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Zappa and Cobain at the Movies: Alex Winter and Brett Morgen Find Humanity Behind Rock Star Myth

The directors of "Zappa" and "Montage of Heck" swap stories and talk through the challenges of finding the truths hidden by the glare of fame.

“Zappa”

In “Zappa,” actor-turned-documentary filmmaker Alex Winter has constructed an elaborate deep-dive into the sprawling career of Frank Zappa in his own words. The movie, now available in theaters and VOD, follows the iconic rock star through every stage of his life, from his youth to the last few years of life. Winter knows a thing or two about rock star mythologizing from the other side of his career, as the actor who plays Bill in the beloved “Bill and Ted” movies (including “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” released this year). But “Zappa” represents a departure from his other recent documentary projects, which have dealt with internet culture and online conspiracies.

Instead, the movie uses a complex assemblage of archival materials (including Zappa’s own home movies) to create a fascinating new window into the human behind the star. To that end, “Zappa” has much in common with “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” filmmaker Brett Morgen’s 2015 portrait of the ill-fated Nirvana frontman, which similarly uses a trove of personal recordings and artwork by Cobain to reveal a deeper side of him than the legend can provide.

While working on “Zappa,” Winter was inspired by Morgen’s work, so IndieWire got the two filmmakers together for a conversation about the challenges involved in finding the hidden truths of their famous subjects.

BRETT MORGEN: Alex, I would argue that the film you’ve created is as much an autobiography as it is about Frank. Inevitably, you’re sculpting and shaping a portrait of yourself and that’s where the humanity lies.

ALEX WINTER: It’s almost a drawback that you’re making a film about someone that iconic. So what would make you want to do that? What would make you want to spend that amount of time in your life risking animosity from a massive fan base and offending someone or just wasting a lot of your own time if there isn’t some incredibly personal draw to this character?

I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.

BM: When you’re dealing with someone as big as Zappa or Kurt, these are stories that are cultural mythologies. As filmmakers, we are adding to that. How aware were you of putting forward a new Zappa mythology?

AW: It’s the paradox of this form that I really embrace. My first foray into making feature docs was “Downloaded,” the Napster story, which is mythology writ large of that era for that audience. With Sean Fanning, I was interested in tearing down some of the myths that existed about him and creating new ones, hopefully in a way that had a different angle into this world for certain people. But film is mythos unto itself, and I think that there’s a contradiction there. Obviously, I’m in the entertainment industry and I’m not immune to the idea of the mythologizing of one’s own story.

“Montage of Heck”

Like the tapes you had with “Montage of Heck,” with Zappa, a lot of this was Zappa’s own telling. We were taking his own literal storytelling. For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.

BM: What gave you the impression there was another side to Zappa outside of his public face?

AW: This is what’s attracted me so much to making documentaries. When you do a lot of interviews, which I’ve been doing since I was like 10 or 11 years old, you know when you’re bullshitting; you can see when other people are bullshitting you. That’s why so much of my work is sitting eyeball to eyeball with someone.

BM: There is an amazing 1992 film called “Feed,” directed by Kevin Rafferty, who recently passed away. It’s an entire film made of satellite feeds of Clinton, Bush, and Ross Perot with the moments that weren’t aired. It was mind-blowing at the time, before YouTube, and it was revelatory for me. What it explained to me was the moment you have to mine is the piece they discarded. The moment they said cut is the piece that you want.

I did this “30 for 30” on the OJ Simpson chase, where the entire premise was that we were going to build a film out of the garbage that people left behind. It’s the space between the cracks on the sidewalks, those areas of gray, where the truth really exists.

This is an area few people can possibly appreciate outside of librarians and archivists. When you’re doing a documentary and someone says, “I’m giving you carte blanche access to our vault,” most people assume you don’t have to look any further. The reality is, no, not only do you have to continue to look at all outside sources but now you have to make sense of this archive.

AW: I knew not only that Frank made movies but that other people made movies of Frank all the time and that a lot of those artists were alive and accessible. We did go find them. We literally created a web that just went in all directions and we pulled from everywhere. The film is a mosaic of stuff from the vault, sometimes one shot that we found half of somewhere else like in Germany or Japan. Sometimes, the first half was in the vault and the sound came from somewhere completely different.

When Gail Zappa took me down there, I smelled vinegar right away and my heart sank. I thought, well, of course, this shit’s deteriorating, right? Some of it has been there since the ’50s. So we did a Kickstarter. We raised money. At this point, we have no money for the documentary whatsoever. We raised a million and a quarter and spent two years just doing archival preservation. That’s all we did. I was literally baking three-quarter tapes in my office myself every day for two years. It was insane. I left the window open so I wouldn’t get evicted. But that allowed me and my editor the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the media. We were not interested in anything that didn’t speak to Zappa’s interiority or in some pivotal way.

BM: There’s this misconception that doing an archival film is easy. If you do an interview-based documentary, you have dailies. If you have an archival-based documentary, you are looking for a needle in a haystack every day. You’re going to spend a fortune and you might get nothing. When I got the gig to do “Montage of Heck,” I had lunch with Courtney Love. She said that Kurt was this prolific artist and there was all this art. So for years, that’s what the film was. It was going to be this film about Kurt’s art. But I couldn’t see the vault because I didn’t have access.

“Montage of Heck”

Five years later, we got the money to do the film, and I went to this storage facility that had supposedly brought in all of Kurt’s stuff into this room for me to inspect. But there were like 10 little cardboard boxes and maybe a dozen canvases on the walls. I was like, “What the fuck did I get myself into? Where are the paintings? Where is all this art? What am I going to make a film from?” It was a really horrific feeling. I started opening up the boxes and I found his journals. Then I found this tape that said “Montage of Heck.” I put it on and it was this audio montage.

And that was when I realized I had a movie. That gave me the kind of diagram for how to make this film.

AW: You’re beholden to a degree to the vault material you find. Your point about the tapes is very similar to us in the sense that when we discovered that there were hours and hours and hours of Frank talking, some of which was completely destroyed, broken into pieces, and sounded like shit. We had to do crazy work on that stuff to get it to be usable. I had theories about what the milestones in his biography were. But if I had any concern at all, it wasn’t for the audience or the backers or the fan base or what they perceived as Frank’s life.

I had theories about Frank being imprisoned and really fucked in his head, and I found some really broken down, barely usable audio of him saying exactly that. It sent our whole movie in this direction. Our whole third act was based on conversations about his cancer that we just happened to find down there.

BM: For “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” I lived with Bob Evans, but did not make a cinéma vérité film. I lived with Evans for nine months because I wanted to know how he would make the portrait of his life. I wanted to know how he ate breakfast. I wanted to know all the stuff that was never going to go onto screen so that I could write the film and make every movement synchronized to his rhythms. I found myself getting closer to my subjects than I will ever get to my friends because of that access. I don’t see my friends’ diaries. I don’t see what they’re like when they’re alone with their girlfriend.

With “Montage,” I was looking at those tapes of Kurt and Courtney, and realized there was no filter. Every time I’d ever seen Kurt, there’s a filter. He knows he’s talking to the media. Did you ever meet Zappa?

AW: Very briefly once.

BM: But you may know Frank in some really intimate way that most people who knew him in life don’t. How do you reconcile that?

AW: I don’t want to get into an auteur debate, but it’s not about protecting my vision as much as protecting the subject and the story. That’s my job and I will defend that to the death.

BM: Alex, what do you think you learned most about yourself making this film?

AW: This was a trial by fire on every conceivable level. It was the most stressful, rewarding, challenging, pain in the ass, boring, exciting, infuriating and terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Honestly. We spent two years on the vault and didn’t even know if we were going to get financed to make the doc at all. Then we had 10,000 Kickstarter backers and some tape that was nice for posterity but may have been completely useless. Then we had to get financing. Because of COVID, it was challenging to release until Magnolia came onboard.

The experience was like going back into my childhood, my experiences with the ’60s, reconciling issues I had with my own parents who were very brilliant, creative, and difficult. It would be easy for me to make a movie knocking MTV. My first job was at MTV, where I worked from ’85 to ’93. I made music videos for a living for a decade. It made me confront almost all of my own youth through a completely different lens. I just got fucking ripped open and I’m grateful for it, but I am really goddamned tired physically, emotionally, mentally.

“Zappa” is now available from Magnolia Pictures. 

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