Alex Winter was hit hard twice by the global pandemic lockdown this year, first as a director, and next as an actor. The first occasion was the premiere of his new documentary “Zappa” at SXSW in March. “We had our plane tickets, the press had seen the movie and the reviews were looking favorable, so I was looking forward to them coming out,” he sighs. “And days before—literally, days before—our screening, I had to call them and say that we couldn’t go: L.A. had just gone on lockdown. So it was really disappointing.” He laughs. “I say that with the caveat that, for those first few months, I was mostly worried that my mom was going to die—I wasn’t thinking that much about my little movie. But as the dust settled, it did become quite dispiriting.”
Things became even more dispiriting when Winter’s return to acting, reuniting him with Keanu Reeves for the long-awaited threequel “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” was also denied a theatrical life in his native America. But, as Winter explains, in both cases, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat: “Face the Music” became a surprise summer streaming hit in North America, with “Zappa” to follow it online come Thanksgiving weekend.
Six years in the making, “Zappa” offers a very different take on rock’n’roll, charting the turbulent life and times of one of the music industry’s most mercurial (and prolific) talents. Although he died of prostate cancer in 1993, aged just 52, Zappa remains a formidable figure in avant-garde art even today, as Winter’s excellent documentary shows. More than that, his savvy, sardonic political thinking, once considered satire, is becoming more relevant than ever.
Variety spoke to Winter via Zoom, in advance of its IDFA premiere.
Why did you choose to make a film about Frank Zappa? Were you a fan?
Yeah, I was certainly a big fan. But that wouldn’t have been enough to make me spend the last six years immersed in his vault. I tend to be drawn to dark subjects, whether it’s a person or a topic that has an impact on global culture in some way, or has inherent internal paradoxes or contradictions. Those are the things that I find very compelling. And Zappa as an artist coming up at the time that he did, and his relationship both to his art and to the times and the politics, are quite unique, but also I think very compelling. And I was very intrigued by making a film about making art in that period of American history, and what that would entail and what the consequences would be for someone who committed to that lifestyle. That was really my initial interest, and it was essentially what drove our narrative as well. Even though, obviously, on the face of it, it’s a story about Zappa and his life.
It’s a huge archive, and it’s very impressive that you didn’t get sidetracked by that. You could have made a whole different film on the music alone…
Yeah, I think that when I pitched the idea to Gail [Zappa], the reason that she accepted me to do this when she hadn’t accepted some people before [was because] she happened to like that take. She liked the idea that it wasn’t going to be a standard music doc, that it wasn’t going to be looking at Frank’s album-to-album career, that it wasn’t going to be looking at him through such a narrow lens but more in the context of his times.
I didn’t ask her for the vault. She said that there was just no way to tell the story the way that we wanted to tell it without the vault—that the vault spoke to his interior life in a way that nothing on the outside would. And so I had a very specific agenda with the vault material from the beginning. That was very helpful because, to your point, we could’ve made a 10-part miniseries, we could have made a movie just about making one particular album, but that really wasn’t my interest.
And Mike Nichols, the editor, and I, for the first whole part of this process, spent a couple of years just preserving archival media. Before the film was even financed. And that allowed us to really look at what was there that spoke to Frank’s inner life. And thankfully there was a lot.
With that much material, how do you decide what’s useful and what’s not?
Well, we had the benefit of time—which didn’t feel like a benefit at the time. It was just that we were impatient to get started and we didn’t have financing for the film. But we did have financing to preserve the media, which we were very eager to do. That allowed us to spend a great deal of time on the media, to contextualise it and identify it. We even built our own proprietary file-maker database for keywording a lot of the media.
Mike and I would watch it, and watch it, and watch it… The way that we went about selecting media, going from the general to the specific was this: I had written out a kind of thesis, a sort of a three-act structure. We knew it was going to change, but it laid Frank’s story out in classical narrative terms, and it gave us a foundation to work from. But we wanted to break that apart wherever we could. We knew we wanted the first act to be fairly abstract. Like any doc, but writ large because of the amount of media we had, it was a combination of following a structure and going with our gut and letting the media take us places.
How did that work out?
When we found all these home movies that Frank had made when he was very, very young, that he had spent a lot of time re-editing and drawing on and re-purposing and making collages out of, that gave us a starting point, but it also gave us an aesthetic direction, because we took a lot of cues from the way he would build things, whether it was film or flat art—because he was a draughtsman and a painter—or his music, obviously. So with those two things in mind, that’s how we got started. We were trying to follow the tenor of his style, not in a way that was mimicry or even in a way that the audience would notice, but that would give us a kind of aesthetic way into working with that media.
It’s very telling that the stories we hear about Zappa aren’t always flattering, but they do reveal some very interesting truths. Did that surprise you?
I told Gail, literally the first time I pitched her, that I wanted this to be warts and all, that I was very aware of the fact that he had many dualities. Now, I never saw Frank as all bad or all good. Many people either revere him as a god and everyone else is wrong or they think he’s just a bastard and everyone else is wrong. I always viewed him as having more dimensions than that, which a lot of people did, and I was eager to get at those. I wasn’t interested in cracking him. I wasn’t trying to solve the Zappa riddle. One of the reasons I like making documentaries is that it is not incumbent upon you as a filmmaker to fall hard on one side or the other and come up with an easily digestible definition for what makes a human being. In fact, it’s the opposite. You get to really dig into the mysteries of it and the incongruities. But I knew I was going to be talking to people who were mad at him. [Laughs] Just to answer your question!
How did those interviews go?
