Alex Winter Explores the Myriad Dualities of Frank Zappa in His New Documentary


Revered by some but impenetrable to many, a counterculture icon who hated hippies, Frank Zappa’s mind and music become a little less inscrutable in Alex Winter’s new documentary, Zappa. With incredible access to Zappa’s vast film vault, which itself figures as a character in the movie, Winter explores the web of contradictions and complications that keep Zappa fascinating 27 years after his death.

Winter spoke to AllMusic (hours after learning that the Bill & Ted Face the Music soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy) to discuss his discoveries from Zappa’s vault, why he loves telling complex stories, and how watching Zappa’s famously awful Saturday Night Live episode as a kid changed his mind about the iconoclastic figure at the heart of his new film. Zappa is available on demand starting November 27.

AllMusic: You manage to have Frank narrate his own story as much as possible, was that the skeleton around which you built the rest of the film?

Alex Winter: Everything kind of converges on documentaries; you have your own narrative that you’ve written that you’re going to throw most of away, and then what media you have and what you get out of the interviews that you’re doing. In this case, we had so much media from having access to his vault that one of the earliest discoveries we made when we were doing preservation work on the vault was all of these tapes and films that Zappa had of himself, that went from the ’60s all the way to his death, where he’d just talk amongst his friends.

A lot of the audio you’re hearing is from video and film and him just shooting the breeze with his buddies down in the basement, or journalists, or whoever, very casually, but he’d record everything, he was rabid about collecting that kind of media, and it was all on shelves in the vault. So we found hours and hours, and what we loved about it is, that like many people, he was telling the same story, so we’d cut him telling the story of his being put in jail, and he’d tell that story from the vantage point of the ’70s, the mid-’80s, and even the early ’90s, all in one sentence or two.

AllMusic: The glimpses of the vault itself are very enticing, and then to have him give a tour of it was a nifty piece of editing.

Winter: We wanted to physically connect him to that space. It was a living thing, he’d work on the vault like he’d work on his music.

AllMusic: What evidence did you find of that?

Winter: The tip-off that we had was in the early preservation days, we started getting back duplicate media, and we panicked, because we had such limited resources and it was so expensive, we thought, “Oh no, we’re preserving multiples,” which would be a titanic waste of money and time, but upon further scrutiny, we realized it wasn’t a multiple. He’d take a piece of super-8 film, dupe it, and then he’d re-cut it and draw on it and put that to music and dump it on video. So the vault was itself a giant artistic archival project of his that he never stopped tinkering with.

AllMusic: Did you get the sense he had an ultimate goal for all of that material?

Winter: I think it was its own reward, it didn’t have this sense of hubris, as if it was in the service of his legacy with a capital L. It really felt like the way he dealt with the rest of his art and life, he liked making things, he liked working on things. I’d never be presumptuous about what his thinking was, but the impression I got was that it was almost like a gymnasium for him, not exactly a way to relax, but a way to experiment with and explore things, which may have informed greater work or projects that he was doing musically.

AllMusic: You include a clip where he talks about how much he loves editing, did that put pressure on you and your team to edit it in his style?

Winter: We didn’t set him aside by any means, but we didn’t feel pressure. We weren’t trying to imitate Zappa, we weren’t trying to pretend that the film was in some way saying what he would have said artistically or visually, but we did take cues from him. He cut film and audio in such a specific way that really informed our style throughout the film and how we approached his media. That was very, very helpful.

AllMusic: He was a complicated guy, and not everything about him was endearing. Did you intentionally leave his less-appealing traits for the back half of the movie?

Winter: I wanted the audience to get to know him on a certain level, not a sugarcoated version of him, because I don’t think there’s any version of Frank that’s not complicated, even his childhood is complicated. But from a story standpoint, that you can make heads or tails out of who he was in the more critical aspects of him, both good and bad, we didn’t know the guy. We put a lot of work into laying a foundation of who he was both biographically and psychologically in his youth and what made him the person he was.

We don’t have any talking heads in the film until after he gets to L.A., which is the beginning of act two. His entire upbringing and early years up until he formed the Mothers are all from his perspective, all with footage that he mostly shot himself. The idea was to lay a foundation so you can make your own mind up about whether you like the guy or not, but at least you’d know who he was.

AllMusic: He’s described in the film as a man of contradictions, did that make your job harder?

