Had it not been for his appearance with Keanu Reeves earlier this year in Bill & Ted Face the Music, playing the now-grown Bill, aka William S. Preston Esq., Even Alex Winters fans would have thought he had retired from actor. Aside from some sporadic vocal work in TV series, he basically had it. His last appearance on camera in a feature film was in 2013, Grand Piano, and he has only had two acting concerts since Bill & Teds Bogus Journey in 1991.
But by then, Winter had already started working behind the camera, making commercials, videos for Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Freaked and Fever feature films, and he got interested in directing short and long documentaries. .
His most recent, Zappa, is a broad and personal look at the life of late music icon Frank Zappa. Winter, 55, a longtime Zappa fan who regrets never seeing him perform live, spoke about the film from his home in Los Angeles.
Q: Zappa is your second feature documentary this year, after Showbiz Kids. But you’ve been making them since downloading in 2013. What brought you into this genre?
A: I kind of got into the documentation through a narrative project I was doing on the history of Napster. I had obtained the rights to [Napster creator] Shawn Fannings Life Story. I had it set up in a large studio, but it was rotated, so it wasn’t going to happen. But it was a story I felt very attached to telling, and it happened to me later to do it as a doc. I went out and launched and sold it right away. It was uploaded, and in doing so I was struck by the form of the documentary and how you can get a character in such a nuanced way, so I continued.
Q: Why Frank Zappa, and why now?
A: I was a huge fan of Zappa, and not just his music, but who he was culturally and the impact he had culturally. It is very rare to find an artist as unique and as committed as Zappa was to his art, and who was also engaged with his time around him. So that was a really interesting doc topic that way. [My producing partner] Glen Zipper and I were finishing a movie together, figuring out what to do next and scratching our heads wondering why a Zappa documentary had never been made. It started our journey. That’s when we approached [his widow] Gail Zappa on this. It was six years ago.
Q: Did you get a lot of feedback from Gail Zappa and was there a problem getting the final cut?
A: I had the approval of the family and was very close to Gail the last year she was alive [she died in 2015]. I filmed her a lot at home, talked to her a lot about what I was doing and how we navigate the story. But I wouldn’t even have started the movie without the final cut. I told Gail from the start that the only way to maintain the integrity of the film was if it was an independent film directed by us, and not something that would be seen as a two hour commercial. for Zappa, Inc.
Q: One of the most amazing things about the movie is that we can see inside Frank’s archive, also known as the Vault. Do you remember your first entry?
A: It was somewhat mythical. I knew there was a vault; I had seen YouTube clips of Frank walking around there. But you never really know how real things are. Gail said that in order to tell the type of story you say you want to tell, which is a warm, intimate exploration of him, you’re going to need to access the vault. So I remember kind of a combination of elation and dismay when I went there. It was amazing and vast, but I distinctly smelled the vinegar there and realized that some of the older films were in danger of spoiling, so we decided to preserve it. We realized it was going to be expensive, so we launched a Kickstarter campaign. We raised about a million dollars and we saved the endangered media.
Q: Is this where you found all the footage of Frank talking about himself and his music?
A: Yes. After we started attracting the media, we realized not only how rich of content we had of him in first person, but more importantly how honest that content was. There are a lot of Frank’s interviews out there, but a lot of them are very superficial. He’s super entertaining and irreverent, but he doesn’t divulge anything about his inner life. We found that the content we had was very intimate, that it absolutely shared itself and that there was a lot of it, spread out over time. So this led to the construction of the narrative.
Q: It’s really a narrative documentary, telling a story. With all this material, how did you decide what to keep and what to leave out?
A: I have a narrative background, so I’m used to building things that have a specific type of classic structure. And [my editor] Mike Nichols has been working on it for some time. What I suggested to Gail at the very beginning was that rather than trying to swallow Frank’s life, with every detail, going from album to album with every biographical detail, we wanted to tell a story. history. The story we wanted to tell was about the inner life of this man, and the consequences he suffered for choosing the artistic life he chose, and the battles he would have to fight because of the commitments that he took for that kind of life. So any material we had that didn’t serve that story or advance the story, we just didn’t use it. There are many more. You can very easily create a 10-part series from the world of Zappas. But that was never my interest.
Zappa will be released in select theaters and on VOD on November 27.
Ed Symkus can be reached at [email protected]
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