From the Ashes
Director Stuart Cooper’s career took off after being highlighted on Z Channel.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
One filmmaker whose career was kickstarted by the Z Channel—the Los Angeles cable movie station that ran from 1974 to 1989 and the subject of this weekend’s film festival—is Stuart Cooper.
At the time Cooper was discovered by Z Channel programmer Jerry Harvey, the filmmaker was an American expatriate living in Europe with documentaries like A Test of Violence, an award-winning movie about the works of Spanish artist Juan Genoves, under his belt. Following A Test of Violence and another documentary titled Kelly Country, Cooper made Overlord, a trailblazing 1975 film that wove a feature film about a young soldier preparing for the D-Day invasion together with archival footage from World War II. Cooper wrote the screenplay after doing 3,000 hours of research in London’s Imperial War Museum’s archives.
“It became clear to me as I started to work in the archives that a great opportunity was there to make a film,” Cooper says by phone from Los Angeles. “And I’d had this idea of how to put together archive and dramatic live action in a way that would potentially be seamless.”
Cooper shot the story about a soldier with premonitions of his own death with vintage German lenses in a style that was utilized in the ‘40s. Then, he mixed his shot footage with the museum’s original nitrate negatives. The result was an 85-minute film that picked up the Special Jury Prize at the 1975 Berlin International Film Festival.
When Harvey was shown a screening of Overlord by Cooper’s agent, the Z Channel programmer and film buff had a typically intense reaction.
“Lo and behold, I get this wild phone call in the middle of the night in London from somebody called Jerry Harvey,” Cooper says.
After Harvey viewed all of Cooper’s other films, he decided to run every one of them on Z Channel throughout the course of one month.
“None of these films had been seen in the US, so it really was kind of an opening door,” Cooper says.
Probably in part due to the exposure that Harvey gave his films, Cooper started work on another project a couple of years later titled The Disappearance. Based on a Derek Marlowe novel, Echoes of Celandi, the movie starred Donald Sutherland as a hit man who discovers clues about his missing wife while attempting to carry out a contract killing.
Like later movies Memento and Pulp Fiction, part of the film’s tension is created by telling the story in a non-linear manner. Unfortunately, the film’s distributor did not like the movie’s many flashbacks, so they recut The Disappearance to unfold in a chronological fashion.
Cooper was devastated by the distributor’s edits and their addition of a modern rock score. “I came into New York, and they ran the [recut] picture for me,” he says. “My heart sank. Basically, the film was destroyed. It opened and ran one night and closed down.”
But Harvey once again boosted Cooper by airing the director’s version on Z Channel. In addition, Harvey showed how inferior the distributor’s cut was by running it next to the director’s cut—he also did this for films like Once Upon a Time in America.
“The lesson was so profound,” Cooper says.
Although Cooper felt vindicated by Z Channel’s broadcasting of his version of The Disappearance, he was sidelined from feature filmmaking by a burgeoning career in television. Following the movie, Cooper shot the 12-hour Emmy Award-winning American network mini series A.D., which featured a script penned by Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and performances by Ava Gardner and Susan Sarandon. In 1988, another Cooper mini-series titled The Fortunate Pilgrim aired, starring Sophia Loren and Edward James Olmos.
Now, after what Cooper describes as being “sunk deeply in the realm of television,” the feature filmmaker is starting to re-emerge. At the end of the year, Cooper is going to start shooting a remake of the 1958 film version of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He clearly seems excited about shooting the movie in Europe with Omar Sharif in the starring role.<>Says the talented filmmaker, who might finally get his due, “That should be a step up the ladder.”
STUART COOPER WILL INTRODUCE SCREENINGS OF HIS FILMS OVERLORD AND THE DISAPPEARANCE AND ANSWER QUESTIONS AT THE GOLDEN STATE THEATRE, LOCATED AT 417 ALVARADO ST. IN MONTEREY, SATURDAY AT 7PM. $25. 372-4555.