Zappa Talks Movies

By Ian Pollack

Digger, June, 1973

200 Motels and the current one

This interview took place in a room at The Royal Garden Hotel, London, late last year, 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.

Zappa talks to Ian Pollack – mostly about Zappa's film 200 Motels, a film Pollack describes as "a zany sound/visual barrage which comes at you with the speed of light shows and the fragments of dreams."

Zappa and the Mothers arrive in Australia on June 21st – so far there are no plans to show 200 Motels in this country, but it'll come folks, it'll come.

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 judgments 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 3000 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 color 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.

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).

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.

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.

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 films?

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 two-track, one professional four-track, a ¼-track machine and a portable ... 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.

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.

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.

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 U.S. 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 judgments 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 Whaaaaa! and it's mindblowing from there on, they just don't know what's going to happen.

Different edit of this interview was published previously in Time Out, December 1971.

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