Alex Winter: ‘Zappa’

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Alex Winter. Photo courtesy of Philip Cheung.

This week Elvis sits down with actor and director Alex Winter, whose new documentary “Zappa” chronicles the life and performance of avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa. Winter’s films as a director include “Downloaded,” “Deep Web” and “Showbiz Kids.” He is also known as an actor for his role as “Bill” in the “Bill and Ted” trilogy. Winter talks about why his pitch to Zappa’s widow about his approach to the film allowed him access to previously unreleased film footage. He talks about Zappa’s unique and misunderstood relationship with his audience and the similarities between Prince and Zappa’s collagist approaches to their art.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, who some of us know as an actor, I think is just as important a documentary filmmaker. One of my favorites is his film of about 10 years ago, "Downloaded," which, in a lot of ways, sets the stage for his new film: a really penetrating and insightful look at Frank Zappa called "Zappa." My guest is Alex Winter. One of the things that I think the film really nails about Zappa, and how it permeated every aspect of his life, is his deadpan impatience.

Alex Winter: Yeah, he's a droll, droll person. I think that isn't what people immediately associate with him. But what you come to learn about him very quickly is he's actually a pretty sober and droll person, at the heart of it all. 

KCRW: Sober being a keyword in so many ways. But also, I think you get the sense, from all the incredible contributors who worked with him that you get for the film the fact that he felt, and unfortunately, justifiably so, that the clock was running. He was a very driven artist.

Winter: I wouldn't call him a workaholic; I find that kind of a dismissive and hyper generalized term. But he was very driven, whatever he was doing, and he started making art, very young, started making films in his early teens, and even then he was cutting them up and reconfiguring them and adding to them and drawing on them. 

KCRW: And I think because the work had the dynamism of satire, he was written off by a lot of people as just a jokester, or somebody who wasn't serious about the work. I think people mistook him for somebody who's incredibly cynical about his work, but in fact, was not.

Winter: Absolutely that's true. When I first pitched this, my take on telling Frank's life story to Gail Zappa, his widow, who has since passed on, that was very much my entry point.  I think that I was fascinated by him for some of the reasons that caused him to be misunderstood by the times. He wasn't particularly interested in getting into a particular classification at a time when classification was everything, especially in the 60s, he was resistant to the idea of making his music more serious or more commercial. And he used humor, like an instrument, much like other avant garde musicians, including Varese, whom he was very inspired by. So he was very misunderstood, but I found him fascinating since I was young. I was very into Ernie Kovacs and other artists of that nature and Zappa seemed to be more fitting with them than the guitar playing rock gods of the time.

KCRW: I think almost anytime somebody is thought of as being funny, their gifts are diminished, in some way, because people think it's easy to be funny, but, in fact, with both Kovacs and Zappa, I think they looked at the totality of popular culture and were able to sort of weave these things together in a way that we now will call intertextualization.

Winter: I agree. And I think that it's easier in some ways for people to accommodate artists like that in this day and age because of the internet and because of the kind of flattening or democratization to the degree that but the widespread nature of culture by way of technology and just, the way cultures have evolved. 

I have kids, and I remember how my eldest, who's now 22, discovered Zappa very much on his own on YouTube. And so for him, he didn't have any issues with Zappa. He didn't have any problem with the disparity between his orchestral music and his rock music, his 60s music and his 80s music, because it was all immediately available to him in a way that just allowed him to process Zappa as an artist.

KCRW: What you're talking about is the way people think now that the whole world is joined that was really, incredibly radical, not only in Varese's time, certainly, but for Zappa as well, where even the rock press was being reductive about that. And because I think a lot of this is about not understanding the level of musicianship that he brought to this, he was equally dismissive of that press as well, so that made for a really interesting relationship.

Winter: It did, and the thing I really loved about Zappa, which I knew a little of going in, which is why I have so much empathy for him despite the problematic aspects of his nature, I knew that there was a level of play there, while he put on the front of not caring about the press and being even openly antagonistic towards them. He wasn't actually inwardly dismissive of them. 

