Alex Winter may be the hardest working man in quarantine. While many studios are shelving their biggest and best films for a later date, Winter has already released two movies to much acclaim in 2020, and he has a third on the way later this month. Following the blockbuster success of Bill & Ted Face the Music and much critical acclaim for his recent documentary Showbiz Kids, the auteur returns with Zappa, his long-awaited in-depth look into the life and work of musician Frank Zappa. The movie will arrive everywhere starting November 27th, with a special one-night-only theatrical event planned for Monday, November 23rd. To celebrate the release, we caught up with Alex Winter to discuss all the blood, sweat and tears that went into what is sure to be the perennial film on Zappa’s life.
Alex Winter spent 6 years making Zappa, and had the approval of the Zappa estate, working closely with the musician’s widow Gail Zappa to ensure that all music rights and life details were in place. As Winter puts it, after such a long endeavor, he is exhausted. This movie arrives just months after he reprised his iconic role as Bill S. Preston Esquire in the long awaited franchise sequel Bill & Ted Face the Music, which put him in front of the camera while he toiled away behind the scenes on his two documentaries.
With unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and all archival footage, Alex Winter’s Zappa explores the private life behind the mammoth musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time. Alex Winter’s assembly features appearances by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa and several of Frank’s musical collaborators including Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, Ray White and others.
Alex Winter dove into his process, and broke down the madness behind creating such an inviting and provocative expose on one of the world’s all-time greatest musicians. He also spoke about Frank Zappa’s influence on his own work, with Baby Snakes a clear inspiration for Freaked. Alex also takes us on a side journey, discussing the tale behind those infamous Freaked toys that were made exclusive to Suncoast back in the ’90s. He also gives an update on his working relationship with Keanu Reeves. Though there will never be a Bill & Ted 4, it is possible that Alex and Keanu will appear in another comedy somewhere down the road.
The best compliment I can give you about Zappa is that I went to check the screener to make sure it was good to go, right before taking the dog for a walk. Two hours later, my dog is like, ‘What are you doing? Are we ever going to go or what?’ This movie is so captivated from the get go. It immediately hooks you in and keeps you there. It’s like the first chapter of a great book. It grabs you from that very first sentence and doesn’t let go. You have an entire life to explore here. So how did you figure out what the first 10 minutes of Zappa needed to be?
Alex Winter: The editor, Mike Nichols and I spent a lot of time going through archival for years. We had a good sense of what their was. And that concert [Zappa] gives is a really good combination of both selling the stature of his base, like how beloved he was, but also his commitment to activism and for the rights of of citizens. Not just in the U S, but around the world. And also his droll humor. It really encapsulates kind of everything he was. And it happened to be towards the very end of his life, which we thought was compelling, to start a film that we knew was going to go back to the beginning of his life. I think it had a lot of emotional power for us when we saw it, so we thought we hoped it would have the same impact on the audience.
Before watching this, I didn’t know much about Frank Zappa. One of the more interesting aspect explored is Zappa’s stance on drugs. Some of my favorite bands are directly influenced by Zappa’s music, like Weird Al Yankovic and Mr. Bungle. And they are both notoriously straight edge. They were also not into the drug culture. The movie talks about Reaganomics and The Reagan years. To me, it looks like Zappa did more for the ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ movement than Nancy Reagan. Do you think that’s a true statement? Just looking at some of the great art he inspired that followed his stance on that?
Alex Winter: You’re mentioning two bands…Well, three bands actually…That are openly very impacted by Zappa. But I think that what he was getting at, was a couple of things. One was, he had a very exacting, compositional agenda that he felt could not be lived up to by musicians if they weren’t clean. So that was the first for what he was coming at. But he also did not like movements. He didn’t like being a part of any movement. And the drug culture was very, very prevalent, obviously, in both the ’60s and the ’70s. And I think he rebelled against that as much because it was a group of people making a culture. As for any other reason…The bands that you just mentioned, they’re also fairly iconoclastic and not a knee jerk where they’re all very serious musicians. In fact, I just spoke to Al yesterday about this movie. They’re people who take their art seriously, but they’re also not…They don’t like confining themselves to specific groups or genres.
