stories that have just broken as well as stories that haven't broken and require some degree of secrecy and caution. So we were able to access our sources and dig in immediately.
We had to exercise caution with certain sources we were dealing with because there was a lot about the papers that was still breaking – a lot of the reporters were already working on the Paradise Papers [the 2017 leak exposing more offshore-related tax avoidance] – and of course, Daphne [Caruana Galizia, Maltese reporter covering the Panama Papers story] was assassinated while we were filming.
This was your third tech-related doc following the Napster film Downloaded and the Silk Road/bitcoin focused Deep Web. Those and your most recent film, Trust Machine: The Story Of Blockchain, all involve the issue of online security. Why the fascination?
There's a false sense of security with technology. I think people are learning in the wake of the Sony hack and the Panama Papers that you are not more secure and more anonymous in the digital age – you are much more exposed than you've ever been.
But the upside for journalists and law enforcement is that the internet is a horrendous place to commit crime, because you are leaving a digital fingerprint that will never go away – and the slightest human failing will get you caught.
What's your next documentary?
We're just wrapping up on my film Zappa. To me, Frank Zappa is a hero – but he also has a lot of negative aspects that are not so likeable that the film doesn't shy away from. He was a very complicated person who lived at such an amazing time in American history: he's fighting the Senate for censorship while he himself is struggling to be heard as an artist and struggling personally with finding his identity in a new world – these are all just really great themes for a doc.
Finally, what's happening with Bill & Ted Face The Music?
I'm in heavy prep on that and have been for the better part of the year. I'll be leaving to start filming in about a week-and-a-half, so it's all go at the moment.
Even though I stopped acting professionally in '93, I've continued to train. I've been acting since I was eight years old and it's something I care about quite a bit – so I'm very much looking forward to coming back into that world again.
:: The Panama Papers, Sunday June 16, QFT Belfast, 4pm. There will be a post-screening interview with Irish Times Panama Papers journalist Colm Keena conducted by former Irish News journalist Barry McCaffrey. Tickets £6/£4 via Queensfilmtheatre.com
THREE TO SEE AT DOCS IRELAND
:: DIEGO MARADONA (June 13, Odeon Belfast)
Asif Kapadia, director of the critically acclaimed Senna and Amy, is back with another highly anticipated documentary profile, this time focusing on legendary and controversial Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona.
:: FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN (June 14, Odeon Belfast)
Don Argott and Sheena M Joyce's documentary fuses interviews and archive footage with narrative scenes featuring Alec Baldwin as maverick motor mogul John Z DeLorean, creator of one of the most distinctive cars of all time, while covering the enigmatic automaker's rise to stardom and shocking fall from grace.
:: THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY (June 13, QFT Belfast)
Oscar-winner Alex Gibney investigates the rise and fall of Theranos, the one-time multibillion-dollar healthcare company founded by Elizabeth Holmes.
:: Tickets and full programme information available at Belfastfilmfestival.org