Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’ve heard that Xan Cassavetes is absolutely adorable in person. She’s certainly got chops as a documentarian. Her Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is film freak paradise, a look back at the rise and fall of Jerry Harvey’s beautiful dream. Our own Mr. Beaks chatted with her earlier today about her movie, and the result is a real joy. Dig in:
Back in August, I raved about two unique Hollywood documentaries, one of which, Xan Cassavetes’s Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, has just opened in ultra-limited release here in Los Angeles. What this means is that an incredibly small portion of AICN’s readership now has a chance to see one of the year’s best documentaries, while I get to spend a half-hour on the phone discussing the golden age of pay cable movie channels and, most importantly, the intoxicating power of “Eurobush” with the film’s director.
Though I tend to hate phone interviews, this is easily one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever conducted. I can only imagine/fear how this conversation would’ve gone over drinks. Most likely, it would still be raging. Another time, I hope. Until then, here’s the hilarious, humble and refreshingly honest Xan Cassavetes.
I don’t know how much you’ve been told about me, but I wrote a big ol’ mash note to your movie on AICN, so—
Oh, you’re the guy? Then you’re the best!
I’m obviously a fan.
I’m a fan of yours, too. I think you’re a genius.
Really? ‘Cause I was kinda thinking the same thing about you.
Great. We’re both geniuses.
(Laughing.) So, what was your way into the story? My feeling with the movie was that it was first and foremost about being a film buff, and then this tale about Jerry Harvey, which, while really terribly tragic, became almost arbitrary for me.
I like that you said that. I felt the same way. People have said, “Oh, the story is about two things and it’s not weaving in the right way”. The reason I wanted to do the documentary was because I was such a giant fan of the Z Channel, and I was in a place where I was discouraged about making this film that I wanted to make. It was really hard, and I started thinking about, in re-watching a lot of films that meant something to me, how many of them I had seen on the Z Channel. And then I started thinking, “Why haven’t I heard about (Z Channel) in so long?” So, I looked it up on the internet and there was nothing – no mention of it and no mention of Jerry Harvey.
I thought I wanted to make a documentary about Z Channel and its programming. I knew Jerry – I didn’t know his name, I just knew there was a genius programmer and that he had killed himself, and I knew nothing more than that when I really decided I wanted to try as hard as I could to make this documentary. So, the perspective I was coming from, and the most important thing that I wanted to do, was to share with other people… some of the excitement, some of the gifts that I was given by being able to watch the channel. And, then, Jerry’s life was so fascinating. It’s such a fascinating story, especially when you’re actually talking to these people (who worked with Harvey), and their faces are completely loaded with emotion and ambivalence and gratitude and horror. It was a lot to work with, and, obviously, you don’t want to eliminate any part of it, but I didn’t want it to be depressing. Ultimately, I wanted it to be joyous.
It’s interesting that you talk about how people react when you say his name. I interviewed Mick Garris a couple of weeks ago, and I brought up Z Channel. He instinctually took a deep breath before he said anything. It really is loaded, I guess.
It is. We wanted to interview Mick, but at that point we had so many interviews that we couldn’t even fit in. It was getting to be like WAR & PEACE. It was just giant.
You were at four hours at one point with this?
We were at *five* hours!
(Laughs.) But I’ve got to admit that it wasn’t really hanging together. Like I said, if it was a book, it would be another story, but a film… you know, you’ve got to stay on a focused path as much as you can. And although I took the liberty of diverting not only from the Z Channel but to Jerry Harvey’s personal life and to the main point of all the people being in the film, and their obsession – this palpable love for film itself – those were three things that I felt were pretty rich and that I wanted to keep in even if it seemed awkward. I didn’t care.
Well, if you really want to read something into it, there is a connection with Jerry’s mental state and the kind of moody, schizophrenic programming that he was drawn to and famous for.
When I realized that he killed his wife, I remember thinking, “God, it’s too bad that people might read into the fact that people who are *that* into films might have some sort of quirk about them that might not be too positive.” But that’s not true. It’s not true at all. The fact that Jerry started watching films when he was four to escape what we know was his incredibly horrifying childhood, and then the ongoing depression and the two suicides of his only siblings – the guy was marked from the very beginning, and I think he lived a lot longer than he would’ve being able to be in love with films and to nurture filmmakers. The miracle is that he did it at all. It’s more miraculous that he did it at all than shocking that his life ended tragically and also took someone else out tragically, too.
