Today I’m talking with Mike J. Nichols about editing the documentary Zappa.
He’s edited a lot of documentaries including Billy Joel’s Last Play at Shea and Echo in the Canyon and was an assistant editor on Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week Beatles documentary – for which I interviewed editor Paul Crowder for a previous Art of the Cut. He also cut the feature, Compulsion.
This interview is available as a podcast.
(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)
HULLFISH: How’d you get involved with editing this documentary?
NICHOLS: I wrote Dweezil Zappa who was a VJ on MTV when I was a teenager and we began a correspondence and a friendship, and Frank was his dad to me. I knew of him but I never listened to that music and I didn’t know much and so if I ever called the house — and it was very rare that Frank would ever answer because he slept in the daytime — but when he did answer it was unique.
But I didn’t know him in the music world. I had to come into that later. This is even an entry point for me too.
I made a music video with Dweezil when we were younger and I always kind of wondered how we developed this friendship because I was living in Ohio at the time. I mean it’s the middle of nowhere and how that connectivity ever happened. It didn’t make any sense to me.
But going through all this footage I began to see Frank’s early life and see these weird interesting parallels of the way he was working and what I had been doing. He was from nowhere too, and I started seeing these interesting parallels. It took a lifetime to figure this out for me.
I had to do what the audience may do on this — find my own way into it as well.
HULLFISH: There’s a great quote that you kind of start the documentary off with all most of Frank talking about how much he loves to edit. He said, “I became obsessed with editing” — and he means film editing — “and I would edit just because I like to edit. I would splice 8-millimeter film together. Anything that was in the house I would splice to something else.” So Frank is one of us.
NICHOLS: Very much so. And just like you, when I started going through all that footage and I found that interview, I was so excited. He’s literally talking about his Super 8 filmmaking and he said, “I used my dad’s 8-millimeter camera and some Dynachrome film from the drug store” and he graphically explains this.
He took his dad’s camera, tied it to a string and went out in the yard and he spun it around and turned the camera on and then he came inside and he did the same thing. I’m imagining his dad said, “I’m never letting you use that camera again” because that’s terrible.
Going through the footage I found that!
HULLFISH: No way.
NICHOLS: I found the roll of film that he’s speaking of in that interview and I have concluded that the outdoor footage is the thing he shot first. The indoor footage — which actually has Christmas trees in it — is the second part of the day or that period of that roll of film.
I used it to bookend the movie — his entry into his world of editing.
HULLFISH: I love it. How did you develop a relationship with Alex Winter, the director?
NICHOLS: Back in the day when Dweezil was on MTV, he wanted to do his own show. I’d been doing some stop motion 8-millimeter animation and he said, “Look. We’re doing a show and I’ll play videos, but then I’ll have the Mike Nichols cheap animation segment and you’ll do these weird paper cut-out things.” He would do music for it and it would just be a minute of the show.
Somewhere in that amount of time, Alex had this thing called Idiot Box that he was pitching to MTV and each episode was only about five to seven minutes long of zaniness and craziness and he’d been doing some music videos and they opted for that because it wasn’t 30 minutes long. His whole season was 35 minutes long of all these little episodes. So I knew who he was. I knew that he was filmmaking back then, but I’d actually never met him.
And even when we did the pitch for this film I hadn’t met him then either. I’d worked on Last Play at Shea, the Billy Joel film which came out in 2010 — and Glen Zipper suggested me and he wrote me a Facebook message and said, “How would you like to work on a fake Frank Zappa film with Alex Winter?”
I think he’d been seeing my Facebook post because I had been going out researching it because I myself thought no one’s really doing this. So I start posting little things about Zappa on my Facebook. I think it just clicked with Glen and he said, “You’re the guy. Do you want to do this?” So we talked on the phone. But during that time I still never met him.
HULLFISH: You mentioned using that crazy footage from the Super 8 camera. There are a lot of 8mm crazy montage psychedelic things that I just thought was so perfect for Frank. Talk to us about building some of those little sequences — if there is one that you like the best.
NICHOLS: My favorite is the Moon Zappa. When people had 8-millimeter cameras they would use them sort of like a still camera. It’s almost like….
