Alex Winter on Decrypting Frank Zappa
By Ron Deutsch
Alex Winter has worn many hats in his 55 years. As a youth, he acted on Broadway. After college, he headed out to Los Angeles, where he continued to work as an actor and directed both documentaries (Downloaded, The Panama Papers) and narrative films (Freaked, Fever). But like many of the child actors who were the subjects of his last documentary, Showbiz Kids (2020), regardless of all those hats he has worn, and will continue to wear, he will forever be associated with a role he played early in his career—that of “Bill” in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and its two sequels.
For the last six years Winter has been on another kind of adventure—developing Zappa, an all-encompassing, kaleidoscope of a documentary exploring the life and work of the late composer/rock artist Frank Zappa. Almost half of those years were spent setting up a Kickstarter campaign to preserve and catalog the massive film and video archive held in a vault in the Zappa home, to which the family had never given anyone access. What Winter discovered there, in addition to all the master tapes of Zappa’s music, were stacks and stacks of home movies he had been making since he was a child. It was these films and videos that became the raw material, and defined the aesthetics, of the film Winter and his editor, Mike Nichols, would create.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: So let's start here. Why Zappa?
ALEX WINTER: The reason I had a passion for telling a story about Zappa was because I'm primarily drawn to somewhat dualistic, internally-conflicted protagonists. They make great documentary subjects. The thing I like about documentaries in general, and where the medium is most strong, is in its ability to use narrative to convey the nuance of the human experience.
I didn't grow up a gigantic Zappa music person until after college. I just couldn't quite wrap my head around him. There were some songs that I loved, but I was not a die-hard. I was very captivated by him in terms of his persona, the combination of seriousness and whimsy. I was very big into Ernie Kovacs and Spike Jones when I was young. As well, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, and the comedy people of that era. I came up in the '70s largely, and the first time I saw Zappa was on SNL. I vividly remember watching that. It was more like Carlin or [Richard] Pryor, than a virtuoso rock guitar person.
So I was really captivated with the idea of telling a story of someone who was very committed to making art, who was very committed to politics and social causes, and committed to humor in an incredibly interesting time in American history. For a documentary filmmaker, that is just gold. I can dive into politics, social mores, culture, but I was also interested in trying to get my arms around who this guy was behind all the contradictions and the polarizing nature of who he was. He had as many people who really detested him personally or his music as he did fans. So it's those kind of characters that I tend to gravitate towards and aren't that easy to pin down. I don't do that for shock value. But I do like the idea of destabilizing the audience to a degree so they're a bit more open to shades of gray. I think the human brain wants to fall hard on one side or the other.
D: And that was one of the things Zappa talks about in the film—his desire to destabilize people through his music to the point where they can become open to ideas they may not have been, and not just musical ideas.
AW: Yes...which is an accident. [He laughs.] He has that famous quote that “the mind is like a parachute.”
I would be dishonest if I said I knew that going into the project. I obviously had a sense, because that was his persona. But the degree to which he suffered major consequences in his financial and professional life in order to stick to that agenda, I did not know until I was making the film and really dug into his journey. He really lived it. He really made sacrifices based on it, and it wasn't lip service. I think the film and just the biographical line of his life show this, that he was forced to take a greater stand as time went by and his career became harder to uphold. That's when he got into the politics of Czechoslovakia, fought the Senate and the PMRC [Parents Music Resource Center], and [maintained a] register-to-vote movement [Zappa included “Register to Vote” messages on every album starting in 1971 and had voter registration tables at his concerts]. He had to take a stand on trying to get people to open their minds a little bit and be less black and white about the world they were in.
D: What else surprised you about him?
AW: There were so many things. Some of what surprised me was not mundane but more ephemeral.
I remember saying two things to Gail [Zappa's late wife] when I first met her to pitch the film—and I honestly didn't think she would say yes to me to make the film because of them. I told her I didn't want to make a movie about Frank as a rock 'n' roll player at all. I didn't even see him as a rock 'n' roll musician, but rather more as an avant-garde composer. And the other, I didn't want to make a film that avoided the negative aspects of his nature that I thought were actually quite glaring, kind of mythically glaring—his sexual appetite, his reputation for being a martinet, the many enemies he made along the way. I really wanted to look at that, but not, again, from a point of view of sensationalism.
But now I see he really was an avant-garde composer. He reminded me more of Spike Jones going in, but coming out I realized he was more like Albert Ayler. Frank is a legitimate 20th-century classical avant-garde composer. I know the die-hard fans are like “well, hello,” but I did not get the full spectrum until I dove into his material.
