Zappa's Latest Box Of Tricks
Interview by Steve Peacock
Sounds, November 27, 1971
Frank Zappa is pretty pleased with his first movie, "200 Motels". Ask how he feels about it now that it's all finished and he'll say: "I think it turned out pretty good." Tell him that British pop pundit Tony Palmer, who worked on the film, thinks it's the worst pop film he's seen, and he'll say: "That's quite a distinction. But then he's such a controversial little rascal."
Ask him if he can see any reason for Palmer to describe it that way, and he says: "Self publicity for himself perhaps?" It's not so much arrogance, it's a strong belief in what he's doing, and as he says, he does things for people to enjoy, not for critics to write about.
He enjoys it too. He enjoyed making it, and he enjoys watching it. I'd been saying that it was a bit difficult to take in all at once, the first time. "It is a bit difficult. I remember the first time I saw it when it was completed, and I'd been looking at it for months and months in various stages of development but when the final colour print first came back, I went to a screening, sat there, and I didn't even listen to it – I just looked at it, because I couldn't believe what it looked like.
"I wasn't even connecting the dialogue or the music with the pictures up on the wall, it was a silent movie as far as I was concerned. After the third or fourth time I began to assimilate it all."
I was starting to ask about the way he's approached making the movie. He's explained at length before what the film was about how it showed that touring makes you crazy, but presumably he'd seen other pop films and he had ideas about how to do it himself. He immediately picked up on the phrase "pop films".
"I'm not an avid fan of pop films, but you get dumped into that category by virtue of the fact that the film revolves around a group of people who happen to be musicians. I think I would use the same people whether they were musicians or not. I happen to be interested in making a musical film, but a lot of the music in it is not pop. In a way that's unfortunate because it's not like one of those regular rock and roll movies."
"But as far as the ideas for the technical things went, I had seen many examples of the special effects you can get, and I had some idea of the capabilities of video technique. 99% of the effects in the movie happen live while you're working, which means you can see how they're going to turn out at the time, and you don't have to send them away to a lab and get them to do it for you. If you don't like it you just erase it and do it again. It was extremely appropriate for this film."
Was there anything in the film he felt didn't work as well as it could have done, or anything he had to leave out?
"There was plenty of stuff that was left out that might have been more interesting to leave in, if certain other parts had been shot. But you must remember that we only had a seven day shooting schedule and as it was one third of the script, which was 320 pages long, didn't get shot at all, and so there was a certain amount of restructuring to be done at the point where we were putting the thing together."
But had he had, say, two weeks on the sound stage, it would have been a very different film? "It very definitely would have been, but that's beside the point really. What's there is there, that '200 Motels', that's the way Fate has made it occur. I also would've liked to have had the soundtrack in stereo, but I didn't have the budget for that either."
Perhaps with the success of "200 Motels", he'll get a better budget for his next project, "Billy The Mountain". Part of the script and some of the music for this is already written, and the Mothers may be performing extracts from it at their Rainbow Theatre concerts in London next month. After the current tour, Zappa will be going back home to finish work on the script and the music. Will he be using the same techniques to make the next film?
"No, there'll be some improvements in terms of technique. There's a possibility of involving computer technology in conjunction with the videotape to do even more outrageous things. I don't want to be too specific with you because a lot of the things are patentable, but say I've invested some money in research and development on some machines to extend the capabilities of video, and you might be hearing something in the next few weeks about the success of those experiments."
The music for the film will be played by the Mothers – "doing our rock and roll comedy music" – and by a synthesiser orchestra. "There'll be a number of special devices that are in development right now, that'll do a number of unusual things to the human voice, and also extend the capabilities of the voice by enabling a person's speech or singing voice to trigger circuits which will cause that voice to be accompanied by synthesised orchestral ensembles, that will be exactly in synchronisation and exactly on pitch with that voice, no matter what it's doing."
"Say you're talking. There's a device that will find out the important information harmonically about the content of your voice, and generate a signal which'll turn on other devices which will poop out of a speaker on the other side of the stage a sax section that'll play chords that'll accompany exactly the rhythm of your speech and the inflection of your speech. It could produce a very interesting kind of music."
How far advanced is the work on these devices? "They've been tested and they work. The only thing I'm waiting for is to get off the road, go back to Los Angeles, and have the guy that's working on the project hand me a completed box. It's just a question of putting it all into a little black box with knobs on."
And learning how to use it? "Right, but that's not too bad, because once you have the proper amount of rehearsal with the members of the group, all they have to do is adjust their ear to the fact that every time they talk there's going to be an ensemble of some sort cranking along behind them, that they can't get rid of. There's no way you can fool it – if you go out of tune it goes right out of tune with you."