Obviously, with your family, you were in movies from the very beginning.
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know what your parents do, but I don’t think any of us regarded our parents, and their work, as really cool growing up. We didn’t find it particularly obnoxious, but we weren’t watching them the way we would now had we had the foresight.
So, when did you really first fall in love with movies?
Z Channel. I’ve told this story so many times I feel corny telling it again, but my father was so preoccupied with his work – a great father, but, you know, it was the Punk Rock era, the tail-end of it, and I was, like, thirteen and fourteen. There was no age limits for the clubs, and I would go sneak out to see punk rock bands. He was very concerned, so he would punish me and not let me leave the house for three months at a time. That’s when Z Channel became my best friend for real, and I watched an inordinate amount of it.
It’s an addiction. Once you understand the language of how to sit and accept a film that is not in your realm of what you know as your own reality – to accept somebody else’s vision and what they have to say, it is an addiction. You want to be fed that stuff.
Exactly. My parents have probably been lamenting that they ever got pay cable back when I was five or six. I didn’t have Z Channel. I grew up in Ohio, and I had The Movie Channel, which was Showtime’s—
And that’s how I saw THE TIN DRUM at the age of six.
God, I remember seeing that on Z Channel. Wasn’t that the most incredible thing to see as a kid?
It warped me. Definitely.
The scene where they’re fishing for the eels and the horse head, and they come home… ugh!
Yeah! It definitely twisted me. And I remember waking up one night – I used to get up really late at night, run down stairs, turn the television on with the volume down really low, hoping I’d get to see a FRIDAY THE 13TH or something. And that’s when I saw stuff like LAST TANGO IN PARIS.
(Laughs.) Right! That’s the same sensibility as Z Channel. They hooked people by playing things that they would think they would want to see, and they’d come turn it on and something else would be on. And all of a sudden you’re wrapped up in SEVEN SAMURAI or something.
And jumping (into the movie) midstream. I mean, I don’t know what I was thinking when I was watching that stuff, but there was something about it that was so liberating.
I know. Especially when you’re a little younger and you’re not really supposed to be seeing “Eurobushes” and stuff.
I don’t think anyone can appreciate seeing a Eurobush like somebody in their young teenage years. It’s very impressionable and fascinating and mysterious.
It definitely was. It got me into a lot of trouble after that, but…
(Laughs.) Well, there you go. It’s the mentality of a different era.
Exactly, and the sad thing is… I see the story of Z Channel as a cultural tragedy. It could’ve extended the 70’s a bit longer. I don’t know that it would’ve necessarily saved American cinema, but it could’ve kept a good thing going a little while longer and positively influenced movie viewing habits.
I know. People always ask, “Do you think there could be a Z Channel today?” Of course there could be a Z Channel today! It’s gone so far in a direction where everything is just sheer shit. Look how hungry people are that they buy DVD’s just for the extras. They don’t know what they want; they just know that they want something. After making this film, I have such a respect for a programmer as an artist. There are so many different ways to program a channel, a film festival, something like that. And it’s still the mark of someone’s personality and someone’s energy; it’s a real art form.
Very much so. And it’s in marked contrast to what went on during the 80’s, where people got CAN’T BUY ME LOVE rammed down their throats three times a day, or JUST ONE OF THE GUYS – crap like that – and there’s no way we’ll get cable back to that Z Channel philosophy.
I don’t know. We had these two interns come and work on Z CHANNEL. They came, and were very hard working and very interested because at that stage of the making of the film I was in the great stage of having to watch a bunch of movies all the time. We were all in this cramped office and they’d come around, peek in… and they were so incredibly eager to see these films. They’d go home after sixteen hours and watch some movie that they’d seen earlier in the office. I got to talking to them, and they were telling me that you go to film school these days and they don’t show you even the most basic, classic foreign films. Because those films, they say, wouldn’t get financed today, so why encourage film students to come in and throw their life away getting excited about an Andrzej Zulawski movie? So, they show them other stuff that is more conducive to them being inspired by making money. That’s the most frightening thing. Just imagine, a guy works his way to get to film school, gets into film school and is all excited, and they don’t even get that.
Right. Now, Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver are the heroes.
Exactly. And that’s just the guy who got himself into film school. Imagine everybody else. So, I mean, there’s virtually no way to see these kinds of films for a younger generation unless they know to go buy the DVD, and then omit the whole fun of the social element of seeing it with other people projected, or even the intimacy of sitting down and watching it live on cable.
