Haskell Wexler, ASC passed away today. He was 93. Haskell won Academy Awards as Cinematographer on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. He was writer-director-cinematographer of the film that inspired me to get into film: Medium Cool. Here’s the complete transcript of his interview in Cinematographer Style.
Haskell Wexler, ASC
Haskell Wexler: My name is Haskell Wexler and I’m a member of the ASC and I’m a cameraman. I guess they call them directors of photography and cinematographers, but I started calling myself a cameraman.
Jon Fauer: How did you become a cameraman?
I started making home movies with a 16mm camera when I was very young. After the war, where I served as a merchant sailor for five years, I spent a couple weeks in a lifeboat, had a lot of adventures and came back to Chicago, which is where I’m from. My family wanted to know what I would do with my life. They had some business ideas, some things that I should do to make something of myself. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that I took tremendous pleasure in making movies. At that time, I made mostly home movies and a few educational films for a crippled children’s camp. My dad said, ‘If you want to do that, maybe you should be in some kind of business for it. What do you need to do it?’ I said, ‘I need a studio.’ So he helped me rent an armory, which I used as a studio, and I ordered lights and cameras from a catalog I had. I got a 16mm Maurer camera, but I didn’t have any films to make. That time was before television, so those films were industrial.
Eventually, I made my first professional industrial film in the cotton mill town of Opelika, Alabama. It was shot in 35mm with my Arriflex, which was the first reflex camera of that time. That’s how I learned to shoot 35mm and had the thrill of doing what I couldn’t do with my Bell & Howell 16mm, where the lens was in one place and the finder was in another, so I had to turn the parallax over to know what I was shooting. To be able to look through the camera and see the frame was a special thrill. At the time, the Arriflex was actually the German combat camera, which was similar to the combat military camera I used during the war — an Eyemo, which was a spring wound camera made by Bell & Howell. Also, the way you looked at the image was as if you were in prison. There were a series of vertical baffles in the camera to prevent internal flare, and the shutter was a 120-degree shutter, which is not 1/50th of a second as it is today. That camera now is at 1/50th of a second with a 180 degree shutter. When I shot action, I had to be careful because with a shutter speed as low as 120 you will get a freeze frame effect because movies, as we know, are a series of still pictures put together by persistence of vision. If that persistence of vision is with a lower shutter speed, we get a chatter effect.
That was my first connection to professional equipment, and I continued to make documentaries in the Chicago area until I wanted to get out of there and I went to Hollywood, where I began by working as an assistant on a number of Hollywood films, mostly Westerns. I was helped a great deal by some old-time cameramen and camera assistants. I remember a guy named Harlow Stanglewho was the assistant on Sunset Blvd. and a lot of other great films. Those older Hollywood guys were really very helpful in making me want to come to the West coast. The work initially was a complicated saga involving union unacceptability, even though I was a union member from a different local, but it did make me excited about making feature films. I had already shot a number of feature films outside the West coast, including American, America; Hoodlum Priest and Angel Baby. In fact, America, America, which was a black-and-white film I shot for Elia Kazan with an Italian crew in Greece, is actually one of my favorite black-and-white films.
I got to Hollywood in the late ’50s. The company I was working with in Chicago bought The Charlie Chaplin Studios in Hollywood and wanted me to be their cameraman because I had done a lot of commercials for them, including the announcement film for the Chevrolet of ’47 and some other car commercials. The folks at Campbell-Ewald, which is the big advertising agency in Chicago, liked me. I was supposed to come out West and work for them, but because the union was closed, I moved out but couldn’t work. So instead I shot some non-union pictures, low-budget films and pictures for director Roger Corman. I shot Stakeout on Dope Street under the name Mark Jeffrey, which are the names of my two kids. That film was very well reviewed for its photography. Warner Brothers bought the film, but I still had to be anonymous. I also shot pictures outside the country. Finally, I was accepted into the union by some fluke of working 30 days on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.
