||Her recent documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, chronicles LA's best all-movie cable station of the '70s and '80s. She traces the descent of its programmer Jerry Harvey into obsession, murder, and suicide, yet celebrates his inspired vision. Harvey championed the director's cut and brought Bertolucci, Leone, and Verhoeven to a generation
of film buffs including the teenage Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne. [Editor-in-Chief Ariana Speyer spoke with the director at her home office in LA.]
ARIANA: What made you decide to make a documentary about a cable channel in LA?
XAN: I was obsessed with Z Channel when I was younger. As a teen, I spent a lot of time in my room chain-smoking and watching
Z Channel. And it wasn't just me everybody in Los Angeles watched it.
ARIANA: Why do you think that was?
XAN: They played almost any film that you would ever want to talk about a Hollywood film followed by a silent film followed by a foreign film.
ARIANA: It attracted every movie junkie in LA before the advent of DVDs and digital TV.
XAN: On Z Channel, you'd tune in to the
middle of, say, a Rodney Dangerfield movie or a German 1930s lesbian film, and you'd think, "This is incredible I have to
find out what this is. I have to see the beginning."
ARIANA: Z Channel was run by the ultimate film obsessive, Jerry Harvey. But he was also a tortured soul he shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself in 1988.
XAN: I had heard there was a genius programmer behind the channel who had committed suicide. After I started my research, I learned the whole Jerry Harvey story, which was so compelling and multi-dimensional.
But I didn't want to lose track of Z's impact on me as a fan the joy of discovering those films.
ARIANA: You struck a balance between celebrating the films and filmmakers that Harvey championed and delving into the problems that led to his death.
XAN: I had never thought about being a documentarian before this project. I was always wrapped up in my own ideas. As a matter of fact, I was in a bad place when I started this documentary. I had spent three years preparing to make a feature film and two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting, one of the investors admitted they had put their money somewhere else.
ARIANA: That's awful.
XAN: But doing this project was a great gift. I felt the freedom to just do it as
a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
ARIANA: Harvey is an interesting subject he was a frustrated artist who found his true calling as a programmer.
XAN: He made one film, and then pursued screenwriting until his sister committed suicide. That hit him so heavily that he became reclusive. He experienced bouts of insomnia, so he'd stay up all night watching the up-and-coming cable stations, thinking about their programming. Becoming a programmer was a way to be withdrawn and function in the world at the same time. That was the perfect scenario for him.
ARIANA: How did you track down the major
players in Harvey's life?
XAN: I was shocked to find that there was nothing on the internet on either Z Channel or Jerry Harvey. So I went to the library, pulled up some articles about Z Channel,
and then pursued the people quoted in those articles. It was like being a detective.
At first, the stories we heard were very Rashomon-like no two were the same. But once we figured out the core people in Jerry's life, everything lined up, though people's emotions didn't necessarily line
up in the same way.
ARIANA: The facts of the murder-suicide are presented in a very simple way, leaving room for viewers to draw their own conclusions.
XAN: Yeah, I've been criticized for how un-sensational the film is. Some people said, "You haven't connected the dots, you haven't told us why he did this. Give us closure." But how can I do that when there is no
closure? It's an unexplainable act any way you slice it.
ARIANA: The documentary celebrates the films Harvey aired you include over fifty film clips. Were there particular films that stood out to you when you saw them initially on Z Channel?
XAN: I knew I had to talk to Paul Verhoeven because I saw six or seven of his early Dutch films on Z. Turkish Delight, Spetters, Soldier of Orange each one was more spectacular than the next. Verhoeven was sexual, smart, political everything. I think
he's a master. And his work spoke to me
ARIANA: You interviewed other directors including Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, and Quentin Tarantino, who either had memories of working with Harvey or were avid Z Channel fans.
XAN: It's the greatest thing in the world to talk about film with people who love it. The directors weren't preoccupied with saying the right thing they just expressed their joy in making films and watching other people's films.
ARIANA: A lot of the film clips are sensual and playful, especially those taken from European films of the late '70s and early '80s, like Bertolucci's 1900 and Andrzej Zulawski's The Important Thing is to Love.