What was really fantastic about those interviews, which was almost without exception and may have actually been without exception, is that you get someone coming to sit down, and… They weren’t all [exactly] like this, but some of the people that had bigger axes to grind, let’s say, would sit down for an interview, you’d start rolling, and they would just spit vitriol for 25 minutes. And about 25 minutes in, it would kind of slowly shift—you’d see their eyes getting misty, recalling just how unbelievably impactful their tenure with him was. And it wasn’t like I was taking them there—this was their own process, the process of recollection of their experience.
They would end with this kind of very zen acceptance that he was this and he was that, and they were very, very grateful that they got to work with him, that he was very impactful on bringing their art out of them and changing who they were as artists. And that was literally over and over and over again. And I was very grateful for that, because that’s kind of what I was hoping for, and that was the kind of man we were trying to present.
What’s interesting is that, for a man with apparently such a good sense of humour, Zappa could be quite humorless at times. You bring that out very well out in the “Saturday Night Live” sequence…
Yes. And the thing that I liked about Zappa’s humor was that it was not often the humor that he put into his records. The way he used humor in his records was almost like another musical instrument. The way say, Ernie Kovacs would use it, or Spike Jones, or avant-garde musicians like [Edgard] Varèse and others, like Albert Eiler. I could think of a whole bunch. But, like many people with a strong on-screen persona, his offscreen persona is markedly different. And that was the man I was interested in, which is why I started the film the way I did, with him backstage and he’s bantering and he’s being very witty, but it’s really who he is. He’s not onstage, he’s not thinking about the fact that someone is filming him. And I loved his droll, dry sense of humor, which is who he really was. And I liked kind of anchoring the movie to that from the beginning.
That backstage footage was shot in Prague, and you return to it at the end of the film, which becomes much more expressly political. How do you feel about that part of the movie?
That was the biggest surprise for me, from the vault material. That’s a question people ask me sometimes: what did I find out there that I really didn’t know at all? I mean, I knew a lot about his life, and, obviously, there were many factual details that I learned by perusing the vault media. But I did not realize how much time he’d invested in traveling the world. I knew he’d been to Prague, obviously, because it was very famous, but I didn’t realise he’d been to Moscow, and that he’d spent the better part of a couple of years really investigating other economies and other cultures and seeing how he could in any way help integrate those and make the world function a little bit better. The amount of thought that he invested in different cultures and different countries, and even our own government, went far beyond what I knew, which was the voting rights activism and the Senate Anti-Censorship hearings and so on, things that are very well-known. He dug so much deeper, and he invested so much more time into trying to reconcile the onslaught of authoritarianism that he saw sweeping the world—which is now obviously everywhere—and various things that he wanted to try to wrap his head around and be of as much value as he could in mitigating. I came away with the whole new respect for him because of that. And a lot of it wasn’t public. A lot of it was on very private videos he had down in the basement.
Were there any problems in dealing with Zappa’s family?
When I met with Gail, I made it very clear that it was going to be an independent film, with “independent” meaning that our production company would make it and have final cut. That was very, very important to the integrity of the film. I tend to do that, or some degree of it, on every project, especially if it’s a political film, where the essence of what we’re going for is so delicate that it could be, even inadvertently, destroyed.
And I didn’t want to walk into a five- or six-year process and have it, even unwittingly, dismantled at the other end. Gail was OK with that, so I wasn’t really making this in tandem with anyone. Gail was [my point of contact] while she was alive. I interviewed her and I talked to her a lot, and I worked with great transparency. She was the rights holder of the Zappa Trust, and when she died [in 2015], [their son] Ahmet became my point. And so I would talk to them about media that I needed, or if I didn’t have access to something that I would need to get from them. But they were letting me make my film, and so I didn’t really have to worry about that. That doesn’t mean I was cavalier about it. I was very mindful. I’m always very mindful of who will be impacted by something that I’m working on—like, when I made “Showbiz Kids,” I made sure that nobody got hung out to dry or was in any way exploited. So it’s not like it’s not on my mind. But, at the same time, it’s not about an altruistic position. It’s really more about me being the custodian of story. And it’s really my job first and foremost as the director to protect the story.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
Well, we didn’t make this movie for people who were fanatical for Zappa. We didn’t make this movie for people who didn’t like Zappa. We didn’t make this movie for people who know him or don’t know him. We really did make this because I really believed in my heart that Zappa’s story is extremely compelling as a human story. What it means to make art, what it means to make art in a fraught political time. What it means to try to survive as an artist, and then to roll up your sleeves and engage with the politics of your time to try to help fix the world around you and not just for yourself as an artist. These are the themes of Zappa’s life and they’re extremely universal themes. So I really believe, if you like the movie, we’ve made a movie that tells the story of an extremely compelling individual to us, and hopefully other people will feel the same.
You’ve made three docs since you were last at IDFA, plus you reunited with Keanu Reeves for a third Bill & Ted movie? Will you be taking a break?
We don’t have plans right now. It’s been such an exhaustive process, reorienting what was going to be a big theatrical summer film. And by the seat of our pants—meaning us, the studios, even Steven Soderbergh, the executive producer—we wrenched that thing around into primarily a PVOD release, which was just a mammoth undertaking. We were very, very happy with how the film has been received and how the film was done from a business standpoint. The gamble paid off, but we didn’t know if it would. And so MGM, Orion, were really heroes. They listened to everyone. They did an incredible job moving swiftly in a way they’ve never done before. They’re not a studio that’s done big VOD releases, like some of the other studios that did it this summer. So we are supremely grateful, but I’ve got to tell you, we’re also just incredibly relieved, because it could have gone a completely different way. We’ve been trying to make this movie for 10 years. It would’ve been really a bummer if we had crashed at the 11th hour.