Thorsten Schütte is a German documentary filmmaker. His debut theatrical film, Eat That Question, paints a portrait of American composer, musician, and cultural icon Frank Zappa by creating an assemblage almost entirely consisting of interviews spanning the man’s entire working career. I spoke to Schütte about turning 30 years of archive footage into a feature film, and the world of Frank Zappa.
I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but how did you first come across the music of Frank Zappa?
Yes, indeed, I’ve been asked this a lot, but it’s a true story and I’ll repeat it again. (laughs) Actually, we can also deviate a bit from the story. My first encounter with Zappa was around the age of twelve. It was the late 70’s. When it was the end of the school year, for summer break our music teacher allowed us to have one free pick from the record collection in our gymnasium. On the shelf there was only one record that had popular music on it. It was already a little bit dated in the late 70’s. It was a Deutsche Grammophon pressing for educational purposes, and it was called Evolution of Pop Music (Entwicklung Der Pop Musik). On the second side of that LP was a track by The Mothers of Invention. It was labelled wrong on the album; it said ‘Plastic People’ but it was actually the song ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’. The moment this song started to play, and the needle hit the vinyl, I was really pricking my ears and I think I never recovered from this very moment, because it was a song that totally intrigued me. The melody, the harmonies, the strange sounds, the collage, the cacophony, the distortions and so on. It was so rich that I immediately wanted to find out more.
So I memorised the name, I went to town and wanted to look for this album. In the late 70’s there was still those beautiful vinyl record stores, where you go in a its a cornucopia of LPs and there was a stand of lots of Frank Zappa albums. So I go “wow, this man has done a lot”. So I went through all those albums looking for this song. I couldn’t find it, got another album called Just Another Band From LA., took it home, and started listening to it. And it had an equally intriguing song on it called ‘Billy the Mountain’, which is a 24-minute piece on side one of it. So this was my first encounter; love at first sight, but then the more I got to hear of him, the more I had to chew on the music, because not everything is so easily digestible as ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’.
So from your first encounter with Zappa and getting into the music, how did the idea for the film strike up?
As a director and a producer, you work many times with TV archives. Apart from the job that you’re supposed to do, you always… well, I always say “oh, let’s look at what they have on Zappa”. Throughout the years, I found here and there little bits and snippets of unreleased and unknown materials, but one very significant piece was a 90-minute interview in black and white, from 1969. It was unedited and never [fully] released, only snippets of it. But when you have the chance to “sit down with Zappa”, so to say, and listen to those things for 90 minutes, a whole different person emerges. A more eloquent, more reflected, mature, level-headed person. You realise it could be challenging and worthwhile to bring these aspects of Zappa to the forefront. And see what would happen if we contemplate on him talking and understand his motivations and modes. This was the idea, to emphasise and focus on something very particular and leave out certain other things; stay away from the stereotypical formulas of music documentaries that always have the Jon Bon Jovis and Mick Jaggers talk about things and comment. I’m not saying these documentaries are bad. I like them, they’re equally entertaining and satisfying, but the goal here was something else.
It’s definitely a very unique take. I can’t think of anything similar that’s been done, musical or others.
One person compared it to The Kids Are Alright, but I don’t fully agree, and others are comparing it to Amy, which I also don’t agree with. I think, again, the goal was not to do something unique. Sometimes the material calls out for what it needs.
What guided the footage that you selected to put together in the documentary?
Well, when you have 100s of hours of material, there are different categories by which you sort material. First of all, you can do chronological. The other way is core themes—recurring themes that played a role in Zappa’s life: like censorship for example, or composition or musicians, or performance, or on stage, drugs. So [you select footage] by focusing and concentrating on those various themes and evening out certain partitions, bit by bit. The bone structure of the film is important.
Was there ever an impulse to use more of what hadn’t been shown before?
In a way the whole film, the whole material we have used, has been shown before. This unedited 90-minute programme [wasn’t], but many of the other things have at least been broadcast once. We also, here and there, went back to some performances, like ‘Dinah Moe Humm’ from the film Baby Snakes, because it’s just such an iconic performance that it would have been a crime to humanity had we not shown that. I mean, you ask yourself, “for who am I making this film?” If I would have made the film only for the fans, then the task would have been bringing radically to the forefront all of the things that nobody knows. But, this is not only a film for fans, or it should not be, because there is a much bigger audience out there and it would be much more interesting and intriguing for those who don’t know Zappa to explore “why him?” In the end what rules here is the narrative: what makes sense, and at what point and which part do we have to play to have the narrative continue and unfold to its best of potentials?
How long was that processing of editing, overall?
It’s difficult to pinpoint, because if you are working on a film for eight years, and if you are familiar with Zappa’s music for 40 years, maybe the editing has started way earlier, because you know your material so well and you know your subject so well. But the real, physical, “let’s stick together” editing process started in April ‘15, and we had the first rough cut in August ‘15.