HULLFISH: It’s four seconds.
NICHOLS: Yeah. They would just film and somebody would wave or there’s Grandma picking up something on the beach. It’s just two and a half minutes’ worth of film of people — just slight little moving montages and he was no exception to that. A lot of that footage is not all-encompassing and when I first started this, people would say, I saw the Amy Winehouse documentary. “You just take a bunch of footage and they made the whole movie out of that.”
The difference is Amy Winehouse had an iPhone. It has hours’ worth of audio and picture and most of Zappa’s film stuff had zero audio and the longest takes were eight seconds. They were not all-encompassing. He was also such an experimentalist that he was rewinding the roll of film and double-exposing it and then he would get it from the store and he would project it on something and re-photograph his own work and run it backward or do other things. So he’s always experimenting with it.
So when you grab it, it isn’t always the most accessible for a documentary because he’s also not in it. Most of the stuff he’s behind the camera. He’s recording friends and weird experiments and even the family movie footage that is there, he’s barely in it because he always ran the camera.
You almost have to show his work to talk about how he used that stuff because he wasn’t that present in any of his early movie footage.
HULLFISH: You alluded to the fact that there is no sound on a lot of the 8-millimeter footage — the camera that I had didn’t have sound on it.
Talk to me about the sound design on the 8-millimeter footage.
NICHOLS: I love sound design and I think that it’s at least a third of filmmaking.
HULLFISH: Oh, go ahead and say “half.” Come on!
NICHOLS: I do think it’s that but if you include the emotional aspect of those two things, okay I’ll give THAT a third.
It is sometimes more transferring then the imagery is. You’re being assigned in this footage, somebody else’s aesthetic. I didn’t shoot this. It wasn’t made to be put together in this way, so somebody else’s aesthetic may not be the right tool for conveying something. So what do I have left? I have music and sound. Or I have the the editing itself to create something else so you’re always trying to conquer that.
I love sound, and I think that you could be overwhelming with it. I tried to choose sounds that were dated from that time period. So if there was wind, I took it from something from that time period, so it had a terrible quality to it.
Now, I know that in the end of the sound mix sometimes those people might have replaced my sound with something else because they thought, “Oh, that doesn’t sound as good.” The intention of the design was to keep that stuff really in the background.
I was calling it “pushing air.” Don’t feature it. Just “push air.” Sometimes I just want things to move the air in the room around. Frank used to call things “air sculptures” — how sound moved and pushed air around.
HULLFISH: There’s a really interesting experimental montage — Edgard Varese’s “Ionization” montage. It was really trippy.
NICHOLS: I want to ask you why you like it because I think it’s the thing that people would hate the most.
HULLFISH: I thought it was fantastic.
NICHOLS: Alex showed it to his oldest son and they said they could just watch two hours of that. I know the audience won’t.
I found films where little pieces of audio waveforms that were from 1959 movies. Also, Frank was so good at typography. It’s amazing how great of an artist he was.
HULLFISH: The movie pointed out that he had his own line of greeting cards that he designed and wrote!
NICHOLS: He made lots of title cards for movies that he never made. One of them was: “The music that you are seeing is not synced to picture.” I just found that so amusing, so in the middle of that montage that title card appears.
There’s another part where it is some footage of him when he first started playing guitar and initially, people thought I went too far. I don’t think it would be as offensive as they thought as long as it didn’t look like that for the whole movie.
Alex said, “Look. If we can get people past that first few minutes, then we have them. Let’s tone that one little part down a little bit.” But Edgard Varèse is nuts and there are screams and sound effects and a lot of those voices are me.
HULLFISH: Explain who Edgard Varèse is, and who he is to Zappa and why the montage made sense, story-wise.
NICHOLS: I think that when you find something that is your seminal moment — and it becomes the poster that hangs on your wall when you’re a kid….
HULLFISH: Like Star Wars for most of us.
NICHOLS: I would say it would be Star Wars for me.
HULLFISH: Or Jaws.
NICHOLS: Frank wasn’t even really into music. He went to this record store and found a record from Edgard Varèse with this really creepy picture of a mad-scientist-looking guy on the cover and the price kept being reduced and he had money in his pocket and he was just fascinated by the image of it — not knowing who he was.