Another is that I went into it with a kind of a biased, middle-brow, bourgeois judgment about his sexual and misogynistic attitudes—the kind of bias I actually try to make movies to fight against. And I came out with more sympathy for him. Not from the standpoint that I felt it was a valid way to behave, but I came away with an understanding, a sense of his insecurities and the wrestling with the times in which he came up, as well as his distaste for the hypocrisies of that bourgeois, middle-brow judgment. I see that in his suspicion of the hippie movement, his refusal to join Bill Graham's world in San Francisco because he thought it was bullshit, and his absolute, almost Dada abuse of the New York art-rock set of Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Look, I'm a New Yorker. Lou Reed is my idol, right? But Frank had a point. And I came away with much more of an understanding and much more sympathy of what it was he was fighting against, and the depth of that. It wasn't shallow and wasn't knee-jerk. It may not have been my values, but it was coming from somewhere with depth in him.
What I've tried to convey in the film is that he tried to resist as best as he could being bound by times that he was in. Whether it was growing up near the Edgewood Arsenal [Zappa's father worked there and was involved in making chemical weapons] and all the horrors that were attended there, being around the Vietnam War. You know, he's trying to be this groovy artist and just minding his own business and they literally bang his door down and stick him in jail for a completely trumped-up charge. He could never escape the times. He could never escape the labels that people kept putting on him about his music and his art. So ultimately, it seems to me, he said fuck it and just turned and confronted it, like Don Quixote. So in the '80s, he just said, “Okay, fine. I'll just show up at the PMRC even if every other artist won't, and I'm going to run for president, and I'm going to see Vaclav Havel in Prague, and I'm going to go the Soviet Union.” And he literally just turned and ran headlong at the things he'd been running from his whole life.
D: I had never made this connection before, but listening to you makes me see some kind of connection between what Zappa was doing with what Andy Kaufman was doing.
AW: I absolutely see what you're saying and would agree with that. In fact, if you really look at the area of Zappa that I was most excited about digging into which, obviously and unsurprisingly, was one of the least commercial areas—his tenure at the Garrick Theater in New York back in the '60s.
I'm a theater person. I came up doing theater and my parents are modern dancers. I'm really interested in the history of avant-garde theater. Kaufman always struck me as a modern-day avant-garde theater performer, in a lot of what he did, a lot of the tricks he was playing on the audience. Whether he knew who Dario Fo was or not, he came out of traditions that go way back, but were very popular in the '60s. The Garrick Theater performances that Zappa did were very similar to Kaufman performances if you actually look at the material—of which some will become available once more of the archive comes out. It's extremely theatrical. A lot of times they weren't playing music at all. They were monologuing, they were playing characters, they were bringing the audience up on stage and abusing them and covering them in paint and shaving cream. It looks like something you could have walked across the street in the West Village and would have seen in an off-Broadway theater just as easily as seeing it at what was supposed to be a rock venue.
I was actually bitterly disappointed because in one of my earlier conversations with Gail I said to her, “There's no way Frank wasn't aware of what was going on in theater at the time in Berlin and New York.” His stuff was so connected to the avant-garde theater. And she said, “No, he didn't seem to have any interest in that whatsoever.” But I don't think she knew everything there was to know about Frank that she thought she did.
D: Speaking of Gail, were you aware she was dying when you started the project?
AW: No, I didn't. I knew she had cancer but didn't know she was on that limited time. Apparently, she didn't either. She went into hospice out of left field. We knew this movie was going to take at least two to three years at minimum to make—and ended up taking six—but she was fully planning and assuming that she would be there through the whole run of my edit and when the film premiered. So she was not living her life as somebody who was on that kind of limited time clock. I was absolutely mortified when she went into hospice. I had many more interviews I had intended to do with her; she was really, for me, a major voice in the story.
D: So how did her passing so early in the process affect the film?
AW: I don't know. As you know, documentaries are living organisms, even if they're retrospective like this one. They move along and show you things they want you to use and things they don't want to use, and people come into them and go out of them. You build the story based on the raw materials. It's one of the things I like about making them so much.
Gail would have been a bigger part of the film had she not died. I can't say how because I hadn't figured it out yet. I just knew I was building something around her, but I didn't know then what it was. It would have been a different film on the other end because she was a powerhouse in her own right, polarizing in her own right, brilliant, maddening, infuriating, amazing, filled with love, filled with venom. She was just an extraordinary human being. In her absence, I really plunged into the archive from the standpoint of really letting the archive tell the story and gathering the barest minimum of present-day interviews that I felt I could get away with.
D: Let's talk about the archive.
AW: So I had heard of the vault. Like every rock 'n' roll artist, you expect their story to be largely manufactured bullshit. So I'd never assumed the vault was a real vault. And when I pitched Gail, she really liked my take and that I wasn't coming at him in this more expected, narrow way. So she said, “Given the expansiveness to what you're trying to do, you should have access to the vault,” which she had never given anyone before. Then she took me downstairs to where it was.
