Alex Winter is about to dive into the unknown on two levels.
Winter, whose previous documentaries Downloaded and Deep Web dealt with some of the most compelling stories in tech’s recent history (the rise and fall of Napster and the drug trafficking site Silk Road, respectively) is turning his attention to a music-based profile—something Winter admits he had no real interest in before. Who the F*@% is Frank Zappa? aims to be the definitive documentary about the enigmatic rock legend. And to help make his film, Winter has received the blessing of the Zappa Family Trust to enter Frank’s vault: a Smithsonian-level collection of home movies, drawings, concert footage, and who know’s what else.
"When I went down in the vault, it was sort of good news, bad news," Winter says. "The good news was the family gave me unprecedented access to his work. The bad news was they gave me unprecedented access to his work—there’s just a shit-ton of it."
Hence, the $500,000 goal on Winter’s Kickstarter campaign. The process of digitizing and preserving mountains of crumbling content is no chintzy feat, but one that’s really at the core of Winter’s project.
"I got down there and I was like, you guys, if somebody doesn’t start working on preserving this immediately, forget my movie—you will not have a legacy left," Winter says. "It really struck me as being urgent—before I even start the doc, let’s work on preserving the vault."
Winter estimates it will take a year to parse out all the contents of the vault before he even starts in earnest on the creative end.
Having exclusive access to a Zappa’s trove began back in the 80s when Winter, who was making his way through the echelons of young Hollywood with films like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, met the Zappa kids. A connection formed, which provided the basis for Winter’s golden opportunity decades later. While wrapping up work on Deep Web, Winter’s producer Glen Zipper—who has worked on music docs of Billy Joel, Foo Fighters, and George Harrison—broached the idea of profiling Zappa’s life and career. Even though it was technically out of Winter’s scope, Winter was still able to find a throughline to pull him in.
"I made these two movies back-to-back about technology and I knew that I didn’t want to make another technology doc next, but I also wanted to stay in the same wheelhouse, meaning I wanted to look for another very polarizing, American figure who has radically disrupted culture the way Shawn Fanning had and the way Ross Ulbricht had. So there was a thematic thread for me that was really interesting," Winter says. " I also like the fact that [Zappa is] probably equally loved and disliked. That paradox I found very compelling."
Winter called Frank’s son Ahmet who told him that people had been swarming around with ideas for a doc about his father, but they all had "kind of cheesy perspectives." So Winter cut a little movie for the family to give them a general idea of what he had in store.
"I put forward my thesis which was, I have no interest in making music docs. I want to make a novelistic epic story of this man. And not a hagiography, something that really just looks at him warts and all—what it meant to be a genius in the 20th century at that time, his fears, his insecurities, his challenges, his defects," Winter says. "Part of Frank’s entire ethos was about the grays and getting out of the black and white. The guy had an amazing bullshit meter. The last story on Earth you would want to make about Frank Zappa would be a whitewash."
Winter’s Kickstarter campaign is well on its way of reaching it’s $500,000 goal, with some pretty sweet backing prizes (random Zappa tchotchkes, a chance to play his instruments, a pass to tour the vault, etc.)—but none as sweet as the Grand Poobah of it all: Zappa’s actual house.
Winter says the Zappa family was in the process of putting the house on the market when he came with the idea of allowing fans to have a crack at it first. Whoever has $9 million lying around can own some truly legendary real estate, but not before Winter has a chance to save the vault.
Because so much of what’s down there is still a mystery, Winter is approaching his doc with flux and fluidity in mind.
"This is an exploration for sure," he says. "I know the basic tenants of the story I want to tell because I know Frank’s story really well but structurally, I want the vault to tell me what story it wants to make. I’m keeping that completely open."