Alex Winter: Frank Zappa would be understood much better today (exclusive)

Simon Bland
·9-min read
Composite image showing Frank Zappa (L) and director Alex Winter (R) (Altitude)
Composite image showing Frank Zappa (L) and director Alex Winter (R) (Altitude)

You may know him best as Bill S Preston Esq from last year’s feel-good threequel Bill & Ted Face The Music but star Alex Winter has spent the better part of the last decade becoming one of the most exciting documentary filmmakers working today. For his latest feature, the actor/director heads into the elusive vault of musician, composer, non-conformist, polymath and icon Frank Zappa to present a detailed portrait of a singular talent that’s simultaneously epic and intimate. 

By sifting through hours of rare and never-before-seen archival footage and speaking to those closest to the man himself, including his widow Gail Zappa and long-time collaborators Steve Vai, Ruth Underwood and Pamela Des Barres, Winter has crafted a film (out now in the UK & Ireland) that’s engaging for Zappa-fanatics and newcomers alike. 

To learn more, we spoke to the director about uncovering vault treasures, condensing Zappa’s staggering workload into a manageable run-time and the timely topic of his next project...

Yahoo: The Zappa vault is huge. Were you apprehensive about embarking on this project?

Alex Winter: I was somewhat astounded by the scope of the vault itself when I saw it. It was a lot bigger than I expected and there was a lot in there. That’s a dream for a documentarian – but it also means all that stuff has to be worked out. We knew it was going to be a big issue for us. That was two years of my life just going through the vault, doing preservation work and raising money to do the preservation work. 

Read more: Zappa Review: Alex Winter’s documentary captures the skewed passion of Frank Zappa

For the doc itself, I knew I didn’t want to try to tell every part of his story – that would just be too much – and I wasn’t interested in making a series. It was a daunting operation and there was no way around it. 

Did you find anything unexpected about Zappa whilst exploring the vault that took you off guard?

Man, so much. I found a lot of stuff from his childhood that no one had ever seen and it was just beautiful. A lot of it we used – stuff shot on 8mm and Super 8 – most of which Zappa had shot himself so he wasn’t in a lot of it. Then there was all this incredible footage from the Sunset Strip, which is very rare and almost unheard of to find that kind of stuff. 

A still from Zappa (Altitude)
A still from Zappa (Altitude)

I’m a big fan of his Garrick Theatre-era so finding all that material was really something. It’s also cool to see him and [Jimi] Hendrix and Joni Mitchell and look through that window into a bygone world. It’s not that long ago, there just isn’t a lot of content from that era. 

Zappa achieved so much during his life and career. Was it difficult deciding which aspects to focus on?

Yes and no. There were certain things we found that were just fantastic that we knew were going to go in – but the thing we found that was really helpful but less easy to determine was hours and hours of interviews on film, video and audio tape of Zappa himself through the years that were extremely intimate and had never been heard before. 

That was really guiding our narrative so we had to try and build a giant structure of that stuff and figure out what to use and what not to use and how to create what would appear to the audience to be a conversation with Zappa himself – which of course it wasn’t. It was a situation that was stressful but also enthralling because the material was so great. 

The documentary is as much about American counter-culture as it is about a singular talent. Were you aware of that whilst assembling it?

A still from Zappa (Altitude)
A still from Zappa (Altitude)

Yeah, it was kind of what motivated me to put this together. I wanted to tell a story about a man who lived in a specific period of time and his relationship to those times. That was my primary motivator – I wasn’t really interested in making a music doc, per se. 

Read more: 'Bill and Ted 3' director: 'They're ludicrous characters with universal qualities'

I was really focused on how extraordinary and multifaceted his life was and also telling a story about an artist trying to make art during a specific period in American history. 

Watching the documentary, you get a clear sense that Zappa felt fame would get in the way of his creativity. Do you think that was something he was wary of?

I do. I think he was very wary of it. I think he was wary of being hyper-commercialised even more than he was worried about being famous. I think he was worried about feeling like his art was going to be hamstrung by commercial needs but he wasn’t unrealistic – he was hyper-pragmatic. 

