STACK chats with producer Glen Zipper about Zappa – the all-access documentary feature on the life and art of music genius Frank Zappa, directed by Bill & Ted’s Alex Winter.
Such is the legend of Frank Zappa that his very surname conjures the perception of a god-like figure. Undoubtedly a pioneer of rock-n-roll, his legacy is that of a prodigy; a self-taught musical genius whose stamp on popular culture is huge. In fact, regardless of his art, even the most pedestrian of music fans will recognise the name “Zappa”.
It’s also the title of an all-new documentary feature directed by actor Alex Winter – aka Ted of Bill & Ted fame – which presents a warts-and-all look into the complex mind of the man who not only bucked musical trends, but also forged them.
The idea of exploring one of rock’s most prolific figures is undeniably a daunting prospect, and while some viewers may be surprised to discover that Winter is also a director, they might be even more surprised to know that the 55-year-old has not only made a whole string of docos but has also directed a bunch of popular teen television series like Ben 10 and Supah Ninjas.
Speaking to Zappa producer Glen Zipper, who has collaborated with Winter on a number of documentaries including The Panama Papers, Deep Web and Showbiz Kids, STACK is curious to know if he was a Frank Zappa fan to begin with.
“You know, I was more of a fan of his cultural footprint than his music. I always knew him as a disrupter and always ahead of his time,” he muses. “It sort of feels like he’d fit better today than he did in the seventies and the eighties. I can only imagine what Frank would be like if he had access to Twitter and what he would have thought about the state of the world right now,” he adds blithely.
Zappa had a reputation for being difficult and opinionated – a trait which famously got him banned from appearing on Saturday Night Live after his guest-hosting duties in 1978 descended into total chaos following his refusal to stick to the script.
Moreover, could he have survived in today’s world of cancel culture and social justice movements? After all, as the film depicts, he was not only a difficult and complex personality, but also an unapologetic womaniser and adulterer.
“That’s a fair question to ask,” says Zipper. “I think the way he conducted himself in his personal affairs, he was very transparent about it, particularly as it related to his relationships outside of his marriage. And his wife knew about it.
“He didn’t do drugs. Everyone thinks he used a lot of drugs. He didn’t use any. And I think he would probably occupy a space more like Joe Rogan than he would someone who did something untoward or something deserving of legitimately being cancelled.”
Zipper reveals how the documentary project came to be and the initial reservations Winter had towards it.
“Credit does go to Alex and maybe I had some utility as a sounding board, but I think maybe the spark of it came from me in that we had just finished Deep Web and we were trying to think of what to do next. And I thought it would be a good idea to get outside of the tech world.
“I was prospecting for ideas and I bumped across a YouTube video of Frank in an interview and doing all the typical Frank stuff. And I sent Alex an email and said, ‘What about Frank Zappa?’ and he said, ‘F–k no!’” he explains with a laugh. “It’s not that he didn’t like Frank, he just knew that it would be daunting. And then I woke up the next morning to an email from Alex saying, ‘Yes of course we should do this, but I don’t know if we can because people have been trying to make the Frank Zappa documentary for decades and no one has been successful,’ because his wife Gail was the gatekeeper and she didn’t think the time was right, or she wasn’t ready.”
The film reveals that Zappa had kept an extensive catalogue of his art – from Super-8 films he had made as a child to demos and private recordings alike. The size of this archive cannot be understated, with tens of thousands of valuable Zappa treasures kept securely in the basement of his large home. And for the very first time, Zappa’s wife granted Winter and co. unrestricted access to the material, or as Zipper says, “She gave us the keys to the kingdom.”
Such was the mammoth task of sorting through Zappa’s life’s work, a record-breaking crowd-sourcing campaign was set up to fund the undertaking.
“This place, which is now owned by Lady Gaga, is like Willy Wonka territory. It is absolutely amazing. It’s fun. It’s intimidating. And Gail was quite intimidating too,” Zipper recalls of their first meeting for the film’s pitch. “I’m usually not nervous during a pitch but I was nervous then, and I didn’t think there’d be any chance in hell that she’d say yes – and she said yes.
“We found out later that she was terminally ill and I’m sure that played a part in it, because if there was going to be a story told, she wanted her fingerprints on it, or at least set the boundaries.”
Given the less than admirable aspects of Zappa’s life, the various indiscretions, as well as his reputation for ostracising band members and creating enemies along the way, we ask whether or not, as filmmakers, Zipper and Winter wrestled with how to depict a rock icon who meant so much to so many.
“I don’t think so,” he replies. “I mean we were telling a story about a musical genius and a commentator on culture and society, and someone who was misunderstood. And if that’s the film’s reason for being then all of the other stuff is not relevant to that. We weren’t making a hagiography and we weren’t trying to make a film about Frank’s personal life. So, while you may be titillated or interested in some other part of his life, if it’s not relevant to the music or artistic journey, then we’re not going to touch it.”
As for Winter being a movie star (the producer admits that he was star-struck at first), Zipper doesn’t think his high profile makes for a particular selling point, adding, “He’s wonderful to work with. I mean this is a hard business. Making films is – and this is a cliché – a sausage factory and it’s always hard and it’s always miserable. I always say the producer takes the director’s dream and makes it his nightmare. If a director is difficult to work with, you don’t come back for repeat business. And I think he’s one of the strongest documentary filmmakers working today.”
That’s high praise from someone who has clocked up an insane amount of docos as a producer, including acclaimed films like Hell and Back Again, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, Killing Them Softly and The Nightmare.
“It’s interesting,” he continues, pondering whether Winter’s name bolsters the film’s appeal. “I guess for some people what he brings to the table outside of documentaries is something that’s a bit different and exciting to them, but the documentary audience is so different to someone who might watch Bill & Ted. So, I think that the buyers know that [his name] is not going to translate. Someone who wants to go on a journey with Bill & Ted Face the Music but show up to watch The Panama Papers is going to be sorely disappointed. So, I think buyers like working with Alex not because of his acting career but because he delivers on the documentary front.”
Picking up on his reference to Bill & Ted Face the Music, we couldn’t help but point out the missed opportunity of having the misfit time travellers picking up Frank Zappa, rather than Jimi Hendrix.
“Hey man, I don’t work with Alex on the scripting side, but I did make that suggestion,” laughs Zipper.
Zappa is in cinemas from February 18, 2021.