You have to understand, in the 80’s, if you were living in the middle of nowhere in Germany, you always wanted to see something or hear something from Zappa, something that was rare: collecting bootlegs, people were selling things illegally in newspapers. Just imagine how difficult it was to get an MTV VHS recording from 1981 that had a Zappa recording, and then you will get a real shitty fifth-generation VHS copy [converted] from NTSC to PAL, but it was our treasure. Then you put it on your VCR [with] very bad heads to play it, and you would get these totally blurred images and sound going up and down, but you would be like “Oh, wow, Zappa concert, 1981!” So my archive collection started way earlier. (laughs)
The first years went by just getting hold of the Zappa family and talking to Gail to get permission to do the film. So the moment we had that, and we could apply for funding, we hired an archive research expert, a friend of mine, Elizabeth Klinck from Toronto. We briefed her with things we were looking for, and [she] started to—from Australia, to Japan, to Russia, to Czechoslovakia, to Sweden, Finland, America, Canada, etc.—go through all the TV archives to see what’s there. So while I was doing the random fan job beforehand, now we did it on a mass scale to get a really detailed picture of what is out there.
I think it was worth it, because I feel like you see a lot of archive documentaries that just get their footage from online, and you can tell they’ve done that, and it sort of breaks your engagement with it.
Exactly. We were horrified by the fact that we might have to have some cruddy footage with digital artifacts in it. Automatically the moment you go into the video [age], those things are there quite a lot, and sometimes we even make editorial decision to quality. You also want to have something look good.
I feel like this film works for Zappa, where the same concept probably wouldn’t work for someone else.
Exactly. I don’t want to badmouth Elvis or Jim Morrison, and I haven’t looked in depth into TV archives of Elvis nor of Jim Morrison. But it’s a blessing and gift to have someone very eloquent and very pronounced on different subject, and not only about himself but also on the state of society, and being a social commentator and critic. I think you would not have that with everybody. Zappa is rewarding because of that. Because of the intelligence, the eloquence, and his perspective and standpoints.
There’s this beautiful statement Zappa has—it’s also now in the film—where people ask him what he does and he says he reckons himself an “entertainer”, then somebody asks him what kind of entertainment and he says “specialised entertainment for people who have outgrown the norm”. And I like that very much. He’s challenging you as a listener, and I think I owe a great deal to Zappa’s music because at a very young age it had always kept me on my toes. There’s something about it that triggers your ears and your imagination because there’s so much to explore in his music. I find it extremely rewarding until today; the density, the complexity, the many allusions, of course, the variety of the work. On a, let’s call it, transcendental or philosophical level, you can apply it to many aspects of your life, It keeps your ears open and it keeps your mind open and it keeps your heart open to the “other”, the different, to the unknown, to the things that are not immediately talking to you. I really mean it. I think I would have never listened to Bartók or Varèse at such an early age if it wouldn’t have been for the influence of Zappa. It brings things onto your radar, and that is something beautiful. I’m not saying that I in the 80’s was not listening to Eurythmics or Nik Kershaw or cheesy other things, but I think it’s the variety that makes it interesting.
I did really like in the film how, at the very end, he’s conducting that Edgar Varèse composition.
Yes, it’s like the circle is closing in.
A lot of people who have seen the film for some reason always point out that it doesn’t bring up Captain Beefheart, which I find a bit strange, as that was such a small part of Zappa’s collaborations.
Oh there’s a great many other things that piss off people about the film. That’s just how it is. You go and make a film and write it yourself. I think that the quickest answer to that would be: we didn’t find any footage with them appearing together. We just didn’t have it. And if we would have had it, I’m not sure we would have incorporated it, because we had a different focus. At the very early stage of the editing process there was this discussion: to what extent do we really have to highlight each and every incarnation of The Mothers of Invention? There was an early edit where even the members of the band are introducing themselves, and there was another edit where we had [Zappa] talking about how The Mothers of Invention got founded, and where the name of Mothers of Invention comes from, but then we said, “no, this is not what the film is about”. It’s not about the different guises of the band and who was the better drummer and why this or that one was kicked out. It’s a different story.
Let me think if there’s something, if I would have had it, that I really would have liked to show. You know the 1972 incarnation of the band, the Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka, which was this brass big band that he had?
And then there was the Petit Wazoo afterwards?
Exactly. That would have been something that I really would have liked to show because it would have brought a little bit more musical variety onto the palette, but there is nothing of that there either. I like this period very much, and we would have been able to show him in the wheelchair, because he was kicked off from stage and so on, but there was nothing there. But again it’s not relevant or necessary. Still, the complex “compository” approach, the richness of musical voices and languages and so on, I think it would have been nice to show. From that period, we have ‘Approximate’ and we have ‘Cosmik Debris’ with these highly skilled, refined Mothers of Invention from ‘73 and ‘74, so it’s fine. But this is now really nitty-gritty Zappa-buff talk. Maybe I just would have liked to see it. Maybe it would not have ended up in the film.
Well, I’ve pretty much asked all I wanted to ask. Thanks so much Thorsten for taking the time.
Thank you! Are you in Sydney?
No, I’m in Melbourne.
Well, then good night Melbourne!
Thank you Berlin!
Eat That Question screens at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on September 17. For more information and to buy tickets, go here.