AMSTERDAM — At 53, Alex Winter has worn many hats in the entertainment industry, moving from the stage to screen and then finally behind the camera, helming indie oddities such as “Freaked” in 1993 and “Fever” in 1999. Latterly, however, he has proven himself a capable hand with non-fiction, and he arrived at IDFA with his third feature-length doc “The Panama Papers”, following the film’s world premiere at The Hamptons Intl. Film Festival in October.
Shot on an almost as-it-happened basis by Winter and his team, the action starts in 2016, when a (still) anonymous whistle-blower codenamed “John Doe”, voiced in the film by Elijah Wood, contacted German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with a cache of information relating to financial irregularities involving Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. From there, we see how Doe’s tip-off became a huge global scandal, as the ICIJ – the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – began chasing down Doe’s leads, uncovering shady deals at the highest levels, leading variously to murder, impeachment and, perhaps the most eye-opening suggestion, possibly even Brexit.
Variety spoke with Winter after the international premiere of his film, which screened in IDFA’s newly created Frontlight strand ahead of its U.S. rollout on Epix on Nov. 26.
Variety: How long have you been making documentaries?
Alex Winter: I’ve been making them since about 2010. I’d been making narrative films and other types of short-form films for decades – TV commercials and music videos and all that kind of thing. But I started making docs about 2010. I’m still doing other narrative work, obviously, but I’ve been continuously making docs since then. I made a doc about Napster called “Downloaded” , and went right into a doc about the dark net and the so-called black market called “Deep Web” (2015). I made some films for Laura Poitras’ Field of Vision – small, short political films – then I did “The Panama Papers”, and I’ve done another one on block chain cryptography, which is coming out in March. Then I’m working on a very big Frank Zappa project, which is probably about a year away.
What drew you into the doc world?
I’m very interested in people, and I’m very interested in topical stories, often politically oriented, or culturally oriented. Even when I’m writing narrative, I’m doing interviews with people. I’ve written several things for TV that, even if they’re fictionalised, involved real events and real people. So I’m often out doing research, and when I started working on the Napster story, it was all the way back when Napster was still happening. I met the Napster people, and I started interviewing the record label people, and people in law, and all aspects of that story. I was writing a narrative feature at that time. I sold it to Paramount and I was going to do it as an independent film, but it went into turnaround. I had an enormous amount of research, and it was very easy to convert that into a doc. It was a story I wanted to tell, and it was actually surprisingly easy to sell it as a doc. And I enjoyed the process so much, I wanted to keep going.
What’s the appeal?
I’m not always telling you stories about people that I think are heroic. In fact, the thing I like about documentaries is that they aren’t one-sided. With docs, you’re really able to create nuance and tell stories that aren’t black or white. In the case of Napster, there were things about Napster I thought were extremely important. There were things about Napster that were absolutely reckless and indefensible, and I was able to show both those things, without having to create villains or heroes out of the protagonist, which I very much like because it’s much more like real life. “Deep Web” was about someone who created a criminal enterprise on the internet, and there were aspects of it that were politically motivated and there were aspects of it that were simply criminal. We were able to show both.
Laura Poitras is a executive producer on “The Panama Papers”. How did you get to know her?
I’m a great fan of her work, and we had mutual associates. It’s a very small world, the doc world, and I made it known to them that I’d like to do some films for Field of Vision. I very much like what they’re doing over there, and so I made a couple of pieces. I had exclusive access to a journalist named Barrett Brown, who was in jail at the time. He had been put in jail for about four years, primarily on mostly trumped-up charges, because he was exposing corruption within government military contractor companies, and that was frowned upon. So I made a short film [called “Relatively Free”, 2016] about him coming out of jail, examining what the headspace was of someone who was basically jailed for journalism but still had affiliations with computer activists and some of the more aggressive radical activists that I’m also interested in. It was a subject I found important and fascinating – and murky. So Laura and I became friends on those projects, and when I set about telling this story I did contact her to see if she wanted to be involved, because I really respect her aesthetic sensibilities and I knew she’d be helpful to the film, which she really was. And [Field of Vision co-creator] Charlotte Cook was also incredibly helpful. I knew Charlotte from Hot Docs [Festival in Toronto] and she just has great taste. The two of them together have built something extraordinary.