After that, my first official Hollywood movie was for Columbia Pictures and was called The Best Man, starring Henry Fonda. There was a scene in that film that was supposed to be process screen. I didn’t know anything about process, but I didn’t want anyone to know how green I was. I had basically come off of working extreme low budgets in Chicago. For that scene, which had Henry Fonda sitting in the back of a limousine, I said, ‘Let’s go out to the limousine. I’ll take my CM-3 camera, sit in the front seat and shoot the scene.’ Henry Fonda said, ‘Yeah. We’ll finish by lunch. Let ’em try it.’ So I got in the front seat of the car with my trusty French camera and set of old Cooke lenses and shot Henry Fonda sitting in the back of a limousine. I also got one shot looking out the window and panned over, which is what I did in Chicago before I knew any better. I was fairly steady through it all, and then we broke for lunch.
Quite a number of times during that period of my life, including while I was working on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, the fact that I didn’t know the Hollywood way and only knew my way, I did things that guys who were in the system for a long time didn’t think about doing because it might have seemed too amateur. There was one scene in Virginia Wolfe when Richard Burton went for an umbrella in the closet. I asked the director, Mike Nichols, ‘Why don’t I just go with him into the closet and move around?’ That would have been hard to do with the crab dolly and the BNC Mitchell, but it could be done if we pulled a wall out, and that’s what we did.
I also did a scene with Sandy Dennis when I tied a rope around myself and handheld the camera and had the crew spin me around when she said her line, ‘I dance like the wind.’ She was a great, fun actress. She and the film’s other star, Elizabeth Taylor, used to have belching contests on the set. Mike Nichols asked me to not make Elizabeth look as good as she looked. Many times, he told me, ‘She’s not supposed to be Elizabeth Taylor.’ Elizabeth overheard that conversation and came up to me and said, ‘Don’t go too far.’ And I said ‘OK.’ After that, she’d give me a hug at the beginning of each day. Back then, I had my light meter in a leather fishing reel case, because light meters were not conventionally worn on the belt as they are now. At that time, I had a Norwood meter, when most Hollywood guys had the big Spectra invented by Karl Freund.
Talk to me about how technology affected your technique.
Back when I started, zoom lenses were just being invented. They had what we called a ‘stovepipe’ on them, and they also had an independent eyepiece. I had one adapted by a French company for the BNC, but the lens was very slow. The end shot in Virginia Woolf was actually made with the then-new zoom lens, which couldn’t have been done in the same way with the technology we normally had available to us, because it was a dolly shot that went by the actors when they were at the window. The shot went through the curtains and out into what was ostensibly the exterior, which was really the stage at Warner Bros. with a fake tree and some light.
What I try to do visually is direct the audience’s eye to the important thing. Though sometimes we have to deny the eye the important thing, which is something we have to be sensitive to. We have to be in tune with the story and also think about the sequence of images. Sometimes, there’ll be a scene where the actress looks very beautiful with soft light focused on her, though the drama of the scene might be enhanced by not seeing her eyes beginning to tear up, or by having her away from the camera with her nose almost touching the frame. Where she is in the frame is also very important. Then she might direct her movement more to the center of the frame, which is when I might show her eyes tearing. That type of visual transition can be hard to think out in advance. Certain things will hit my visual storytelling sensibilities, maybe when I see an actor rehearsing or when I’m trying to frame things for the director. I was partners with Conrad Hall, ASC, for a long time. I knew him when he just came out of college, and he was always talking about visual storytelling.
How would you describe the role of the cinematographer?
