Watch: Legendary Oscar-Winning DP Haskell Wexler On His Career, Hollywood and Activism

The legendary Oscar-winning DP has seen quite a lot in his five-decade filmmaking career.

Haskell Wexler, ASC was one of the most influential cinematographers in Hollywood history (and one of the only cinematographers with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) A two-time Academy Award winner, activist, and filmmaker whose career began in the 1940s, Wexler spent decades working with directors Elia Kazan (America America), Mike Nichols, (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and many more.

In 1968, Wexler wrote and directed the influential political and cinéma vérité classic, Medium Cool, and in later years devoted considerable time to a campaign for better working conditions in Hollywood. 

In the below recently-released and wide-ranging discussion from 2014 with Cass Warner of the Warner Sisters, Wexler, who died at the age of 93 in 2015, discusses his life and career, sharing stories from some of his most famous films, thoughts on politics, and the state of the industry. 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Recalling his experience on the 1966 film that would win him his first Academy Award, Wexler said, "Most of the time, I was scared." The film, shot largely indoors on backlot soundstages, made the DP feel "out of my element...Most of the lights were on a catwalk, there's lights on a dimmer, it was the normal studio way of making films, and I was not into that."

The film, an adaptation of Edward Albee's hit play of the same name, focuses on one night in the life of a dysfunctional couple (played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) whose toxic relationship spills out over the edge and onto their guests, a younger couple with no idea what they're in for. It's a brutal, intense, and darkly funny film, and served as the legendary Mike Nichols' directorial debut.

Wexler remembered that toward the beginning of the shoot, Nichols had asked him not to make Taylor, world-renowned for her beauty, look too glamorous on film, since her character was a damaged alcoholic who comes unglued over the course of the movie. Taylor overheard this conversation and sought Wexler out, asking him to please not be too harsh, photographically. He agreed, he said, and in doing so won the admiration of one of the world's few truly legendary movie stars. 

Wexler was inspired by his experience working with young Mike Nichols on the director's first feature. "He worked so well with the actors," he remembered, "and they had his respect, and outdid themselves." Though Wexler had seen Albee's play, he did not confess to have understood it in the way that Nichols did, though he did differ, in a friendly way, with Nichols's claim to have planned the shots himself. "

"All the studios were going to color, because color TV was coming out, and there was some debate on going with black and white for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

This was the first film he shot," said Wexler, "and this is the first I think he'd ever seen someone shooting a film." Woolf would end up being the last film to earn an Academy Award in the Best Cinematography Black-and-White category, which was done away with the following year. Making the film in black and white was, he said, "a studio decision...all the studios were going to color, because color TV was coming out, and there was some debate on going with black and white, but I was very happy shooting that way, because I was comfortable with it."

Wexler also reported that Nichols was in contact with studio head Jack Warner about "the dangers" of the film's controversial content. The filmmakers had already been on notice from the Catholic League of Decency about the play's language, and though times were changing (in two years, the Hays Code would be a thing of the past), the studio still towed the line, or at least hedged their bets. "Some of the words were shot two ways, three ways...the studio was concerned....It wasn't a concern about principles, it was about box office." Nevertheless, Ernest Lehman, who adapted the play, was insistent on keeping the language (along with others), and in the end, language and all, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of two films in history to receive nominations in every eligible category at the Academy Awards (winning eight.)

The Studio System and Technology

Wexler got his start in Chicago, his hometown, where in 1947 he began as an assistant cameraman on TV shows, commercials, documentary shorts, and features. He shared some of his thoughts on the working conditions of filmmaking when he started, as well as the studio system that produced the most classic Hollywood films ever made.

Wexler, a dedicated activist and advocate for working conditions, did not have much of a problem with this way of making movies: He stressed the efficiency of the system and its strict methods, which included directors and DPs working together to plan their days extensively, first setting up shots with viewfinders and then doing run-throughs with stand-ins, before finally going in to do takes. "On most feature films, that was the procedure, and it worked very efficiently," Wexler reflected, "and we were able to get a lot of work done, without thwarting anyone's creativity, as far as I know, in a normal workday." 

Medium Cool

Wexler's first feature as a director was Medium Cool, featuring cinéma vérité techniques along with a mix of fictional and non-fictional content. The story, set in Chicago during 1968, is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is that it features actual footage of the riots at the Democratic National Convention.