And it was exactly like the end of Citizen Kane. It was many, many rooms filled floor-to-ceiling with media. Now I'm a film guy. I went to NYU back in the old crusty days of analog, and I was a huge Stan Brakhage person. So the media that was down there that blew my head off wasn't the music masters, which is fine, but it was this 8mm and 16mm and Super8 that Frank had started shooting with when he was in his teens. He had 1-inch video, 2-inch video. And like Brakhage, he would paint on it, edit and re-purpose....I didn't even know that Frank had that side of his personality and had made so many films. He would transfer to 1-inch to Betamax, and then transfer the Betamax onto D-1. I was in heaven. But I was also terrified. All that stuff was dying. And some of it was already gone. Now to be fair to the Zappa family, it was not the stuff of commercial value that they were protecting; it was ephemera that was too expensive and too complicated to get their arms around.
So we mounted this exhausting and multi-year crowd-funded project to raise the money to preserve that media. And that took two full years of my life, with my little production team. We found proprietary “mom & pop” preservation companies; we didn't want to just turn it all over to one place, for security reasons. It took us eight to 10 months just to find these people, and it was really expensive and time-consuming. And Gail had died before I even raised that money. So she didn't really have any idea what I was doing, but she knew I wanted to do it. She was very thankful as every penny they had was going into preserving the commercial music that was keeping Zappa's music alive. But we preserved $1 million plus of Zappa historical media, which I'm very proud of. And that's what you see in the movie.
D: And then you and your editor, Mike Nichols, dove into what you had....
AW: This movie is as much Mike's as it is mine. It sounds like false modesty, but it's really true. I've been working for years to get the possessory credit off my films. It's actually really hard the way the unions are constructed. I don't like the possessory credit. And I think it's often very insulting to the way films are actually made, and it flies in the face of the communal nature of this art form. It creates a false idea of cinema as being auteur-driven, a cult of personality that I blame the critics of the '60s for as much as anybody. But that's where we are in this day and age.
So on any film, but especially on a documentary, your editor is a filmmaker and they are making that film in concert with the director, and I'd even say in concert with the sound designer and others. And Mike had very, very innovative ideas for sound, for picture, and for integrating that. We sifted through vast quantities of media determining what would tell the story, how to tell the story, and Mike had an enormous amount to do with the creative structuring of huge chunks of this thing. This was really a two-hander.
We used what we really felt would best tell the story we wanted to tell, and the way we wanted to tell it —which was a really aggressive first act that would separate the wheat from the chaff. We're using just a fraction of what was there. And we really wanted Frank to have a voice, but not in a gimmicky way where he narrates the movie, though we do use him as a narrator, but we cheated all over the place and chopped it up. We wanted him to aesthetically inhabit the film, and he was a cut-and-paste guy. And so that came out of Frank's rewinds, as if he was sitting there at 16 years old on a set of 8mm rewinds, like I used to do in my basement as a kid—just cutting and splicing and throwing shit at the screen. It absolutely drove the structure and form of the film. Mike was really brilliant in the way he constructed and interwove music, audio, image. And the other thing he did that was very clever was we wanted to start the film with Frank's actual home movies but then begin—not to fool the audience, but create a tone—to make our own “Frank movies.” And that's much easier said than done because it can seem very contrived, very quickly. So most of the film is not Frank, it's me and Mike, but mostly Mike. And the way we felt was that the people who couldn't take it we'd get rid of right away, and the people who could take act one would be able to sit and watch the rest of the movie.
There was a very specific structure to our composition. It isn't your standard three-act structure, but it's buried as deeply as we could possibly put it, in a banging-the-kitchen-pots together sort of way.
D: Again, what you're saying about your attitude in making this aggressive first act reminds me of the scene in the film where Zappa tells a live audience that the band is going to play some avant-garde piece and that they are free to leave if they can't dig it, and adds that they probably won't. So that does seem very in keeping with his aesthetics and personality.
AW: Yeah. I mean, how else do you approach a movie about Zappa? I didn't want to make one these VH-1 type movies where every modern celebrity goes on screen and talks about how touched they were by him. Or more awful, how important he was so they can lay some case for him. My feeling was the guy's a genius, and he was also problematic...so let him speak for himself. And if people don't like him when the movie's over, I can live with that.
I feel very grateful that we got to do it. It was the most satisfying, certainly the most challenging, and at times the most difficult project I've ever worked on for a number of reasons.
Zappa premieres November 27 in theaters and virtually through Magnolia Pictures.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman.