SxSW 2020 Interview – ZAPPA director Alex Winter

“Astoundingly, there has yet to be a definitive movie of the life and work of Frank Zappa. We set out to correct this grave oversight in the annals of American musical and artistic history. ZAPPA was a years-long undertaking, crafted from the almost entirely unseen and unheard contents of Frank Zappa’s own vault; a treasure trove of personal film, interviews and music that spans decades.” Director Alex Winter on ZAPPA which screens at the 2020 edition of South By Southwest.

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW

You are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favourite aspects of the city. 

I have had the pleasure of world premiering two films at the wonderful SXSW; DEEP WEB and DOWNLOADED. I have been playing films in festivals around the world since the early nineties and consider SxSW my spiritual home. The expert curation, the passionate audiences, and all the great things that Austin has to offer make this a festival I always want to return to. We’re truly honored to be bringing ZAPPA to SX this year. 

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?

Ooh boy! Well I started as a child actor in the mid seventies, co-starred in a couple of long running Broadway shows in my teens and then went on to film school with an eye to making my own films. Since then I’ve done a lot of acting, directing and writing in many mediums.  I came to documentaries in the last decade and fell in love with the form. I still make other types of work and have recently returned to acting, with the upcoming third installment of the BILL & TED franchise, but intend to keep making docs. 

How did this project come together? 

My producing partner Glen Zipper and I approached the Zappa family about our interest in making a film about Frank back in 2015. Frank’s widow Gail was very receptive to my take, which was not to present Zappa as a rock god, but a composer fundamentally, which is how I had always seen him. The idea was to present a film that allowed the viewer to experience the journey of a great American composer at a very significant period of our history, and an artist who was engaged with the times. Once we had Gail’s approval, she offered up the Zappa vault for our use. This was a blessing and a curse as the vault had a lot of material that was well on its way to disintegrating. So me and my team put together a crowdfunding campaign and raised over a million dollars, all of which went to preserving endangered vault material. That process was painstaking and time-consuming, and while we were working on that we sought funding for the film itself. Robert Halmi from Great Point Media believed in the vision and fully financed the film and off we went. Five years later, here we are.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

I’m driven by the characters first and foremost; their lives, their passions, their flaws, their connection to their times. Finding the most effective and cinematic way of conveying these things keeps me going from beginning to end. 

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

Preserving the vault was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. But it was also extremely rewarding; both in saving the material and in learning so much about archival preservation, which is a vital issue, especially in the digital age. Most rewarding was bringing Zappa’s world to life in the context of a cinematic documentary; constructing a narrative from archival media, interviews, photographs and interviews. That’s a wondrous and singular experience with all docs, and it was a particularly gratifying one on this project.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Anghel Decca and I have been working together for over a dozen years. And given the breadth of the project, many of my favorite DP’s jumped in. The design for the interviews was clean and raw, to act as a palate cleanser against all the rough archival and madcap imagery from Zappa’s world. We use so many different cameras, but primarily we used Sony Fs5 and Fs7; Canon C500 and Panasonic GH5.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I LOVE the film audiences at SX. They’re the best!

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

After our premiere we will tour festivals around the world and hope to come out worldwide before the end of 2020.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

At the Egyptian in Los Angeles because Zappa spent most of his professional life in Hollywood and was a seminal, if not THE seminal LA musician from his era. 

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

I politely ask people not to ruin a movie for everyone else. 

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

If it has to be one thing, it’s persistence. After film school and many decades in this business, the primary thing that has separated the people I know from the people who didn’t is that the successful people didn’t quit. If it could be two things I’d add hard work. If you work hard, really hard, and don’t quit, you will win.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

This isn’t my favorite film, though I do love it. MOLOCH by Alexander Sokurov shattered me when I saw it at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. I had my film fever there in Director’s Fortnight.


For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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