“I Knew There Was a Human Being in There”: Alex Winter on Demythologizing Frank Zappa

The Director/Actor Discusses his Long-Anticipated Zappa Documentary and Why He Dislikes Most Music Docs

Movies Features Alex Winter
“I Knew There Was a Human Being in There”: Alex Winter on Demythologizing Frank Zappa

Has there ever been a more slippery subject for a rockumentary than Frank Zappa? The iconoclastic musician and composer refused easy categorization, transcended genre, scoffed at commercial appeal, created a truly ungodly amount of music during his lifetime, and once described being interviewed as “two steps removed from the Inquisition.” Since his 1993 death, Zappa’s large discography has remained daunting to outsiders, his archives closely guarded by his family estate.

So it’s no wonder that Zappa, the sprawling, surprisingly moving new documentary by actor-turned-documentarian Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), took longer to make than Zappa’s own quadruple album Läther. Spanning from the musician’s early fascinations with film editing and Edgard Varèse to his ’70s heyday, ’80s political sparring, and late-in-life immersion in classical composition, Winter’s film has been hailed as the definitive Zappa documentary, and with good reason. It wonderfully captures the man’s maddening contradictions, and is the first film created with access to Zappa’s vast private archives, enabling Winter to draw on intimate home footage and unseen interviews in order to tell Zappa’s story in his own words.

Along the way, there’s rare concert footage, emotional interviews with Mothers of Invention bandmates, poignant glimpses of Zappa’s battle with cancer, and even some demonstrations of his trickiest works. (See below for an exclusive clip of former Zappa collaborator Ruth Underwood performing the notoriously complex “Black Page.”)

Winter—who spent six years on the film—chatted with Paste about all things Zappa and the extraordinary experience of sifting through the man’s enormous archives.

Paste: Tell me about your origin story with Zappa. When did you first become a fan and how?

Winter: Well, I’m a kid of the ’70s. I had an older brother who’s a musician. There were always people playing that music around me. The first time it really hit me that there was something interesting there was when I saw him on SNL. It became clear that he was more than just this rock-guitar guy. He was almost more like a George Carlin or Richard Pryor-type cultural figure, not just a rock musician.

But I didn’t really get the music until after college. It was when I was a little bit older that it dawned on me that he wasn’t really a rock musician at all. He was something else, kind of his own thing, and probably veered closer to avant-garde classical than popular music. That’s when I really got into him.

Paste: Was there a particular album that sucked you in?

Winter: No. I really loved Hot Rats. I was also a big Beefheart fan, so that was a bit of a gateway for me. But then I discovered a lot of the more classical stuff and the more irreverent and even dissonant music, which I really loved. Then I got into The Yellow Shark once that came out. So my interest in him was kind of expansive—it just kept growing as I got more of an understanding in my own head about what he was about.

Paste: Did you ever get to see him live?

Winter: Nope. In fact, the only time I ever quasi-met him was at a Dweezil [Zappa’s son] show at the Whisky, in the early ’90s. I ended up standing next to him the whole night.

Paste: Wow, what was that interaction like?

Winter: It was nothing juicy. He was a pretty sober guy. Like a lot of people who were really extroverted onstage, he was pretty soft-spoken. It was almost like George Carlin in some ways. You’d expect a more over-the-top persona, and you’d get a more sober, measured person in their private life.

Paste: Your film is the first film on Zappa that gained access to his archives. What was the process of gaining the trust and participation of Zappa’s family?

Winter: With every doc, you start with whoever has the rights. In this case, that was Gail Zappa, his widow, who had run his label through most of his career and was kind of a powerhouse in the music industry. I was well aware of Gail. I had a take on how I wanted to tell his story. You pitch stuff on docs all the time that don’t happen. I didn’t particularly think this was going to happen, because I knew she was a tough cookie and I knew she had said no to a lot of people. But I had a specific take, and I thought, ‘If they don’t like this take, I wouldn’t want to do it anyway, and if they do, that would be great.’

