Touring Can Make You Crazy
Interview by Ian Pollock
From: Frank Zappa.
To: All journalists concerned with 200 Motels.
A Press Kit some of which says, 'As far as I'm concerned, 200 Motels is a surrealistic documentary. The film is at once a reportage of real events and an extrapolation of them. Other elements include 'conceptual by-products' of the extrapolated 'real event'. In some ways, the contents of the film are autobiographical'. You could call it a zany, sound/visual barrage which comes at you with the speed of lightshows and the fragments of dreams. Some have called it boring.
Personally (signed Ian Pollock), I might not recommend it, although I would recommend you to see it and at the same time keep the future in mind. The interview took place in a room at The Royal Garden Hotel in between a few phone calls and knocks on the door. Sometimes Frank's answers come out like the computerised language of his press kit and sometimes, folks, he seems almost human. Either way, all those figures are in his head.
I saw the movie about two weeks ago. I need to see it a few more times.
Well, that's a good attitude to take because some people make their judgements on one screening which I think is unfortunate because I think there's a lot in there.
I heard that it's already done pretty well in the States.
It's done fantastic in the States and is continuing to do so. They did a 14,000 dollar gross in three days in a 500 seat theatre in New York, 10,600 for three days in a 3,000 seat theatre in Toronto, and the places it's been running for the longest time, in Boston and Los Angeles, the business has improved each week. It's one of the top three selling films over there.
How long was it originally?
120 minutes. It's been cut down to 98.
That's things you wanted to cut or had to cut?
Oh I cut them, I cut them out to make it play faster, keep the tempo.
Is this only the second movie you've made including 'Uncle Meat'?
It might as well be the first because it's an entirely different technique. It was made on video and 'Uncle Meat' is just straight photography.
What happened to 'Uncle Meat'?
It's still in my basement – fifty minutes rough cut of it – it's not completely shot yet. It has some music in it already and some animation has been done for it – I did it – it's like miniatures.
Cal Shenkel did the animation in '200 Motels' – how do you work with him on it?
Well, they had the musical track with all the dialogue built in to work from, so step one was to have the track read, which means a guy sits down with a sound reader which works out how many frames it takes a person to say something, and then we had a meeting to discuss how I wanted it visualised, and I suggested certain things to stick in it which I thought would be humorous, like the ghost coming through. I trust Calvin's imagination to convert anything I would do in terms of music, he will convert it into a picture which I will identify with.
Does 'Uncle Meat' have any link-up with what we're seeing and hearing now from you?
I like to join all the projects together by some sort of thread of continuity, because that's the way life is, you know, one thing turns into something else. There is a continuity through all the albums and there are elements in the 'Uncle Meat' footage sitting in the basement that are direct references to what's already in '200 Motels', so if 'Uncle Meat' comes out three or four years from now, when I finally get the money to finish that one off, you'll flash on things in there. Like drinking the potion and turning into a monster.
Does that mean we needed to see 'Uncle Meat' before seeing '200 Motels'?
It would have been better, but it might not be so bad to see it afterwards.
So have we lost a link in the chain?
I don't think most people would know the difference, or even care about that link, because at the point where they see '200 Motels', the visual impact of it is the weirdest thing that happens first of all, because it's a different looking movie. I remember the first time I saw the finished film in colour because we'd been working on a black and white work print all along. I sat there, I didn't even listen to it. I just looked at it – I just couldn't believe what it looked like on the screen, and I saw it about four or five times after that.
Well, I think you really need to see it lots of times.
But I mean I knew what was in the movie, and when I saw it I was just seeing it for the first time, I couldn't believe it. And so far as a conceptual link with the rest of what's happening, I don't think that if you go to see it once, you're even gonna know or care what came before it. Most of the kids that go to see it will just take it as something to look at, and if they go back and see it a couple more times, maybe then they'll look at it more.
Do you expect the film to make it on the commercial circuit?
I don't know what to think about the commercial circuit here, because I don't know anything about the normal behaviour of a film on the British market. I'm surprised that it's doing so well in the States, because it's really doing so good beyond everyone's wildest expectations.
Ladies & Gentlemen.
We are proud to announce the release of an unusual film called 200 MOTELS. So that you and your readers do not misconstrue its intent, and to provide a few clues to the film's somewhat mysterious continuity, I have taken the time to answer some hypothetical questions and describe from a personal point of view the development of the project. I hope this will prove useful to you, and that it will save me the trouble in personal interviews of endlessly re-phrasing and regurgitating the same data.
How much rehearsal time did you have with the RPO?
For the comparatively modern music, they had to perform, they had an awfully small amount of rehearsals.
You're not too pleased?
I won't say that, but I would have liked more rehearsal time.
Presumably you've got the next movie in your head already.
I've got it better than in my head, I've got it on paper. (At this point he showed me the script of 'Billy The Mountain', a fairy tale about a mountain that walks across America, going on a vacation with his wife Ethel the tree).
