Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
Credit Listing | The Production | Press Release | Jerry Harvey | Z Channel History | Poster
For many years, Xan Cassavetes was obsessed with The Z Channel. This once renowned, now forgotten Pay TV station -- based entirely in Los Angeles -- operated from 1974 until 1989 and was legendary for its innovative programming.
Xan had discovered Z in her teens. The dazzling collection of European and Asian classics offered there, interwoven with recent American hits and buried treasures (including a number of restored director’s cuts) were unlike anything on TV anywhere in the United States. She was a teenager in the 1980s, one who loved sneaking out at night to punk rock clubs. Her Greek-American father (film legend John Cassavetes) took a dim view of this, and for her own good would ground her for three months at a time. These stretches of confinement paradoxically gave her the world, as she recalls it: She would spend months cooped in her room watching TV, blissfully communing with classic films from Europe and America then on Z. “Those movies became my friends,” she now recalls. The feminine might of such European actresses as Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Adjani and Romy Schneider showcased on Z formed an essential part of her self-education as a woman, and the wealth of expressive styles demonstrated in Z’s wide variety of offerings remain today an important gift to her.
After directing two acclaimed short films (Salmon For Three and Dust), Xan joined forces with her producer husband, Rick Ross, and fellow producer Marshall Persinger (Twin Falls Idaho, Still Breathing, Wild Iris) to seek financing for a dramatic feature, The Sky is Green. They were discussing various possibilities one night at Hollywood’s Cafe des Artistes when conversation turned to Xan’s obsession with The Z Channel. Jason Resnick of Focus Features, also at the table, asked her, “Since you’re so passionate, why don’t you make a documentary?”
That night, she went home and worked up a treatment. “I was so clueless,” she laughs now. “I didn’t really know Z’s history. I knew there’d been a genius programmer who died under mysterious circumstances, and that the channel folded after he died. I never imagined where that mystery would take me.”
Xan’s passion nevertheless persuaded Alison Bourke, director of original programming at the Independent Film Channel (IFC), as well as IFC’s vice president and general manager, Ed Carroll. Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession was greenlighted within a matter of weeks. And though it is the custom for documentaries to take years, Xan, Marshall and Rick found they’d struck gold when they began to make inquiries among the many coworkers and loved ones who’d been involved with Z’s programmer, Jerry Harvey -- an overwhelming number wanted to share their memories of Z, and Jerry.
Jerry Harvey died shockingly, as a murder/suicide. Close friends knew he’d battled deep depression, but none (apart from previous women in his life) had any inkling that he was capable of shooting his wife Deri Rudulph to death, before turning the gun on himself. It was a catastrophe that came out of the blue, even for intimate friends -- most of whom have found themselves wrestling in the dark ever since with the mystery of it. “When we would contact people, and invite them in for a first meeting,” Marshall Persinger recalls, “The conversation would never go less than eight hours.”
Vera Anderson, Jerry Harvey’s first wife, was a particularly poignant example, as was Harvey’s longtime girlfriend Doreen Ringer-Ross. “What a godsend, that Vera also happens to be such a gifted photographer,” says Xan Cassavetes. For Anderson’s photos of Jerry Harvey, dating from the 1970s through the early ‘80s, catch him at his most unguarded and vulnerable. “They’re so luminous and personal that they allow us to see Jerry and that was vital.”
Another wealth of assets came from the archives of screenwriter and critic F.X. Feeney, who had been one of Jerry Harvey’s closest friends for the last six years of his life, as well as his consultant at the Z Channel. “I’d been wary of taking part in any documentary about Z or Jerry, until I met Xan,” he recalls. “The shame of Jerry’s murder of Deri can’t be sugar-coated, yet it can be too easily served up as scandal and exploitation, too. In Xan, I felt Jerry had found his ideal interpreter -- someone who didn’t know him, but loved what he was about in the creative and heroic part of his life, which involved saving movies. Yet she so immediately communicated a deep, complex view of human nature, not to mention a sense of humor, that I quickly had faith that Xan would be able to illuminate the killing darkness that was also in Jerry, without romanticizing it or coming up with ‘easy’ answers.”
A key item in Feeney’s archive was a tape of Jerry Harvey’s voice from the mid-1980s, speaking on a late-night radio show. This became the spine of the film’s narration -- Jerry reflecting on his own life, in concert with the aggrieved loved ones, friends and colleagues (some 40 in all) who candidly discuss not just Jerry’s death, but what he meant to them in life. The sequences involving Jerry’s own voice are distinguished by soft-edged views of Los Angeles, filmed on the 16 millimeter Bolex of cinematographer, John Pirozzi (best known for his work with director Matt Dillon on City of Ghosts).
Xan Cassavetes viewed over 200 films from the library of Z’s triumphs, from which she selected 52 film clips. Securing the rights to such clips was a logistical nightmare to which Xan, Marshall and Rick applied themselves round the clock, in concert with their small but tireless staff, particularly Gabriel Reed, John Montepare and Leslie Lowell -- who all began as interns but made themselves so indispensable as to earn much higher credits (as assistant editor, or as associate producers) in the final tally.
After completing 40 painstakingly prepped and organized interviews over the course of several months in Los Angeles and New York, Xan sat down to work with editor Iain Kennedy (himself an established director of short films and documentaries) and, between October 2003 and March 2004, distilled this wealth of mystery and emotionally charged information into Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.