He found an article where somebody had said that it was the most offensive album ever, and Frank said, “I have to have it.” He goes back into that store and buys it, and when he plays it, it rings a bell.
HULLFISH: And this is not rock and roll music.
NICHOLS: It’s experimental. It’s percussion. It’s kind of “music concrete,” which is made by experimenting with playing with tape recordings and sound effects. It was like a slamming or interruption of sounds and images and stuff.
HULLFISH: Walter Murch used to be into it.
NICHOLS: Yes I actually looked it up because of his talk on that.
I think Frank loved it except that it was orchestra music and he was hearing it being done in a setting where somebody intended on it having these loud percussive sounds and at the time everything was horns and things but he loved the drums — loved how loud and obnoxious it was. So that music spoke to him and he wanted to share it with everybody. And very few people ever heard it the way he did.
HULLFISH: And a lot of his early performances were as a drummer instead of as a guitarist.
NICHOLS: Yeah. He was a drummer in a band. That’s how he started out.
Frank wrote to Varèse. He called him. He found out that he was in New York and he called him on the phone and he was out and his wife said, “Hey. Frank Zappa called you. He’s a young kid who loves your music.” And Varèse wrote him a letter back.
If you’ve been at Frank’s house, that is hanging on the wall. It’s now in the new office, but he has the personal letter that Edgard Varèse wrote to him. Frank’s not a guy for stuff like that, but that just seems to be one of the most important things, as if George Lucas wrote me a letter and I put it on my wall. It’s the iconic thing for him. It changed him.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the structure of the movie. It seems like it’s basically in order other than the beginning. Is that correct or am I missing some structural changes?
NICHOLS: I would say “yes” because it was not a literal script. It was a timeline — like a research timeline of events — and when you look at it you would say, “This was relevant. This wasn’t.” If this was a story that was going to go here, you kind of know what’s relevant what’s not.
So it really began as a timeline. It’s my fault sometimes when we’d break that timeline because I was seeing this footage of Frank speaking to the Czechoslovakia people on the evening of the Soviet occupation of the country that they were leaving the night before. They asked him to come there.
Before the movie started, I watched this footage and thought it was the weirdest juxtaposition of Frank onstage talking to thousands of people in another country was a great way to enter the movie. That if you know who he is you think it’s weird. If you don’t, you’d think, “I have no idea what’s going on,” but you expect that it’s going to tell you that.
When I put that at the beginning of the film — and Alex was sitting next to me and I didn’t know him really well at that point — I was thinking maybe we start the movie out with this footage, and I show it to him and what I was trying to say is: Frank’s talking to all those people and he’s saying, “Be excellent to each other!”.
NICHOLS: That’s the click that went through my head, right? And I looked up at him — and Alex has this very genuine look on his face — he’s looking at me and the words in my head are forming, “It’s Frank telling Czechoslovakia to be excellent to each other” and I look up to one of two people that you shouldn’t say to.
HULLFISH: You and I know who Alex Winter is. Who is Alex Winter for the audience?
NICHOLS: Notably, Alex is most known for playing the character Bill in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures.” And although he has a previous career as a child actor on stage and dancing and things like that, he really is known historically for that. And then he became a filmmaker.
HULLFISH: You have to be careful what you say to a director, right? Because you’re thinking, “I have this perfect beginning and I can’t screw it up by saying the wrong thing.”
NICHOLS: At one point, Alex said, “People will say what a great beginning for the movie would be, but it never sticks.” And I kept saying, “This one did.”.
It was a great way to enter the movie.
HULLFISH: That is a great way to start, but I did have a question about that… not to disagree with your choice, but to understand it: That clip ends with Frank saying, “Now I will tune my guitar.” And then — for quite a while, he just tunes his guitar. Why stay with that?
NICHOLS: It goes back to, originally, the first time I saw it, that I grew up in an MTV generation and I thought, “Man this is awesome! This is awesome!” There is an amount of artifice in music that continues to get more and more to the point where sometimes people don’t play live anymore. They play to a tape and it’s getting to the point now where people are pre-recording their music and their tracks and they’re just lip-synching on stage.
