‘Zappa’ Biopic an Excellent Adventure for Filmmaker Alex Winter
People may be excused if, on first listen, they don’t take Frank Zappa’s music seriously. With his zany lyrics, unconventional metres and predilection for the xylophone, his songs often sound more fitting for a Looney Tunes soundtrack than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But that would be a mistake. As a new documentary from director Alex Winter makes clear, Zappa wasn’t just a prolific musical genius, he was also a major cultural icon who helped shape the art scene of the 1960s and beyond.
Winter, best known for playing Bill in the “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” film franchise, spent six years sifting through hundreds of hours of archival material to create “Zappa,” a two-hour romp that chronicles Zappa’s career, from “Freak Out!”, the 1966 debut album by the Mothers of Invention, to his appearances before the U.S. Congress in the 1980s speaking out against the Parents Music Resource Center. Zappa died in 1993 at age 52.
Bloomberg News caught up with Winter earlier this week to talk about the making of “Zappa” and the changes Hollywood is struggling with in the Covid-19 era.
Bloomberg News: Music has been a recurring theme in much of your work. How did this project end up on your plate?
Alex Winter: It was something I wanted to do for quite some time. I thought it would be interesting to look at Zappa as a cultural figure — not just a great artist and great musician — and what it was like being an artist at that time and the challenges that it presents. So I approached [Zappa’s wife] Gail about six years ago with an idea of how to come at the story. She gave me access to Zappa’s vault, which was this vast archive under the house. I spent the next two years raising money and preserving the archival material.
BN: We’re talking more than just restoring old reel-to-reel tapes?
AW: There was film, video, audio, paintings, props — you name it. He’d move different formats of work — 8 millimeter, Super 8, 16, 35 — onto video, where he’d play with it, and then move it again to another format. So we were preserving formats that didn’t have machines that existed for them anymore, so we had to find companies that made their own proprietary machines to preserve just that one format. We ended up in deeper water than we expected.
BN: What were some of the surprises you unearthed?
AW: Everything was a surprise. We found a huge number of first-person commentary from Frank going back to his mid-20s up until his death. That was gold for us. But then we found fantastic stuff: Joni Mitchell backstage, Hendrix, Clapton, Sunset Strip footage from the late 60s…just great chronicles of the era.
BN: It was interesting to see how many artists made a point of visiting Frank when their tours took them through southern California.
AW: People forget that Frank was little bit older than a lot of his peers. The Beatles were really captivated by his music and his recording technique. He was a very charismatic, intelligent and well-rounded person, so the Log Cabin [Zappa’s base in Laurel Canyon, California] was also functioning as a kind of salon in that era. It wasn’t just people coming to pay homage to him because of the records; they really wanted to be in his community, which was filled with artists of all kinds. It was a scene.
BN: How difficult was it releasing a film in the middle of a pandemic?
AW: My production company released two movies in the last six months: Showbiz Kids and this. The mindset through this whole thing was to release the films and not wait. I felt strongly about keeping the films moving and getting them into homes. We also released Bill & Ted Face the Music in late August. That film was specifically financed and structured around a global theatrical release and was a very complicated thing to unwind. Most studios don’t just flip a a switch and say, ‘we’re heading over to streaming.’ But we argued our case successfully and the studio came around and it did very well.
BN: Will we see the theater business return to its former glory?
AW: Look, I love going to movies. I love exhibition. I firmly believe we’ll all go running back to theaters when we’re through this pandemic. But the world is changing and streaming platforms have been on the rise for quite some time. The world we’re going to come out of is not going to be the same world that we exited at the beginning of this pandemic. I think we’ll go back to theatrical in a very robust way — the economics of it still makes sense, people like the experience of it and filmmakers like their films presented that way. But we’re going to see a lot more streaming and films being presented in multiple options.
BN: But won’t that fundamentally change the way Hollywood finances its movies?
AW: I’ve been in this world for a very long time and have watched the public — with the rise of the internet and advancements in technology — crave more and easier access to the things they want to see and hear. And I’ve watched — understandably — the legacy industries drag their feet and take a very long time to adjust the way they distribute the work of artists in public. That shift is going to be accelerated by the pandemic without question.
The thing I worry about is whether business interests will cut out the artists from being properly compensated. That’s the big concern right now, and I think we’re getting a little disingenuous discourse from some of the filmmakers saying they’re really worried about members of the crew, or they’re really worried about the public and the integrity of the theater-going experience. But what I think they’re largely worried about is how they’re going to get paid.
BN: But it’s a fair concern, no? A lot of these people are losing the box-office bonuses that their compensation is tied to.
AW: What we’ve seen in the music world is that it’s very difficult for artists to make a profit, even if they have a hit. And that has to change. It’s a complicated issue. We’ve been at this for a long time and we really should be much further along in all areas, but people are pretending things are going to go back to the way they were, which they absolutely are never going to do. Where we should land is a space where people can get what they want — including the theatrical experience — and artists are compensated. But we’re not there and it’s going to be a battle for a while.
BN: Do people still call you Bill when you’re out and about?
AW: I get that every day. That’s been my daily reality since 1988. It got old in the first month of 1988, but I’m used to it at this point.
BN: Do you have a favorite filmmaker?
AW: I love Japanese cinema, so Mizoguchi is up there.
BN: What about a favorite Zappa album?
AW: I’d have to say “Hot Rats.” I tend to like Zappa at his most extreme. That’s where I’m happiest.
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