When Alex Winter approached the widow of rock musician and composer Frank Zappa with his pitch to make a documentary on the man and his music, he was thrilled when Gail Zappa said yes.

What her agreement meant, though, was an entirely different kind of delight and dilemma.

“I didn’t realize that I was going to be getting access to the entire vault,” says Winter, who in addition to directing films is, of course, an actor most famous as Bill S. Preston, Esquire from the “Bill & Ted” comedy trilogy with Keanu Reeves.

“And once I did, it changed the next several years of my life,” he says.

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Imagine being given the keys to the vault where the prolific Zappa stored not just the audiotapes of his many recording sessions, but untold hours of film and video footage too from a prolific four-decade career that spanned his adolescence in the 1950s to an early cancer death at the age of 52 in 1993.

A documentary filmmaker’s dream, no?

“Dreams and nightmares,” Winter says of the overwhelming amount of media he and his team first worked to preserve from a significant amount of deterioration, then organize and sift through.

“We had, I think, around 1,000 hours of never-before-seen media, which is an enormous amount,” he says.

Zappa was known as an artist who kept tight control over his creative output, so the outtakes or materials he’d held back from public view brought new thrills with every day’s viewing.

“When you’re dealing with an artist as protective as Zappa was, who let out a great deal of material during the course of his life, but only what he saw fit to release, almost everything I discovered was a surprise,” Winter says. “Almost everything that I found there was media that had never been seen or heard in any form.

“Every day was a surprise. Everything from kind of more obvious stuff like finding him and Clapton together, him and Joni Mitchell, or him and Hendrix. But then, too, much more abstract, and for me just as if not more satisfying media.

“Like his tenure at the Garrick Theatre in the West Village,” Winter says. “Never before seen and very beautiful footage of the Sunset Strip and the Whisky [a Go Go] from the ’60s, which is extremely hard to ever find a window into.

“Extremely personal video of Frank at the end of his life dealing with cancer. And then his life in between. Even the home movies he made with his brothers and sisters. It was endless.”

(Some of the earliest footage reaches back to Zappa’s adolescence and young adulthood when he moved around Southern California in cities including Claremont, Lancaster, Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario, before settling in Laurel Canyon where he lived for most of his adult life.)

“Zappa” opens on-demand and streaming on Friday, Nov. 27. In an interview edited for length and clarity, Winter shared more stories from the six years of work that went into its creation.

Q: What was the initial appeal of Frank Zappa to you as an artist and a documentary subject?

A: I’m a child of the ’70s, and I came up with Zappa as a musical artist as well as kind of a pop culture icon who was very funny, very political, very tuned into the times in a way that made him more than just another rock artist that you might like.

I really got into his music much after as an adult. But I think that what really compelled me to do this was how emblematic Zappa was of the times in which he came up, and yet he was mysterious to so many and so enigmatic.

Q: How did you convince Gail Zappa (who died in 2015) to let you make the film?

A: Gail made it pretty clear to me as we became friends that year that she was used to getting pitched these very kind of almost encyclopedic, fanatical perspectives on Zappa, the ’70s rock god. And that was just not what I walked in with. It wasn’t my interest.

Q: What did you discover about Zappa the man outside of the music with which people are familiar?

A: He was the man I suspected he was in many ways, in that he was more sober, more measured, more warm than his reputation or his public image. His humor offstage was much more warm and sophisticated than his public humor, which is intentional, I think. He made the really fun, ribald stuff almost like another instrument in his arsenal.

On a bigger scale, I found that he — and this became an arc in the film in a way — really matured in an extraordinary way, which many of the people from his generation that were outspoken didn’t. Meaning he was at the forefront of the sexual revolution. He was very kind of glib and of his times in terms of decrying ‘The Man’ and the establishment.

And yet he became, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, very mature as he got older. I didn’t realize the degree to which he committed so much of his later life to understanding politics and social issues. I didn’t realize the extent to which he’d really dug in to try to understand the world in which he was living, and how to make it better in whatever way he could.

Q: The final part of the film portrays “The Yellow Shark,” one of his more challenging orchestral pieces, and the last public performance of his life. What was the significance of that piece (recorded live with Ensemble Moderne in Germany in 1992) to Zappa?

A: It was a confluence of events in a way that allowed him realize for the first and only time — because he would be dead quite soon after that — something he’d been chasing his whole life. He really did not ever lose his drive for a free and true artistic expression, and I find that very moving then, all the way up until his death, that’s what he’s doing.

Q: There are so many albums in the Zappa catalog (about 60 during his lifetime, another 50 since his death) that it can intimidate a newcomer. Where would you suggest someone dip into it first?

A: I mean, it’s really to everyone’s taste because there is so much there. Personally, I would say that two of my very favorite Zappa albums are ‘Hot Rats’ on one end of his career and ‘The Yellow Shark’ on the other. I think they both represent a very big part of the full spectrum of his artistic output.

If you can roll with either of those, you’ve got a pass to everything else. So then you can go into the heyday era, which is when he had arguably the best band he ever had, with the Roxy (live album), ‘Over-nite Sensation,’ ‘Apostrophe,’ all those classic albums.


By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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