If you were to pick one person in the world who would never do that, it would be Frank Zappa. So, in highlighting the lack of artifice I wanted to show that he was tuning his guitar because you HAVE to tune your guitar to play live. I always just thought it was so beautiful that we have to leave that in because it’s totally Frank.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I love it. I’m not questioning it. Well, I AM questioning it. I’m not criticizing it.
NICHOLS: Yeah. I like that you pointed that out.
Also at the beginning is when he’s backstage talking to one of the musicians on stage and they’re trying to get something clear and Frank gives what appears to be a throwaway line at the beginning when Frank says, Look. “It’s not professional. It’s just music.”.
HULLFISH: I was struck by how much memory you had to have for audio things and visual things from the archives. How did you find those clips?
NICHOLS: I began searching for them hoping to find stuff like that. And so it was recorded that way in my brain that I went looking for things like that. I pursued it.
I am a person who loves to repeat imagery so that something means nothing to you and later on the same image all of a sudden has a different weight because you went on the journey. It’s just something that I personally love. I love that with sound — revisiting the same sound effect gives you a different effect than it did at the beginning.
Frank loved watching these monster movies I think that the music is very much like the music of Edgard Varese. That kind of music is very reminiscent of that and he loved the cheesy quality of those movies, so I began to immerse myself watching all these 1950s movies, and to me, music-wise.
When Frank first starts talking about living where he did — which was next to a mustard gas factory, I introduced Frank visually as the monster in this footage. And then, as it goes on, the audience hopefully will start to see the government as far scarier than the guy in the suit.
So at different times in the movie, it’s Frank’s idea of what he is, how people perceive him, and the contrast of that with all the authority figures who are in charge and why he has a problem with authority.
And when you meet Ruth, who represents people in his band, she even talks about how the Juilliard “police” came through and told her to stop playing the Frank Zappa music on the piano.
HULLFISH: Frank has a classically trained Juilliard percussionist in his band. Can you imagine her parents? They send her off to Julliard… I mean, I love Frank Zappa but they had to be saying, “I was expecting you to be in an orchestra, young lady”.
NICHOLS: And imagine them coming to see that and there is an amount of aesthetics and theatrics and some of it is weird and vulgar and it’s never the same thing every night. They were probably saying to her, “This is what you do?”
But Ruth’s perception is, “I could just be a person playing the triangle on a stage in an orchestra. Now I’m this active participant in something that I think is incredible.”
The motif of the monster: his second child’s middle name is Rodan — from the monster, so I keep adding a monster-theme sound effect that appears as he starts accruing people. And when he unites them that theme always continues on whenever he has a connection with someone else.
HULLFISH: That woman also had one of the most emotional — almost a eulogy of him — at the end of the film. It’s beautiful.
NICHOLS: I don’t know what she is like in real life but she was very giving in that bit and unrestrained. She’s gold. Steve Vai and Mike Keneally — the random bits of interviews that did exist in this space were gifts from those people.
HULLFISH: I wanted to talk about the idea of really saving the on-camera moments of “talking heads” for the emotional things… for the big reveals. Like with Ruth, you’re on her as she literally puts her head in her hands to cry remembering Frank. It was so emotional and moving.
NICHOLS: I was trying to make everything be like an orchestration with the sound, the music, and the picture. Part of the orchestration is where you land on seeing somebody. I love the emotional landing on people’s faces. Some people are taking audio in the documentary sense and they’re building a conversation with people that you never see their face.
I feel a lack of some soul sometimes when I never get to see a person deliver something. That’s just me personally. I want to see them speaking even if they’re in an ugly situation or bad lighting or whatever I just personally like to see them deliver at least one part of it so I can connect with them.
HULLFISH: But it seems to me like there were times where you started on a fresh person that you’ve not seen onscreen before and you do not have them on camera for the beginning of their remarks.
NICHOLS: Everybody was preceded by an older photograph or older piece of footage.
HULLFISH: It’s not necessarily them talking on camera when you first hear them.
NICHOLS: You are correct. Ruth’s introduction is through footage of her hanging out in New York. Somebody honks a horn and she turns around. Her introduction is through pieces of music without her even speaking.