The main character is a disaffected TV news cameraman, and the title comes from media theorist Marshall McLuhan's description of television as a "cool" medium. Wexler described the way the film was put together, noting that he had obtained what's known as a "negative pickup deal. The studio agrees to distribute your film when you deliver it to them with certain requirements, that it's made with [certain unions], that it be a certain length...and then they would pay you an agreed upon price, pay you back." At first, he'd been planning to make another film, but when he got to Chicago and saw the political climate in the streets, "I realized something was going to happen."

"Contemporary equipment is meant to make things easier and faster, but there has been a falling apart of discipline."

Wexler got in touch with Peter Bart at Paramount and changed the script, and using his Chicago connections (including the writer Studs Terkel), members of the anti-war movement, and even, for the first day's shooting, cooperation from the city's infamous Mayor Daley, delivered the film for $600,000 (an incredibly inexpensive studio film, Cool definitely has an indie feel; for comparison, that same year, Night of the Living Dead, which has almost no production value at all, was released with a budget of $114,000.) If anything, this just goes to show how difficult it was to shoot in the days before the DSLR revolution. 

The film's overt political content saddled it with an X-rating, which meant, at the time, that it could play in almost no theaters. There were other films out at the time that had more extreme content, but Wexler always felt that the reason for the rating had more to do with the political content of the film than with anyone being offended by nudity or language. At the time, Roger Ebert called it "a great American document, one of the most important films of this political and social period." In 1970, the film was re-rated to an R, and over the years its mix of political content, fiction, and documentary filmmaking have kept Medium Cool relevant

Who Needs Sleep? and "Political" Filmmaking

Wexler's work on films like American Graffiti, In the Heat of the NightMatewan, Days of Heaven, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (from which he was fired by director Forman, though he was still nominated for an Academy Award, splitting it with his replacement) solidified his place in Hollywood history. Wexler was often referred to as a political filmmaker, though he wasn't particularly enamored of the title. "The description of political films," he said, "are films which are contrary to establishment." To him, though, the label felt pejorative, since outside the establishment was a natural place to be.

Wexler suffered no illusions about the nature of moviemaking as a business, but still felt that there should be a certain minimum level of goodwill and professionalism among colleagues, a goodwill he felt was leaving the industry, if not society in general. "Today, everyone is very competitive with each other," he said. Wexler waged a years-long-campaign against what he saw as brutal working conditions in Hollywood, and this led to a nasty fight with the Cinematographer's Guild, the union he'd been a member of for 60 years, the same organization that once voted him one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

Wexler had long been a vocal critic on the issue of overwork in Hollywood. In 1998, following the death of camera assistant Brent Hershman in a car crash caused by exhaustion, he took out a full-page ad in Variety calling for "humane treatment of humans." At the time of Hershman's death the previous year, the assistant had been returning home after working a 19-hour-day (which had been immediately preceded by four, back-to-back, 14-hour-days). Wexler's proposal of a maximum 14-hour-day, (known as "Brent's Law") got lip service in Hollywood, though there was no substantive change, and so in 2006 Wexler made a documentary called Who Needs Sleep? that focused on the brutally long hours Hollywood demands of its workers, as well as on the inaction by unions, management, and even government regulatory agencies.

The film was only after he released video of a Guild Meeting online, though, that he was threatened with expulsion (he died before the trial, and the charges were withdrawn). “I believe it is my obligation, and the obligation of every director of photography, to oppose a practice that compromises our creative ability as well as the health and well-being of every member of the crew,” he had said during that leaked meeting. 

"Once you determine who the 'bad' guy is in a movie, then the 'good' guy can do whatever he wants...."

Throughout his 93 years, the lifelong pacifist never wavered from his principles, which were fiercely humanist and idealistic. Wexler never saw the contradiction, but he was far from naive about the state of play. "A lot of political arguments," he said, "come down to, 'It doesn't make business sense.' Once you determine who the bad guy is in a movie, then the good guy can do whatever he wants. Usually, if he does it with a more technologically advanced device, It's okay....We've been inculcated through entertainment that the bottom line of our life is the bottom line of money and power."

Haskell Wexler was not only one of the greatest cinematographers in motion picture history, he was a fiery idealist with an optimistic view of the human beings he photographed, and this 90-minute interview is a testament to the spirit of a lion of motion pictures.

For other interviews with Hollywood greats, check out the Warner Sisters site.      

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August 31, 2018 at 3:18PM, Edited August 31, 3:18PM

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