Alex Winter on his unorthodox rock-doc Zappa and the joy of revisiting Bill & Ted

Filmmaker and actor Winter reveals what it took to make the definitive film on the life of a counterculture icon.

Alex Winter - Zappa (Big RT Interview)

Few of us would hail 2020 as a banner year, but looking back at the recent creative accomplishments of Alex Winter, it might be easy to imagine he’d regard it as such. Over the past 12-or-so months, actor and filmmaker Winter has put out two critically acclaimed documentary films as a director and producer – the HBO original documentary Showbiz Kids which charted the highs and lows of life as a child celebrity, and an unflinching look at the life of rock’s renegade spirit Frank Zappa – and reprised arguably his most famous screen role of Bill S. Preston, Esq. for long-delayed but much-lauded threequel Bill and Ted Face the Music.

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Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Winter describes the last year as “like being on a rollercoaster” – though he feels “a lot of gratitude” for having got those three projects made, in many ways his 2020 was as “stressful and complex” as anyone else’s.

“Because of COVID, it was stressful for personal reasons – like anyone else who’s worried about their safety, their family’s safety – and we were dealing with a very fraught political climate here in the US, and in the midst of that, we were trying to release three films, two of which were very much geared for theatrical release: Bill and Ted we’d spent over 10 years working on and we had a giant global rollout finally that was set, and Zappa we’d been working on for six years and also had a big theatrical rollout and festival tour set. And all of that went away, so we had to figure out how to release these films digitally.

“On the other end of it. I’m very grateful that all three of those films performed extremely well. I’m grateful that people like them. I’m grateful that people felt we didn’t ruin Bill and Ted! So, you know, it was a very intense year, it was a lot of highs and lows. But like everyone else on this planet, I was pretty happy to see the back of 2020.”

Zappa was made available digitally in late 2020 to international audiences, with a UK release finally arriving on the 19th February via Altitude.film – running to a little over two hours, the film chronicles the life and career of the maverick musician and was put together using over a thousand hours of mostly unseen material from Zappa’s personal vault, much of which had to be restored and archived before production proper could begin. “It was a far more expansive store of material than I knew existed – and it kind of changed the course of my life,” Winter explains. “I thought I was about to start a documentary… instead, I spent two years just doing preservation work.”

Though Winter had already begun conducting interviews “filmed on [his] own dime” with Zappa’s widow Gail (who had terminal cancer and passed away in 2015), a Kickstarter campaign was required to raise the funds to carry out work on the archives. It broke records as the highest-funded documentary campaign in crowdfunding history. “We ended up with close to 10,000 backers who funded a very expensive preservation mission – it was because of them that we were able to get that work done.”

With the unprecedented access that Zappa’s family had allowed him, Winter made it clear that he was not interested in an “unvarnished legacy story” but in “looking at all aspects of who Zappa was”, including the somewhat unpalatable aspects. “My goal was to try to create a kind of a cinematic experience of Zappa’s life – not something that would be artificial or forced, but in whatever ways we could, Mike Nichols the editor and I were working to create something that felt very intimate and very personal. I knew there was a human being in there, and it was kind of an archaeological mission to find him, and to convey him to to an audience.”

With limited use of talking heads, much of the film is constructed using archive footage and so is told largely through Zappa’s own words. It’s an approach that feels in-keeping with the public persona of Zappa, a composer and performer who prided himself on railing against the mainstream – his work characterised by free-form improvisation and experimental soundscapes – and who is seen in a press interview featured in the movie claiming to have no real friends other than his wife and children.

“He was very witty, actually – very, very erudite, very charming, but pretty solitary and clearly had been most of his life,” Winter says. “He had a very close knit group of friends, but it didn’t travel much beyond that.”

For all his closed-off nature and refusal to conform, though, Zappa was not, according to Winter, afraid of success – a notion put forward in the film by Alice Cooper and a conclusion that one might reach after seeing Zappa’s apparent discomfort at achieving a commercial hit with 1982 single Valley Girl, co-written with his then-14-year-old daughter Moon.