One of the first discoveries I made, when I first began working on the vault material was that there were hours and hours and hours of never before heard interview content with Zappa and other journalists that had never seen the light of day. If someone came to his house for an interview, they would get their soundbite, whether it was Rolling Stone, or KRock, or whomever. But he would say, look, if you're coming over, I'm going to set up a video camera or film camera or audio machine, and we're just gonna talk, and I keep it, and I own it. And you get your sound bite. He did that his entire life, and so we found just hour upon hour, and it wasn't him pontificating in a grandiose or egocentric way. He was engaging with these journalists and asking them questions and drawing out their opinions. And it was a really beautiful thing to discover, because it was what I suspected was really going on under the surface. And it was nice to see that that was truly who he was.

KCRW: There's something in the best way, childlike about him. There's an eagerness about experience, that I think this film really encapsulates.

Winter: We were very taken with Zappa's youthful films that he made and how he would re-cut home movies that he made with his siblings or how he would take his mother and father's wedding footage and recut it and cut Godzilla films and do it almost like Stan Brakhage really, quite artistically reorient the material and draw on it. That aspect of moment by moment play never left his work all the way up to "G Spot Tornado," which is the orchestral piece that we actually end the film with. That was performed just before his death, which is a very sophisticated piece of music, but absolutely retains a lot of that childlike innocence and immediacy. And I think the immediacy is just as important;  he really talks about being in the moment and not in a Ram Dass sort of way, though that has validity as well. But really more of the childlike way that you're talking about: really being alive and engaged with your moment.

KCRW: I would like to ask you about that bookend of the orchestral piece that you're talking about here, because I think that shows his interplay with the audience; it shows how he plays with musicians; it shows how he habits stage in a weird way. It's kind of almost all of Frank Zappa in one bite. 

Winter: It was very important to us to end with that performance, for the reasons that you're describing. We really felt strongly that it was a kind of nexus point for him artistically. But also there's so much play as these performers dancing on the stage in front of this very grand orchestra that he's conducting. So there's a sense of wanting to pull against the seriousness of the moment, but not for the sake of provocation or to diminish his work. It was never a way to denigrate his own work, or somehow diminish the seriousness of it. It was to retain that sense of play and to not allow a work of art to get stultified and self serious. I love that performance in Prague because it is in a very stately hall. And yet there is so much play happening on the stage and in the music itself. 

During production, I was getting calls from all sorts of people telling me they really knew who Zappa was. I'm going to tell you who he is, so you can make the film correctly, and everyone was sure they had him nailed. Zappa was this; no Zappa was that. No, I played with him for 20 years, he was absolutely this. And he really was all of those things and none of those things, and there were a lot of theories floating around that Zappa really didn't want to be a rock musician. He just wanted to be taken seriously as a classical composer, and I really don't think that's true.

KCRW: Even in his life he was aware of audience and responding to what audience was because he even turned people he worked with and family members into audience. As somebody with a theatrical background, such as yourself, and you're not strictly speaking just a documentarian, you understand what theatre does and performances. Was that the Zappa you wanted to bring out?

Winter: Absolutely. I came from a family of modern dancers, and there was a lot of similar eclectic blend of music in the household I grew up in. My family was choreographing to Schoenberg, and then they'd be choreographing to Pink Floyd. It was just the era, and I grew up watching my parents create a business around their art by the seat of their pants at the time, and it was quite difficult in this country, especially during the Reagan era and the NEA was gutted. Then I started acting on stage when I was about five or six years old, and then I became a professional actor by nine or 10. I was on Broadway by 12. So theater and especially the avant garde theater has been one of my biggest influences artistically. 

The very first question I asked Gail Zappa, when I met with her and began talking about the film was, I was well aware of this unique period in Zappa's life where he had tried to make a hit record in the 60s. He left LA and he moved to New York, and he took up residence at the Garrick Theatre, which was a small Off Broadway theater down in the West Village. They would walk onto stage at 10 in the morning, and they would walk off at 10 that night, and audiences were free to come and go, and they were there for months. That was his Hamburg, and that was really where he formed his artistic identity. His identity was so connected to audience and a fine tuned understanding of his relationship to the audience. And these experiences were as theatrical as they were musical. Sometimes they wouldn't play; it was the 60s, they would create satires, or they would start engaging with the members of the audience.  

KCRW: That's why I was asking you about your interest in his relationship to audience because he was sort of abusing people in the audience or turning his back on them, as mentioned in the film, all of which are pretty radical things for somebody who was perceived to be a pop musician to do. And that connects him to people as disparate as Miles Davis and Andy Kaufman. I feel like there's a kind of theater aspect to all these artists.  

