In September of 2012, journalist Barrett Brown wasn’t just pursuing a story—he became the story.
Brown is the founder of Project PM, a onetime associate of hacktivist collective Anonymous, book author and writer for outlets such as Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast. He was arrested in Dallas County for threatening an FBI officer via YouTube, and subsequently indicted on 12 federal charges related to the email leak of Stratfor, a private intelligence company. Most of those charges were eventually dropped, but he was eventually sentenced to 63 months in prison. From prison, he wrote a series of articles for The Intercept that won a National Magazine Award.
As he says in the below interview, filmmaker Alex Winter has tracked developments at the intersection of journalism and hacker culture for over 25 years. Though he’s most popularly known for early-career work as an on-screen actor (The Lost Boys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), his expertise in this field led to two recent documentaries, Downloaded (2013) which detailed the evolution of Internet filesharing, and Deep Web (2015), which focused on the politics of the dark web and covered the trial of Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht. Winter’s attempts to film Barrett Brown in prison were rebuffed by the Bureau of Prisons, leading to a series of phone interviews that factor into his new Field of Vision short, which also recounts Brown’s arduous, time-sensitive journey from jail to halfway house with his parents—a journey that transpired less than a month ago. In the below interview, Winter recounts the logistics and challenges of that shoot, the value of turning a film around at a breakneck pace, and how he identified with Brown’s plight.
When did you first hear about Barrett Brown?
Winter: I became aware of him before he was arrested, when he was doing Project PM, the web-based news organization that he founded, and then through the work that he did with Anonymous. These were people that I’ve been either associated with or have been very well aware of for many years. The intersection between journalism and hackers, and people using the Internet to disseminate and leak information—I’ve been very involved in that world since the late 80s, since the BBS Usenet era. Barrett kind of showed up on my radar as soon as he showed up on the general radar. I started approaching him about two years ago, trying to get an interview with him [while he was] in jail, and like many things with Barrett it was both grave and hilarious. The Federal Bureau of Prisons staunchly refused to let me in, even though I was just filing the regular media requests, which were supposed to be perfectly acceptable. They kept finding hilariously byzantine reasons for why each one was being rejected, and it became so comical that he ended up writing about my ill-fated attempts in one of his articles.
And so instead of interviewing him at the prison you started doing it over the phone?
Winter: Yeah, I decided to do weekly audio recordings with him, which I began over a year ago. I’ve got a mountain of really great discourse with Barrett that I got every week up until his release.
Did you intend to do anything in particular with those recorded interviews, or did you feel it was important to just keep doing them and figure it out later?
Winter: I felt it was important to just keep doing them. He’s an extremely important journalist, his situation is significant, and I felt his experience needed to be documented. I wanted to give him the opportunity to go beyond what was going to appear in print—which is amazing, which is why he’s won these awards—but just to let him riff. I was interested in covering his biographical history as well as his day-to-day life in prison. I didn’t have a very mercenary agenda. At some point I would like to make a long-form film about Barrett. It may or may not happen and I may or may not end up using that audio for it. But I did use some of it for this Field of Vision piece.
So you’ve got the audio interviews, which, as you said, you’ve been recording for the past year, and yet the majority of what’s in the film was filmed very, very recently. Normally there’s a much longer lag time between filming and publishing for a documentary like this. How did this come about?
Winter: I knew the date that he was being released, and he and his family both approved of me going to film him being released, and it occurred to me to pitch the idea to Field of Vision because it felt like something that would be potentially of value as journalism, as a filmmaker-driven journalistic piece. So I contacted them and said look, I’m going to shoot him regardless—I just need your sign off and your oversight and I’ll go get it done. I have my own gang here, so I knew that we could get it through a pipeline quickly. Our turnaround was pretty quick, but it was no different than making a news piece that has to get out. Frankly it helped having made Deep Web, which was like this times a thousand in that it was made during breaking news. So we’re really used to moving ahead at a breakneck speed.
Yet Deep Web was a feature you spent years making, and you shot this footage, what—two weeks ago?
Winter: Deep Web premiered literally the day that Ross Albrecht was sentenced. Which was a coincidence. We made it for a major cable network, EPIX, and they already had a date set. They had all their people standing by and I literally came out of the courtroom and went directly into their post—the actual cable post—and typed up what the sentence was and it aired across the U.S. like three hours later. So it was pretty identical to that experience. In some ways it was less hair-raising because there weren’t uncertain outcomes here. I mean, there were uncertainties, but it wasn’t like where I didn’t know that [Ross] was going to get a double life [sentence].
Speaking of uncertainties in this film, let’s talk about the absurdly short time in which Barrett was supposed to make it from the prison to the halfway house. Was your filming factored into the terms of the journey, for either the authorities or Garrett and his family?
Winter: Not really. I mean, I knew in advance that there was no way I’d be able to film him in prison—I’d been rejected, I gave up on that, and so I didn’t attempt to film on their property. I kept a distance and just documented a guy coming out into the world, extracted from one institution and then dropped into another. I was more concerned that his dates would change—they’re constantly changing things on him. His sentence doesn’t end until March, and because he’s still under the care of the Bureau of Prisons I thought anything is possible.
And so, even though you’d bee talking to him by phone for a year, the first time you met him was when he came out of the prison?
