Alex Winter is a fascinating dude. After blowing up as Bill S Preston Esquire on the beloved comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure he went on to make commercial for years, and then eventually documentaries about weird American figures. The latest in this proud tradition is his documentary on Frank Zappa which just concluded a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Winter is a charming and very smart dude, every response given in a kind and measured way – allowing me to slowly realize Winter is one of the great film minds of his generation.
Find more details and the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alexwinter/frank-zappa
How the hell are you?
I am well. I have what is called a Kickstarter cold. Whenever I do these about three quarters of the way through I get deathly ill from 24/7 labor.
You’ve done a couple Kickstarters now… what makes yours successful?
This is just personal, I don’t have any overarching wisdom. To me the internet is all about community and crowdfunding has grown out of that. If you approach a crowdfund less from the perspective o pure motive of profit or gain and ore from the perspective of building community I think that’s just the right way to look at it. That’s generally how I use it. We obviously have a numerical goal but more important is the building of the backers and joining a community through the crowdfund. What was critical with the Deep Web Kickstarter was reaching out to the crypto-community and having them join my community. It’s an amazing experience to build a community online, which is a powerful group of people who are all over the world and are capable of doing all kinds things. We have 4,000 people in the Zappa Kickstarter community that we are buildin and ancillary people in other Kickstarter communities.
I have to admire that approach, but did you feel initially alienated?
It’s not about being alienated, but you have to earn heir support and I think that’s totally justified. That’s been the case with everything I’ve done. When I did the Napster movie there were very specific people in that world who had to lend their support. They didn’t just automatically think that I would have an understanding or appreciation for the nuance of that community and I’ve been involved in that community sine before most of those kids were born. I had to show them that background I had and earned their trust. No matter how hardcore Zappa fans are they are nt more hardcore than crypto-anarchists. We had to really show why we had expertise and why we should be trusted. In the case of Zappa I think they are justifiably skeptical of someone who wanted to do something comprehensive. I’m a lifelong fan though. Documentaries are so time consuming and unprofitable that you don’t get involved in something like this as a dilettante. I don’ choose a doc subject that I am going to spend years of my life on unless I am willing to immerse myself in that world. I felt like I had to prove to that crowd where I was coming from and what my expertise was.
What’s your relationship with Zappa been like such that you can sell his house and spend years studying him?
The short answer is that the thing I was most interested in was thematic. I’ve been a fan, but there’s a lot of people and bands I’ve been a fan of. I have a lot of music in my family and upbringing .The Zappa specific thing was thematic. I have no interest in making music docs. I was looking into making a movie on a contentious American, and possibly an American genius who made a remarkable impact that wasn’t binary. I wanted people to be asking questions. Those are the types of subject I find interesting. IT would make a trilogy of documentaries in my own head of docs on contentious Americans. The previous two were obviously more based on technology which were interesting times to examine.
With Zappa you have the 60s through the early 90s which is an incredible period of American history which we are still recovering from. You just have to look at the current election cycle! Zappa is interesting to me because of his massive cultural impact, he is very polarizing, there are people who adore him, dismiss him and others who vehemently don’t like him because they hate his music and politics. Some people view him as a da Vinci or a Shakespeare though, someone who is a staggeringly inhuman genius who created an enormous amount of incredible work. That’s really compelling to me. Most compelling is the emotional and personal question of ‘Who was this man? What where his fears and challenges and insecurities?” I find Zappa to be a very intriguing and almost infinitely compelling individual. That makes for a interesting doc that I can spend years exploring. The doc I am not interested inis one that I know all the answers to going in. That would make a boring movie and ot be worth the time invested.
We’ve obviously all seen how massive his archives are, hwo do you go about picking apart that much content?
That’s why it takes us so much time! I have a big team and we are trying to go though it all. The upside is I’m making a movie, not a mini-series. I have a bracket in my head of what I want to cover. That’s going to change and it will ebb ad flow, I have to be open minded. I do have an expansive structure in my head that I will probably hold to though. The movie will look a lot different to what I imagine it will be because we are going to discover stuff we have never seen. That being said I think the skeleton will stay in place. You go in with a plan and the plan changes but the underpinnings stay the same. I know Zappa’s arc. That has given me a structure. It is a massive undertaking though and I’m carving out a year to do nothing but archival presentation and cataloging before we even start the creative process.
