Actor/writer/director Alex Winter will forever be remembered as Bill S. Preston, Esquire, in the 1989 comedy “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and its 1991 sequel, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” but the former St. Louisan has built an eclectic, respected career as a filmmaker in the 26 years since traveling through time for a history project.
Winter will receive the prestigious Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award after his documentary, “Deep Web,” kicks off the St. Louis International Film Festival on Thursday. It will be shown at 7:30 p.m. following an Opening Night Reception at 6 p.m. at the Tivoli Theatre.
He will also appear at a screening of the wildly popular cult classic ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” at 9:45 p.m. Friday, and his acclaimed 2013 documentary, “Downloaded,” which is about Napster and the digital revolution, at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, both at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis.
“Deep Web” is the inside story of one of the most riveting digital crime sagas of the century — the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, the 30-year-old entrepreneur who was accused of being “Dread Pirate Roberts” as the creator and operator of the online black market Silk Road.
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The only film with exclusive access to the Ulbricht family explores how the brightest minds and thought leaders behind the so-called Deep Web are now in a battle for control of a future linked to technology, with digital rights hanging in the balance.
Variety described “Deep Web” as “equal parts eye-opening backgrounder, cautionary chronicle and impassioned plea for the defense.”
I grew up in a very artistic household. Being creative was the more normal path. There was always stuff being made — dance, art. I lived on the Wash U. campus, being around all the artists. It was very inspiring. I remember making movies when I was 6, 7 and 8, and I kind of didn’t stop. I never knew anything else.
Alex Winter on early influences
A finalist for a distinguished Cinema Eye Honors Award, the film is produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, Winter’s good friend since they portrayed Bill and Ted.
“We are very close. We keep an eye on each other’s work. He looks at stuff I’m working on, and I look at what he’s working on,” he said during a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives.
As executive producer, Reeves was more involved in the project. “When we were watching it, and I was editing it, I realized he would be great as the narrator, and he did a fantastic job. He’s a very, very hard worker,” he said.
Their careers took off after playing the high school best buddies-wannabe rockers, with Winter even starring in a TV show based on the movie. While he has fond memories of those experiences, he is recognized for much more than the stoner comedy, he said.
These days, film fans don’t immediately shout “Party on, dudes!” or “Be excellent to each other” or “Whoa!” when they see him.
“It’s not something in my face on a daily basis,” he said.
His 1993 science fiction-horror-comedy “Freaked,” which he co-wrote and co-directed with his college pal-collaborator Tom Stern, is revered as another cult classic.
“The film has traveled and stayed alive,” he said.
Another feature he wrote and directed, “Fever,” a 1998 dark tale starring Henry Thomas and Teri Hatcher, was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
His work on Cartoon Network, where he voiced the Adult Swim character the King Mole Man and on “Robot Chicken,” and MTV’s “The Idiot Box,” a sketch comedy series he developed with Stern, was also highly regarded.
A graduate of New York University’s film school, Winter was interested in making movies at a very young age.
“Acting was a lot of fun, but I was more interested in writing and directing. I am very grateful to do the things I have done,” he said.
The son of two modern dancers, Winter moved to St. Louis when he was 5. His mother, Gregg Mayer, taught dance at Washington University, and his father, Ross Winter, co-founded the Mid America Dance Company, now Madco.
His parents’ influence, no doubt, helped shape his career.
“I grew up in a very artistic household. Being creative was the more normal path. There was always stuff being made — dance, art. I lived on the Wash U. campus, being around all the artists. It was very inspiring. I remember making movies when I was 6, 7 and 8, and I kind of didn’t stop. I never knew anything else,” he said.
At 13, he moved to New York City and appeared on Broadway in “The King and I” with Yul Brynner and “Peter Pan” with Sandy Duncan. He also starred in “Oliver!” at the Muny Opera in 1976 with Vincent Price as Fagin.
“The Muny is enormous, a much bigger stage than on Broadway. It was really magical,” he said, recalling that experience.
While he doesn’t rule out a return to the stage, his career headed in a different direction.
“Theater is a really wonderful experience, and I had the time to do it. It’s a big commitment,” he said.
His movie career took off with “The Lost Boys” in 1987.
Today, he runs his own production company, and has accrued an impressive portfolio, including commercials for clients like Google, Ford, Peugeot, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Nickelodeon and 1800 Tequila.
He previously worked with a number of bands on music videos, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Extreme and Helmet.
“The business has changed considerably. The networks stopped playing them and shifted into reality TV,” he said.
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He is thrilled to be honored at SLIFF, and has been pleased with the reception of “Deep Web” at festivals all over the world.
“We’ve been included in probably 50, and I’ve been to at least a dozen. The response has been great. It’s a thorny, very provocative subject, and it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes. You can’t really ask for more than that,” he said. “I look forward to bringing it to St. Louis.”
St. Louis was a major factor in his formative years, he said.
“I have a special place in my heart for the city. I’ve always considered myself a Midwesterner. The Midwest has a strong cultural identity, and I have an affinity for it, those core values,” he said.
“I still have a lot of friends there. I spent my formative years there, from 5 to 12, and my dad and brother stayed there, so I was back a lot. It’s always been a second home to me. I feel anchored there,” he said.
His first professional work took place on the Arch grounds one sweltering summer day. He remembers well the first television commercial he ever acted in as a child.
“It was for KFC, with the Colonel, and it was a typical St. Louis summer day, about 109 degrees with 109 percent humidity,” he said.
Following his interests
Whether he is working in London, New York or L.A., today his work is guided by his interests.
“I’m drawn to a theme or a genre,” he said. “I like strong narratives, but documentaries have a lack of rigidity. In a narrative, the protagonist is clearly delineated, but in a documentary, it’s not so black-and-white. You’re not just a hero or a villain,” he said.
“I think the most interesting stuff can go into a documentary. People don’t fit easily into boxes. There are paradoxes and contradictions, like all human beings, and you can tell these stories through the visual art of a documentary.”
He became interested in technology-based themes, even before his work on “Downloaded.”
“I was fascinated by the online communities that started in the late 1980s. It was clear that this was a major shift in communication. Bitcoin, Silk Road and other anonymous digital sites were the first on a large scale,” he said.
His next feature-length documentary will be on Frank Zappa. He will write and direct.
The iconic rock music pioneer died of cancer at age 52 in 1993. The Zappa Family Trust has given its blessing to Winter to make the film.
“Getting the family’s support was vital to the project,” he said. “There has never been a definitive biography about him. I am extremely happy to do it. He was a great artist at a turbulent time in history.”
He expects the film to be released in 2018.
Now 50 and a doting father of three, Winter said he doesn’t think about age. “I still feel about 14. Maybe now it’s 14 and a half” he joked. ““I still feel very in the moment. I never really look back.”