XAN: In the documentary, the film critic F.X. Feeney a close friend of Harvey's says that the difference between American and European cinema at that time was the treatment of sex. European cinema wasn't about sex for sex's sake, but it included sex as one of the main motivations for other kinds of behavior. It made for stories that were more rounded.
ARIANA: Quentin Tarantino speaks very passion-ately, shall we say, about discovering Laura Antonelli through Z Channel.
XAN: There's a certain type of guy from my generation including all of my old boyfriends and Tarantino that, at the
mention of Laura Antonelli they're just...
ARIANA: Puddles on the floor.
XAN: Exactly! There's something about her.
I don't know whether it was that she seemed so into having sex or that she was so womanly. She cornered the market on a certain sexual attitude that was a real barnburner with the guys.
ARIANA: Harvey fought to show films as directors intended them to be seen. You used Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in America as an example it had been edited by Paramount in a way that betrayed Leone's vision.
XAN: In the same way that Harvey convinced United Artists to release the uncut version of Heaven''s Gate, he got Paramount to release the director's cut of Once Upon
A Time in America. But the studio insisted that Jerry buy the cut version as well.
So he said, "Great!" He always showed the two different versions back-to-back on Z Channel so you could witness the editing travesty for yourself.
ARIANA: Do you think the cult of DVD special
features grew out of that?
XAN: Absolutely. Harvey was the first person to create a forum for director's cuts and prove that there was a market for them. Now you can't get the studio edit of Heaven''s Gate on DVD. Without Jerry Harvey, you would never have been able to see the uncut version, and I think the same could be said for many movies.
ARIANA: You interviewed Harvey's close circle of friends and collaborators including actor James Woods and producer Charles Joffe. Hearing them speak makes Hollywood feel like a small town.
XAN: It seemed like a small town growing up, even though I didn't pay that much attention to the film business as a kid. I was much more into music I was sneaking out to punk rock clubs when I was thirteen and fourteen. One reason I watched Z Channel so much was that my father was constantly grounding me! My relationship with films up until my late teens was only through Z Channel. I wasn't interested in my parents' involvement in film I couldn't identify with it.
ARIANA: Do you see anything like Z Channel happening now?
XAN: There are great channels, like the Independent Film Channel, which financed this film, the Western Channel, and Turner Movie Classics. But they're all dedicated to a single genre. There's nothing with the eclectic, fun programming of Z Channel. That kind of programming takes ingenuity, dedication, and obsession. And it's probably more needed today than ever before.
ARIANA: I'm not sure you could operate a Z Channel in the current corporate media climate.
XAN: You know, Z Channel started during cable's infancy. There were innovative
people in charge because the corporate
system hadn't clamped down yet. But I don't think people realize what a big market there is for something like Z Channel now. There is a hunger for programming like this.
I'm actually working on launching a new
ARIANA: That would be amazing. Would you be involved as a programmer?
XAN: My producing partner Marshall Persinger and I would set it up initially and yes, I would be one of the programmers. F.X. Feeney would do a talk show, and we'd have a consulting board. We'd show a lot of films that never get beyond film festival screenings because it costs too much money to market them. And, of course, we'd get involved in the restoration of director's cuts.
ARIANA: How long did it take you to make the documentary?
XAN: Around nine months, but we were working sixteen-hour days so it felt like dog years.
ARIANA: And your husband Rick Ross produced it?
XAN: Yeah. Rick and I have been working together ever since we met. When I had my band, Shrine, his record label released my EP and record. Then we made babies together. I mean, we don't know any other way. It's the whole basis of our relationship.
ARIANA: How do you do sixteen-hour days with two small children?
XAN: It takes a village. We have really devoted family members who are all too happy to step in and take over for us. We're lucky. The kids are happy because we're happy doing it. They've grown up around our office and editing room and are pretty acclimated to the lifestyle. We make it up to them in our downtime by spoiling them incredibly.
ARIANA: What are you working on now?
XAN: A feature film about an obsessive love story that takes place in Mexico City. But in this business you can never say anything is done until it's done.
ARIANA: And you're writing and directing?
XAN: Yes. The future is always completely uncertain when you're doing this kind of stuff, but that's the beauty of it.