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Features

Alex Winter On Finding The Real Frank Zappa

The actor/director talks his critically-acclaimed ‘ZAPPA’ film and showing the human side of the prolific artist.

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Alex Winter Zappa documentary
Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage

ZAPPA director Alex Winter has a long history of music-related credits to his name. He’s acted in a handful of films with great soundtracks (The Lost Boys and the two Bill & Ted smashes) and directed what may be the best movie about the filesharing phenomenon (Downloaded). Through it all, he’s also been a world-class Frank Zappa fan.

By the time he approached Frank’s late widow and business partner Gail Zappa about directing a biography, he’d learned as many details on Zappa’s life as a fan could gather. As Winter remembers it, he never expected Gail to say yes; that’s why he proposed a film that would remove the mystery of Frank as a person. But Gail approved, and the result is a documentary that’s already the toast of Zappaphiles.

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Winter got access to Zappa’s fabled archives, where the priceless master tapes and live footage are kept. He also got to speak with Zappa’s bandmates, family, and Gail herself about what made Frank tick. Many of his life details – from his teenage experiments as a gadgeteer to the political activism that motivated him in the 80s and beyond – are fully explored for the first time in ZAPPA.

Following the premiere of ZAPPA over “Franksgiving” weekend, Winter talked about how the film came together over the course of six years.

This interview has been condensed for length.

Zappa was famous for keeping his personal life off-limits, so how does a filmmaker penetrate that?

I knew quite a bit about his life, and when I pitched doing this to Gail, I presented a story that looked more at his interior life than just the biographical details of his musical career. She liked that idea a lot, but said, “Look, in all honesty, you can’t do that with what’s available in the world.” He was so guarded about his brand and his identity that even Gail didn’t know the extent of what we were going to find. But once we got in the Vault, we found an incredible wealth of personal material from him, a large number of first-person interviews and narration, and just sort of shooting the breeze about his life. And that gave us a road map.

As you got to know Frank through the research, what were the first revelations?

I had my suspicions that he was a warmer, more accessible person than his image led one to believe. And I immediately found that Zappa. We knew he was witty, obviously, but it’s a different kind of humor, and he was a much more accessible, warm, collaborative individual. He had all the traits we already knew. He could be crusty, difficult, and demanding, and could even be aloof.

But there was a whole other side to him that was very human and very accessible. We found that right away. Then there were details that I discovered that I didn’t know – everything from the way he worked to how much more dedicated he was to his political interests and social concerns than even I knew.

On that subject, the film focuses on the prison time he served in his early 20s after he was commissioned to make a fake sex tape for a stag party. You seem to think that was a fairly pivotal experience for him.

I really do, which is why we put so much emphasis on it. There were a couple of key emotional moments in his life that seemed to impact him heavily: Prison, being thrown off the stage in London, and that year of convalescence. Frank was someone who valued his personal liberty, his artistic liberty, and his political liberty, so any time those things were hampered, it threw him off his game.

By the same token, the film points out that he wasn’t a big target for the Parents Music Resource Center, yet he took that fight to heart.

I really admired that about him. He wasn’t part of the Filthy 15, the list of specific songs and artists that the PMRC was targeting. Of course, they had broader concerns, and they were trying to instill censorship that would’ve impacted all artists. So Zappa certainly saw where that could go in a way that would affect him. He came forward when no one else would. Much bigger artists who could’ve spoken up didn’t bother to show up or say a word about these hearings. Frank basically did all of their fighting for them.

I was knocked out by the fact that he never even listened to music seriously until he was 13, Yet somehow after that, he became…Frank Zappa. Do you just attribute that to genius?

He had an enormous creative drive from childhood and an enormous passion for life that was always there, even in the earliest days of his childhood. His first artistic interest was film. He started shooting and cutting film very, very young and he was good, unsurprisingly, and very artistic in the way he approached film. That quickly transferred over to music. I can’t diagnose him or analyze him… I mean, he certainly had what one would call artistic genius, in terms of his abilities. But he worked really hard. He was very diligent and was an autodidact, but he wasn’t just an autodidact. He went to the library and taught himself, but he also listened to teachers. He had a music teacher in high school that was very influential on him, and he started writing classical scores in high school, and then discovered rock, doo-wop, and so on.

One aspect of Frank’s life that seemed especially off-limits was his relationship with Gail, but the film does address his sex life. How did you open those doors?

I had a lot of respect for Gail and I’d known about her for years. She’s very bright, very shrewd, very tough, and incredibly protective of the brand that she and her husband had both built over many decades. On the very first meeting I had with Gail – which was essentially pitching her the doc – I had nothing to lose because I didn’t think she was going to say yes. So I said, “Look, I have no interest in making a hagiography or a kind of superficial legacy doc about Zappa. I just think it’s unnecessary. I think it wouldn’t convey any of the depth of who he was.”

As a documentarian, I’m largely interested in history and a person’s relationship to the times in which they live. I was well aware of Frank being one of the first major musical artists at the front of the sexual revolution and he was older than a lot of his peers. I was also aware of the dualistic aspect of him being a family man, having four kids, and working out of his home studio. That struck me as really compelling and very much a key to who he was as a person. I said that to Gail right off the bat, that I wanted to dive into that with some depth. And, thankfully, she was ready to talk about it. I didn’t belabor it with her, but she was certainly willing to let me ask her some tough questions, which I was very grateful for.