Winter: There's no doubt he was connecting with what was going on around him, including Miles. I knew he was a huge fan of Coltrane. He was in New York, where everything was theatrical and the Velvet Underground and the Warhol factory experience. There was a lot of interaction between him and other people who were doing that sort of thing. But I do think at the end of the day, he wanted to define himself as an artist and in ways that made him comfortable, and that artist was always very engaged with his audience. 

KCRW: As a documentarian, you have an interest in the way people connect, and that could be "Deep Web" as well. I mean the way, as the world changes, people trying to find ways to connect, and we could chart Zappa moving from one technology to the next, but still wanting to keep the idea of connecting in person alive. 

Winter: I agree, and that has very much been my interest in other technology docs I've made, and even the things that don't touch on technology, like the doc we just did on children and show business, which also very much got into public figures that are seen as kind of alienated and disconnected from the society around them, but how connected they actually are and what that experience is like. I find that fascinating. 

Certainly, we're living at a time where the idea of what it means to have a community is radically changing. So I think it's hard not to be attuned to that at the moment. And I think that the big shifts that are happening culturally and politically, are largely about what is community, how do communities identify themselves? How are they formed? And how do you engage with those communities? Zappa didn't go up on stage and turn his back to the audience for the exact same reasons that Miles did; I'm sure he was inspired by Miles to a degree. But Zappa was doing it to engage the audience, to draw them closer to him. And he would push and pull the audience in that way through a performance just as he would with his music or something would get serious, and then it would get melancholy, and then it would just become completely silly and ribald, and he wanted you to hang with that. He wanted to see how long he could keep you hanging with that, so that you would engage on a deeper level, which is an interesting and not altogether, un-risky way to go about making a living.

KCRW: That's one way. I thought about this film, in some ways like an orchestral composition. We see the footage of Zappa with Moon as an infant; it feels almost like a musical rest in the middle of the film.

Winter: That's one of the first times we introduced significant music that isn't Frank's. It's a Stravinsky piece that we use there, and we were very mindful of the audience. We were drawing to some degree from Zappa's own approaches to largely the way he came at film. We got a lot from being able to pour through so much of his home movies and seeing the way he edited and what his approach was to building film, but also to the way he approached his music. Not trying to in any way mimic him; it was really just kind of riffing on it and creating a sense of the man through the style of edit.

KCRW: Watching the docs again, I feel you come up with a kind of editing rhythms and storytelling modes to echo the feel of the subject.

Winter: Yes, that was very, very important to us. We were not trying to be stylistically unconventional for its own sake. I did not want to make an irreverent Zappa movie because he was irreverent. We really wanted to tell a story. And we really wanted to have the audience connect with his interiority and his emotional life. And it felt honestly that the best way to do that would be to reflect an aspect of his nature through the film editing itself and through the sound. An enormous amount of labor was put into the audio design. There's a lot of the vault material that you only hear and may not even realize it's what you're hearing, but it does evoke something.

KCRW: I really do think of Zappa as being a collagist, not just of music but of media. The movie goes through interesting lengths to give us a feel of what all these portions of his life feel like even down to the sound design. When Bruce Bickford is on camera, there's almost a kind of quiet because you want us to register the weight of him working with all that claymation.  You were talking about the time it took to archive and then do restoration on this incredible voluminous library you had. I was also wondering how much time it took because it's a really painstakingly crafted film. That's something I want to get across to people. 

Winter: We started working on the idea of telling a Zappa story in 2014. As we were finishing "Deep Web," Glenn Zipper, the producer, and myself were looking at what we might want to do next and we were wondering aloud why no one had tackled this. We suspected that was because Gail had not given anyone permission. When you make a doc you tend to realize if there's not a story out there, it's because someone didn't want one. So when Mike Nichols came on at the very beginning, we made a kind of abstract piece of film that was a few minutes long that conveyed the kind of story we wanted to tell, which was not your standard music legacy doc. 

It really wasn't a music doc at all. And Gail really liked it; we hit it off from the beginning and became fast friends and spent a lot of time together before she passed at the end of 2015. But she really liked the take, which was coming at Zappa, more looking at him as a composer who was interested in his times and the politics and the culture and engaged with them. I was very interested in what the consequences are of committing to a life like that, especially at that period in American history. I told her, quite frankly, from the beginning that I wanted to get into that: warts and all. And I think it just wasn't what she tended to be pitched. So we started working right away in 2015, on preserving the vault material. And that took us two years and a great deal of money and a great deal of sweat. When we got through that, we had a very profound idea of what was down there because we had been living with it up to our elbows for a couple of years. 

