Artist Cal Schnekel on Working With Frank Zappa on 200 MOTELS

Artist and animator Cal Schenkel talks about working with Frank Zappa on his 1971 rock music culture film satire 200 MOTELS...

TV STORE ONLINE:   I'm a huge fan of the Frank Zappa film 200 MOTELS (1971)....Do you hear that a lot?

SCHENKEL:   No I don't! (Laughing)  I've heard various comments about the film over the years but I don't think I've ever met a "huge" fan of the film... (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:   Given it's sort of free-form aesthetic I was wondering if there was actually ever a script written for 200 MOTELS and did you ever see it?

SCHENKEL:  I did.   I still have a copy of it somewhere.    Of course, the script went through quite a bit of changes along the way as you can imagine.   The whole thing started...I went to London in November of 1970 about a month or two before the filming started.  I went to get together with the art director.  I had done some initial drawings for the backgrounds and other elements that were based on some discussions that I had had with Frank.   We were shooting the film at Pinewood Studios outside of London.   I can't remember now, but it was sometime around the Christmas holiday that Frank, myself and his secretary Pauline [Butcher] had a number of meetings and in those Frank began to dictate the script to Pauline and I took some notes on various things that he wanted to see included.    As I said, there were a number of changes that were fairly complex.   It was a quick shoot, and we didn't take a lot of pre-production time at the studio either.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about the building of the 'Centerville' sets?  What was the inspiration for those?

SCHENKEL:  Well, Frank and I talked quite a bit about that.  We wanted to keep it simple, and we wanted to keep it flat, and he wanted it to be just this basic average little downtown area outside of the suburbs.  Frank had wanted me to do some of the actual painting of the set but the union schedules at the studio wouldn't allow for that.  We played with a lot of interesting things.  We used vacuum form PVC for a lot of the sets, because it gave a dimensional look to the sets.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You designed the blue penis mobile that we see in the film...

SCHENKEL:  I did, it wasn't too complicated and I just drew it up in one afternoon.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did Frank ever discuss the idea behind the concept for the film?  Did he ever say, "This is a movie about what I think that people actually think that a rock stars life is like on the road."

SCHENKEL: Oh no, not in any way.  There may have been some idle talk at an evening out to dinner or something like that but it just wasn't something that would have been discussed.  It wasn't a weird shoot or anything like that either.  It was a pretty normal shoot at Pinewood Studios.  All of the crew members that were employed at Pinewood just did their jobs for us.   They didn't ask any questions about what we were doing, but the Orchestra that was used in the film, initially, they didn't take what they were doing very seriously.

TV STORE ONLINE:   The film was shot at Pinewood Studios, and in 200 MOTELS we see an homage to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) with the appearance of the black monolith in a scene in the film...

SCHENKEL:   Right, yeah (Laughing).   2001 was such a popular film at the time that we were shooting 200 MOTELS.  I don't know if Frank was a fan of 2001 and I'm not sure why he put that into 200 MOTELS.   He was always satirizing things, so that may have been why he included it into the film.  He may have just included it in 200 MOTELS because 2001 was also shot at Pinewood.  The thing I remember the most about shooting at Pinewood was that FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) and one of the James Bond films were also filming there at the same time that we were, so it was fun to go down and hang out around the studio commissary and meet some of the actors and crew members from those movies. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  A year or two ago there was a new DVD of 200 MOTELS released and there is a audio commentary track on the release by the "Director" of 200 MOTELS Tony Palmer.  On the commentary track he says some nice things about the production and also about working with Frank, but yet it's fairly common knowledge amongst Zappa fans that Palmer and Frank had a falling out at the end of the shoot of the film, where Palmer threatened to take the master tapes of the film away....

SCHENKEL:  Right, there was a falling out.  I think that both Frank and Tony each had their own ideas about what 200 MOTELS should be.  I also think that the conflict came because they were both trying to jam so much stuff into that movie and there wasn't enough money for them to each get in everything that they had wanted to include.    There were things that didn't quite come out right, and things that just didn't get done.  That's the reason why the animated sequence made it into the film, because originally it was supposed to be done live-action.   I can't remember now if the filming for it wasn't complete or if something just went wrong, but Frank, in the end just decided that we should just do it as an animated sequence.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Didn't you have a hand in doing that animated sequence yourself?

SCHENKEL:    I designed it, and I did some of the hand animation for it.  The lions share of the work went to Chuck Swenson, who was a master of animation.  I did a lot of background stuff and a few of the characters that are in that sequence.

  I'm a huge fan of Jeff Simmons, and the record of his that Frank played guitar on and released on his Bizarre record label called Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.   Jeff was supposed to be in 200 MOTELS but was fired by Frank...

SCHENKEL:  (Laughing).  Right, yeah.   You probably know the story then about how Jeff was replaced for the film, then?    Frank started auditioning people to play Jeff's character in 200 MOTELS and he just couldn't find anyone that fit, so finally he said, "The next person that walks through the door is going to play Jeff."   The next person to walk through the door was Ringo Starr's chauffeur...(Laughing)    So Frank gave him Jeff's part.

  I heard once that Frank had wanted to cast British actor Wilfrid Brambell, who played Ringo Starr's grandfather in A HARD DAYS NIGHT (1964), for Jeff's part?

Jeff Simmons & Wilfrid Brambell
SCHENKEL:  (Laughing)  He did.  Frank brought him to the studio to try out for Jeff's part. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  That would have been wonderfully insane...

SCHENKEL: It would have been really cool.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you have anything to do with the movie poster art for 200 MOTELS?

SCHENKEL: I didn't.  That is a great illustration.   I did do the inside packaging for the 200 MOTELS album though.  I was just too busy with the animation in the movie at the time to do the cover.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Off subject of 200 MOTELS, one of the things that I really love that you did animation wise was that television commercial that you did for Frank's 1974 album Apostrophe (') with the DJ Dogg....

SCHENKEL:   Thanks.   I worked with an animator on that.  I think the concept generally just came from Frank.  To be honest, I don't really remember any of the details now about how that all came about or how long it took to complete.   It was pretty basic in that the animation was done around the soundtrack.  So Frank did the soundtrack and then gave it to me and I designed and produced it around that.     See YouTube here.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Cal Schenkel please visit his official website here.

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