Sundance ’16: Tapping into Zappa with “Eat That Question”

Avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa gets the all-archival documentary treatment in director Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words.
January 25, 2016

Frank Zappa is the latest musician to receive the all-archival doc treatment.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words looks at the life and philosophies of the late avant-garde rocker entirely through his interviews and TV appearances. Eight years in the making, the doc has the support of Zappa’s Family Trust and will have its world premiere out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“Frank Zappa was one of the most outstanding musicians and composers of the 20th century,” contends the film’s director, Thorsten Schütte, in an interview with realscreen. “In many regards, he is underestimated and labeled as an enfant terrible of rock n’ roll, but the complexity and scope of his work, together with his position as a social commentator, made him very dear to me.”

The prolific, genre-defying musician released more than 65 albums and directed several short films from the late 1960s until his death from prostate cancer at age 52 in 1993.

The doc is 100% archival, sourced almost entirely from broadcast vaults across Europe, North America and Australia, and features no originally-shot footage or interviews.

Schütte re-edited the footage, much of it little-seen or forgotten, to re-contextualize Zappa’s music and ideas in new and unexpected ways.

“I wanted to give the maximum focus on Zappa in his own voice,” he adds. “The immense variety of his output, the go-getting nature of his career, his urge to express ideas radically and to always maintain his personal creative freedom and creativity are telling things, relevant to today’s generation.”

An avid Zappa fan and collector in his teenage years, Schütte would often search for Zappa-related material while perusing TV archives for various doc projects over the years. He began conceptualizing Eat That Question (under the working title Zapped) in 2008 and approached the Family Trust two years later.

He took his time winning their confidence, promising Zappa’s widow, Gail, he would unearth new material and put a fresh perspective on Zappa’s public persona. The Trust has a deep and well-organized vault but the family was curious in what else the director might find.

By 2012, Schütte and producers for teamWorx Production and Les Films du Poisson secured a commission from ARD/SWR and hired Canada-based archival researcher Elizabeth Klinck to start combing broadcast archives around the world.

Thanks to Zappa’s cult-ish fanbase, a lot of his film work and TV appearances were on YouTube, so Schütte and Klinck already had a long list of must-haves and “Holy Grails” when production began.

“The big challenge was to find out if the material still existed, if the masters were in good shape, who owned the rights and tracking down gems people hadn’t seen before,” says Klinck, who adds that clearing music rights was relatively straight-forward since Zappa owned all of his own publishing. (Earlier this year, the Zappa Family Trust inked a deal with Universal Music Enterprises.)

Extended interview clips came from NBC, ABC, CBS, SVT, CNN and ITN among others, with choice finds unearthed in CTV and CBC archives in Canada, as well as Pennsylvania, where Klinck tracked down the master tapes of a 1981 interview Zappa did with a state police officer to a local school board’s archive.

Klinck calls Zappa “an embarrassment of riches” as a documentary subject. However, the condition of the material made the search challenging. Many 16 mm masters were often lost or in poor condition, having been shoddily transferred into various formats over the years.

“The material is easier to see thanks to the Internet but the job of clearing it and getting the materials is harder and harder,” explains Klinck.

“We had our priority list. There were things that were hard to find and there were things we were pretty sure would still exist,” adds Schütte. “The toughest was figuring out what had survived from the 1960s from West Coast broadcasters.”

“We met with the Family Trust throughout editing to show them where we stood and they were very helpful when it came to the publishers,” he adds. “Without the trust and the support of the Zappa Family Trust, this would not have worked.”

Update: Sony Pictures Classics has acquired worldwide distribution rights (excluding France and Germany) to Eat That Question.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words screens during the Sundance Film Festival tonight (January 25) at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, Utah and again on January 27, 28 and 30. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.

  • This story, part of our Archive Focus, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.