Winter: Yeah, it was bemusing. It was a very emotional day for him and his mom and dad, and a physically demanding day. He hadn’t been in a car in four years. He hadn’t been beyond the prison yard in four years, and he hadn’t really eaten food other than the prison food, so he got sick immediately. He’s a pretty stoic guy, but also he’s an emotional person like anybody else. But what I love about Barrett is that he’s got this razor sharp sense of humor, and he’s able to see the humor in his own situation. I also have a sense of humor about fairly grave things—you kind of have to—so we hit it off in that regard right away. We’d bonded over the phone all these weeks and so we just fell into that rapport. We know each other, we just hadn’t physically met. Which is actually not an uncommon set of circumstances. I dealt with Sean Fanning on my Napster story for ages before we ever met. So I felt like we’d known each other by the time I started working with him on the ground. In the age of the Internet that’s not altogether uncommon.
The idea of getting into a car for the first time in four years and then having to spend the whole day in a car—its unbelievable. Considering the conditions of the shoot, were there any moments where any of them expressed or hinted that, “I get why this is important but I really would rather you not being here shooting this?”
Winter: No. No, he was great. Barrett had been living in a fish bowl for four years. And though I had developed a good rapport with his mother—it was the first day I met his father—I think it was more unsettling for them. It was a fairly intrusive thing for me to be doing, even though I keep a small footprint and we’re pretty stealthy about getting out of everybody’s face. But there were definitely times during the course of that day when it was awkward to have this film crew on this very tense and very emotional journey that they were on, because not only had they not had him in their care for all this time, but the Bureau of Prisons gave them very little time to get from one end of Texas to the other. It’s not hyperbole—they would have been a flight risk if they’d been fifteen minutes late. So they had this unnecessarily high-pressure time issue, which made the drive really stressful for everybody. And then there’s me asking, you know, “Can I get another shot of this? Oh, can you not get out of the car yet? And oh, you got out on the wrong side. Could you lower your head so I could get the shot of this building?” I mean, that was the day.
It winds up being really dramatic and cinematic, with the bulk of the film happening inside the car, in a race against the clock as they drive across the state. And because of that very pronounced confined space, you become very aware of when the camera is next to him versus when it’s behind him, all of that. What guided those decisions, and how did you negotiate adding more bodies to that small space?
Winter: Well, we had a fairly big SUV, which had a front seat, a middle bench and back bench. There was my DP and sound guy, and I lived in the very back. And we had a GoPro running all the time in the very front seat to get shots of his mom. Now, I’m mostly a narrative filmmaker—I’ve only been doing doc stuff for a short while now—so I just treated it like a narrative, like I was going to shoot a car sequence. I knew going in that I wanted the whole thing to happen in this confined space. I thought it would give the narrative some momentum and some shape. But also, because the guy had been in jail, I liked the idea of shooting in a confined space. I thought it would convey some of the essence of how he has been living for the last four years. So we basically constructed the day like I would if I were shooting a narrative car sequence. And my guys were really sensitive, and we weren’t barking orders. We set everyone up with lavs and just kind of faded into the background. And that allowed us to get a lot of genuine, not guarded, and not manufactured stuff out of them, especially Barrett. As I said, he has been under scrutiny by strangers for years.
There’s a subtle move, after he gets sick, with the camera pulling back from the second to the third row, and in a sense it’s almost comical—you’re giving him extra room, which means like two extra feet. But it makes a real effect when you’re watching it. You too want to give him that extra room, and it creates a tone of accommodation rather than voyeurism.
Winter: I like changing up the angles and I also like what those angles tell us. We’re just here observing this guy in this really vulnerable moment. I like that shot a lot too, over the back bench of the car, and also the shot of him sleeping. Passed out and just so exhausted from the whole experience. Because of the length of the journey obviously we were able to give him time. I think he was asleep for an hour and a half. And we just chilled out.
With this piece, and with your dealings with Barrett in general, you’re in effect a journalist observing and telling a story about another a journalist—he’s basically both subject and colleague. And a colleague that shares some of the same preoccupations and concerns that you do. Are there things you had to negotiate in terms of that?
Winter: I have never experienced that before, you’re right. Barrett and I do share a lot of similarities, even though I am older than he is and come from a different generation. And I am more of a filmmaker than a journalist. In negotiating the story I wasn’t trying to exonerate him—what he did was outrageously wrong. Even though he was out of his mind going cold turkey off heroin—he still made [those threats]. But I really identify with the level of anger that can come from being targeted. I look at his case, Aaron Swartz’s case, and at people who have been targeted for actions that are not actually illegal. Barrett was targeted. And his reaction to being targeted was inappropriate. Aaron Swartz’s reaction was ultimately tragic. I feel an enormous sense of identification. I wouldn’t call it sympathy or empathy, because I don’t think it’s appropriate to threaten people’s lives and I don’t condone that at all. But I do feel enormous identification with the depth of the emotional response to “I was practicing journalism and I was getting information out to the people it needed to get out to and I was being unjustly targeted for that.” Barrett’s a very interesting person for that to have happened to because he’s so articulate and so dogged. I have not been in a place with a subject like that before.
Do you feel fully comfortable going out with a piece like this, knowing that it’s going to dovetail a bit with his own reporting?
Winter: I have enormous regard for his journalism. He’s a brilliant writer. I think he’s honestly one of the best we’ve got. We need people like him. But I don’t see much crossover happening otherwise. I just respect it. And I would be very interested in following his path, in terms of seeing where he goes and documenting it.
How about working again at this breakneck pace? Obviously you’ll be working on features, but might you make more of these short pieces that can enter right into the conversation?
Winter: The longer form stuff I’m doing takes forever. I’m making a Frank Zappa film, and it’s probably going to take me at least another two years. Given the state of the country, the political climate and the president-elect, I am very eager to keep telling stories and getting out these filmmaker-driven news pieces. I have a couple others in mind that I am tempted to jump into. I think that it’s really important that all of us do whatever we can with whatever we’ve got.