The role of the director of photography on a set is not and should not be a solo operation. It’s important to know and understand what everyone in the crew does. I was an officer during the war, and one of the things I prided myself on was that I never gave another sailor a task that I couldn’t do myself. Of course, I did come up through the ranks in the Merchant Marines, but I think it’s important to not only be nice to your crew and be a decent person, but also to enhance your own creativity by having them become a part of the creative process. That’s one of the things that I don’t like about the Academy Awards, because how can they pick just one terrific set designer or makeup man or dolly grip? The cumulative effect of having incredibly nice crews is part of the creative package. The director of photography has to be interactive, respectful and also be called to task when appropriate. He has to be the active, engaged leader of the crew. That’s the only way to make a good picture. The mood of the crew and attitude toward their work is also key. Nowadays, the emphasis on speed weighs heavily on crews, causing their attitude about their work to suffer. That also impacts us as directors of photography. When everyone’s working consecutive 16-hour days, the DP can’t be some guy cracking a whip, because that’s not going to get the best work out of people.
We have to be careful with our work, because if we work too hard and always aim for speed, we can harm ourselves physically and ruin some of the more important reasons of why we work in the first place, which is to have a decent life, to have a family, to enrich ourselves. If work becomes our life, other things begin to suffer. First, the picture suffers. Also, our health suffers, as proven by many medical studies. But more importantly, our personal life suffers. Vittorio Storaro, ASC, once said to me, ‘In any of my films, when I worked longer than my capabilities, I can see that the scene turned out not like I wanted.’ Of course, Vittorio doesn’t have to worry about some producer saying, ‘This guy doesn’t work fast enough. This guy is some grand artist. We want somebody who gets it done.’ He doesn’t have to worry about that, though the rest of us do. But I do think that’s going to change because of the influence from Europe. I was in Italy, where I saw a Disney film called Casanova shot by an international crew that worked maybe 10 hours maximum, on schedule. I watched that crew work. They were happy and quick and good. The director and studio were also happy. Everyone was happy and enjoyed making a good film, which I believe can be done.
Tell me about Medium Cool and the technique, technology and look of that picture.
I’ve always admired early Italian movies and how the camera in those would just shoot on the streets, like in The Bicycle Thief and Shoe-Shine, which were early films that came out after World War II in Italy and then later in France. But I always wondered, ‘How do they make sound?’ I visited a Federico Fellini set once, and all the actors were counting in Italian, ‘Uno, due, tre, quattro.’ It turned out that once the camera was freed from sync sound, they could utilize portable cameras to go almost anywhere at anytime, just as we do now with video cameras, although video cameras have sound.
When I did Medium Cool, I used my favorite camera: the French CM-3. I had a machinist at Paramount make me 1,000-foot mags, because the normal film length on a CM-3 is a 400-foot load. I used a coaxial 1,000-foot Mitchell mag, which I still have today, because, incidentally, no one else wanted it, but it snapped right on. The camera sounded like a coffee grinder. A couple times on Virginia Wolfe, when the camera turned on, that’s what they called it because it made a horrendous noise. Carol Ballard, who was a cameraman then and has since become a director, made a homemade blimp. Eclair also made a blimp to kill the sound, but that blimp was impossible to use, so we used Carol’s blimp for other scenes.
In any case, that freed me in Medium Cool when I was shooting in the streets. Our soundman, Chris Newman, was present but far enough away from the camera to get sound without the camera interfering. That was one example in Medium Cool when I worked with apparent sync sound. There was no ADR in the film. There might have been a couple of places when we did looping — where we had the work print. We may have had a film loop where the actor sat in the studio and mouthed the lines, and they would have had the track there.
How was it to serve as both the cinematographer and director on that film?
One of the advantages of directing a film is learning about what a director of photography should be concerned with. He should be concerned, obviously, with editing and with sound. For instance, when I go on location scouts, I don’t just look where the sun is going; I also consider sound, because I may not be able to shoot from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at a location where the traffic is horrendous. A lot of the things that directors of photography have to consider are not the things that are talked most about, such as lighting and framing.
In terms of lighting, I’ve learned a lot from still photographers and have taken still photographs my whole life. Still photographers use umbrella lights, so I made umbrella lights for In the Heat of the Night. I’ve actually used them on a lot of my films, where I took four quartz lights, fit them on an umbrella like a crucifix and then had them bounce at the umbrella light. So I had a big, soft source light with extreme wraparound quality in a smaller package because of the curve of the umbrella. The light would go in many directions, depending on the umbrella. I had aluminum umbrellas, silk umbrellas and umbrellas that I would clip dark material onto.
