Daring Ideas: Haskell Wexler talks about In the Heat of the Night & Medium Cool

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winner Haskell Wexler about two cinematic classics…

“I shot In the Heat of the Night [1967] based on my views of black and white,” states Chicago-born cinematographer Haskell Wexler. “A lot of things I did were considered to be daring, like I put airplane landing lights into cars so that the intensity of lights were adequate to deal with colour.” The other innovative lighting techniques were used such as bouncing light off the ceiling and down onto a set like a still photographer. “I had an umbrella light which sent rays in a rounded way.” Much has been made of the way Wexler was able to light Sydney Poitier who plays a Philadelphia police detective recruited to assist a bigoted Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger) in a murder investigation while waiting for a train back home. “Rod was getting make-up and joked to Sydney, ‘All you have to do is shine your forehead and you’re all set to go.’”

A controversial scene in the racially charged story is known as ‘The Slap.’ “The real world was way ahead of racial issues,” reflects Haskell Wexler. “The civil rights movement was going on but then on the screen to have a white man slap Sydney and for him to slap back we knew there were tensions about that. It was interesting to have a black person be that uppity and be a police officer. Being a police officer means that you’re accepted by the system. Not just some uppity black guy who was pissed off at something that wasn’t fair and right; he in one sense represented establish authority even though being from Philadelphia. Incidentally there is a line in there where Rod asks, ‘Where are you from?’ Sydney says, ‘Philadelphia.’ And Rod asks, ‘Mississippi?’ Of course there was a town in Mississippi. The slap scene was in the script, the producers knew, everybody knew. There were questions even if the film should be made and the producer was considered brave. It is hard for some people to realize what was considered daring for Hollywood at that time.”

In regards to the sequence where a murder suspect attempts to run to freedom, Haskell Wexler remarks, “That was one of the first zoom lenses came in and I had to time the zoom in on that bridge shot. As I remember the particular shot the lens was fairly wide and we were down by the water. The camera panned a little bit and moved in from 25mm to 250mm; at the time that change was not generally seen on the screen. You see it now. It was a matter of using one of the new tools that was available and knowing about it.” Modern technology can reinvent what was done years before. “When movies get transferred, nowadays they can do almost anything from the original. Dark light, even take certain sections of the frame and make it lighter, block off a part of a face and put a highlight on it. Putting eye lights on actors is another thing. For photography a lot of times you always try to get an eye light on an actor; now in post I see it done all the time, the actor looks and there’s a sparkle in his eye.”

Rod Steiger and Norman Jewison

Hal Ashby

Collaborating with Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison (Hurricane) and his film editor Hal Ashby (Being There) was a memorable experience. “Hal would be able to work with Norman usually afterwards to pep things up a little bit. In the Heat of the Night, for example, when we went to a couple of small towns to show the film and it was poorly received Norman, Hal and I felt terrible and couldn’t figure out why. Hal went in, changed and cut some things, and then we went out and it was well received.” The murder mystery made for $2 million earned $24 million at the domestic box office and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger), Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay as well as received nominations for Best Director and Best Sound Editing. At the BAFTAs, Rod Steiger won Best Foreign Actor beating out co-star Sidney Poitier, and Norman Jewison was lauded with the UN Award while the cinematic adaption competed for Best Film. In 2002, In the Heat of the Night was inducted into the National Film Registry.

A year later, Haskell Wexler had a movie of his inducted into the National Film Registry. “I’m most proud of the film which I not only shot but wrote and directed; it is called Medium Cool [1968].” The project initially started off as something entirely different. “I was assigned by Paramount to do a picture called Concrete Wilderness; it was about a young boy who discovers animals in the city and was written for New York. I decided I wanted to shoot it in Chicago because I’m from Chicago. I went back to Chicago I saw that there were all kinds of ferment going on amongst the antiwar people. The country was in flux with the resentment about why we were there [in Vietnam]. What the media called the hippies were planning to come to Chicago and if the Democratic Party didn’t take a position against the war they were going to demonstrate in the streets. I wrote a story about a cameraman, at the end of which indicated that the authorities would try to stifle the antiwar movement. Mostly it was small things with the police. I wanted to tell the story about the people of Chicago, the Appalachian people, black people, people who we didn’t ordinarily see on TV. I told Paramount I was going to change the script and since it was a negative pickup deal, which means that I put up my own money, $600,000 to make the film, when I delivered it they were obliged to pay me the cost which they did.”

Starring Robert Forester (Jackie Brown), Verna Bloom (High Plains Drifter), Peter Bonerz (Catch-22), and Marianna Hill (The Godfather: Part II), Medium Cool encountered political opposition up being released. “The Gulf + Western Corporation, which owned Paramount at the time, was upset because of their dealings with Mayor Daley in Chicago. There have been books written about this. When the film came out it was given an X rating.” Wexler received a Directors Guild Award nomination and tied for the Grand Prize (along with 322) at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. “It is listed amongst the most important films of the twentieth century,” proudly states Wexler. “It is considered to be a classic.”

Many thanks to Haskell Wexler for taking the time for this interview and to learn more make sure to read his Picture Perfect profile.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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