Q&A with Xan Cassavetes, director of ‘Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession’

The daughter of famed director John Cassavetes discusses her documentary, 'Z Channel'; the impact the cable network had, and the tragedy of its famed programmer, Jerry Harvey

Xan Cassavetes discusses her documentary about the legendary cable network, Z Channel.
Xan Cassavetes discusses her documentary about the legendary cable network, Z Channel.

After a series of round table orgies with celebrities it was a nice break to get the opportunity to have a simple, one on one interview with someone on the telephone. In this case, it was Xan Cassavetes, the well spoken and enthusiastic director of Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, a documentary airing tonight on the Independent Film Channel (IFC).

Our twenty-minute exchange was pleasant, and Xan honestly seemed to really love the subject matter of her documentary. The following is that exchange.
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Tail Slate: Where did the idea of doing a documentary on Z Channel originate?

Xan Cassavetes: Well, I was very depressed, you see. I was about to make this film, three years in the making and two weeks from shooting, and one of our investors said he taken had some of our money out of our film and put it into a horror film. So we couldn’t shoot our movie. So my producers and I were very depressed and we started renting all these great movies and talking about them. And I had realized that I had seen all these films for the first time on Z Channel. Now, I hadn’t even thought of Z Channel, and hadn’t heard anyone speak of Z Channel, since it had been off the air. And it got me to thinking, ‘What happened? How could it have disappeared? How could I have forgotten it? And how could so much time have gone by and I’ve never even heard it referenced?’ It was such a huge institution. When you look back on it, it just seemed like a dream. That it couldn’t have possibly have happened. So, I wanted to make a documentary about it. Then I found out about Jerry Harvey and the parallel story about him and his involvement with the channel.

TS: Did you find that when you talked to people they had the same experience, in that they hadn’t thought about it in such a long time?

XC: I’d go out and start asking people, ‘Do you remember the Z Channel?’ And they’d start spitting out titles. Every time I brought it up they’d go down this crazy memory lane about all the movies they saw on that channel, and how much they loved it.

TS: I would guess that most of the people you talked with were Los Angeles residents at the time, because it wasn’t available outside of that city.

XC: It kind of had a big reputation. I was pretty young when I was watching it a lot, I was about 14 or 15 years old when I was watching the bulk of it. And I guess at that time older generations who were really into films knew about it from all over the country, because there were bootleg tapes all over the place from Z Channel. People would pay or trade for tapes, and there was a little culture of people who knew about the channel all over the country. Z Channel was a completely unpretentious, complete spectrum of all films together: Hollywood ones, auteur ones, silent, westerns, kung fu, soft-core porn, animated, from all over the world and every kind of movie you could think of. And of course it was the first forum for the ‘director’s cut.’

TS: Do you think that Z Channel could be described as a product of its time, or do you think that something like it could exist today?

XC: It was a product of its time. This was the infancy of cable. And Jerry Harvey was such a unique mixture of great taste, great knowledge of film, with a smart business side, so I think it was a unique moment in time that these two things — Harvey and Z Channel — came together when they did.

TS: When you started finding out about Jerry Harvey, did you know how things had ended for him?

XC: No, I didn’t. I remember having asked my mom a long time ago when Z Channel had gone off the air, ‘What happened to Z Channel?’ And she said it was very sad, and that the main programmer for the channel had committed suicide. And that was all that I’d known. But I didn’t know about the entire, incredible story of Jerry Harvey, his background and his mental illness.

Z Channel
Z Channel

TS: And from what I understand, you really had to dig hard to find people who knew him and worked on Z Channel.

XC: Well, you couldn’t look things up on the Internet, because there wasn’t anything there. So I had to go to the library and look up articles at the time, and I looked up people who were quoted in the articles. And I got in touch with them, and they clearly were ambivalent about being a part of the documentary, but also ambivalent about their feelings for Jerry, whom they really loved. But they’d felt betrayed and horrified because he killed this beautiful, lovely woman that they’d all known, too. Yet 15 years had gone by and they all felt that Z Channel deserved recognition. So I think a lot of them had to come to terms with their feelings for it, and being a part of the documentary gave them an opportunity for that.

TS: Did it surprise you that it was all still so raw for them?

XC: No. I mean, I know they hadn’t really talked about it 15 years. I mean, Jerry Harvey had done so much good in so many ways, and made a whole film world here in Los Angeles, and made it something to be proud of. And he saved so many people’s careers and gave all these people the gift of seeing so much stuff they would never normally see. So, in retrospect, looking back on that era, what Jerry did, their relationship with him and what’s happened since then, it all was pretty shocking and damaging.

TS: Now the documentary isn’t really about Jerry Harvey, it’s about Z Channel, so how did you balance the two stories together?