That’s an insane commitment…
I don’t think we have a choice! There is no other way to do this properly. Until someone else comes along and does it we will be the only definitive Zappa movie and we have a responsibility to do it properly, a pressure if you want to be more blunt.
I have admired your directorial work for years now, but I feel like every article about you references Bill and Ted… on a personal level how much does that impact you?
I have been in the industry since I was 9 years old so I don’t really notice it anymore in my immediate sphere. There’s a dualism to it being publicly recognizable. There is your life and the way you view yourself and the way your friends view you and then there is this public identity. They are completely separate. I think that’s what burns out a lot of child actors. It can be overwhelmingly difficult to manage that dualism and not fall apart and not getting lost in the side of you that is not real. For me I’ve always had this whole other existence that has nothing to do with that public life. Because I started so young I just know that that’s out there and I’m totally accepting of it. It’s not as if someone forced me to be in Bill and Ted. I enjoy the acting and it’s fun when I do it, but it’s completely separate from who I am and how I identify myself.
It’s also been incredibly helpful! I don’t have any negative views of it. It doesn’t intrude in any way on the work that I’m doing. In fact it has helped me get my films made and otherwise helped within my industry. It’s something I’ve been able to use when I need it but it hasn’t really hurt me.
The only time it was difficult, having been in the business for so long, was when it first happened .IT was a big rock in the water I had to adjust to. I was a dirt poor NYU student and then suddenly I was on cereal boxes. I was living in a crappy apartment with 5 people and no kitchen and then within six months I was all over the place and that was a huge internal adjustment. I’ve long since processed all of that.
As someone who lives in a tiny apartment with a bunch of roommates in Brooklyn I don’t think I could wrap my head around that… What was that process like?
It means you live in your place with your friends. I was still a filmmaker. We would be off doing shoots, low budget stuff, stuff for bands, short films, weird shit. I’ve told this story before, but suddenly I was in Austin, Texas doing a shoot for the Butthole Surfers the week Bill and Ted 1 came out and then someone comes up to me laughing their ass off and they had a picture in Variety of me and Keanu Reeves sitting on top of piles of money! And he was like “Look at your ass!” It was just surreal. Then I walked into a diner that day and the whole place went crazy and I just wanted something to eat! It’s something you process. You have to realize you have a public persona and get adjusted to it. It has no bearing on how you identify yourself, or it shouldn’t. Even when I was a child actor I kept it separate. I had regular friends and went to regular school. I went from working on Broadway to working at a sporting goods stores. My family made sure I lived in a normal reality. It kept me safe.
What do your kids think about you going off to make a Zappa movie?
They think it’s amazing! My 17 year old is flipping out! Even my 6 year old is asking all these questions. It’s just being around stuff that’s interesting. My life is pretty separated from show business. My kids have a normal existence even though my wife and I are in the business. Hey are not jaded by it or in it themselves. They just know that every once in a while they get to go to a screening but beyond that nothing separates us from everybody else.
Wait… are you jaded by it?
No! I’ve intentionally lived an extremely regular existence. When I was very young even and realized how different my life was… I knew that was something I always wanted. I liked blending in with the crowd. I didn’t like the feeling of being falsely elevated in any way. I’ve managed my life very specifically to not do that. In the early 90s as soon as I could step away form the quasi-celebrity actor existence I did. I stopped auditioning or working as an actor outside of very rare occasions. Instead I started a production company and moved to England and shot commercials. I happily shrugged off that entire existence! I don’t regret it I just didn’t want that t be my reality.
One last question – I’m assuming the Zappa doc has put the breaks on Bill and Ted 3?
Not at all! The Zappa doc is so voluminous that my team is basically going to be preserving the vaults for a while. If Bill and Ted postpones much longer it could collide with what I’m doing. Without spilling the beans though we should be filming while the team is working on vault preservation stuff which I don’t have much of a part in. We have a year of archival stuff to do, so in that time I hope to film Bill and Ted.