So I pitched it to her, and she really, really liked the take. I wasn’t interested in making a music doc or a doc that looked at Zappa as a ’70s rock god. That really wasn’t how I saw him. I was much more interested in him as a cultural figure and as an artist. And she said, “Look, in order to tell the story you want to tell, you’re gonna need the vault material. You won’t be able to find that story out in the world, because that media is just not out in the world.” She responded to my thesis. We also became friends. She had terminal cancer at that point. She did not expect to go any time soon—she expected to see the film all the way through and knew it was going to take some time. It turned out she had far less time left than she even realized.

I spent quite a bit of time up at the house that year, and I started filming her right away, just on my own dime. We started to develop a friendship and a trust. And then I got to work on preserving the vault, which took two years.

Paste: Where is the vault physically?

Winter: Well, it was historically in a set of rooms in the basement of their house in Laurel Canyon. In [Gail’s] will, she demanded that the kids sell the house. So they sold it to Lady Gaga, which is pretty great. Apparently she kept it in its form, with a musical studio and all that jazz. Then they moved [Zappa’s vault] to a facility specifically designed for archives and vault material of this kind. That’s where it is now, and that’s where I was working on it.

Paste: You must have spent hundreds of hours in that vault.

Winter: I mean, I did. My team did. For two years, I was just engaged in archiving the vault. It was a titanic undertaking. We did a Kickstarter campaign, raised quite a bit of money, and all that money went to archival preservation, which is incredibly expensive. That was the lion’s share of my life for a while.

Paste: What was the single most mind-blowing thing you found in Zappa’s vault?

Winter: Every day we would find something mind-blowing. He was such a prolific artist. He was a filmmaker starting when he was very young; started shooting and cutting 8 mm and Super 8 when he was in his early teens. He was documenting his own life around that time. He was a rigorous collector of his own material. There were just shelves and shelves of home videos, hours and hours of interviews he did that had never been seen or heard.

And it was a document of an incredible era in American history, which is why I wanted to make the film in the first place, because we were really going from the ’40s to the early ’90s. I was finding 16 mm footage of Sunset Strip in the late ’60s that just does not exist anywhere. If you go into research and archive, you can’t find that stuff. There’s very little documentation of that heyday on the Strip. So that was mind-blowing. [And] just beautiful, beautiful footage of his personal life. That was the stuff that was the most moving for me to find.

Paste: Zappa wasn’t known for being a particularly sensitive guy. Your documentary shows a more intimate side to him that one would not get from his music.

Winter: I knew there was a human being in there. And I knew he was very protective of his image. I was aware that the persona he presented to the public, which was all anyone had ever really seen in films up until now, wasn’t really him. I mean, it was an aspect of him, but it was a controlled, superficial aspect of him. I wanted to demythologize him, just like I wanted to demythologize the rock ’n’ roll image. Zappa himself had pretty arduously worked to demythologize this idea of what it means to be a pop performer. Certainly a major part of what we were looking to do was create a narrative out of his emotional inner life and not the outer facts of his life.

Paste: It’s moving to hear from some of the Mothers of Invention. Bunk Gardner says Zappa only shook his hand and said “Good job” once in all those years. I get the sense that Zappa was a very difficult and demanding person to work, but they still revered him.

Winter: One of the things that drew me to doing this was that there were these outwardly paradoxical or dualistic aspects to him. Which I think is pretty common for any human being. I think [that’s] part of what it means to be human.

Now, frankly, I was dealing with very bright people. The types of people that Frank played with tended to be very intelligent. Thankfully, they were also self-reflective and honest. I was grateful that the interviews I got were warts and all, but not just a ragging session. Pretty much everybody here—they go the full spectrum. They got mad at Frank all over again, all these years later. And they fell in love with him all over again. And they were crying. And they were grateful. And they were angry. It was a full range of emotion.

Paste: The last 20 minutes of the documentary were difficult to watch. I knew Zappa died before his time, but your documentary really gave me the sense he wasn’t ready to die. He wanted to accomplish so much more when he got cancer.