XC: Because I was a first hand experiencer of the Z Channel, I had really passionate feelings about it. It was a really beloved channel, it was a huge thing in Los Angeles. It was like one of those dreams that was too good to be true. And since my passion arose from my love of the channel, I didn’t want it to get obscured by the sad story of Jerry Harvey. I wanted people to understand the importance of the channel, but I had to discuss Jerry Harvey because he was such a part of the success of it. So I told his story as simply as I could, the good and the bad. But I did so without forgetting that the film was really about Z Channel, no matter how married the two may have been.

TS: What was your first memory of Z Channel?

XC: Well, I know I had Z Channel when I was around 8 or 9 years old, before Jerry was running it and it was still great. And I remember that because it was the first cable channel any of us had seen. But I remember when I started sitting in my room and making cigarettes and really watching Z Channel, I remember watching the Tin Drum, which made a big impression on me. And I remember 1900. And I remember I used to get really mad because westerns used to come on all the time, because I hated them, but now I’m like obsessed with them. I tried to go after all the people I really remembered watching as a kid, and I was lucky enough to get a lot of them to be in the documentary.

TS: Did you have any trouble getting the filmmakers to talk about Z Channel?

XC: We asked Michael Chimino, but he said no. But I think that was because he was so close to Jerry, and their relationship was so profound, because of all that Harvey had done regarding Gates of Heaven. It was the beginning of a very strong relationship, and Chimino had been burned so many times by the media over the years, so I totally and completely expected he would have refused. But everyone else seemed to be happy to be a part of the film to pay homage to the channel, and to a degree to honor Jerry. To give payback to Jerry, even though there was the issue of what they thought of him, ultimately, because he murdered an innocent, lovely person. But being artists and think out of the box a little more, I think they understood that great good can come out of someone and great… I won’t say evil, because I don’t think it’s right to judge a person who is mentally ill who does something like that as ‘evil’. It’s bad, it’s dark, but great dark can come out of somebody. And because the darkness can come out it doesn’t destroy the light or good things a person does.

Jerry Harvey
Jerry Harvey

TS: What I thought was really great about the documentary was the audio interview with Harvey.

XC: Yeah, well, when we found that we almost fell on the floor. It was a very strange tape. He was on so many medications. He really did try to combat his mental illness. And he was talking to this incredible interviewer, who was very polite and aware that Jerry was a very delicate person. Jerry’s voice has such vulnerability in it. It’s like the two of them are talking in a conversation from beyond.

TS: It did come off like he was talking about himself as if he was already gone.

XC: Yeah, I always felt that way, too.

TS: I read that at one point you were trying to put together a new Z Channel.

XC: Well, going out there and becoming pummeled, I turned my attention to working with IFC to do a Z Channel weekend, which will be May 14th and May 15th. They’ll be showing a list of films that were in the documentary, and other films that even Z Channel couldn’t show because getting copies were virtually impossible. It’s really going to be a really, really great weekend. I’m frustrated, though, that I couldn’t have had more success in creating a new kind of Z Channel. But IFC was so cool about it, because to a degree Z Channel is like IFC’s grandpa.

TS: Were there any films that you wanted to include but couldn’t, for one reason for another?

XC: You know, I had a five hour cut! I mean, can you imagine? You’re doing a documentary about a channel that showed just about anything. You’re sitting there with your finger in your mouth wondering, ‘Where do I begin?’ You’re going through the Z Channel magazine, and you see that they showed this movie or that movie. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what wasn’t included in the documentary.

TS: You’d made a lot of short films?

XC: Yeah, I’ve made a lot of short films, a shameful amount of short films.

TS: Had you made any short documentaries, or was this your first attempt at doing non-fiction?

XC: No, I have never made a documentary before. I’ve always been a great fan of them, especially lately since documentaries are the only things being made for people over the age of 14. So I’m really enjoying them now.

TS: Did you look at other documentaries when you were making this film?

XC: No, I didn’t look at other documentaries at all. I mean, I basically knew that in the documentary world, talking heads is really a bad thing. But, I had them anyway. I wanted to see these people who made up this era and wanted to read their faces and have them tell their stories. You could tell these people had their own memories of things, and I wanted to show that because I thought it was interesting.

TS: I understand that you were more into music growing up, and then you got into film. Were you ever reluctant to get into film or make films because of your father?

XC: No, he raised us all like animals, we’re not afraid of anything.

TS: So it doesn’t bother you when people bring that up?

XC: The way I look at it, I’m really glad I don’t want to be like John Cassevetes, because I already knew from a very young age that nobody can be like John Cassevetes. It’s only those people who think they are like him that I’m worried about. But I never, for one moment thought I could compare with him. But I do think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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