I was also interested in Raoul Coutard’s work that he did with Godard. I looked at these black-and-white scenes where there were a couple of bed lamps in a bedroom that were really hot. People walked around the room any which way while the camera panned in all directions. Coutard did what a lot of still photographers did at that time, which was use natural light, take their flashbulb and bounce it on the ceiling. I would do that in my lighting and then make it more sophisticated in studios by making what Gordon Willis, ASC, called a ‘coffin box.’ Whenever I had a set anywhere, even on a location, we would build the ceiling with space blankets, which are made of a reflective material that doesn’t burn and is very small. In fact, I still have them in my car. The gaffer would tape them to the ceiling, and we had little quartz lights that would just bump into them and then have skirts on them. The aim was to have a soft, invisible presence of light on the set. I would then point up with separate units for the actors or, if there were light sources in the set or even outside the set, I would simulate those sources.
One thing I learned while working with directors who want certain shots I learned early on in Chicago. A director on a commercial once asked me to do something that I thought was the stupidest visual idea I had ever heard of, so I had the assistant write ‘under protest’ on the slate. Then I saw the shot and it was really interesting. After that, I try never to think ‘under protest.’ Rather, I try to think to myself, ‘How can I do this stupid idea and make it really work?’
I did a shot on a picture filmed in Italy called Face in the Rain that Irvin Kershner directed. The movie was set in Italy during blackout times, and the shot was with a partisan Italian woman who was supposed to be walking around a room. There were no windows in the room where I could bring in moonlight. Kershner said, ‘I want it to look like there’s no light here at all.’ So I got a little ambient light, invisible light, as I call it. I also made a corona, though I didn’t even know what an Obie light was at that time. But I made little PH1 lights with spun and put them completely around the lens, and because we were shooting black-and-white, I had them on dimmers. The whole room was lit with invisible ambience, probably underexposed two stops. Then, when the actress came close to the camera, we brought up that invisible light to her face with the dimmer. In the end, everything worked out for the shot, though initially I almost told Kershner, ‘I can’t do that stupid shot.’
Let’s talk about Bound for Glory and the first handheld blimp cameras.
For that film, the big transition technically was the ability to have a camera that we could use like that coffee grinder camera I told you about, the CM-3. Also, Arriflex had perfectly good noisy cameras, or at least noisy by the standards of sound people. When Arri came out with the BL, it was heavy — but not like a BNC — and it required a snoot. But it did allow me, for example, to sit in a car with two handgrips like that 400-foot mag and a Zeiss lens with a small snoot. The big snoot was on the zoom, but that’s another story.
There is a very particular feeling I get when I have the camera in my hand, looking at an actor talk, knowing that what I’m shooting will end up on the screen. It’s the power of seeing and hearing at the same time, which is the power of creativity. Also, back when I made Bound for Glory, there was no video assist, so there was no one second guessing me. It was all my magic. I don’t think I’ll ever have that kind of feeling again with today’s technology.
That BL camera was really a breakthrough for me. I’ve always wanted to own my own camera, and I couldn’t own a Panavision camera, so I was able to feel like that Arri camera was really my camera. Assistants whom I worked with for many years, including Ralph Gerling and later Scott Sakamoto, knew all the peculiarities of that camera. And they came to know my peculiarities. There was a certain intimacy with that device that freed me rather than befuddled me. It’s important to be master of our devices so we don’t have to think about them, which frees up our creativity.
Let’s talk about directing and shooting. You do both. Why?
Directing for me is the most exciting and creative experience, particularly when I’m directing something I wrote myself. It is also scary and shows me that I need to have a good crew around me — a good operator, assistant, gaffer and all the other crew people. Bob Richardson, ASC, whose work I love, and also Roger Deakins, ASC, came up from the documentary world so they still operate themselves. But on a picture Roger recently did, he had my operator, Scott Sakamoto, the guy I started in the business.