When do you start shooting?
If we started pre-production at the end of this tour, which is December 22nd, we won't be able to shoot this until August because there's a lot of pre-planning to it. We've already had a meeting with UA about it, and they're interested, but we haven't made a deal.
The success in the States will be pretty handy, won't it?
It's a pretty expensive movie – even with the success in the States they might still have to think about this. It'll be between 2½ and 5 million dollars to do this. '200 Motels' was only 679,000 dollars – we came in 40,000 dollars under budget. We're going to do that one in video too here.
Because this is where the technique is. The processing was all done here at the Vitronics up by the airport. I mean they have a similar processing facility in the US, but the video facilities aren't as good.
Would you use Tony Palmer again?
No I don't think so.
Did you have a lot of difficulty?
He left and came back?
Did you read the review he wrote?
I've read three reviews that he wrote. I at one time considered him to be a friend. I found his behaviour very strange.
He wanted to impose his own ideas on the film?
Yeah. But it was quite inappropriate for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that most of the cast was amateur and they were also my friends, and they were also people saying dialogue that I had written, based on the way they talked. He didn't know these people, so how could he possibly expect to tell them how and what and who to express what was in there – he didn't know what it was supposed to be. I mean, in some of the interviews and articles that he's written, he says 'I don't know what it's all about, I never knew what it was all about – will somebody tell me what it's all about, it's shitty' and all the rest of the stuff. Well, from that standpoint, how could he expect to instruct the cast in what to do?
How did you come to use him in the first place?
Well I've known him for a couple of years. The first time I met him was in '67 when he did an interview with me in New York for the pop film 'All My Loving', and I did another interview when I came over in '68, and we'd had dinner a few times and he showed me some video to 35mm transfer that he'd done. I was quite impressed with it and I figured, well, at least he's had some experience in this regard.
For him to disavow all association with it is stupid, and I think for what he did in the film, he did a good job on it.
The sound/visual barrage effect of the film was a bit lost at the show I saw because of low volume.
It's important that the film be shown with the sound at special volume, because when we made the soundtrack for it, it was transferred 2DB under the normal volume that it's supposed to be, and so when the print goes into a theatre it's accompanied with a notification that it's supposed to be played 6DB above normal operating level.
Do you think people will get lost a few times during the movie?
That's part of the idea of a surrealistic, fantasy-type thing like that, I mean if it doesn't take you out, well then it's failed.
Have you any idea who'll you use to fill Tony Palmer's function on the next one?
I might do it myself.
Why didn't you do it on this one?
Because I hadn't had any video experience. I've been checking things out since. I would hate to have to go through another scene like with Tony Palmer on another film. It's just an unnecessary thing – I don't bear him any ill will, I just don't like his behaviour, using the public media to go through some personal tribulations that he must be experiencing.
Was the only stuff you did before 'Uncle Meat' home movies?
I started in 1958 with home movies.
Did you use to take a camera round everywhere and just shoot everybody and the group? ....
Yeah, I'd take one roll of film and shoot it six times and have it come out with the weirdest montages you ever saw! I love to edit. I like to edit tape and I like to edit film, and when I'm at home, if I've got no immediate project that I'm working on I'll just put 16mm film on a rack and cut it up just because I like to see things turn into other things, and the same way with sound. Just stick things together and then you hear the relationship when it goes by – it's like Christmas every time you hear another one of those edits going by.
What kind of set-up have you got at home for both music and film?
Well I have a basement which contains a number of desks. I have one desk with an electric typewriter, and I have one desk with music writing equipment, and I got another desk with 16mm editing equipment, and I have four tape recorders, one professional 2-track, one professional 4-track, a ¼-track machine and a portable Uher. I just wander round the basement from desk to desk doing whatever I have to do on various projects.
You said on the sleeve notes that 60% of the music was composed on the road. How do you compose – guitar, piano?
No, sometimes I just sit down and write it, some of it was written on airplanes. I would say 5% was written on an airplane. I could look at the scores and tell you approximately which hotel each different section was written in.
Are there many ad libs in '200 Motels'?
There are a few in there, but mostly it's all scripted. The biggest ad lib is Howard's thing at the end where he's saying 'he's making me do it'.
Why is 'Billy the Mountain' going to be more expensive?
Because of the amount of animation that's involved, and because I have some machinery that I want to add to the normal video equipment that has to be constructed to make it do other things computerised machinery.
Is the machinery your own idea? Are we going to see something completely different?
Yes, it's my own idea. I hope to be able to make it completely different, but a lot depends on the design of these devices that I'm hoping to use.
You must have always had trouble in waiting for people to catch up with what you're doing – I mean musically you've had that, haven't you?
The main trouble I have is not waiting for people to catch up, it's just getting people to take it for what it is. The first problem is just to get them to pay attention to it at the time, because a lot of people who have heard of the Mothers have never listened to any of our music, never saw a concert, never heard a record, and a lot of people have no idea that we're into film at all. The group is very much orientated to film – it's not just my freaking off with the camera, Mark and Howard are really into acting, so it's a family sort of affair, and I like to think of being able to use the group in a number of projects not just for background music.