Yes. Watching the movie I was struck by just how similar Frank Zappa and Mike Patton’s process are, especially working with other musicians. In his orchestration on stage, it really did remind me of the inner workings of Mr. Bungle.’ve heard those guys also talk about their no drugs stance, too. I didn’t realize how connected this all was until I watched the movie.
Alex Winter: Yeah, [Zappa] is a really interesting person. There’s a lot of depth there and a lot of areas of who he is. That takes time to discover. I think it’s worth it.
We’ve got a lot of time in quarantine, especially here in L.A. now that they have locked us down again. Anytime I watch a really good documentary, it makes me want to go explore more. Zappa himself made quite a few movies. Aside from the music, which Zappa movies do you feel as a good companion to your documentary? Tif I want to turn this into a double feature on Saturday afternoon.
Alex Winter: Baby snakes, I would say. If you’re talking about Zappa’s films. It’s the one he did with Bruce Bickford. There is beautiful art in that film. Very strange, crazy stuff. So I would recommend that. If you wanted to pair this with another documentary that would give you the complete picture of Zappa, then I would watch this and the Roxy documentary that came out a few years ago, that was taken and painstakingly, and beautifully cut together from three nights at the Roxy Theater, of a band [Zappa] had back on the job in his day in the seventies. It is one of my favorite concert docs of all time. It’s the only chance you get to really sit in Zappa’s world. It’s as if you were there.
Baby snakes? Is that a direct influence on you and your work? Like Freaked and some of the Night Flight shorts you did?
Alex Winter: It was. I was a very big fan of Zappa, but also Bruce Bickford. And I remember, when I was a kid. I was an actor on Broadway in my childhood, and I remember that when Baby Snakes came out, I was working on Broadway. And this is the old Times Square, before it got cleaned up there. They used to put a monitor, like in a box outside movie theaters and run trailers for upcoming movies on those all day long. And I remember being absolutely mesmerized by the Baby Snakes trailers. That was just sitting there, playing in some skanky theater on Broadway. Running on a loop. I just thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I came off loving that and Basil Wolverton and other types of art and claymation. I’ve always been interested in that type of work. And I became very friendly with Bruce Bickford along the course of making this film, and it was it was really great.
I don’t want to get off track. But bringing up Freaked. I was reminded of those toys that were exclusive to Suncoast. What exactly is the story there? Why were these things only at Suncoast?
Alex Winter: I’m going to bungle this up, because I’m old and I forget everything. We were originally going to have a a huge merchandizing deal with Mattel. They came to the set, and they were going to make Freaked toys with all the figures, and all this jazz. Then I guess someone must have actually given them the script to read. That ended that. Immediately. I think those [Suncoast] dolls were all that was left was out of the merchandizing. Those very rare, poorly made figures that break within seconds of getting them. Which is what you’re referring to.
It’s funny, when I was in college, I remember going to the Suncoast, in the mall in Medford, Oregon. They had this huge rack of then. We all grab a bunch, and we all still have them. But I remember at the time, we were all wondering why they were only at Suncoast? This is weird. It didn’t make sense. Super 7 is putting out a lot of this stuff. Have they ever approached you about doing new toys for [Freaked]?
Alex Winter: I don’t think so.
Yeah, man, they should. So back Zappa. The opening of the movie, when Frank Zappa is taking us through the archives. It really felt to me…It was weird, because it felt like he was actually here, taking us on this tour. That, incorporated with the music choices in that scene… And then how the music is carried throughout the rest of the movie. How did you orchestrate which Zappa music you wanted utilize at various points? Does that make sense?
Alex Winter: Yes, it makes complete sense. And obviously, it was a very important decision. Mike Nichols and I, the editor, we played a lot with sound. Mike was building soundscapes that were working in all different kinds of ways with the visuals. And then Lon Bender, the sound designer and sound editor, came in and created a whole other bed of sound. So we were very concerned about not just jamming the film with Apple music for the sake of it. We really wanted to use his music to tell the story, and to tell his story. And in fact, that was really our agenda for everything. We didn’t really want to use archival media, no matter how splashy it might be. Unless it told his story. We didn’t want to use concert footage unless it told his story. That was kind of our rule and that stood for samples. Music. There was a point at which we tried experimentally using on lease Apple music for the score, basically crafting an entire score out of music. But it was very intrusive. And it didn’t serve either purpose. It was a unfair to Zappa in terms of what we needed to do, to make it work in terms of reconstructing it. It was too deconstructive to his own music. And it really wasn’t functioning. His movie scoring, propelling the story forward. So we didn’t do that. In the end, we had John Brazil, a brilliant composer, do the actual music score, and then we used this music for source, you know, reference when we needed it.
