Xan Cassavetes

After funding for her feature film, The Sky Is Green, fell through, Xan Cassavetes found inspiration—and a new project—in her memories of LA’s Z Channel.

It’s an unwritten rule in indie moviemaking: Sometimes it takes a major roadblock to find clarity—or at least to clear the path for a new project. When funding for her fiction feature, The Sky Is Green, unraveled days before the scheduled shoot, director Xan Cassavetes was naturally devastated. The daughter of legendary director John Cassavetes and Oscar-nominated actress Gena Rowlands was not used to taking no for an answer.

To avoid sinking into a major funk, she mulled over examples of great films that might also not have been able to land funding today. Talking with friends, she realized many of these films were ones that she had watched on Z Channel while growing up in LA. That maverick cable channel, she discovered, was the first to broadcast the director’s cut of both Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. “I thought, ‘Wow, Z Channel, what a blast from the past,’” says Cassavetes. “Then I thought, ‘Why isn’t that name known for what it did for film? Why is it a forgotten thing?’”

Diving headfirst into research, Cassavetes discovered enough captivating material for a documentary. “I was completely blown away by the story of Z Channel and how it intersected with the story of [programmer] Jerry Harvey,” she says. “How the two formed one another in this very sad, beautiful and romantic way.” In May, the Independent Film Channel will air Cassavetes’ directorial debut, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. The film is a look at Z’s impact on independent moviemaking and the tragic life of Harvey, which ended in a murder-suicide.

In a roundabout way, it was Cassavetes’ father who introduced her to Z Channel. A “good Greek father,” he naturally tried to keep his rebellious eldest daughter out of trouble. “I was into punk rock and I’d sneak out and go to the clubs,” she recalls. “He wanted to make sure that I was okay. So his way of doing it was saying, ‘You can’t leave the house for three months. You’re grounded.’

Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is as much about programmer Jerry Harvey as it is the films that defined his tenure.

“It sounds worse than it was. He just wanted to make sure that I was okay in my stupid mohawk and dumb New Wave clothes—that I wasn’t going out and getting taken advantage of by some skanky, punk-rock heroin addict.”

On the flip side, Cassavetes discovered that killing time at home had its perks. “Being grounded isn’t really that bad when you have Z Channel in your room and you can sneak your pack of cigarettes in and watch a bunch of Bertolucci movies, fantasizing about the future.”

Cassavetes dropped out of high school and, throughout her twenties, played in bands of various musical genres—punk, gypsy, metal and tribal. She started shooting music videos, which eventually led to producing shorts and writing scripts on the weekends for fun. “You’ve got to look at life like everything is an opportunity,” she says. “Everything is an opportunity to do something else.”

Cassavetes never forgot the mesmerizing films, or how Z Channel opened up a world of cinematic beauty for her. In a recent conversation, she revealed her own film obsessions, some lessons she gleaned from her parents and why she’s worried about the next generation of artists.

Jennifer Soong (MM): Do you remember the first film you saw on Z Channel?

Xan Cassavetes (XC): No, I was really young. That was back in the days where they had the black-and-white magazine. Maybe it was American Graffiti or something. I remember The Other Side of Midnight. I remember seeing a lot of naked European women and going, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’

…artists were competitive with each other about their creativity, instead of about the check they were cashing… who’s going to save this next generation?”

MM: Why was it so important for you to tell this story?

XC: The story of Jerry Harvey is so tragic and confusing. My first relationship with Harvey was that he gave me so many things in my life; he exposed me to so many films that really defined who I was and what I loved and what I wanted. That was such a great gift.

MM: How did you decide which film clips to include?

XC: The films of Paul Verhoeven (Turkish Delight) were really meaningful to me. He’s a master. I saw them all on Z Channel, and being exposed to his best films had a big impression on me.

Then there was Bad Timing, which has long been one of my favorite movies. Nic Roeg is one of my favorite directors and that performance by Theresa Russell stands as one of the greatest ever. And, of course, Altman. His body of work is so unbelievable. I remember seeing McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Three Women on Z Channel. They both made me just stop in my tracks with my mouth open going, ‘What am I watching and why am I so incredibly fascinated by it?’

MM: So as a director, can you relate to an obsessive love of film?

XC: I love writing and directing. I’m obsessed with it, as anybody around me can tell you. But my enjoyment of watching other people’s films is equal to my enjoyment of creating them. I really put a big value on always going to see other people’s stuff, whether it’s art or music or films or whatever. I shudder to think about this newer generation, which isn’t exposed to this stuff. Mine was probably one of the last generations that had a chance to catch the tail end of that mentality, where artists were competitive with each other about their creativity instead of about the check they were cashing.

MM: What concerns you most about the next generation of moviemakers?

XC: We had interns who came from film school. We were talking about how schools don’t show films [like the ones on Z Channel] because they don’t want students to grow up to be losers, trying to make films like that. And you just think, God, you go to fricking film school and you can’t even see what you’re supposed to see? Who’s going to save us? Who’s going to save the next generation?

MM: You come from an artistic and creative family. Do you believe that moviemaking is in your genes?

XC: I don’t really think that filmmaking is in somebody’s genes; it’s not necessarily that anybody inherits any kind of talent. I mean, you can’t inherit being John Cassavetes. And you certainly can’t expect to inherit any of the beauty and skill of Gena Rowlands. But what you can expect, I guess, is to have your parents teach you their values and their morals and the things that they’re interested in. It wasn’t the average education in our house. It was very focused on understanding people and forgiving—and being interested in why people behave the way they do.

MM: What’s the best advice you got from your parents?

XC: Don’t listen to anybody when they tell you, “You suck!” (laughs) That really is a comfort, because you can do what’s in your heart. You can develop a film you know, in advance, everyone’s going to rake you over the coals for, but you love it so much you do it anyway. It’s nice to know that your brilliant parents were raked over coals. Whether or not you’re talented, you don’t have that phobia. You’ve seen it happen to the best, and it can happen to the rest. It’s a freeing thing.

MM: So you aren’t intimidated by your father’s status?

XC: My dad is considerably more appreciated in his death than he was in his life. He didn’t have a fancy life; he took a whole lot of criticism. You know it must mess with the way you think of things, but it didn’t seem to with him. His need for his own truth and to express it his own way was so much stronger than his fear of other people not understanding it.

MM: What’s your advice for aspiring moviemakers?

XC: The only advice I can give is to go see films. Really seek out good movies. Talk about them and look at people and try to understand their weaknesses. Try to find the dignity in being a simple, vulnerable human being. Try to stand up for it in your work. You see it come. You see it go. You’ve just got to take your stand. MM

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