KCRW: There's so many different pieces of this that aren't abstract, even though he in a way lived his life as kind of an abstraction. And you really do a great job of demonstrating this. In some ways he seemed almost like he was removed from his life, and watching it as an observer.That really is hammered home when his daughter sends him the infamous note that ended up leading to "Valley Girl." 

Winter: He had a lot of internal contradictions, and he was at the forefront of the sexual revolution in the 60s and the Laurel Canyon movement. But he was also a kind of old fashioned, Italian patriarch and worked from home. I see similarities with Kubrick there. They're somewhat superficial, but someone who was very exacting, and worked non-stop, but found a way to create a work environment from his own hamlet, much like Kubrick did in England, but then, unlike Kubrick, he would go out, get on an airplane, and he would go out into the world and play. So there was a lot of a lot of duality. 

He clearly loved his children, but he also spent a lot of time away from them. And even when he was home, he could be unavailable. So we really wanted to dig into those things as much as we could. It was the sign of the times in many ways, and then in other ways, he was trying to be the best person he could given a lot of his own internal contradictions.

KCRW: You just used the phrase “sign of the times,” and when we were talking before we got started, I mentioned how similar I thought he was to Prince and an almost compulsive recorder of everything in his life, and an archivist of his own art. When someone is that prolific, and constantly inspired and engaged with the world around him, we do see connections. I could see very much the way that Kubrick worked and created this bubble around himself, but also the way that Prince was constantly recording and looking for collaborators.

Winter: Yeah, I'm glad you said it before I did, so I can hide safely behind you here because I have felt all along that by far the most comparative contemporary musician in Zappa's orbit was Prince, especially having spent as much time as I just did in Zappa's world and being as much of a Prince fan as I have been my whole life. They were very, very similar, including certain recording techniques and the collagist aspect, but not collage for its own sake, collage with an end in mind, even if it wasn't in mind: an end that would be found, that sought and found building something that was bigger than the sum of its parts. 

Zappa would work on an idea, stick it off to the shelf, and then bring it in later. He was famous later for developing a technique where they would drop other cues into the middle of existing cues. The thing that I loved when I stepped into the vault, and it must be similar for people who have stepped into Prince's very well known vault is the level of engagement he had with all of his life's work. 

You said something earlier, that he was a collagist. And the way that he was a collagist in terms of the painstaking collection of his work, was that he would take a piece of film that he had shot with his family, even in the 50s and then he would recut it in the 60s or the 70s, draw on it, and then he would digitize that. Then he would take the video and he would make a piece of art out of that video of that 50s film. And he did that constantly. So at first, we were confused when we were archiving the preservation work, because the boxes weren't labeled. We kept finding the same material, and then we realized it wasn't the same. He was taking the material, and he was reworking it, and he was reworking it again. And then he would dump all of that onto a D-1 master, and he would rework it again, and it was all different. And it blew our minds, because this is not stuff anyone's ever seen. I'm not even sure he intended for anyone to see it. But it was art to him. And it was very artistically crafted media. And of course, he did the same with his music.

KCRW: I also bring up Prince because of the same idea of audience engagement, of provoking and it's just that kind of push-pull and understanding of that, trying out different persona, which alienated audiences, especially people who didn't know them that well, and also that they were both filmmakers. There's so much to me that connected two of them.

Winter: There is and it's not lost on me that the fight that Zappa took to the Senate was largely over a Prince song, and he was defending someone who wasn't there, and he was defending an idea that wasn't even impacting him. I say that without any snark; I love Prince to death, and I could understand why Prince would not have wanted to show up at that hearing for a multitude of reasons, but I found it really lovely that they intersected in that way because of the challenges of that era. Very famously, Prince, leaving Warner's and writing "slave" on his face and the direction that he took, which was considered radical at the time, and now you look back at him and think, God, I wish more artists had done that; maybe we wouldn't be in the pickle we're currently in. They were activist artists who saw the future, and they saw that the future was not going to be great for artists.



Rebecca Mooney