Operating relates to directing in that intimacy I told you about earlier, where the storytelling is right there. Because I’m going to have to tell my own story — that I wrote — visually, the responsibilities are greater. Beyond that, it’s mostly subjective, and there’s also the thrill of ‘nobody is my boss.’ I put up my own family money for Medium Cool, with a negative pickup from Paramount. Not being bound by someone else’s money really allowed me to feel free creatively, though the discipline that comes from other people’s money can be a good or bad thing creatively, depending on circumstances.
What is the look or style of your films?
I don’t know what my style is. The film critic Pauline Kael, in some review she wrote of my work, said, ‘Haskell always has mirrors and reflections in his shots.’ So I looked at some of my films that she had seen and saw the mirrors and reflections. But I am not aware of my style, except when other people point it out. Then I do think about it because it’s there. I thought about style when I shot Colors for Dennis Hopper, who is a very good still photographer and not as crazy as he sometimes presents himself. For that film, I shot with film stock that I would have used on a 16mm documentary. I had the camera move in a documentary way, and that became the style of the movie. I was pleased with the way that film looked, but I was also pleased with what it was trying to say. What I do visually fits the subject of the film and requires an understanding of raw stocks and of what’s in front of the camera. I’m not sure whether I can characterize my own style, though I can certainly characterize other people’s styles, but that relates to the kinds of pictures they usually make.
On Coming Home, I knew I wanted Jane Fonda to look good, because she was a friend of mine and we were making a film that was saying something important. In retrospect, that is not something I usually think about before or even during a film, but for that one, I knew I wanted to use soft light and make sure that the audience saw her eyes at the right time. You could call that a style, but it’s more a way to fit in what I want to transmit photographically. Of course, a lot of the style controls nowadays are not always in our control, because in post, we can enhance what we did during production, or sometimes, someone else can alter or ruin what we did visually. We can call that progress, but we have to be careful about how we use technological advances to be better artists. Unfortunately, so much of technology is fueled by economic reasons — and sometimes even pseudo-economic reasons.
The video tap is a great tool for filmmakers. However, if around that video tap we have three people saying, ‘I think Haskell should be a little more right frame or a little more left frame.’ Then one person says, ‘Don’t worry. We can adjust that very easily in post.’ That approach dissipates a lot of the creative juices into areas where a conference is not the best way to stimulate creativity. I feel the same way about the debate over film and video, or ‘nonfilm image creation.’ Truth is they are all good in different ways for different times and different kinds of pictures.
We have to look into our motives as transmitters of ideas, visual approaches and stories. We have to examine our ideas of what is artistic. For me, artistic goes beyond the visual image or photograph; it’s the totality of the philosophy, the ideas, the personality and the soul of people. Too often, the search for what seems to be commercial — the things that grab people’s attention — opens the door for celebrating antipersonal behavior, celebrating warfare, celebrating ways which do not elevate and serve mankind. Instead, they serve an economic system that sometimes doesn’t understand its own message. That’s why technology is good. But we have to know why that technology is being driven and how we can utilize it, because we can’t stop technology, which seems to make things cheaper and faster. But what we have to avoid, as artists, is making cheaper and faster work.
Where are we headed as cinematographers? What is the future?
Where we’re headed, I don’t know, because we are only workers in the grand scheme of things. We are small, little dots in multinational corporations whose agendas might or might not coincide with our own agendas as human beings and social people. We have to be aware of when and why we compromise our intentions or ideas to do what others want us to do. And if we’re going to take their money, we have to do the best job possible with the best tools we have. Hopefully, in postproduction, the people who put their hands on our work will be artful. Hopefully, that artful person will be the cinematographer. The economics of that becomes a problem, and it is a struggle. It can be a good struggle or a negative struggle, but I think it’s going to be a good struggle.
Here are some photos Haskell sent for an article we did in 2013 about his using Angenieux Zoom lenses.