Frank Zappa’s music meant everything to this writer as a teenager. There were a lot of different reasons. Given the fairly conservative and restrained nature of Dallas, Texas, always, and given the historical context (the mid-1980s, the Reagan/Bush years, all kinds of grisly stuff going on both in the US and abroad), and given the general state of this writer’s mind (imagine the usual hormonal soup with a healthy dollop of personal weirdness thrown in), Zappa was just the thing. You could listen to his music and immediately be suctioned into a different place and (possibly) time: the elaborate solos, the eclectic and witheringly disorienting layers, and of course the lyrics. (Come on, where else would you hear, “Stick out your hot curly w**nie / W**nie / W**nie w**nie w**nie” against a meticulously crafted background? The ears, they perk up. YOU try being a teenager.)

With time, Zappa’s sensitivity to language seemed (to this listener) less about destabilizing our notion of what constitutes a dirty word then about bringing dailiness into rock, much like his contemporaries did, but… differently. One of his biggest hits, in fact, “Valley Girl,” hinged on someone talking. It was the way Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit was talking, of course, with that San Fernando Valley twang, that made all the difference, but her monologue was all just a bunch of meaningless and aggressively daily observations. Out of context, nevertheless, these tiny observations and words (“tubular!!!”) became gigantic. 

Digressions aside, Alex Winter’s documentary Zappa is a combination of catnip, dog snack, and back rub for this writer.We get a deep look at the musician himself, frequently relaxed, in his element, with his band, the rock star in full at some moments, an incredibly intense and scholarly artist at others. Winter supplies snappy segues between images from Zappa’s childhood all the way up to the classical compositions he executed near the end of his life; throughout the film, we see meaningful and honest interviews with former spouses, former band members, contemporaries like Captain Beefheart, and other human satellites. And what does all of this add up to? A very complete picture of a man whose very identity, as complex as it was, eludes complete depiction. 

Winter spoke with No Film School about his 2020 documentary Zappa, an exploration of musician Frank Zappa's life and career. It was originally set to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this year. Magnolia released the film in theaters and VOD Nov. 27.

No Film School: I was struck when I watched the film by how calm Zappa seemed. Were there things you found out about Zappa, over several years of research for the film, that you were surprised by?

Alex Winter: There was so much material to review that there were a lot of surprises. But I did have a pretty good knowledge of his life and I knew that he was actually a pretty sober, measured person away from the camera persona. I’d seen enough interviews with him where he was in a relaxed state over the years, but I did feel that he was so protective of his image and specific about his image that I really wanted the film to be more focused on who he actually was than the image he was projecting to his fanbase.

That I had never really seen in a documentary before. That was one of the things I was really intent on trying to convey.

NFS: Did he talk at all about that specific stage persona that he had? He seemed like a very malleable person; he could either look very conservative or the opposite.

Winter: Sure. He was very aware of his audience, and aware of the fact that the type of art that he made required an audience. He often spoke about feeling responsible for making sure the audience was entertained. So he cultivated a persona that he felt comfortable presenting to an audience but didn’t necessarily speak to who he was offstage. That was a duality that’s common with a lot of performing artists.

NFS: When you went through the archival material, how did you determine what to keep and what not to keep?

Winter: Mike Nicols, the editor, and I spent a lot of time looking at the material, and we spent a couple of years just working on archival preservation. We were just preserving the media in the vault and screening it and seeing what we had down there, which was a combination of a lot of video and some audio.

We didn’t have rules other than that, from a narrative perspective, we were very intent on telling the story of his personal and emotional journey as an artist throughout his life. We were less interested in telling a story that went album to album through his career or looked in hyper-detail at the biographical facts of his life. So we were less interested in media that some people might gravitate toward—the fun, splashy stuff—and we were much more focused on any material that revealed who he was.

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NFS: Was there material you couldn’t include in the film that you would have liked to include?

Winter: We didn’t really feel in the end that there was anything we didn’t use that we vehemently wanted to use. That really would have just made the film longer. There’s a lion’s share of fantastic stuff down there, but we were so focused on the stuff we wanted to use to share that story.

Look, there was media we loved to watch, but there was not anything that made us second-guess ourselves, in the end, and there were of course sequences that we cut that might be commonly seen in a documentary, but there was nothing that kept us up at night because we were so focused on telling the story we wanted to tell.