Vai is a photograph. Everybody was only introduced that way.
HULLFISH: Sometimes the choice was to let the images describe exactly what was being said, like Zappa saying, “With percussion and orchestral music, you wait a long time then somebody hits a triangle.” And you actually have somebody hit a triangle. It’s almost a see and sat thing, and then many other times you’re being very symbolic or analogous.
NICHOLS: The triangle bit has a couple of double meanings for me. Some people don’t even know what the triangle is. Not the shape, but the instrument. So even just seeing it helped how insignificant-looking it is.
When Ruth begins to talk about it, there are three triangle notes. The first two are frank flipping off the camera because she’s saying, “I didn’t want to do this” DING! It’s Frank flipping off the camera to kind of show his take on, “Don’t do that bullshit! Do what we’re doing!” And then the last one shows the literal, “This is the hitting of the triangle” and I think the effect of that is yeah that is boring. In comparison, that really is uneventful for someone like her in comparison.
Most of the time, I think they were never literal.
HULLFISH: Frank was not just a rock and roll musician, but he did orchestral stuff. I noticed what I thought was some score. Is their actual score? Did you find everything from Frank’s own catalog?
NICHOLS: When Frank Zappa didn’t exist as a musician, I was trying to pull things from real orchestration music of other people’s work. Then I would go to libraries and start building it because there was a campy quality — a sci-fi thing — so I was doing that.
But it came down that we were going to use only Frank Zappa’s music. It is a challenge because he is not one for subtlety. And when you’re trying to be thoughtful or subtle in places that’s a challenge. And so I was really using that idea of music concrete to change dynamics and stuff.
Frank has a term called “xenochrity” that he invented (strange synchronizations) where he would take a guitar solo from one of his live performances and a new recording and he would combine the two on top of each other. And even though they weren’t in the same mechanical structure, it creates a new thing.
And so I took it a little farther. I would take imagery that was intended for something else and place it over this but I would also take pieces of his sounds and stuff from other songs and combine them together, and if I could get them in the same key I was making new arrangements that felt like score, and it certainly felt like him because it was from his stuff.
There were some moments where I personally didn’t have a library to use and so I started making my own little connections — my connectivity between one piece of music to the other. So there were little score pieces that I made, but they’re not the kind of thing that would stick out sound-wise.
They were more like a Varese thing that I would do to get from one key to another or something. But in the end, there is some score that happened at the end of the movie.
HULLFISH: An actual composer came in.
NICHOLS: There was a music licensing thing. I’d used so much music. I think that we weren’t allowed to use all of that, so there was a person that came in and did lay out some new score.
HULLFISH: The one place that I was thinking of is — there’s a very touching piece about Moon Unit and the Valley Girl song. A lot of people who might not know Frank at all — that’s where they would know him: the Valley Girl song.
And it came from a very kind of sad place where Moon was saying, “Dad. I don’t even know you, and I don’t think you know me.” And there’s some score or something in there because there are very touching moments with him and his daughter, and I felt like there was score under there.
NICHOLS: Alex says that the beginning of the movie is very abstract — and it is kind of abstract. I say that when Moon is born she represents the interruption of what would be his crazy life and he’s presented with the situation of: “Do I become the regular father and I go get a real job” and in his case, he would be somebody like Stravinsky.
He would be trying to do music that would be sellable and he might even be doing music for movies, but that’s not what he wanted to do, so in that sequence, there’s an album that the record company edited — “We’re only in it for the money” — and they went through and edited some portion and it drove him crazy.
Off that there is a song called “Mother People.” That’s the zany thing with them dancing around and all of a sudden there’s a record scratch. That scratch is not added. The record scratch — which is the sound effect that I always say tell everybody: “No more! You can’t ever put the record scratch in the trailer!” It’s a rule! I’ve made this rule to never use a record scratch. But it’s in the song! And all of a sudden that crazy zaniness becomes this beautiful piece of music that he wrote — orchestra music. And it goes on for a little bit and then it gets interrupted with the zaniness again.
