Frank Zappa's Baby Snakes

By Ed Naha

Genesis, June, 1980

No one has ever accused Frank Zappa of being conventional. During the sixties, he sent the pop music world feeling with and ambitious cadre of weirdos dubbed The Mothers of Invention. In the seventies he emerged as a musical hero in his own right, offering a host of albums (Chunga's Revenge, Joe's Garage, 200 Motels), a few hit singles ("Jewish American Princess"), and an all-videotape theatrical presentation (200 Motels).

In order to get the eighties off to a solidly bizarre start, Zappa has reached into his creative bag of insanity and come up with Baby Snakes, a feature film produced, directed, orchestrated, and edited by Frank Zappa. Baby Snakes is not your average movie. Its stars include a plastic talking police cat, a gas mask, an inflatable female doll, and an army of animated clay figures (by Bruce Bickford) that makes Mr. Bill look like yesterday's Play-Doh. "It's a movie 'bout people who do stuff that is not normal," explains Zappa.

Zappa put up his own money for Baby Snakes and so far, is distributing it without the help of a major studio. "I would have been delighted to have someone else put up the money for it, but the major film companies work on the premise that "every year we should do just a few $35-million movies." When you get a budget that big, it means you can (...) a lot of expense-account padding. To say to these people that I need half a million dollars to make a movie is ridiculous. They don't even want to consider it for that amount of money. The reason it took two years to make is that I had to tour every year to save up enough money to finish it.

The fact that a movie company could express disinterest in a project planned by Frank Zappa at the height of his musical popularity is an astounding piece of news – to everyone but Zappa. "In the olden days the moguls made the deals and called the shots. Today, the guy running a company is covering his ass in order to look good to the board of directors. He's like a Packard goose, the ornament on the front of a car. He won't take a chance on anything controversial. Let's say that you're an exec at a movie company. Frank Zappa walks in and says 'I wanna do this movie called Baby Snakes and it has concert footage and it has a puppet girl and it has a gas mask and it has people doing stuff that's not normal.' You'd throw me out of your office because you just couldn't imagine it."

Total control suited Zappa just fine. "Working on this movie was a dream," he says. "Nobody to report to. Nobody to tell mw hat to do, and the only financial ceiling on it was how much I could afford. I won't say that the finished film is or isn't commercial. In the movie biz people ask 'Does it have legs?' I'd say, 'Yes, this has legs.' Depending on your taste in legs, that's what this film has got.

I'm now looking for a company to distribute it. There's one thing that can be said about these cagey businessmen. If they smell a buck, they come around and act cagey all over again. And judging from the audience reaction so far, I think that kids are going to like this movie and that it's going to do good business."

And what if a company says it would like to distribute Baby Snakes but would like to tone it down? Zappa stands firm. "I'd tell them to fuck off and I'd do it myself. This movie has a lot of things going for it that have never been on the screen before. There's no way to cut this movie or a G rating, because there are too many strange objects in the animation. And if you take the lyrics of the songs out what have you got – a Captain and Toon-cel special.

"I think that the film is good. I think it was worth the time and trouble to get it together, because I think I'm destined to do a lot of work in this medium. I'm a composer, and film is another medium I enjoy working in. I like to compose with pictures as well as with dialogue and notes. I have three projects I'm planning now for the future. Next time, I'd really like to get some outside financing so I don't have to mortgage everything I own in order to have the luxury of making movies. That seems cruel and unjust punishment."

Zappa relaxes and ponders his fate as a movie mogul. "Look," he laughs. "My get-off on this thing is doing it. There are only two parts of this process that really amuse me: doing the film and watching an audience enjoying it. I mean, I don't want anyone to give me a $35-million budget. But give me ten or fifteen and I'll make one hell of a movie."

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)