Winter: They did give him six months [to live], and he went several years beyond that. So he had good reason to think he was going to keep going. I don’t get into this because it would’ve been too complicated, but Zappa was already working on putting another rock band together, with Steve Vai and Scott Thunes and Ruth [Underwood]. And the Ensemble Modern. And combining the classical stuff with more of the rock stuff and going out on the road with that. Then he got really sick and then he basically went into hospice and died.

This is a guy who always made lots of stuff. And I think, without putting too much of a fine point on the climax of his life, he finally got a point where he had people who were playing the full range of his music the way he wanted it to be played and it had taken his whole life to get there. There must have been an aspect of him that was thinking, ‘Well, shit, now it’s all over.’

Paste: He was such a tireless, prolific figure for so long. You can sense his frustration that he physically couldn’t keep creating the things he wanted to create. I imagine it was emotional to put that part of the documentary together.

Winter: Yeah. And Gail had something similar happen to her. She had terminal cancer, but we all expected her to be around for a while. Suddenly she was gone before I even started making the doc, which was very disappointing to me. I know that’s an incredibly selfish thing to say, but obviously I was devastated by her death. Look, we were an independent film. We were not a Zappa family movie. I had final cut, and the film was made by my production company, not Zappa Inc. But I would have very much liked to have had her there through the process. Suddenly I felt like my editor and I were there with all the most intimate details of these two people’s lives in our hands, and they’re both gone. It was bittersweet.

Paste: After Gail Zappa’s death, there was a very public and bitter feud between Zappa’s children regarding his estate. How did that complicate the film?

Winter: It had nothing to do with it. I really had nothing to do with any of that. The deal that I made, legally, was with Gail. And we were way off and running on the film and the media and the archival work before she passed.

Paste: Are there any Zappa albums or songs you’ve developed a new appreciation for during this process?

Winter: I was absolutely immersed in his music and his life for six years. But the short answer is, yes! Of course! I mean, I had theories about him going in that he was kind of a mixture of Albert Ayler and Ernie Kovacs and Spike Jonze. He was more of an amalgam of these avant-garde and classically oriented musicians than the ’70s rock musicians he’s often compared to. I just dove deep into his world and came away with a deep understanding of how he used time signatures, and his instrumentation, and the similarities between the classical and the synclavier and the rock and the strange doo-wop-y stuff he did. There’s a very hard throughline through all that music and consistency to it. I mean, I can talk to you for hours.

I always loved the classical stuff. I always loved The Yellow Shark. But there was just a deeper understanding of his genius and why he has the significance he does. I had this idea of having Kronos play the piece he wrote for them that had never been recorded. Doing that—and doing “The Black Page” with Ruth Underwood and Joe Travers, and talking to other musicians who were having to relearn his work—also gave me a much deeper appreciation.

I mean, it took Kronos a year to learn “None of the Above.” I talked to David Harrington [founder of the Kronos Quartet] and he said he was absolutely down to do it, but to literally mark his calendar and call him back in a year because that’s how complicated the piece was. It’s not like he’s doing that to musicians just to mess with them. It’s a gorgeous piece of music. But it’s hard.

Paste: How did the new Bill & Ted movie complicate or slow down the process of finishing the doc?

Winter: Not at all. We were picture-locked pretty much when I left to do [Bill & Ted Face the Music]. But we had so much work to do with legal rights and clearances that my team was still working on legal rights and clearances three months after I got back from Bill & Ted.

Paste: Do you think Bill and Ted would be fans of Zappa?

Winter: I think old Bill and Ted would be. But young Bill and Ted? I think it would have gone clean over their heads. The thing is, Steve Vai wrote the final piece that we play at the end of Bogus Journey.

Paste: Didn’t he do the air-guitar tapping?

Winter: Yeah. And Dweezil has got songs in both movies. When I went to the Zappa house, both movie soundtrack cassettes were in Zappa’s music collection, right in his office, which I thought was hilarious.

