Karl Puschmann spoke to Winter about his new doco The Panama Papers, making Freaked and returning to Bill and Ted.
Q. Why did you want to tell the story of the Panama Papers?
A. I'm interested in stories around technology, journalism and big shifts in the way culture works. I was very taken by how so many journalists around the world were able to keep their work secret for the better part of a year, the magnitude of the leak and what it represented in terms of income and equality. All those interests combined into one story was very compelling.
Q. It feels like a daunting task to take this complex, globe-spanning story about dry topics like tax evasion and off-shore tax havens and make it entertaining and easy to understand.
A. Honestly, what attracts me to these documentaries is the challenge of telling a story that's comprehensible, entertaining and artful. The challenge was getting across what the Panama Papers are, why it's important and why what the journalists did was important. It was a living story while we were making it, we were dealing with a lot of moving parts — like one of the journalists was assassinated in the middle of shooting — but for the most part we were explaining something that had happened. Making that entertaining and interesting was challenging but a challenge we welcomed.
Q. Did you ever think it might be too dry to be entertaining?
A. No. When you're dealing with villains on this scale and risk at this level it's a very compelling human story. It struck me as inherently dramatic. I went about building it as if it was a political thriller.
Q. Was there any one part of The Panama Papers that freaked you out?
A. It didn't freak me out but I had the wake up call that many journalists had where the deeper I got into investigating the more I began to realise this was not a compartmental issue of corruption but that it really was systemic. It represented the way the economy has been built globally to protect this level of income and inequality where trillions and trillions of dollars are withheld from the public pool. What the Panama Papers helped expose was an actual system of maintaining this level of corruption. That was the real 'a-ha!' moment I had.
Q. Do you think the citizenry reacted strongly enough to the revelations that the super rich were not paying taxes?
A. I think there's a lack of understanding about the effect the Panama Papers had. You often hear, 'nothing happened, nothing will ever change'. But the truth is that there's very little the average citizen can do besides vote. The real people capable of making change are very aware and very activated by the revelations in the leak.
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Many very high-end tax fraud investigators, law enforcement and legislators were very clear that this gave them knowledge and information they never had in exactly the way these offshore mechanisms worked. It was enormous ammunition to begin to change law, track down bad actors and put the fear of god in people who always felt that this system would work with impunity forever.
Q. Did you ever attempt to interview John Doe, the anonymous whistleblower behind the leak?
A. No. It was very important to me to not pull on that thread at all. It's really important that Doe remains anonymous. Doe took enormous personal safety risks by leaking.
Q. Do you know if Doe is safe, alive and well?
A. We know that John Doe is okay. That much I do know. So far.
Q. Changing tack, Freaked is now regarded as a cult classic, how do you look back on it?
A. Very, very fondly. We worked very hard to get that film made. I was very young, out of film school. I had done the Bill and Ted movies but I was mostly directing commercials and music videos. We had trouble because a studio head left who was protecting the film and the head that came in didn't like it. But it did really well and over time became a big cult favourite. I think the audience we made that movie for have seen it.
Q. You've just finished the new Bill and Ted movie. What was it like slipping back into the shoes of Bill S. Preston Esquire?
A. It was a lot of fun. We brought back a lot of the original cast so it was a reunion of sorts and a really happy one. I feel really good about it and I'm looking forward to getting it in front of people. The nice thing about Bill and Ted as a franchise is that the characters are so sweet. It's a fun world to inhabit and a very positive one. Given all that's going on in our country and the world right now it was a nice little bubble to go into. This sweet Bill-and-Ted bubble that we came out of and back into this harsh, cruel world.
Who: Alex Winter
What: Director of The Panama Papers and star of Bill and Ted
When: The Panama Papers screens at the Fraud Film Festival November 14, followed by a panel discussion.
Plus: Bill and Ted Face the Music is out next August.