In my mind, I could picture Moon. That’s what she represents, but I finish it off with a swell from Stravinsky which ends in Reagan-era and Frank goes off to do his own thing. But I always just thought he would be like a Stravinsky type person. You return to Moon again with the Zappa, but you’re right, there is some score underneath there because that is one of the uniquely sad things: the fact that somebody has to almost make an appointment to hang with their dad.
HULLFISH: When Frank goes to New York, New York is represented by these weird claymation buildings — that are perfect for Frank. At that point in the movie, you don’t even know where these pieces of art are coming from. Where is he getting this footage? It’s perfect for the mood, but you have no reference for what it is. Why it’s there where it came from.
NICHOLS: Later on in the story, Frank meets an animator named Bruce Bickford and it’s almost exactly at the halfway point of the movie where whatever it was that Frank wanted to do in his life has a big interruption and you could just many times just quit. And Bruce sort of represented this new avenue for a new kind of art that Frank could put his hands on.
It was clay animation and some stop motion and some cell drawing kind of animation that Bruce did. I started going through what existed. I can’t tell you how many years Bruce must have lived in the basement of the Zappa house, but he has a room there and it is featured in the movie. He slept downstairs and he would work for years on these animated movies that Frank was doing the music for. And a lot of them were never ever fully completed, so going through a lot of that footage I started noticing that there were story elements as if Bruce was looking at Frank’s life and making stuff to match.
I thought, “I don’t have footage to explain a lot of this stuff.” Some moments in time — like in the 80s — be it money or whatever, Frank stopped documenting a lot of things.
So when he went to New York, I found these clay buildings — a cityscape — and metaphorically it represents them going to New York. This represents this in the same way as the monster movie footage. It’s a new thing. I just loved it. When I put it there, I thought it was goofy but when I saw it I said, “This works.” And we haven’t even met Bruce yet. But it still feels very Frank Zappa.
HULLFISH: As an audience member, when those buildings came up, I thought, “Where’d the weird new York City buildings come from?” Then 40 minutes later I figured it out.
NICHOLS: Anghel Decca, Alex’s cameraman just started going around filming things at Bruce’s house and it became a treasure trove for me. I’m so glad that they went and shot all this B-roll of his stuff because it’s like a world at his place. A cityscape all over the place of a lot of Frank life and weird things. I loved it.
HULLFISH: The very middle of the film is a life-changing event for Frank. It happens almost perfectly at the center of the film. Was that designed?
NICHOLS: I started doing things like putting cards up. Making a story clock to feel where does this land, where does THIS land? Literally, a thesis of the movie happens at nine minutes and 58 seconds, and by design, I always wanted things to sort of be like that.
Bruce had filmed a clay animated guy in double exposure falling. It’s minutes and minutes’ worth of footage. At one point even falls past pot leaves. So I found that and before Frank falls off the stage one of the missing pieces that got cut from the movie — just for time — it starts out with a beautiful song called “Valerie” from the Ruben and the Jets kind of era of Frank and it’s just this (wind sound) of a guy falling, and it’s a love song, and then as it fades up it turns into this really dark thing of people throwing him off the stage and injuring him in an almost deathly way.
HULLFISH: I didn’t know anything about Frank getting thrown off a stage and I felt — when I got to that point in the movie — it was discussed as if everybody knew what the deal was, so it took me a while to catch on to what happened.
What was the thought? And is it OK in a documentary to say, “I’m going to jump into the middle of this story, but you’ll figure it out in the next couple of minutes?”.
NICHOLS: I like that anyway. I did say that there was a bit of a lead-up to it where emotionally it was fun and then it turned dark and then he’s thrown off the stage. As fun as it was to watch, the tone was just different.
There were very few things that we’re taking out of this movie. It was almost cut to the time all the way through and that’s just one of the pieces that came out. But also there’s so little footage and so little talk about that incident. Finding anything about that incident was so hard. There’s really one photograph.
HULLFISH: Can you talk to me a little bit about when Frank’s in a wheelchair? What kind of footage did you use and where’d that come from and how did you find it?
NICHOLS: Frank gravitated to a lot of interesting people to do interviews — like weird cable access guys. The traditional mainstream media just bored him and the guy who did the interview with him was speaking to him about the incident that happened and how some of his band members had said “Frank jumped.”