Paste: Zappa’s politics are also a big part of your film. He was a champion of free expression and free speech at a time when free speech was very much part of the left movement. It feels like free speech is now more of a rallying cry for the Right. How do you think Zappa would fit into the politics of the Trump era?

Winter: Well, I wouldn’t agree that free speech has become a far-right [issue]. I think it is wholeheartedly a left, progressive right. I think the Right uses it in bad faith.

Paste: Yeah, it’s kind of a cynical rallying cry—

Winter: I don’t think they really want free speech. I think they just want the Libs to shut up. I have to say that in relationship to Zappa, because absolutely everyone believes they have Zappa nailed. The left thinks he would be one of theirs. The Republicans think without a doubt he would be Republican and would have voted for Trump. The Libertarians are convinced he would be a card-carrying Libertarian. I’m not going to presume to say where he fits. I certainly feel that my politics are more left than his were.

What I love about Zappa, regardless of what card he carried in his wallet, [is that] he was, to the bone, anti-fascist, pro-constitution, and pro-democracy. It tells you a lot that he literally created the Rock the Vote movement. He put voter registration booths in the lobby of his concerts. He wanted the public to be engaged. That is absolutely antithetical to the authoritarian administration we have now and most of the Right and far-right and even many of the centrists. He was so vocal and so public, he made a lot of enemies at that time. But he put his money where his mouth was, over and over again. Those were his core beliefs: He was pro-democracy, very pro-constitution, pro-civic engagement, and very anti-fascist and very anti-authoritarian.

Paste: He openly mused about wanting to run for president as well.

Winter: He did. It was a way to draw people’s attention to issues he thought mattered. It was also a way to say, “Look, any citizen could do what I’m doing.”

There’s a huge difference between the Zappa who’s starting to talk politics in the late ’60s, and he’s very smug. He’s like your typical rock ’n’ roller who’s like “The man is bullshit, fuck the man, we need to revolt in the streets.” There’s a great arc of maturation from that to the guy who literally goes in front of the Senate committee, when no one else will show up, and gives an impassioned plea for the rights of citizens and the rights of art. I just love who he became. It’s very inspiring.

Paste: I was listening to a podcast interview with you, and you mentioned that you usually don’t like music documentaries. What don’t you like about most of them?

Winter: Well, there are music documentaries I love that were hugely inspirational to me. Some of my favorite documentaries are music documentaries—Gimme Shelter, Dont Look Back, and towering above all of them is Cocksucker Blues, which I’d argue is the biggest influence on this film of any documentary. In the modern era, I think what Brett Morgen did with Montage of Heck is phenomenal and was helpful to me because it wasn’t a bog-standard music doc. It was more interested in digging into the interior life of someone who’d been dead, and very evasive. I met [Kurt] Cobain many times. I loved his music, but it was literally like talking to a block of concrete.

And Zappa, to me, had similar challenges. What I wanted to avoid here was these kinds of “legacy” music docs. The thing I like about documentaries is their ability to strip mine mythologizing and the kind of bullshit that can get thrown around major figures. A lot of the docs I’ve made have been about stripping away that superficial wall and getting at what’s actually underneath—even if it’s less sexy, less grandiose. When I don’t like music docs, what they’re doing is just creating more bullshit. They’re using the propagandistic quality of film, which is very powerful, to create more of a barrier between the human being they’re talking about and the audience.

Paste: I’m thinking about music docs where there are all these music critics waxing philosophical about—

Winter: Or like a cavalcade of celebrities, one celebrity after another, telling you why they love this person that they probably never met. Or like, very quasi-heroic slow-motion shots of artists waltzing into a recording studio and slowly flicking all the lights. There’s a million of these. They’re horrible.

Paste: What do you hope someone who has no prior knowledge of Frank Zappa takes away from your film?

Winter: That he’s just a great story about an extraordinary human being. It shouldn’t matter whether you like him, don’t like him, know him, don’t know him. I wouldn’t have spent six years on this if I didn’t believe it was an extremely compelling story.

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