But even the film buff mindset that I think is advocated by Z CHANNEL is different than the snobbish cineaste approach.
Yeah, the Z Channel was the most unpretentious, all-inclusive, stupid, ridiculous, love-shitty-things, love-great-things… it didn’t ride by on its identity of intellectual cool at all. The Z Channel also gave me the opportunity to meet so many people like that that, you know, I hadn’t known before. I always felt like I was this strange person who was interested in strange, different, diverse things that no one else was (really into), and then all of a sudden I have forty friends who’re unpretentious, completely into film, hungry for everything – that was another thing that (Z Channel) gave me that changed my whole life.
When you were that age, getting into these things and meeting new people, I can imagine that your last name might’ve been intimidating to people.
I don’t know. No one ever acted intimidated by it that I could see.
No. I mean, it was really low-fi. You’ve got to understand that this was before John Cassavetes became the official martyr of independent film. I always have to laugh because my dad had such a hard time during his life getting his films made and getting them distributed. The love that he got after his death was certainly not in place when he was alive. Sure, there were people who admired his films and liked his films, but it wasn’t on any kind of a level that it is now. So, everything was really very mellow. There wasn’t a lot of “John Cassavetes, you’re an icon/Gena Rowlands, I idolize you.” I mean, *kind of*, but not like it is now.
I noticed how, for Jerry Harvey at least, he was drawn to mavericks – Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman especially. What filmmakers were you drawn to?
In my formative teen years?
I laugh about this – and I probably shouldn’t say it because it probably makes me look like an idiot, but it’s true: the two things that I can remember hooking me in my teens watching Z Channel were naked European women and those European war films. Those were the two things that riveted me and fascinated me. Those are my strongest memories of the time I was watching (Z Channel) and became obsessed with it. And it does sound really goofy and lame, but I’m not going to lie to you. Obviously, people who read Ain’t It Cool News are so much more sophisticated and smart and educated—
(Laughing.) Oh, I don’t know about that.
Seriously! The potential to get hooked into films resides in so many more people than one would think. I mean, here I am this kid who’s into punk rock and going to girls’ school, and I’m getting addicted to these kind of films because of the uninhibited sexual nature of women and the male bonding that you see in European war films that were coming out at that time. That’s really how I got it, and that could happen to anybody. That could happen to a gardener, that could happen to a jock, that could happen to a businessman or a housewife… that could happen to anyone.
Sure. Those movies are striking, and there is something – an integrity – to them. You don’t necessarily have to have read, you know, Proust to be able to respond to them.
Apparently not. I don’t know what happened to me, but from that moment on I was wide-eyed and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about it all.
So how long did it take to get from those films to the full twelve hour BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ?
I saw part of it on Z Channel, and I think I’ve seen parts of it at people’s houses, but it wasn’t until I made Z CHANNEL that, obviously, I used that as an excuse to watch the entire thing. Fassbinder is a hero of mine *completely*. That movie is incredible, and (laughing) because I was “working”, I got to finally do that. Too bad. It was a rough job making that documentary.
Yeah! It must’ve been a real kick in the pants.
Yeah, I’ve really got a lot to complain about.
So, was that the first time you’d seen OVERLORD?
Yes, it was. F.X. Feeney brought that to my attention. I don’t remember that from Z Channel; I didn’t know anything about it. I watched OVERLORD, and then I watched Stuart Cooper’s other feature films that were all shot by John Alcott: THE DISAPPEARANCE and LITTLE MALCOLM. He’s an unbelievable filmmaker, and then we got to know him and he’s an incredible guy. I guess the guys at Telluride just played OVERLORD, and it became this big sensation there. Ebert went nuts, and (Cooper) was the little darling – it was great.
I was going to bring that up. Did you have anything to do with that?
No. The Telluride guys had seen our film and they really loved it, but we decided to play it at (The Los Angeles Film Festival) because it was L.A. and Z Channel was L.A. So, we couldn’t play Telluride, but I’m pretty positive that they saw OVERLORD in our film and decided to check it out. His whole repertoire should be seen. He was great. He was burning it up back then, and he should really have a place in some kind of directors’ (pantheon).
I was ashamed. I consider myself something of a serious film geek, and I had *never* heard of OVERLORD or, really, Stuart Cooper.
