Musician and composer Frank Zappa died in December 1993, leaving behind a legacy filled with as much adulation for his vast body of work as there was mystery about what all of it meant. Zappa hit the L.A. underground music scene in the mid-60s, becoming a live favorite as the hippie movement began experimenting with drug-fueled experiences – Zappa himself never took part in such things. Over the next nearly thirty decades, Zappa always kept his fans guessing by having a few odd hits like Valley Girl in 1982, and then quickly turning around and recording some of his classical music with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Quite a few documentary filmmakers have tried to navigate through the intricate life of this legendary musician, but Alex Winter’s new doc Zappa might be the definitive look at the enigma that was Zappa, being the first one made in cooperation with the Zappa family, including late wife Gail and son Ahmed, as well as with access to the equally legendary vault where Zappa kept his life’s work archived. It also features interviews with many of the musicians who played with him over the years.
Although Winter might forever be known for playing “Bill” in the Bill and Ted movies, he’s also become a fairly prolific filmmaker, particularly when it comes to documentaries, Zappa being his sixth in the past seven years.
“I remember seeing Dweezil at the Whisky and standing next to Frank, like back in the early 90s,” Winter told Below the Line over the phone a few weeks back about his film’s origins. “I had known Ahmed and we talked about doing stuff together over the years. Ahmed works in the industry, and he made the connection for me with Gail. He was just very candid and said, ‘Look, she’s probably not going to say yes. It’s her call, but I’m happy to give you her information,’ and then we set up a meeting and and we hit it off.”
“Glenn Zipper, my producer, and I came up with the idea of doing the film back at the end of 2014,” he continued. “I pitched Gail at the beginning of 2015. Mike Nichols, who ended up cutting the film, we made a very short mood reel, because I had a very specific idea for what I wanted the way in to be and and how to tell the story. We showed her that and then I just sat and talked to her for a long time about what I thought that film was, what I thought Frank was, and what I thought I had not seen about him. To me, this is a film about an artist who lived at a very specific period in American history and was very engaged with those times. It was a way in that she would have either responded to or not; I was ready to accept either.”
“She loved the idea of doing a story about Frank that was more about his life as an artist, and not a typical music doc type way in,” he added about how he begun what would be a five-year project. “She gave me access to the vault, and I began interviewing her immediately. I was at the house constantly, all of 2015, talking to her all the time. We formed a really, really strong friendship, actually, then I would bring a camera up. We had no financing for the film yet, so I was literally just going up and filming her. Often times my kid would be the PA.”
“I usually work that way anyway, just to get research and background on subjects,” he elaborated. “I’ll just start setting up preliminary interviews, but in her case, she ended up having a major health dip in her cancer that was unexpected, so we lost her much sooner than we expected. She thought she was going to be around with me making the film and beyond. They ended up being the interviews in the film itself.”
After Gail’s death, Winter’s work began in earnest. “Gail ran Zappa Records during Frank’s life and she ran it after his death. Gail’s been the driving force. She was an amazing person who did a lot of extraordinary things, but she really helped preserve Frank’s music and keep Frank’s music out there and alive. I spent two years just preserving archival media in the vault, and then after that process was done, we went and raised money to make the film.”
Helping Winter manage the archive was Joe Travers, known as Zappa’s “Vaulmeister,” and Gail’s existing team continued to work with the filmmaker after her passing. “Ahmet, her son, became my point after she passed, as far as that was concerned, but my film was totally independent,” Winter said. “I was making it with my production company, we’re off on our own. We were in communication and transparent with them, but it wasn’t their film. It was ours. And that was the arrangement I’d made with Gail.”
Eventually, our conversation got around to restoration, and Winter says the footage and audio found in the archives involved “an enormous amount.” “I rerouted my life when I went down and saw that, because I realized that we were going to need to raise a lot of money and spend a lot of time on preservation,” he explained. “We did a Kickstarter and raised a million and a quarter, and all of that backer money went to preserving endangered vault material. It was an extremely elaborate process that took me and my team a full two years to get through, but we came out the other end, and we had saved all the endangered material and helped organize the lion’s share of other material.”
“Everything took time to find,” Winter said about the process of finding material. “It was like an archeological dig. Often times, we’d find pieces of film that were broken up — one piece didn’t fit another, etc. It was kind of endless in that way, but almost every day we found pieces of gold. Whether it was a film from the Sunset Strip in the ‘60s that no one had ever seen. We basically set up and started looking at the material during the whole preservation process, so we could really hit the ground running once we had gotten the film financed.”
“I think pretty much all the performances that we used are vault material performances,” he said when asked about some of the previously-unseen footage. “He was very diligent about collecting and preserving media of his, not just performance, but also interviews, and other personal types of media and art that he made. The vault is really vast.”
When asked about finding and talking to some of the musicians that worked with Zappa over the decades, Winter explained, “I was not looking for that many people. I was looking for people who knew Frank intimately, and they were very aware that I had access to the vault and that I was making a film that was really going to comprehensively examine him. I think that was intriguing to them.”
“We really were sticking to a two-hourish film and didn’t really want to go beyond that,” Winter responded when asked about getting all the material down to a film of reasonable length with Nichols. “We kind of kept the length relatively low. We never really let it get crazy. We had a really fat cut at one point, but it was never something I would have wanted to do.”
“I found him a very compelling person, and I really believe that he’ll be compelling to anyone, hopefully,” Winter concludes. “That’s what I want people to get out of it. He was extraordinary person who lived in extraordinary times. I think it’s a story worth telling. So hopefully, people will like that and respond to that.”
Zappa is now available via virtual screenings across the country.
All phots courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.