Tequila Mockingbird chats with Thorsten Schütte, Director of The Zappa film “Eat that Question”
How long are you in the states?
I was here for two weeks, and I am traveling to San Francisco, New York, and then we stay in New York basically for a public press promo for the Zappa film. It is for the distributor of the film.
The distribution is through Sony Films, isn’t it?
They purchased the film at the Sundance film festival. And we are happy about that, you know, I’ve never had a film theatrically released in the US, so we are looking forward to the experience.
Is this your first time in the US? Since you first started the project?
Well, I’ve been here for the project several times, and last time was Sundance, and before that, it was when we showed the film to Gail Zappa. When she was still alive. But I haven’t been to the east coast in a very long time. I have been mainly coming to Los Angeles for the past few years.
Tell me about your other movies?
The other films I did for many years, working in Southern Africa on environmental and work labor issues. They were totally different, since it is not music-related. It’s films about farm workers, films about black empowerment, films about apartheid…these are the key subjects I’ve been dealing with for the last ten years. Before that, I did lots of music documentaries — a series of documentaries that explored the relation between ethnic music and jazz. A 120 minute piece about the history of popular Brazilian music. The last piece I did in Los Angeles was about one of the first porn producers in the 1960s called Lasse Braun, the son of an Italian diplomat, who in the 60s believed in the libertarian force of freeing people’s bodies and minds.
Was he in Italy?
Was he running around with that Tatiana, that blond with the flowers in her hair?
No, the one that went into politics? No, that was much later. He was there in the 50s and 60s. He eventually went to Scandinavia to smuggle pornography in print and distribute it.
Scandinavia is very big on sex.
He did that as a clandestine business of course.
Did the work make you horny?
Did it make me horny? It is very interesting when you encounter all of those actors and actresses thirty years later, you know, and….
Not so much (both laughing)
So it was like talking to my mom’s generation. It was a very interesting encounter of how an idea of liberating yourself, all of your sexual inhibitions are turned into a multi-billion dollar business. People who started around that time also did it for money of course.
They did it because they really like doing it!
Exactly, and eventually they got so well off with it, you know, that also interests me and the middle business and the trouble with mafia and so on. So to tell that story was quite interesting — to see what became of most of the people involved in the 70s. Many of the women actually made great careers outside the porn industry, but most of the men didn’t, to say the least.
What is the name of that film?
It was “The King of Porn: The adventurous life of Lasse Braun.” You should check it out.
Is it online? Or are you selling it?
Actually, I would have to send a link because the company that produced it doesn’t exist anymore. I can send you a screener of it.
Sounds like it would be fabulous to watch.
You’ll have fun.
What was the most exciting thing about working with the Zappa family on this project?
It was challenging, because it took me eight years to do the film. And it took me at least two years to approach the family and talk to Gail Zappa, Zappa’s wife and widow. Because the family trust — for good reasons — is very protective about the legacy of her husband, and I had to convince them that there are good reasons to do this film. But eventually we had the chance to meet, and I got invited to come here and show Gail some of the footage that I had already collected, because I thought the world needs to see this, and eventually she gave me the go ahead. We still had to sit over four years to figure out a contract. It eventually worked out. I had full support and the final cut.
The final cut’s very important.
Oh yeah. It is!
I love the way you ended the movie, which we won’t discuss here, because everyone needs to see this film. It’s very clever. And I love the fact that all these years of Zappa being portrayed as a buffoon and a rock and roll musician, you’ve taken him out of that arena and given him the status he would like for himself as a composer. How old were you when you first decided that you loved Frank Zappa?
Well, I had my epiphany at the age of 12 and I never recovered from that. I listened to his music for the first time at the end of the school year. A summer break is what you say. Where our teacher allowed us to listen to the pop music records and there wasn’t that many pop music records in the music collection at our school. There was only one recording called the Entwicklung der Popmusik [sic] which means Evolution of Pop Music by Deutsche Grammophon Part One and Part Two. In part two, on the first side there was Velvet Underground, J. Driscoll, Ritchie Havens, and the song that opened side B was called “Who Are The Brain Police?” That is actually one of the first songs published on the Zappa album Freak Out in ’65 or ’66. The year I am born. And when I heard that song in music class — we were allowed to listen to the whole album through, that thing knocked me off my feet. I never heard anything that strange. There’s a lot of such beauty in the melody of this song, and of course I didn’t understand any lyrics because I was 12, and my English wasn’t happening. But then there’s also all the noise and collage and cacophony adding distortion. It was blowing me away, and challenging me, I could not get that thing out of my mind.
I was really taken and wanted to get the album. I went to the record store and put out all my pocket money you get from your parents together to find this recording. But the difficulty was, first of all, it was labeled wrongly on the Deutsche Grammophon record. Because there it said the song is called “Plastic People” which is another great song by Frank Zappa. So I was looking for “Plastic People” which was actually “Who Are The Brain Police?” So I go to the record store and I realize that the Mothers of Invention is also a man called Frank Zappa, and then you see all the colorful albums standing there. But the first five albums released on Verve and MGM albums like Lumpy Gravy, Cruising with Ruben & The Jets and Freak Out with this song I was looking for were not available at that time. So it was pretty hopeless for me to find that song. It just wasn’t there. So I went home with another record called Just Another Band From LA that contains on the first side a song called “Billy is a Mountain.” Which is 17 or 24 minutes long song, and which overburdened me too. I was sitting at home listening and I really didn’t know what to do with this. So Zappa from scratch for me was a permanent challenge. And that’s how it all started.