So what led you to make a film about the Panama Papers?
Well, when the story broke it was evident that it had just enormous significance on two levels. One was what it had exposed, which was systemic corruption. It wasn’t really about rich people hiding their money, it was about the fact that we essentially live in an aristocracy – a corrupt aristocracy – and that this money wasn’t just their own money that they were hiding, it was really society’s money that they were stealing. That’s a really important point that I think is lost on a lot of people – it was being buried a lot of the time because everyone’s guilty. [Laughs] It’s like “Murder on the Orient Express.” So that was interesting to me, to try to shed some greater light on this via a doc.
What was the second level?
Docs are about people, and this had an incredible human story of unprecedented coordination between journalists that had never happened to that degree before, where they were working with competing outlets around the world in secret together, sharing sources, sharing their information, not just siloed and working on one story, but in siloed units. It was a free-flowing community. So, that was extremely interesting to me on a human level. It had the added bonus of having this technological component that I’m very familiar with, which is that the ICIJ essentially had to build a peer-to-peer, centralized network for them to communicate encrypted, which is almost the same type of system that [Napster developer] Sean Fanning invented 20 some odd years prior, which I’m very familiar with. So it really hit a lot of areas of interest for me.
Where did you start?
Research. You kind of go on two tracks at once. You start compiling all the information you possibly can, and then you start reaching out to all the core people and gaining their trust and getting inside, so that you can get exclusive access to the people that matter and then you just start spending time with them, with cameras, which is what we did.
What kind of crew were you using?
I had my team. I mean, I have a production company, with researchers, archivists, production co-ordinators and so on, and we all kind of work as a hive mind. Really, a doc is made mostly by me and the editor, so, I was working very closely with my editor Wes [Cadwell]. My team is relatively small, but they’re all very experienced doc people, or production people, and we worked pretty nimbly. When I’m shooting I take almost nobody with me. I keep a very, very small footprint. I find you get much better interviews out of your subjects, if you don’t roll in like you’re Ridley Scott making a giant Hollywood film.
How did you decide which kind of areas to focus on? It seems that every global area has their local point of interest…
Yeah, exactly right. I mean there are probably 12 movies here, if not 376 – one for each journalist. For me, I had a film in my head, which was basically an ensemble political thriller. We’re chasing an idea that these journalists eventually arrive at, and I didn’t want to front-load this revelation, which is the systemic nature of this corruption. I wanted it to be a point of discovery for the audience, as it was for the journalists. Slowly we have this revelation that, oh, we live in a global kleptocracy, and it was a stark moment for all of them. It was a stark moment for me. Everyone who worked on this story had that moment where the light bulb goes off, and that was what really helped me shape it. I wasn’t trying to tell every story. I wanted to make an ensemble thriller where the core characters really were the journalists and there was this hidden, unspoken bad presence out there that they were trying to wrap their arms around.
Did that bad presence ever come after you? Did you ever feel uncomfortable or in danger?
Uncomfortable, yes. In danger? I didn’t feel like I was in danger. I was very cautious, though. We kept the film completely secret. All of our data was encrypted, all of our drives, all of our editorial gear was encrypted, all of our communications were encrypted. Nobody knew we were making it. There was no public announcement that we were making it and I had sources that aren’t on camera that I was using to verify certain information. I was uncomfortable a couple of times, in a couple of countries that shall remain nameless, but I never felt under threat. I felt more under threat working on other films, frankly, than I did on this one, because the journalists were the ones taking the risks. It wasn’t me – I was just a fly on the wall.