NFS: When you were conceiving the idea for this documentary, what aspect of Frank Zappa had the most draw for you?

Winter: I was really very compelled from a young age by Zappa as a singular artist who straddles different genres and who was also so engaged with the times as he came up. This is really not common for a pop artist and specifically one who is not a political or folk artist. In other words, his work isn’t completely wrapped around the idea of activism.

To me he just always seemed like a towering figure in both culture and politics. That’s very rare, and he came up at a very interesting time, so it was that collision of Zappa and his artistry and the times that seemed like a very compelling idea for a documentary but also was what drew me to him as a person.

NFS: It had never really dawned on me or struck me as noteworthy that Zappa was a contemporary of the Beatles, and to a certain extent, the Beach Boys. One thing you can say, though, about all three entities is that they were very meticulous about their sound. What did you learn about Zappa’s method in doing this film?

Winter: He worked very, very hard. He worked constantly. And he made a lot. He had a very very prodigious output, much more so than most of his contemporaries. I don’t think you can look at too many artists that had similar work habits, other than maybe Prince. You’re dealing with someone who would record pieces of something and then use those pieces later. He composed an enormous amount of music and also played live his entire life.

So, he had an extremely engaged artistic life, and what I found in the archival media in the vault is that he was similarly active with curating his work, privately. He went at that with the same gusto that he had for making music.

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NFS: As far as his recording in the studio went, was that meticulous as well? Did he work mostly by himself or did he work largely collaboratively?

Winter: It appeared to be a combination. He did so much work over the years, and he liked working with other artists, and he always had teams of other artists around him, from both music and other forms of art, with whom he collaborated. He was also a composer, so he was always writing and always composing. I don’t think that process ever stopped.

I think as he got older, especially as he worked with the synclavier, he did that work on his own. He was kind of a machine. But it wasn’t out of a desire to retreat away from humans—it was a lack of resources on the one hand, and also given the type of music he was trying to make, he didn’t really have anyone around him to play it, and so the Ensemble Moderne came along, and then he was able to realize that music.

So the impression I got from Zappa from working with him, which contradicts a little bit the reputation he has, which is of being extremely self-contained and not collaborative, is that he always had other people around him, and he was always interacting with other artists, and he was always collaborating. From all the material I went through, that just seemed to be a constant, from the beginning of his career.

NFS: Do you think, simultaneously, that he was someone who kept a lot to his chest?

Winter: I think that most people who achieve great success, and especially somewhat unclassifiable success, develop myths around themselves. I don’t think they do that purposefully, although sometimes people do self-mythologize. I would have to tell you that the idea that Zappa was somehow aloof is somewhat apocryphal.

Most of the people I spoke with, and that’s why I chose the interview subjects I did, may have found him challenging, may have found him annoying, or even a jerk sometimes, but they all felt that they knew him. Buck makes a comment, “He shook my hand and said 'good job' maybe once.” He wasn’t saying Zappa was aloof, he was saying Zappa wasn’t very nice.

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NFS: That came through.

Winter: Yes! But I got the sense that Zappa was a very driven person, and that he was preoccupied by and focused on the business at hand, and that can make someone seem aloof, but I would have to tell you, I have sat through hours and hours and hours of media of him, recorded at home, usually by him, and he’s always with other people. He comes off as extremely warm and open, from the beginning all the way through to the end.

That doesn’t mean he was always warm, and it doesn’t mean he couldn’t get angry, and it doesn’t mean he wasn’t extremely specific about his desires and his needs, and protecting those needs. But the quality of being aloof and hyper-private is just not something I got off of him. I just think he didn’t care so much about expressing himself in an effusive way—he expressed himself through his music.

NFS: How did you choose your interview subjects?

Winter: When Mike Nichols and I were constructing the narrative, we were working on building the story pretty much entirely from the vault material. Several years before I started the doc I had shot my interviews with Gail [Zappa]. I liked those, and we started to play with those within the context of the vault material. But there were holes within the narrative of his emotional inner life, and so that dictated who I started interviewing. I wasn’t selecting them because I thought they would give more than anyone else, or that they were better than anyone else—we were dealing with an artist who’d worked with hundreds of celebrated musicians—but I chose them because I believed that they could speak to very specific periods in his life, in a very intimate way, and that’s how we came to choose those people.

You can now watch Zappa in theaters or on-demand through Amazon Video, iTunes, and many other streamers.