One musician who stands out in the film is Ruth Underwood (percussionist in the early 70s band). She clearly cared deeply for Frank, and in some ways, she’s an emotional center of the film.

I was going to the house a lot once Gail gave me permission, and Ruth would be coming by. Gail was sick at that time with cancer and Ruth was coming by to bring food over, so I met Ruth several times. But what I didn’t tell her was that I’d secretly been a huge Ruth fan for years and had soaked up a lot of clips of her on YouTube, talking about playing with Zappa, her own musical education, stuff about Zappa time signatures, and other ephemera about the music itself. I always saw Ruth as having both a very articulate and almost academic understanding of the complexities of Zappa’s compositional style and this enormous heart. I knew that she was going to be a key interview for me.

You interviewed several band members from across the eras, was there anything they all had in common regarding their Zappa experience?

They had things in common no matter where they stood with him, whether it had ended very badly, which happened with Zappa sometimes. You could just be out of the band, and that would be that. He did that over and over again, as we all know. So I knew I was talking to people where there would be some contention. But you can’t make a movie about rock’n’roll and not have there be contention, no matter who it is. So I was prepared for that. But I was grateful that I didn’t get a single interview where it wasn’t ultimately clear how grateful the subjects were for their time with Zappa, even if that time was fraught. It wasn’t just the musicians. It’s the same with [animator] Bruce Bickford, where there was a lot of animosity or just water under the bridge. But underneath all that was just huge admiration for him as an artist and huge gratitude for the time they spent with him and what he drew out of them. And that was across the board.

One myth you confirm in the movie is that Zappa never used drugs.

Zappa was very anti-drug. And while I obviously cannot speak for him, I have a couple of suspicions about what was prompting that. The obvious one, which he was very vocal about, was he knew his music was hard to play. He was already frustrated that he couldn’t get the sound that he wanted often from his bandmates, no matter how hard he tried or how good they were. He assumed that – I think rightly a lot of the time – that if they were stoned out of their gourds, they would be even worse. So he didn’t want that.

But I also think that Frank was very wary of movements, at a time when movements represented everything in our country. You were a Goldwater Republican, or you were a hippie, or you were a vet, or you were a New York art person, or you were up in the Haight-Ashbury. Zappa quite vocally disavowed all of that. He hated hippies. He didn’t want to go to San Francisco and be in the Haight movement. He rebelled against the Warhol Factory and The Velvet Underground. So I think that part of his anti-drug stance, in the early days, was also a rejection of the drug culture. Just a stonewalled, “Look, if you’re going to be one of these druggie, hippie goofballs, I don’t want you in my band.” And I think that was driving a lot of it.

And yet, he did have a bit of that hippie utopianism – witness a song like “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.” He just wanted a movement on his own terms, it seems.

That’s one hundred percent true. He had all of those things. He had aspects of the Factory, for sure. There are things that he was doing at the Garrick [Theatre] that were not unlike the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and other things that were going on. Zappa just didn’t want to be part of anyone else’s gang. I think that that crossed over into his complete disinterest in radio hits. I think he was concerned that if he capitulated in any way to movements or commerciality that it would dilute the authenticity of his work and who he was as a person. Like anyone else, he may have gotten a little evangelical with that at times, or contradictory, but he’s a human being, right?

After the success of “Valley Girl,” everyone assumed he just didn’t care about a follow-up, but you make it seem more like he actively avoided one.

I think that Zappa cleansed his palate. There’s no doubt in my mind – and you can see this in all of the interviews that we’ve dug up – that he was incredibly proud of “Valley Girl.” And he was incredibly proud of the collaboration with Moon. His eyes light up when he talks about it. But I think, at the same time, he did not want to suddenly become that guy – just the “Valley Girl” guy – but the guy who made those types of songs. He’d been fighting that his whole career and he would do that on albums.

He’d have a track that was more outwardly satirical or pop culture-y, and then he’d have something else that was far more dissonant. So it wasn’t a new thing for him to battle that kind of pigeonholing, but he was probably threatened even more because it was the 80s and the MTV generation. Suddenly he was like, “Oh, no, I’m going to become the weird guy who sings the funny songs.” So off he goes to UCLA and his dissonant orchestral music.

There’s a payoff at the end of the film with the “Yellow Shark” sessions. That seems to be the moment when Frank got the kind of perfect performance he always aimed for.

I think so, and said so himself, so I don’t think we’re putting words in his mouth. Steve Vai is also very articulate about this in the film, that it was a confluence of events. He had been working on perfecting how to get an orchestra to play his music and had perfected the music itself. At the same time, he’d become such a legend in the culture that a whole generation of musicians had grown up and become great musicians who loved his music and wanted to play his music. So those things all converged with the Ensemble Modern, and he found himself in the presence of a group of musicians who were extremely good and very attuned to Zappa’s style.

There is such unmitigated joy on his face in so much of the rehearsal video that we dug up. He is just in heaven. And he’s dying and in a lot of pain. He had had cancer for a while by then, and this is the end. Certainly, the film is not trying to be this trite thing where we say his whole life was leading up to this moment, because Frank started making great art at like 14, but it was a beautiful and touching moment.

What do you think Frank would make of this film?

If we did our job right, and we made something great, and something that will last, and something that conveyed who he was, he would hate it. So, I can only hope that he would hate it [laughs].

ZAPPA is now available on-demand, while the Original Motion Picture soundtrack is available digitally and for pre-order on vinyl and CD.

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