I’ve been following this movie, I think since it was first announced that you were doing it. You had access to everything. And the kids all welcomed you in. This was kind of made with the family in mind. Is that right?
Alex Winter: What happened is, when you’re making a doc like this, you go to the rights holder. The rights holder in this case was Gail Zappa. That was Frank’s widow, so I went to Gail. She loved the idea, and gave me access to the vault. But, what I said to Gail that first meeting, was that if I was going to do this and commit this kind of time to it, it couldn’t be…It had to be an independent film, that me and my production company would control in our final cut, so that I could retain the integrity of the film and not have it be something that was too biased. She was good with that. So that was how we made it.
That’s amazing. Watching the movie, you obviously get into the Valley girl section. I think it was around springtime, this guy had collected videotapes of MTV, just like massive, massive tapes that he released online. And inside of those I found a special where, I think it was Moon Unit and Dweezil, they are hosting for a couple of hours. It was really captivating to me just to see their relationship, back in the 80s. Because I wasn’t familiar with these guys back when this was all happening. They seem really close, and Zappa’s kids seem really interesting. I was wondering, Is there a chance that you could do like a sequel to this? Just following the kids and their relationships? That’s really kind of captivating to me, especially how close these kids seem to be.
Alex Winter: I’m sure. I’m sure there’s a film there. I’m exhausted. I’ve been living in this world for six years.
What does that do to your psyche, in terms of being so involved with this presence, and this persona? What does that do to you on a mental level? How do you feel in your relationship between you and him, even in like, the ethereal world, or however you wanna say it?
Alex Winter: Look, I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t really captivated by him. And one of the great things about making documentaries is it allows you to really immerse yourself into subjects and lives and worlds that interest you. So I feel really grateful that we got to spend the time that we did in his world. It was an amazing experience, and it was very enriching for me. I came out a better artist, and a stronger artist. Whatever issues you may or may not have with Frank, whether you’re a fan or not of his art, or of him as a person, he’s a very brilliant, very unique individual. And you know, it was like getting a graduate degree in a certain kind of art, to spend that kind of time with him. So I was really grateful for it.
There was all this talk about you remaking The Gate at one point. And that eventually didn’t pan out. I know you made the Smosh movie, but after The Gate didn’t move forward, you really seem to gravitate to the world of documentaries. Are you ever going to go back and do something like The Gate again? Or are you gonna just continue doing documentaries? Which I love, by the way, I saw Showbiz Kids not too long ago. Which is amazing to me that you put that out on top of this.
Alex Winter: I know. It’s crazy. What a year. Look, I love making docks. I love making narratives. I’m writing a TV show right now. I may do a narrative TV show next year. I’m honestly developing another feature which I’m hoping to do within the next year. It really depends on what I get financed. More than having some dictate about what form the work takes next. But I love making docs, and we’re going to keep going. So, I am planning. I’m developing a couple of new doc projects, but I’m doing all of it, and I plan to do some more acting again as well.
You were great in the new Bill and Ted movie. Everybody is so blown away by how great that movie is. So just real quick. Do you think..I know there won’t be a Bill & Ted 4? But is there any chance you and Keanu would ever do like the Richard Pryor / Gene Wilder thing? Were they reunited to make new movies later on in life. Do you think we’ll ever get another comedy starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves somewhere down the road?
Alex Winter: I would love to do that. Are you kidding? Anything that even vaguely approximates Gene Wilder. His career I will never come close to, but I can scratch at the feet of it. Please count me in.
You guys could remake Silver Steak or Stir Crazy.
Alex Winter: I’m down with that.
So much fun to talk to you. You’re one of my lifelong heroes. I’ve seen all your doc, so thank you so much. Everyone just keeps getting better and better. I love this stuff. Thank you so much for taking a moment. I hope you have a great rest of your day.
Alex Winter: Great. Thanks. You too, right. Thanks
Magnolia Pictures will release Zappa everywhere November 27th, 2020. A special one-night-only theatrical event is planned on Monday, November 23rd, 2020.