Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer Haskell Wexler

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winner Haskell Wexler about his career and the craft of cinematography…

“I was the first one who had anything to do with anything theatrical in my family,” states Haskell Wexler who has received two Oscars and five Academy Award nominations for his cinematography. “My father bought a Charlie Chaplin film called Tillie’s Punctured Romance [1914] which he liked a lot. I was too young to know whether he had a love for the movies. My brother and I early on went to the movies every Saturday.” Despite being far removed from the filmmaking hub of Hollywood, the youth became a documentarian added by a piece of photographic equipment manufactured in his hometown. “Since Chicago is a place where they made Bell & Howell cameras and few families had movie cameras so early on, when I travelled all over the world with my family I took movies.” Wexler has continued to make documentaries which for him are more about capturing a spontaneous moment rather than photographing a preconceived dramatic scene. “Working on documentaries feeds my insatiable eye for learning through images and people, and it gets translated into my work on feature films.”

“I was living in Chicago,” remembers Haskell Wexler. “I saw a TV show called Confidential File [KTTV, 1953 to 1958] where Paul Coates a journalist in California went out with a camera person with a 16mm camera without sound to a used car lot and did a funny story. I liked the look of it so I met the cameraman Irvin Kershner (RoboCop 2). I was visiting California and making documentaries back east in Chicago and I said, ‘I like to make a dramatic film.’ Irvin said, ‘So would I.’ His producer Andy Fenady had written a script and he sent me it. I said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ I came back to California with my brother Yale who was an actor; he had been on Broadway working under [Eli] Kazan. I put in $15,000. Roger Corman [The Young Racers] put in $15,000. We formed Argonaut Educational Films and we shot the film. It cost $30,000 to make and we sold to Warner Bros. for $90,000. Kershner and Andy Fenady got jobs at Warner Bros.. I made the film under a pseudonym because the union kept people out even though I was a member of the same union in Chicago so ‘Mark Jeffery’ was the Director of Photography. That’s how I happen to shoot Stakeout on Dope Street [1958].”

A major change in the profession of cinematography has been that the equipment has become less expensive and more accessible. The arrival of the small screen has also had a significant impact. “The advent of television widen out the possibilities of people seeing stories that they wouldn’t,” observes Haskell Wexler who points out how much safer his craft has become with the transition from nitrate to safety film. “Early in my career, the film was explosive so it had to be handled and edited in fireproof places. Then the transition from black and white to colour came which was not available to regular filmmakers right away. From a practical point of view of camera people, colour was much less sensitive and how colour was treated in feature films was dictated a lot by Technicolor who had certain rules about the ratio between light and dark. I assisted on the first colour film that James Wong Howe did called Picnic [1955]; he was an innovator and wanted to light it the same way he lit black and white but with more intense light. The studio and Technicolor were afraid that the contrast would not look good. How you light and dealt with colour took some doing but ultimately colour was much easier for the photographer because photography depends on what we call separation to give the three dimensional effect. In colour you can get visual separations of an actor in front of a certain background by the variety of colours, whereas in black and white you have to do it in shades of grey.”

“The Director of Photography’s job is to direct the eye and to tell the story as best they can visually,’ notes Haskell Wexler who achieves the desired effect by the composition of objects within the frame, the speed and movement of the camera, the selection of lenses, the depth of field, and how much the characters are in focus. “Technically nowadays you have to know all of the varieties of ways to create images that are believed to be interesting.” The cinematography becomes entwined the other elements required to produce a movie. “If the director’s vision on the big screen is not what the people like then it’s doubtful that the cinematographer separately will be considered great because rightfully the audience doesn’t dissect those aspects of filmmaking.” Comparing shooting on a sound stage as suppose out on location, Wexler says, “Theoretically with the set you have all of the elements in your control so as far as a facility a set is more convenient.” The veteran filmmaker prefers the challenge of shooting real location; however, he acknowledges that sometimes the stage is more appropriate to the storytelling when filming long an intimate as was the case with his Oscar-winning work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). “It depends on the kind of scene. If you have a long intimate scene of two people in a bedroom, for example with Virginia Woolf; it would have been a terrible film to try to shoot on location.”

A second Academy Award would be presented to Haskell Wexler for his contribution to the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976) which was helmed by Hal Ashby; the Oscar lauded film editor turned director became a tragic Hollywood figure. “Early on when Hal was getting divorced from wife number one, he lived in Norman’s [Jewison] office,” recalls Wexler. “It was sort of a chicken and egg situation. Hal was revolutionary and unpredictable which are all of the things that producers don’t like. Whether he had taken the stuff because of that or that is what caused him to be like that I couldn’t say. On Bound for Glory I only had one serious problem with Hal or he had it with me when he fired me. I confronted him about what he was sniffing up his nose. I never a lost a day of shooting on Bound for Glory but the guy he had hired to replace me, who was operating on my second camera, had to be kicked off the dolly.” Reflecting on why Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Bound for Glory won Oscars as suppose to Wexler remarks, “I think enough of them liked the look of the film more than the others.” Three other movies which resulted in the native of Chicago receiving Academy Award nominations are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Matewan (1987) and Blaze (1989). “The whole idea of individual acclaim for the variety of artistic inputs that go into putting together what you may call a great picture is a fiction enhanced by things like the Academy Awards and critics to help sell tickets for movies.”

“Photographers who have learned their trade through using film that knowledge can help them deal with digital photography,” believes Haskell Wexler. “Also those people who are conversant with things digital can help those photographers whose background is in film. It would be a remiss [for them not to].” The arrival of portable digital devices such as iPhones which can play movies and record footage is something to be embraced. “It enhances the work. You have a picture of someone doing something. You can say, ‘This is it.’ It all depends on who takes it, what they take it, and what images were happening before or after. The fact that people can gather reproducible images on a variety of devices doesn’t diminish what cinematographers who work on features or TV do.” Wexler adds, “The way we gather and present these images is only part of the story. It’s what images we gather. What do we show? What do we say is worthy of other people’s interests?” Film techniques have is some ways triumphed over meaningful messages being artistically communicated to audience members. “The resolutions of human interactions are too often violent and are usually thought of as action films; those proliferate now. Not enough attention is being paid to what we say as much as to how we say it.” Contemplating how he was able to be a professional cinematographer for over six decades, Wexler remarks, “I’m interested in learning about people, the world, interactions, and I’m excited looking at things through a camera and transmitting all of my excitement to other people. I hope that dedication translates, and that gives me pleasure. If you have pleasure then the possibilities of enjoying your life is good. And if you’re lucky enough to have someone pay you money during that time than you can have what is called a career.”

Many thanks to Haskell Wexler for taking the time for this interview and be sure to visit his personal blog.

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

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