It’s one of the few times that Frank said, “Look. This was life-changing for me. I like making fun of everything, but I didn’t find that amusing” because his band couldn’t go on anymore. Band members have to go do their own thing.
Going through the footage I found one of his band members rolling around in the wheelchair in the house. They also had some photos of the wheelchair.
When Frank is falling off the stage, it’s a conglomerate of Bruce imagery of violence and stuff. Bruce loved violence in clay animation: people getting their heads cut off, and some of that stuff is so graphic for that time period — blood coming out of a clay animated character. So it is a montage of violence from Bruce to explain Frank falling off the stage.
HULLFISH: At 26 minutes before the end of the movie, we’re back to essentially the inciting incident from the beginning of the film — going back to Russia. Because in the beginning you just see him on stage for a moment. He speaks for two minutes or something to this audience and you don’t even know what it’s all about, and then we come back to that an hour later.
NICHOLS: That’s in Czechoslovakia. The Russia bit was sort of — I think he felt like he was not getting on the radio anymore and there were no avenues for him to consider to have a life unless he did something else.
When I read his book — because I always knew him as Dweezil’s dad — there is a book that came out by Peter Occhiogrosso. It started out as cassette interviews — and I did get those cassettes. And when Frank read it all, he liked the way it was put together but kind of felt like a lot of his humor and charm was lacking. So he said, “Can I just rewrite some of this as though I’m not being interviewed as though I’m writing it?” Because sometimes he’s not the best interviewee. So he asked to rewrite Peter’s phrases in the book with his tone. And that book is kind of a gem.
So Frank came up with a business idea to get toilet paper to Russia — which had a shortage, and he was looking for ways to make money and still write his music — even though no one was buying the orchestra music, he was still doing it.
He was trying to make the world a better place in his own way. We were threatened at the time with global destruction of nuclear war and decided, “Well, if we’re doing business with each other, the chances that we’re gonna blow each other up are very slim.”
The Russia thing — when he got involved in that, was just business deals. And in the middle of that, that’s how he met with the Czechoslovakia people.
The parallels between him and the Beatles were that they were the most phenomenal thing going at that time. And he would be the most un-phenomenal thing at the time. Like he was almost striving to not be successful in a way. And he picked on them. He kidded them. And they began to attach themselves to the weird stuff that he was doing and I find that just so baffling, that they were uniting with some of his ideals — being in his projects and collaborating with him.
When Frank goes to Czechoslovakia and he gets out of the airport and the reception is not what you would expect. And when I saw the footage which came from his predominately from his cameraman at the time, I was blown away.
I went back to find all the Beatles footage I could which resembled that to put upfront so that you see what he’ll never be, but then at the end, it parallels in its own way.
HULLFISH: That’s definitely what it felt like in the documentary was Frank’s version of being the Beatles.
NICHOLS: And it wasn’t in the United States. You go to this other country and they just found him to be the Beatles. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
People who don’t like him or don’t know him — they’re not going to hate this movie. I want you to know things about him and maybe a way into his music or something but it doesn’t have to change your perception it’s just it’s giving you insight into his world.
He was an independent artist when people weren’t. He was sort of the invention of the independent artist and rebelling against the record companies and people who are trying to change his art.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the section of the documentary that covered the Yellow Shark album. Obviously, you can’t afford to play the entire album, but it felt very complete. Can you talk about trying to edit something that is a piece of music that you know is longer than what you’re getting to listen to and yet feeling like you got to listen to it?
NICHOLS: That cut of that song is the way I did it the first time.
If you do listen to the song it takes you out of what’s going on to do something else. It’s a classic Frank thing that you could start out with sad music and it turns into crazy music. So that one petite piece of music it has this frenetic quality to it that in the middle of it it turns into a different feeling which would be uneventful for the end of a movie.
Most all of that footage has always been augmented and I got to speak to the people who shot that concert at the time and although I started out with a line cut, I would re-edit the line cut to be what I wanted hoping that there were tapes — I believe on BeatSP PAL — in Germany of that event.
And so, looking at the timecode I would write to them and say, “At this timecode is probably where you’ll find this stuff I’m looking for,” and they were pulling things to help me augment that.
