‘Zappa’ Interview: Alex Winter on Frank Zappa and his life in the year 2020

Over the past few months, Alex Winter has served up a few sweet treats when it comes to the world of music and movies. He and Keanu Reeves revived a couple of iconic characters with the well-received, long-awaited sequel Bill and Ted Face the Music, as well, Mr. Winter now brings music lovers something to celebrate with Zappa. The fascinating documentary on the legendary avant-garde musician Frank Zappa explores his wild career and compelling personal life, one that led to the artist speaking out against the censorship of music. This is a bold and oftentimes humorous and touching tribute to Mr. Zappa and the legacy he left behind.

We recently had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Alex Winter about his upcoming musical journey. Throughout the discussion, Mr. Winter explained his desire to create a different kind of musical biography and bring the heart of his subject to the forefront. There is much to admire in the film, especially considering how personal this story feels to the viewer. Alex also opened up about the challenge of releasing movies in the middle of a pandemic, and his take on being an outspoken artist willing to speak out against the current administration.

Alex Winter is a brilliantly talented filmmaker, and this is certainly a film that is well worth watching, whether you’re a Frank Zappa fan or not. But if you are, get ready for something truly special. Zappa opens this Friday in select theatres and VOD/streaming.

Hey Alex. How are you, man?

I’m well, I’m well. How are you?

I’m good. I got to say, one of the first jobs I ever got when I came to LA, I was for one day a stand-in on BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY.

No kidding. In the future scene?

They were kind of trying us out, so we got to do a little bit of everything. So I didn’t get to meet you there, but it was a fun experience I can say that for sure.

Oh, that’s so funny. That’s so great.

I’ve been beyond impressed with the career that you have made since then, as a filmmaker, as an actor, and honestly let’s just say our Twitter page is very similar in this day and age.

You got it.

What was the first thing about Frank Zappa that inspired you? Where did you discover his music?

Well, I’m a child of the ’70s, so I discovered him from my older brother and his friends. It was music that crept up on me, and then really seeing him on SNL and realizing how much more there was to him as a person, and then I became much more captivated with him. Then it just grew on me over time as I gained an appreciation for his music and his life and his activism, all of those things. It’s just such a big life that he led. Not a wholly unproblematic person either, but that just made him more intriguing.

Yeah. Well, what’s interesting about the film, a lot of times when you see a documentary, they maybe do a quick recap of a certain period, but they focus on a particular section of their lives. You take on a lot with this, this is a big film. When was the decision to tell his whole life as opposed to just a portion or a piece?

Well, I was interested in not making a standard music documentary and not making a legacy film about him on the one hand. But I was also not interested in telling this more niche or narrow examination of one piece of his life because I was most interested in who he was as a person and making a film that was specifically about his internal emotional life and what that journey was from an internal perspective. That interested me greatly.

So I didn’t want to be superficial, like let’s just look at his political activism or let’s just look at his ’70s heyday or whatever, the freak period in the ’60s. I really wanted to know what led him to make the decisions that he made as an artist throughout his life, and what the consequences were for him personally of choosing to live a life like that, especially in America at that time.

Now, these are great points too. I vaguely remembered the activism, I remembered certain aspects of his life. Was there a thing, I don’t know, a piece of him that connected to you in how he lives his life, is it a way that you live your life?

Well, I mean, he is such an idiosyncratic person who was essentially an avant-garde composer who had huge popular appeal and success. So there are so many differences, I wouldn’t even know where to start. He came up at a very different period in American history. I was alive for a lot of it, but I was a child for a lot of it. His life much more mirrors the life of my parents who were artists and independent artists, and actually very similar to Zappa in many ways. My childhood is probably more similar to the upbringing of his kids than to my own life.

That being said, there are things about Zappa that I always found inspiring, and even my kids found inspiring. My oldest son is a painter, he’s still in college. He found Zappa on his own. He’s been a musician and an artist, he’s done different things, but he’s done them with a lot of discipline. That’s very much how I grew up. I’ve approached my career, I do different things within the entertainment industry. I write, I direct, I act, I produce. I do those all with a lot of study and passion, it’s not really a Jack of all trades kind of thing.

That is certainly something I can relate to with Zappa, in that he had an extremely specific artistic worldview and aesthetic, and he worked very, very hard, but he refused to consign himself to one narrow area or another, depending on what the prevailing commercial response was. That’s something I do share.

For sure. Yeah, well, it’s funny, because a lot of your general public, when you hear the name Frank Zappa, if you’re older, a lot of them go, “Oh yeah, he did that Valley Girl song,” and they don’t know anything past that. Do you feel that his music will transcend and reconnect with people today?

I think it is. I think that we live in a time, partly because of the internet and partly because popular culture has changed so much in the post-MTV world, that it’s much easier to embrace artists who are more eclectic and to not worry so much. I think just the way people from my generation struggled so hard with the notion of, well, is film going to die? Is TV going to be replaced? Will nobody go to the theater anymore? Will everything be on a laptop? All of these questions. Then you look at the young generation and they have no problem jumping between all of it. They don’t look at things that way. They’re not even a multi-platform generation, they’re a non-platform generation. I think that that’s very suited to Zappa’s art. I think they don’t have to put him into some box like he’s just a rock guitar guy or he’s just a weird humorist, or, oh, he actually makes classical music. They just listen to Zappa, and I think that makes for easier access to his art than may have been back in my day. As I will say, sounding like a grumpy old man on his front lawn.