Nobody had. That’s the whole thing; and, even now, there’s Jerry. It’s just funny. Jerry put it on, and it was so special and great, because here was this American who was living in London, and he had made these films there. No one had heard of him, Z premiered him, and still to this day even the most knowledgeable film fanatics are like, “How come I don’t know what that is?” Just as Jerry said, “How come I don’t know you?” when he called him.
And how lucky to have an invaluable guide like F.X. Feeney.
Oh, my god. I love F.X. Feeney. I admire him so much. He’s just the most unpretentious, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness genius that I’ve ever met, and I adore him. He’s become, truly, one of my very best friends.
And he’s so lucid in that stream-of-consciousness.
Oh, his analogies! His references are great. He’s so well read in literature, and he also knows so much about history. He also cites these references from his childhood, which are so pertinent to everything. His perspective is just like this blazing, undulating, beautiful thing. (Beaks note: Mr. Feeney, this should explain that inexplicable episode of ear burning bashfulness you experienced Thursday afternoon at about 4:45 PM.)
And he’s a nice contrast to Tarantino. I mean, I love Tarantino, but you set him loose on a film and he’s gone.
That’s why I loved talking to Tarantino about THE LEOPARD and 1900, because you never him talk about those kinds of films. He’s got his whole thing that he’s into, and everyone can anticipate that, but it was just, to me, so cute seeing him talk about THE LEOPARD. He was like, (fawning innocently) “Oh my god, this is so beautiful!” I had never really thought of him sitting down and watching five-and-a-half hours of 1900, but of course he did.
I think we all feel like we have to, but, when you do, it’s an incredibly rewarding film.
I know. I just saw it again at LACMA projected because I had only seen the Italian version on the old Z Channel three-quarter inch tapes. A lot of these films, we had to use the old three-quarter inch Z Channel tapes with countdowns to reel-changes and stuff on them. Or tape changes. So, some of it looks crappy, and we were worried. We went to every length to get great prints, but, then again, it just spoke to the unavailability of the film.
Speaking of restorations, HEAVEN’S GATE is making the rounds again, and THE BIG RED ONE is just coming out.
Wasn’t that great? I saw that in Edinburgh.
(With thinly-veiled contempt in my voice:) I haven’t seen that yet.
Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s hilarious! Sam Fuller is just so funny.
He did have a trenchant humor.
I love him.
We’re now seeing the generation of filmmakers who grew up on stuff like Z Channel and regular cable and, obviously, the video stores. It seems like we just might be entering a golden age. This year, especially, has been so strong that I’m really hopeful about film in a way that I haven’t been for a long time.
I am, too. It’s almost like the cat’s out of the bag, and all of these people are starting to realize that there’s something they’ve been denied. There’s an interest and a curiosity and a *hunger*. People need things that are made by other people to love. The focus has been on “What can I do? How can I prove I’m a genius? How can I keep all of these plates spinning in the air?” And, meanwhile, there’s no joy. It’s all self-centered even if you’re trying your best to do your responsibility to yourself. People have to understand the value of loving something that someone else has made, of being transported and opening your mind, of being gifted with that. It gives you an excitement about life, and gives you the energy to go on and do what you’ve *got* to do.
So what do you *have* to do now?
Oh, I’m going back to the drawing board. I’m taking my project out and trying to get it done. We’ll see what happens. I’ve got this obsessive love story set in Mexico City that I want to do, and I don’t anticipate it, for some reason, being easy because nothing ever is. Even if you’re John Cassavetes’s daughter. And who wants it to be easy? If it was, it wouldn’t mean anything.
Spoken like a true Cassavetes.
Xan and I rambled on for just a few minutes more, but I was conscious of her cell phone being low on batteries, so I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as I could. But, as with any interview that turns into a mutual effusion of movie love, I could’ve kept rambling all day long, which more than explains how her film bloated itself out to five hours. Though I’d love to watch that cut, I think Xan ended up with the best two hour version possible, and I’m truly excited for all you film geeks to finally have the chance to see this valentine to our magnificent obsession.
Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is currently playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.
Whatever she does next, I’m interested. This is a movie that you owe it to yourself to seek out. If you’re in LA this weekend, see it on the big screen. It’ll give you the greatest contact high a filmlover could ask for, and even though Jerry Harvey’s personal story is fairly tragic, I found the sheer love of movies on display left me with a huge goofy grin on my face by the end of the film. It’s one of the year’s most enjoyable experiences, and a major announcement for Xan Cassavetes.