Winter: It’s the kind of subject I like making docs about, it’s really what drew me to him in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever made a doc that isn’t about some inherently contradictory subject, that’s just what interests me. I think it hews a little closer to the human condition, and it represents the mysterious and somewhat paradoxical nature of being human, and I always gravitate towards those kinds of subjects.

AllMusic: And you knew that was the sort of person you’d be exploring here.

Winter: Completely, because growing up, everything about Zappa involved duality; people either loved him or they hated him. They either loved his music or they hated his music. They thought he was a stoner, when not only was he not a stoner, but he hated hippies. Everything about Frank was duality, one after another. So I was already intrigued by him, and the more I dug into his life, the more of these kind of internal dualities I found.

I don’t come at these characters thinking, “That’s fun, they’re slippery and complicated,” the agenda, such as there is one, is to find the humanity in there, what makes these people human and empathetic, and who are they under all that? Not really cracking them like a riddle, but just really trying to convey that or to craft a portrait of that person.

AllMusic: He gives a strong sense of disdain for commercial success, so navigating that world when “Valley Girl” became a hit seemed like a specific sort of challenge for him.

Winter: We tried to answer in the film if he was afraid of having a hit: did he think that hits meant that the music wasn’t good? I think that the answer I came away with, personally, having spent so much time with his work, is that he wasn’t afraid of success, and he wasn’t afraid of commercial success, but something in him, I think, was inherently suspicious of his own desire to be writing music for commerce as opposed to what he thought was good art, and his own fear of being swayed towards jeopardizing the quality of his work for a different agenda, I don’t think it was so much disdain for the world around him, because he liked doo-wop, he liked a lot of really popular music a lot, but I think he was very hard on himself in terms of wanting to keep himself honest, as it were.

AllMusic: You show him both as a bandleader and as an orchestra conductor. There’s a feeling that in his rock configuration, he was almost playing the musicians themselves like instruments.

Winter: I think he saw innate talent in people and he nurtured that talent, and discovered and launched many careers, like Steve Vai, Adrian Belew, Ruth Underwood, amazing people who went out into the world and made extraordinary music that started with Zappa. He had the reputation for using people in that way, and from spending so much time watching him in rehearsals with band members, he was much more collaborative than people understood. I think it’s very easy for myths to grow, especially around rock and roll musicians, which is almost all myth and very little substance. But I think that he was actually very collaborative, while he also had a desire to hear what he had written played well and played properly, but often those artists were bringing more of their own life to it than people recognize.

AllMusic: I enjoyed seeing the footage of him hosting ‘Saturday Night Live,’ that’s one of the show’s more notorious episodes.

Winter: Honestly, that was what turned me on to Zappa when I was a kid, I remember vividly sitting in my family’s living room watching that on TV and thinking, “This guy is really interesting, there’s way more to him than I thought.”

AllMusic: What was it that jumped out at you?

Winter: It was his persona, he was obviously a musician who had much more going on than his interest in playing that type of music. It just really struck me that there was something special about the way he was coming at the world. I don’t remember the skits, I guess because they were so bad, but I remember him vividly from SNL and that perking me up and making me say, “This isn’t just some noodly guy that my brother’s friends listen to, there’s more depth and substance to him.”

AllMusic: He could be a prickly guy, which footage do you think showed him at his most joyful?

Winter: I have to say that what I found is that he was often joyful, and we use a lot of it in the film, but he’s laughing his ass off in a lot of the archival [footage]. He loved playing music and he loved being with his family and he loved his bandmates. His public persona, his relationship to the media, was often very protective. His attitude offstage was often incredibly chill and warm. It may be direct, it may be strict, but in almost all the archival, he come off much warmer than I expected.

AllMusic: And that was apparent right away?

Winter: Right away, because we just kept finding it, we found stuff of him in high school, stuff of him with the Mothers, wherever we found it, we kept finding shots of him laughing and goofing off and having a very affectionate, off the cuff wit that always showed up.

AllMusic: Were there moments when you found yourself wondering, “Would this guy like me?”

Winter: I never really thought about it, he’d been gone so long when we made the film. I have a lot of respect for him, and I had a lot of respect making the film, and I considered him sitting behind us in the edit room, and Gail [Zappa’s late wife] as well, and thought, “I’m not going to make a film for them, that’s impossible, but I’m certainly going to make an effort to do something that has this respect and gratitude baked into it,” so that was on my mind.

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