Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release
Photo: Roelof Kiers/Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Actor/Director Alex Winter Talks New Frank Zappa Documentary, 'Zappa': "It Was The Full Complexity Of The Man I Wanted To Show"
Few 20th-century musicians have amassed as unique and influential a catalog as two-time GRAMMY winner Frank Zappa. Between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, Zappa's multifaceted artistry knew no bounds. He was a one-of-a-kind musical genius whose attitude and approach rubbed off on countless creative followers.
Of course, he was far more than that, too. As the recent documentary Zappa lays out, the singer/songwriter and composer was an adamant denouncer of censorship, which led to him morally testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1985, as well as a fearless critic of social, spiritual, and political hypocrisies. Plus, his collaborators and loved ones knew him as a highly demanding yet devoted bandleader and a flawed but loving family man.
There were many professional and personal dimensions of Zappa, and the actor-documentarian Alex Winter—best-known as the amiable, peace-loving goofball Ted Logan in the Bill & Ted film franchise—did an exceptional job capturing it all. Zappa, which arrived in theaters and on-demand last month, provides the most heartfelt and robust examination of the man on film to date.
Winter and his crew could have been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of footage available to them—more than 1,000 hours, to hear him tell it. However, his goal to spin a compelling yarn for a universal audience rather than create a footage-dump for superfans kept him focused. "It was important for us to tell a certain story," Winter tells GRAMMY.com. "We found so much great stuff that [spoke] to his inner life. It motivated us to stay on track."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Winter about what sparked his interest in telling Zappa's story and why Zappa's legacy endures almost 30 years after his untimely death.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let's begin by discussing how you discovered Zappa. What are your favorite songs or albums by him?
I first became aware of him on Saturday Night Live. I have an older brother [Stephen] who's a musician, so I knew the music. As I got older, I became much more appreciative of his music, especially the expansiveness of it. That fact that he wasn't just a rock guitar player or even just a rock musician.
As for specific records, [1969's] Hot Rats had the biggest impact on me, and then I came to love his orchestral music, such as [1993's] The Yellow Shark.
Those are great ones! What attracted you to making this documentary?
I was interested in who he was as an artist and his relationship to his art, his fellow artists, and the politics of the time. It was the full complexity of the man I wanted to show—more than just a standard music documentary or a standard cradle-to-grave biopic.
That's one of the best aspects of Zappa: it even appeals to people who aren't necessarily fans of his. There's a lot of pathos to it, with sadness beneath the happier aspects.
Yeah, I mean, his life was tragic in that he died so prematurely [in 1993, from prostate cancer]. He faced the consequences for living as he did, and the film tries to chart the ups and downs of his life in that way. It's not just a celebration but also an examination of what it means to be an artist.
You also interviewed former Zappa musicians who express that he was a bit of a tough leader at times, but that's what was needed to get the band to perform properly.
Right. I wanted to get at the root of what was—not unfairly, but maybe superficially, a reputation he had for being a martinet. I had a suspicion that the artists I would speak to would paint a more comprehensive picture of how he was.
I was so grateful for those interviews and for having a sense of a man who had a very specific vision, yes, but who also was extremely collaborative with his fellow musicians, with his family, and with his audience. He was very curious about a broader view and working with others.
I didn't have a problem getting to people, either, and I only wanted people I felt were able to speak vehemently about having worked with Zappa and experiencing his inner life.
Zappa is far from your first documentary. What did you learn from doing those prior films that influenced this one? How was making Zappa a different process?
There was an aspect of this far beyond anything I'd done before: the sheer amount of media that we had to work with. We had to preserve a lot of the media that was in Zappa's home. Then, we had to go through all that media [laughs] and figure out what we wanted to use.
We benefited from doing a preservation project to get that media into shape, which took us a couple of years. It allowed us to figure out exactly what to choose. I think that at least 98 percent of the archival footage we used has never been seen or heard before.
There was an exhaustive process of rebuilding things to make them coherent. Sometimes, we'd find a piece a film from one time and then search for the right sound and sync it up somehow. Some of that took years, and it was like finding the Holy Grail when we finally located the proper audio for a piece of visual that we wanted to use. It's been an extraordinary journey, to put it mildly [laughs].
From what I understand, the Zappa family—and especially his late wife, Gail—were very private and particular about who would get access to the archives, vaults, et cetera. I'm sure other people have tried to see and hear those things before but couldn't. I wonder what led to you being able to look through all of that.
Well, I pitched Gail a way of telling the story, and she just happened to like it. Many people had come to her asking to make much more standard music docs or legacy docs about Frank, sort of ignoring the broader spectrum of who he was and what he represented.
I was only interested in telling a story about him as an artist and as a man pitted against his time, dealing with the consequences of committing to living a particular life. That's what she wanted someone to tell. I didn't know that when I pitched her, so I was glad. I expected her to tell me to get lost, to be honest with you.
I guess it's all about the angle of the story.
She was notoriously a tough cookie, and I knew that going in. There was a good chance that she wasn't going to like what I wanted to do. That would've been fine. It would've been twenty minutes out of my life instead of six years.
Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release | Photo: Roelof Kiers/Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
What were some of the most surprising things that you learned about him? What did you have to cut?
We had the mandate to tell a very specific story, and that gave us parameters. It helped us weed out the stuff that didn't fit. We had over 1,000 hours of unseen and unheard media; we could've made a 10-part series, no problem. I wasn't distracted by it, though. Mike Nichols, the editor, and I were pretty determined to craft a very coherent narrative, so we didn't worry about many of the media we had. Let it get used by the next people who come along. [Laughs].
Have you discovered any bands that are inspired by Zappa?
Oh, there are so many, from classical musicians to pop and rock musicians. Artists like Beck, “Weird Al" Yankovic and Weezer. The list could just go on and on. There aren't too many popular bands who don't have a Zappa influence, even if they don't know it. Also, a lot of avant-garde composers.
Zappa had one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history. How has the reception been so far?
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It's a film that I wanted to see out in the world, and I believe that Zappa's story was extraordinary and untold. I was hopeful that others would want to see it, too.
I was never a fanatic—more just a fan. This movie is aimed at anyone who likes an interesting and compelling story. That was the gamble we took when we set out to make it, and I couldn't be happier with how it's being received.