How do they feel about that? "Oh, they're interested in doing it. The Mothers of Invention? You know how experimental they are."
The way they're going to make the film this time, is to shoot the Mothers straight. playing the music and narrating the story of Billy The Mountain. After that, they'll use insets and superimpositions, and other fiendish tricks, to illustrate the story; shots of the Mothers acting out the story in costume, and animation sequences.
Would it be as fast moving as the first movie? "Oh yes, at least as fast, but I think you'll be able to follow it because there's a linear story – this definitely has a plot. It's a kind of fairy tale situation and it has events that follow each other in the acceptable plodding manner that people like to identify with."
Would he like to outline the plot? "Ah let's see. I don't want to get too specific, and give the whole plot away, but it's something like this:
"It tells the story of the creation of life on this planet and in this version, it begins with an empty sky, a fat maroon sofa floating around in it, God sees the sofa, admires it, and decides to explain to the sofa the basis of their future relationships, and he does this, singing in German.
Then he decides he needs some entertainment so he summons his girlfriend The Short Girl, and her assistant, Squat The Magic Pig, and proceeds to shoot a home movie using the girl and the pig and the sofa. And when he's finished shooting the film he has some Winged Holy Children take it to a lab where they don't ask any questions, and while he's waiting for his rushes to come back he lays down on the sofa to take a nap, and as soon as he goes to sleep, he has a great dream, and when he dreams the Devil appears.
Now the Devil walks out of a cave and he introduces himself with a song and dance routine, and he has these cloven hoofs, you see, and he's stomping around on the rocks outside the cave and the sparks from his hoofs ignite all adjacent moss, and the moss goes up in flames, the smoke is billowing around, and as he sings in a low voice the smoke turns to stone forming several lumpy new mountains, and one of them can talk. And the one that can talk is named Billy the Mountain.
Billy The Mountain has a tree growing off his shoulder named Ethel, and Ethel is his girlfriend, who soon becomes his wife, and Ethel the Tree is under the control of Old Zircon, the phased-out Byzantine devil. Old Zircon induces Ethel the Tree to trick Billy the Mountain into taking her on a vacation. And so he gets up on his massive granite foot, and starts walking across America, and he's destroying America as he walks from California to Virginia Beach.
Meanwhile, in a small neat room behind a grocery store, there's this mysterious figure named Studebaker Hawk, and Studebaker Hawk is dressed in a chequered tablecoth with waxdrips on it from some candles stuffed up a Chianti bottle, and he's wearing dark green denim trousers such as a bus driver might enjoy, and he sits before a glowing view screen on which he monitors all things potentially dangerous to civilisation as we know it. And on this screen he's watching Billy the Mountain.
Now Billy has this large cliff for a jaw, and when he talks the cliff goes up and down, and clouds of brown smoke puff out, and rocks and boulders hack up, and he (Studebaker Hawk) sees the new brown clouds coming out of Billy's mouth and he sings about it because he becomes worried about the implications of brown clouds in terms of the ecology. He gets on the phone to informed Sources in Washington DC. and finds that the line is busy.
Meanwhile, all these disasters keep happening in the Mid-West. On his way. Billy gets hungry, and he eats a diner. You know what a diner is? Well in the United States they have these restaurants that are made out of old street cars, and he eats one. He sees it's got all this rancid food in it so he eats the whole street car – all the stale lemon pies and bacon drips, he eats the cash register and the chlorophyll lozenges and gum displayed nearby.
But as he's walking, he finds that it's interfered with his delicate granite intestinal membranes, causing severe gas, fire, and molten lava, and Billy the Mountain becomes Billy the Volcano, about the time he gets to Indiana. He's vomiting all these melted chrome diner appliances all over the countryside.
By this time Studebaker Hawk has finally gotten a call through to his informed sources in Washington, and he meets a character called Little Emil, who gives him a code, and when Studebaker Hawk manages to figure out the code he discovers that the Government wants him to stop the rampaging volcano.
And the way they want him to stop it is by sneaking up on it with a special new bomb which will not only destroy the volcano but it'll wipe out the middle of the United States to a width of about a thousand miles. And this upsets him because he thinks of the long range ecological consequences of such a disaster."
"So he thinks to himself that there must be some mistake, that the computer in the Pentagon must have gone apeshit, because their rationale for doing this, as explained by the code, is you can go ahead and blow up the Mid-West because those dumb f-king farmers will never know the difference. That's what the computer print-out had said. So he gets suspicious, and he refuses to obey his orders and calls Washington back, and says he has another better way to stop Billy the Mountain.
And the rest of the story is the part I don't want to give away, because it's what Studebaker Hawk's plan is, and who Little Emil really is, because he doesn't work for the Government, he owns it."