“I think that he was afraid of what kowtowing to commercial interests would do to his art,” says Winter. “I think he was very protective of his voice. There’s a lot of composers who are like that – Shostakovich was quite famously like that – and I think Zappa functioned more like an avant garde composer than a rock musician in many ways. I think, from a very early age, he heard things a certain way. He had certain musical artistic concepts in his mind and in his ear, and he did not want to be hamstrung by the commercial aspects of the industry.

“That being said, he was not anti-audience and he was not anti-commerciality, to the degree that he wanted to earn a living and he also liked his audience. He liked making music that they would like, he was not the type of artist who had contempt for his audience. He put a lot of thought into who they were and what they responded to, and he would cater to that. But he wouldn’t do it in a way that he felt would compromise his art, which is a very tricky balance, and it’s a part of what the film is about – the complexities of being an artist.”

Frank Zappa
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Few artists were as complex as Zappa. In a career spanning more than 30 years, he released 60-plus albums (producing almost all of them and designing their album covers) with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist – exploring psychedelic rock, experimental pop and jazz fusion – and also composed movie soundtracks and directed music videos and feature-length films.

Zappa died on 4th December 1993 from prostate cancer, shortly after becoming an unofficial cultural attaché to Czechoslovakia at the behest of its President, lifelong Zappa fan Václav Havel. Winter’s film is bookended by footage of Zappa’s final on-stage performance in Prague, 1991 – as part of a celebration to mark the withdrawal of Russian troops after the state was freed from Soviet rule, he plays to a huge and wildly appreciative audience. It’s visual proof that, right up to the final years of his life, Zappa remained not just a composer, a skilled guitarist and a staunch nonconformist, but also a phenomenal showman.

Given all this, given the huge appreciation that fans the world over still have for Zappa, it’s perhaps not entirely accurate to say he remains underrated, but Winter believes he has “been misunderstood, or misrepresented,” partly “by his own design.”

“I mean, some of that was the image he upheld and maintained of being slippery and hard to pin down. He very famously rejected everything from the New York art scene to the San Francisco music scene to the LA freak scene. He really didn’t want to belong to any movement. So in a way, it was kind of his own doing. If you create a persona, and you create art, that is so specifically kind of a moving target that defies classification… well, then it’s going to be hard for you to be classified. It’s hard for you to be properly understood. I just think it was part of the complexity of who he was.”

Bill and Ted Face the Music
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted Face the Music

Though the two projects could hardly be more different, it’s perhaps fitting that in the same year his Zappa documentary was finally released to the world, Winter finally got closure on another creative chapter in his life, playing a musician who was certainly unappreciated in his time. “That was what sparked us to want to do it in the first place,” he says of reuniting with Keanu Reeves to wrap up the Wyld Stallyns’ story with last year’s Bill and Ted Face the Music, the belated sequel to cult classics Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991).

“[Series writers] Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon pitched us a take for a third – we’re all really close friends – and none of us had ever talked about doing a third seriously, but we really loved this idea. We just thought that it had the potential to be both very sweet and very funny to play these guys as middle-aged dads who had not fulfilled their destiny. We thought it might be a nice way to cap off the trilogy, but very much within the context of the style of the films, so not trying to be maudlin or self-serious… but also not trying to pretend we’re two teenagers anymore, but actually lean into our age.

“We really had a good time. I mean, Keanu and I like being together anyway. But it was really fun for us to get back in that gymnasium and play like that again. And we’re just really grateful that people responded to the film the way they did – it actually did far better than we expected in terms of the broadness of the audience that it reached. So we’re pretty grateful for that.”

With help from their daughters, Bill and Ted did eventually succeed in their lifelong mission to play a song that would unite the entire universe. With …Face The Music, Zappa and Showbiz Kids all debuting at long last to a warm critical reception, it seems Winter too has accomplished some long-held life goals. Frank Zappa achieved much in his life, though one ambition remained unfulfilled – in 1991, he mulled running for President of the United States as an independent.

“My main qualifications,” he said at the time, “are that I don’t play golf, I don’t take vacations and I do think the US constitution is one hell of a document and that this country would work better if people adhered to it more closely.”

For what it’s worth, Winter says he would’ve backed him. “Given the options we had back then, in a heartbeat. Actually, given the options we had this time, probably in a heartbeat! So maybe I always would vote for Frank Zappa to be president.”

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Zappa is available to watch now on Altitude.film – for more to watch, check out our full TV Guide.