Do you feel a sense of completion? Do you feel there’s more you need to know about Zappa? Or have you completed the film?
I think as a music lover you were always happy about his massive creative output. It felt endless. Sometimes as a teenager, I remember I was dreaming of an album coming out I was imagining in my dreams how the album would look and sound like. The nice thing now, 35 years later, is that because his body of work is so profound and diverse there are still records coming out posthumously. His creation is so humongous that you can still discover things in all of the back catalog that exist and every once in a while new things are appearing. And in the past you could also go into any kind of show of his, and I don’t know if you know, he never played the same concert twice. If he went on tour he had around 120 songs in the repertoire, so today it’s Cologne, and tomorrow it’s Essen, but the shows would be totally different. There was so much to explore, plus the music was full of improvisation; it was so rich and it never bored you. So you are asking: Have I now completed something? Well, yes, I’ve completed the idea of portraying somebody who is very dear to me and to show his complexity plus getting rid of some of the stereotypes he was labeled with. I also think that the music of his will never leave me. On the flight to Los Angeles, I was listening to the Waka/Jawaka album, and it’s still sounds as fresh to me as on the first day I heard it.
Have you fallen in love with the entire family?
I only got to know the entire family very late. My point of reference was Gail Zappa. By the time she was still alive, she was the one I got to talk to. I ran into the family members here and there. Diva, by that time was still living in the house, so she was there most of the time. I never thought I had to approach the boys and girls, the children by that time. As I said it was a process of 8 years and I never approached them because I didn’t want to do a film with them. As you know, there’s no talking heads in the film and so on. Plus I always felt a little bit funny to address them, so why should I rub shoulders with someone and say “Hey it’s me and I want to do this film about your father.” I always felt a little bit funny about this, so we saw each other every once in a while here and there. When they celebrated his 70th birthday at the round house in London, we shook hands and said hi. But that was fairly it and only now when, or shortly before Gail passed away, I got to know Moon and Ahmet, who were there when we showed the rough cut to Gail, and by that time, it was Moon and Diva that was there, and Ahmet I got to know a little bit later, and Dweezil I only got to know this week. We got on the phone together because the publicist approached him for the film and this is how I got to know him.
All the different colors. Have you lined up your next project?
My next project is also something I’ve been working on for 6 years now. It’s about the music that was made impossible in times of Apartheid in Southern Africa, Namibia, and it’s special. We are investigating on that because there is a whole — let’s call it a catalog — of artists that got recorded by the authorities back then, but because of the political system it was controlled and withheld and never published. So we are giving the music back to the people. Give them a platform for the first time, and…it’s not only those recordings, but their life stories and memories. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 6 years. It’s not a film, and it might turn into a film, but first it was just a research project. Now it’s going to turn into an exhibition — a show.
An art show? Festival?
It’s very challenging to exhibit music. You, having a museum, might understand what I’m talking about, because it’s pretty dead just to show a record on the wall. A picture of something, you know, a little instillation. No, you have to explore the potentials of the material and you have to bring things to life, and to anticipate so we are researching on that of how to work with the materials in the context of exhibition. One example I can give you is the dance halls and the places where people performed (bars or shacks). Many of those places are totally forgotten about, and many of those places don’t exist anymore, so what we have is a lot of memory, of people describing those places to us, so what we did is we went on a tour throughout the country and did large format high resolution photography of the spaces and how they look now. They have all turned into parking lots, cemeteries , churches, supermarkets, and so on. And so we are going to show places in combination with the memory of the people who are telling you experiences at their best time of their life. It becomes quite emotional because you see a country — how it is now — but you also in a way give praise and reference to historic landmarks that were totally forgotten by the younger generation, and doesn’t know about it. You know…
Where are you from?
What was it like for you growing up?
That’s a nice question. I grew up in a little town in the rural industrial area, or it’s on the confines of coal mining and steel factories on one side of the town and the other side of town is like rural cows and farming. You know, that’s how one can describe best my hometown and I grew up in the 70s as a teenager, in a time when coal mining and steel factories got into crisis, so it was starting to get depressive, and for us going next out of town, ready to go to Dortmund or Munster, it was already a trip to the moon, and it was far out.
Coming back to Frank Zappa, I have to say that he, through his music, and also through my curiosity in this person, he opened up the world to me in a sense. Back then, I was very much into bootleg recordings you were able to get as a teenager, with hands on everything you can get because you are so passionate about it. As I said, because it was so rewarding, because every show sounded different. At that time, you would find little ads in newspapers of people that they are selling rarities of some sort and you would write a little letter to them with some stamps and you would get a list made photocopy and very very guerilla style. There you would see concerts of something bootleg — it was usually Bruce Springsteen, The Stones, The Beatles and the big artists, but also some real Joy Division, The Smiths…you would find all those things in there. When I saw those lists of Zappa playing Kansas City, Sacramento, Oslo, whatsoever, for me it was like a composer exploring the world by those objects of desire that were offered there, and you know you would put all of the hard earned money by selling newspapers on the weekends into obtaining those fetishes in a way, and I remember greatly how I was waiting for the mailman to bring me the new bootleg from some sort of concert, and I’d sit down and listen to it. My window to the world in a way. That’s how it was growing up in this little hometown.
A window to the world. Thank you.