A still from Zappa (Altitude)
A still from Zappa (Altitude)

He knew he needed to be commercial enough to continue to do this work. Plus, he was very audience mindful and wasn’t elitist. He wanted to have an audience and for that audience to appreciate his work - but he wanted the work to be unencumbered by the trends of the times and commercial requirements. That was a real balancing act for him, as it would be for any artist.

He really understood the necessary evils of the music industry. Did his business smarts surprise you?

Yeah, that was really striking to me because it’s really rare for an artist to be that honest about the financial and commercial aspects of their work. I really wanted to get that into the doc – this notion of a rock star who wasn’t all about the facade of mythology – which is a big part of the rock business and the entertainment industry, period.  

Read more: 'Showbiz Kids': Matilda's Mara Wilson on the perils of fame at an early age

He was really frank about how expensive it was to make records, mount shows and what’s required to make the art he wanted to make and get it out to the public, and that’s really refreshing. I found a lot of great stuff in his private audio that we ended up using. It was such an incredibly unique and honest way into an artist. 

Despite being largely archival, you spoke to a small handful of Zappa’s closest collaborators. How did these interviews deepen your understanding of him?

A still from Zappa (Altitude)
Van Carlson. A still from Zappa (Altitude)

Editor Mike J. Nichols and I really wanted to be guided by the footage and make a film that was almost entirely archival so that’s what drove the interviews. I didn’t actually interview that many people and only interviewed them to get really specific questions answered. We’d have holes where either myself or Mike would be talking as if we were the interviewees answering the questions we didn’t have answers to to fill certain gaps – then I would go out and interview them armed with literally one or two questions. 

That being said, they were really fantastic subjects. It’s why I like filmed interviews in documentaries. Even though they get so despaired sometimes, there’s just so much humanity in someone’s face when they’re talking about something they experienced. Whether it’s Steve Vai or the wondrous Ruth Underwood, Ray White or any of the folks we got - they just had so much to say and convey emotionally. Hearing Pamela Des Barres talk about the log cabin and all the people that were flowing in and out - you really feel like you’re there.

Do you think the time where this type of multi-faceted artist can exist is over?

A still from Zappa (Altitude)
A still from Zappa (Altitude)

With someone like Zappa, who was so unique and driven, I think an artist like that would find a way anytime. I think they would just make a path. I don’t think the times he came up in were that much better suited to him. In fact, in some ways they were worse suited to him than the times we live in now, where people are a little less about pigeon-holing and a bit more open to someone like him who you can’t neatly fit into a box. 

Because of the internet and the way the world works today, and the kind of art younger people gravitate to, I think Zappa would be understood much better today than he was in his time. 

This film has been a long time coming. Have you enjoyed seeing Zappa fans react to the finished documentary?

It’s been incredibly gratifying. You really just try to make a movie that you would love and hope it’s compelling and exciting enough that other people like it too. We really didn’t set out to perform fan service. We were mindful that there was a lot of content about Zappa out there already that we didn’t want to repeat, and there were biographical details about him that we knew had not been out there that we wanted to share alongside a lot of really beautiful, personal and intimate footage of him. 

UK art for Zappa (Altitude)
UK art for Zappa (Altitude)

I didn’t expect the film to have as wide of a response as it’s had. It’s been really great to see that we’ve busted through the clutter. The film has appealed to a much broader audience that I honestly expected. 

This was a mammoth project. Where do you go from from Zappa - what’s next for you?

I really want to focus on making something that isn’t music related. We’ve just lived through a very challenging and interesting time, not just in the US but globally in terms of politics, technology and how the world functions together - or doesn’t function together. I really want to tell a story that looks at this moment we’re in. 

As a documentary filmmaker, I’m very interested in history, socio-politics, cultural impact and implications. I can’t say exactly what it is yet - but I’m diving into a story that basically does all that next. I’m very excited because it’s very much not archival and very much in the moment. 

Zappa is available to watch in the UK and Ireland NOW on Altitude.film.

Watch a clip from Zappa