I don't think '200 Motels' will be accepted on a wide scale at the moment, but I think a lot of people will be interested in a few years.
Well, I'll tell you what happened at the press screens I went to in the US. The response – if you saw a film always in the presence of the press – it's a bummer, it really is, and the comparison between the several press screenings I went to, even when it was well received, that's nothing compared to when a normal, straight, off-the-street audience goes in and sees it. I saw one of them, they fall down, they crack up, they just don't believe they're seeing it. The people that go and see it don't have any critical judgement to make or any of that, they're just an audience, they want to be entertained, and they want something to happen to them, and I mean they don't believe that thing is happening on the screen. When Ringo says he wants me to fuck the girl with the harp, they go Whaaaaat! and it's mindblowing from there on, they just don't know what's going to happen.
You were still writing stuff just prior to shooting. Why?
I was. Because as the continuity of the film became more evident, certain things were required, extra pieces had to be written to fill in the story continuity so I was working right up to the last minute. The last thing that was written was the finale, and the thing that was written right before that is that scene for the animation.
You know in the movie where the group more or less say that they create your scripts, how much of it is actually you observing them, how much is you reading what you are into them, do you think?
I think that that's all mixed up in there in equal proportions, but the script was written around the people that were going to be in the film. In other words, most of them were people that I had been with enough to absorb their speech patterns and write things that would be reasonably accurate in terms of the way they talk, things they might say. With the actions of the group, they're all based on things that they have either said or done, or they have thought about, or I'd heard about that they had done when I wasn't looking – it's all factual.
In the film, Ringo (Larry The Dwarf, Zappa), sits round in the background with a tape recorder. Do you do that often?
I have carried a recorder before now, and they also carry recorders.
There's also a scene where Ringo returns to his desk and starts writing it all down and making notes. Do you make notes all the time, or do you keep it all in your head until you've got time to do it all in one go?
No, I just keep it in my head. That's pretty much the way it is – you store it up in your head, and when you have time to write it, you write it.
Do you put the group in any false situations to get reactions for the purposes of creating the script?
No, it's not like tricking them into doing something and then sitting back and going ha ha ha! wait till they get into this situation and I know that it'll get a rise out of them – it's not that way. Everybody knows what the deal is before they go in there. First of all, they don't like to be put into positions that are too far into them because they're professional to the extent that they always like to be able to do a good job, and I appreciate that, and I respect them for that. So I always make sure that they try and know as much about what a situation is going to be before they're asked to function in that situation.
Certain paranoias form the basis of some of your material, like Penis Dimension. To what extent are these your own, those of the group, everybody's? Are you worried about the size of your prick?
Well, I wouldn't say so, no. I would say that there are certain aspects of the film that are extracted from just the general atmosphere of this age, the whole rock 'n' roll age, the whole scene of pop music. It's not just the experience of the Mothers, a lot of the stuff about touring could apply to any group that's had related experiences.
Did you get what you wanted from the film?
I would say that I like it, and I think it turned out good. But I would also say it's just the beginning. It's just a sort of a demo for what can be done, because there's a lot of pioneering work in that film.
Do you ever go to movies more than once?
I very seldom do. Then of course I very seldom go to the movies anyway. I'm not that enthusiastic about other movies.
Can you tell me any movies you liked?
Yeah. 'The Beast From Haunted Cave', 'Wasp Woman', 'The Killer Shrews' – those are the kind of movies I used to go and see. Science Fiction movies.
But some of them are really badly made.
I know, but I didn't go there to see an artistic experience, I went there to crack up. I wanted to see the guy turn around and I wanted to see the zipper on the back of the monster. The cheaper the better, that was my idea of a good time.
You don't go and see Godard and people like that?
Well how do you know what they're like?
I don't know what they're like, but it doesn't interest me because the way the other people talk about it, I wouldn't go within ten miles of a theatre that had one of those artistic kind of movies on. I had a couple of bad experiences – I went to see a couple of Fellini movies and I was so horribly disappointed I couldn't stand it. I saw 'Juliet of the Spirits' and I didn't like it and I went to see 'Satyricon' and I enjoyed it, except that I thought the production was crappy. The editing was real bad, you could see the fucking glue on the splices going by, bad cuts you know. I saw a couple of Bergman movies about six years ago, I thought they were boring. I have no motivation to go and take in those sort of things ... cultural experiences.
How do you learn about the techniques?
You don't have to go and see someone else's movie to learn about techniques. I pick up a machine and I work with my hands on that machine, that's the way you do it. The effects I haven't seen in a film, I'll take the ones I have seen and extrapolate on them, you know, once I find out how a certain effect is done, I'll say, well, if you can do that with that, and you did that with that plus this, you'll get that over there.
Different edit of this interview appeared later in Digger, June 1973.
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