Some things, the tapes didn’t work anymore, so I did get some media so I could recut it to make it feel more “our movie.”
HULLFISH: The very last thing after that performance, Frank gets a very, very, very, very long-standing ovation. So long that you couldn’t have put the whole thing in the movie. So how did you decide how long to make that so that it didn’t feel too long but that you did get the sense that these people applauded for a very long time?
NICHOLS: I did actually play with putting some score in there and feel how long I wanted it to feel using music and then taking the music away to see how long it could go without the music.
So I put the music in first and decided, “That’s the point where I think it’s too long.” And then I took the music away and decided, “Well, without the music how long?” And it’s neat how — in this case — the applause, which is not augmented, by the way, the applause is like score.
The documentary goes out on a piece of music that I would say is the most beautiful thing that Frank Zappa ever did. And it’s on “Joe’s Garage” and if you ever listen to this record it really encompasses him in a way. It is called “Watermelon and Easter Hay” and it’s probably one of his best guitar pieces ever. It’s emotional.
There is an album track of the song, and originally I was going to use the album track but to go from all that clapping and cheering into the album track felt lacking. So I looked at all of his different live versions of that song and found one that I liked the performance AND the crowd, so there is a merger of the two as it goes out from the live performance of that song and the real applause from the performance.
HULLFISH: I love that because it’s that idea of tone and feeling. You could have just used the studio performance, but you pushed it a little bit further.
Before the interview, you mentioned trying to make a composition based on room tone in a section of the film that got cut out.
NICHOLS: I always try to make every scene have some form of composition — as though it was a musical composition. At the beginning of the movie — when it shows Frank’s vault and there are words at the bottom of the screen — I took room tone from the different selections of the footage and put them into a frequency pattern that makes a five-note structure that if you were to play it on a keyboard, it is a piece of music.
And so various times I would do that throughout the movie, but that one’s the one that’s kind of the most iconic to me because what you’re being denied is the timing to know what it is. But if I play it for you in the right time you’ll know what it is.
I was always trying to put stuff like that in it. But that is a five-note structure that could be written on a chart and somebody could play it and theoretically, Steve, you would know what it was.
HULLFISH: Love it. What a great answer. It was a pleasure talking to you, Mike. Anything else you want to cover?
NICHOLS: I was gonna give a nod to you. I listen to your show as much as I can. This is a subject matter that doesn’t get talked about and you have a romance with this obviously personally and professionally. So I always try to listen to these as much as possible. The Walter Murch one, I love. I love the quote where he says, “The editors of a documentary should always be listed as a writer.” I thought, “There’s my ringtone!”
I sent you something that was kind of jokey too that I was doing. Because I made a lot of sound effects in this movie, I love the Wilhelm Scream.
HULLFISH: I think everybody knows what that is, right? It’s a scream that’s been used in a lot of movies.
NICHOLS: I always try to find a way to run it backward and forwards and do something with it because it’s amusing to me. Of course, I discovered it through Ben Burtt of Star Wars fame. And he really used it in all the movies. It’s now been retired but I always try to find a way to use it for something.
When Varese’s music is playing, it’s kind of this obnoxious thing where people would scream. And there is footage of Frank’s brother and sister screaming, so my first gut reaction would have been, “Oh I have to find a way to put the Wilhelm Scream in there somewhere.”
But I’ve sort of given up using it and so I made my own. The dorky part is that I called it Goodwill Helming. So I was just going to offer this up to people as a giveaway. It’s free and you’ll be able to use it.
To me it’s like communicating with your peers who appreciate the work that you do. So here I am watching something that you or somebody else I know is working on and all of a sudden I’ll hear this sound effect. There’s your kinship with those people. No one else will notice. But it’s like the Wilhelm Scream was this little nod that Ben Burtt was doing.
So I’m going to leave that for people to use however they want to in all their little projects and I made a little video for which I’ll give you a link. https://vimeo.com/474055737/f79046c46d
HULLFISH: I’ll have to check out the Goodwill Helming Scream.
NICHOLS: Thank you, sir.
HULLFISH: Bye, Mike.
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on imdb.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.
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