How do the people that you worked with on this and talked to, spoke to about Zappa, how did they connect with you and how do they feel about the final finished project?

Everyone’s been extremely positive, I’m very grateful for that. Obviously, I care about them very much and have a lot of respect for all of them, but I’ve had a really great response from everyone. In general, I have to say the response has been much bigger than I expected. I knew that Frank Zappa was very interesting and he seemed like a very compelling character to me, but I wasn’t sure how well the film would travel beyond the people who already knew a fair amount of about his life and or took an interest in him. So, I’m really grateful that the film seems to be playing for the insiders, like the folks who were in the film, as well as people who don’t know anything about him at all. That’s really a gift.

Speaking of a gift, considering this is 2020 the year from hell and we have not the best leadership during a pandemic, you’ve had a good year with Bill and Ted coming back, and the response was amazing, including myself. I loved the film, it was wonderful.

Oh, thank you.

What has this year been like for you personally? Because obviously, you’ve had a lot of highs with Zappa and that.

It’s been very challenging. I have a lot of gratitude. These are all projects that I’ve been working on a really long time, so it wasn’t as if we just had this crazy output in this year from hell. Bill and Ted had been in the works for a decade, and Zappa I’ve been working on it for six years, and even Showbiz Kids is a project I’d been wanting to make since I first started making docs.

So, it was the tail end of an enormous amount of labor, but I have a lot of gratitude. It was just very complicated. Releasing movies in a pandemic is not easy, and obviously, emotionally it’s been a really tough year. I’m a human being, so I’m as stressed out by COVID and the fact that we live in a fascist autocracy as anybody else.

Oh, understandable.

Yeah, I got pretty involved in getting out the vote and I’m keeping my family locked down and safe, and all while releasing three movies into an environment where the theaters are closed. So it’s been a very, very challenging and very complicated year, but it has been very rewarding on the artistic front because I’m really happy with the response to the work that I was a part of.

Yeah. Well, dude, you’re a goddamn superhero with all that going on.

Yeah. Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind.

Following you on Twitter – and generally agreeing with what you post/tweet – what was the moment for you felt the need to speak out and I need to step outside of my box of what I do as an artist?

Well, look, I come from a family of artists, but also activists and journalists, so I have never, ever kept those things separate. It’s another thing that intrigued me about Zappa since I was a little kid, and it wasn’t lost on me when I was researching Zappa that he went to the Senate and fought for censorship for artists who didn’t show up, and when he himself was not even under threat-

Yeah.

He was basically sticking his neck out for rights that he believed in and that he believed were worth defending. To me, there’s no separation of one’s political views and values from your art. I don’t judge people who are apolitical in their art, I probably judge people who are apolitical in their life, because if they’re not voting, then they’re just causing everyone else around them more harm. I think it’s very selfish.

But I’ve never had a problem speaking out, I’ve never thought for a second that I need to keep those things separate. My work has often had political aspects. Certainly, all of my documentaries do pretty much without exception, even ones that probably don’t outwardly feel like they’re political are political. So, I was making protest films before Trump was elected. I mean, one of the projects I was working on with Laura Poitras was a short I did for Field of Vision on the journalist Barret Brown who had been imprisoned under the Obama administration on pretty crummy charges. So it didn’t take Trump to get me going, but it certainly got me going.

Yeah. No, I think a lot of people felt the same way. But I like the fact that you brought up that Zappa did, he went out of his way to fight for musicians when he wasn’t even involved. Do you think that we’re going to see more of that from today with musicians and artists like you speaking out and trying to change things?

I think we are. It’s funny. On Twitter not that long ago, someone else reached out to me, I think. I think publicly, I don’t think it was privately and asked me if I was concerned about being so public. I looked around and I was like, I don’t see any, and I’m not a major celebrity, I’m at best a minor celebrity, but I don’t see any major celebrities that aren’t speaking out. I mean, I can’t really think of anyone on the social platforms that has a notoriety that isn’t saying something about this moment that we’re in, which I think is really gratifying. Those people aren’t just snarking, they’re talking about voting rights and giving legs to how you can get involved.

So, I think absolutely we’re going to see more of that. I think that when you get into a legitimate national crisis, especially one that’s costing many people their actual lives, you see that people will come forward and not be concerned about speaking out. I think that there is actually going to be somewhat of the opposite effect, I think there’s going to be a tacit judgment against certain people who just refuse to lend a hand or to say anything during all of this.

Yeah, honestly, Alex, you’re a big “celebrity” to me, my friend. That’s all I have to say.

Oh, thanks.

But thanks again. That was a fantastic conversation, really appreciate it.

Yeah, thank you. Much appreciated.

Written by
James Oster, aka JimmyO, started his career as a film reviewer at Arrow in the Head in 2006. There, he brought his movie knowledge and admiration of cinema to giving his own take on all types of horror features. From there, he officially joined JoBlo.com (in addition to AITH) where he became one of the three major critics for the site. Thanks to the connections he has made, Jimmy has managed to take his love of movies to another level. In the past couple of years, he has produced the Oklahoma horror mystery THE HARVESTERS, written and directed by Nick Sanford. And this October,, the twisted holiday thriller he co-wrote and co-produced called SICK FOR TOYS will be released on streaming VOD and Blu-Ray. Jimmy is a proud and passionate member of the HCA where he looks forward to continuing to share his passion for the art of film.

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