The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Editor's Note: Haskell Wexler, who died yesterday at age 93, was a great and groundbreaking filmmaker, as well as a social activist; when he wasn't shooting commercials and lavishly funded Hollywood features for other directors, he directed his own documentaries that drew attention to labor conflicts and the problems of the poor and disenfranchised in the United States and overseas. Wexler photographed some of the most visually influential features of the 1960s and '70s, including "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (winning the last Oscar given in the Academy's black-and-white only category); the super-glossy caper flick "The Thomas Crown Affair"; and "Bound For Glory (another Oscar)." The latter contains the first-ever shot in a Hollywood feature to be taken with a Steadicam, a fluid handheld camera that would go on to revolutionize production.
One of Wexler's most famous credits is a film on which he was not officially credited as cinematographer: Terrence Malick's 1978 "Days of Heaven," widely considered one of the most visually rapturous features of all time. The film won an Oscar for its credited director of photography, Nestor Almendros, but Almendros was actually not present for much of its production. Malick's intuitive (some would say counterintuitive) methods included improvising entire scenes in the moment, and confining the bulk of production to the so-called "magic hour" just before sunset, which put the production over schedule. When Almendros and his lead camera operator, John Bailey, had to leave the set to begin work on Francois Truffaut's "The Man Who Loved Women," he convinced Wexler to step in for him, then spent a week working with Wexler so that his footage would match what was already in the can.
Wexler ended up bringing a lot of his own loose, energetic, documentary-inspired touches to a drama that was otherwise consciously painterly, including jagged, unnerving handheld shots in opening steel mill confrontation, and elegant, gliding movements and startling trick shots (including a closeup taken from underwater) in a riverbank sequence near the end. He received an "additional photography by" credit even though by his count he'd shot more than half of it.
Wexler displayed the sort of visual versatility one should expect from a great director of photography, and could do everything from the glitzy, Madison Avenue-styled glamour shots of "The Thomas Crown Affair" to the saltwater-burnished fairytale images of Sayles' fable "The Secret of Roan Inish." But was clear that his heart lay in a more direct and unvarnished sort of look. Wexler's fondness for an immediate but still sumptuous brand of photography was evident in many of his best movies as a cinematographer, including Tony Richardson's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's funeral business satire "The Loved One"; Dennis Hopper's Los Angeles cops-and-gangs thriller, "Colors"; Hal Ashby's "Coming Home," about a disabled Vietnam veteran who becomes an activist, and John Sayles' "Matewan," about a bloody confrontation between striking coal miners and strike-breakers in 1920s Kentucky.
His inclinations could be seen in the the three fiction films that he directed as well as photographed—in particular 1969's "Medium Cool," starring Robert Forster as, of all things, a mercurial cameraman who quits his job photographing the lives of the poor when he discovers that the FBI is using his footage for evidence gathering, then goes off to cover the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Wexler put professional actors into real-life street scenes, some of them chaotic, and wove caught footage and semi-improvised drama into a seamless whole, perfecting the American version of Italian Neorealism that US filmmakers had been trying to master for a decade. The film's frank sexuality earned it an "X" rating. (Wexler also did uncredited camerawork on John Cassavetes' debut feature "Faces.")
Wexler directed 19 documentaries of varying lengths, all of which reflected his world view as a staunchly left-wing activist. They include 1963's "The Bus," about a group of black and white Civil Rights activists journeying to Washington, D.C.; 1971's "Brazil: A Report on Torture"; 1974's "Introduction to the Enemy," following Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's 1973 trip to North Vietnam while the war was still ongoing; 1976's "Underground," about the violent left-wing group Weather Underground; and "From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks," a filmed version of Ian Ruskin's one-man play about Communist dockworker and labor activist Harry Bridges.
Wexler funded these films with the money he made by photographing top-of-the-line TV ads and Hollywood features. Some of the latter were so forgettable that his participation in them seemed vaguely ironic (the silliest were probably "Three Fugitives" and "The Rich Man's Wife"). Wexler photographed other filmmamakers' politically committed documentaries at friend rates or as a favor, including 2003's "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friend but the Mountains," and "Bastards of the Party," which chronicles forty years' of Los Angeles gang warfare.
Wexler also worked to improve working conditions for overstressed and often sleep deprived crew members on film sets. In 2004, he joined with cinematographer Roderick E. Stevens to create 12 on12off, an organization that advocates for workdays of no longer than 12 hours on film and TV sets, to sharpen focus and reduce the possibility of on-set accidents caused by sleep deprivation. (The latter was one of Wexler's many pet subjects: see his 2006 documentary "Who Needs Sleep?").
Below you'll find an edited transcript of my 2013 EbertFest conversation with Wexler about his participation in "Days of Heaven." For a collection of remembrances and appreciations by filmmakers and RogerEbert.com contributors (including the site's publisher, Chaz Ebert), click here.-- Matt Zoller Seitz
A Conversation with Haskell Wexler about "Days of Heaven"
Matt Zoller Seitz: It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be able to do this Q&A with you. I guess the first thing we should talk about is the unusual (for the time) credit at the end of the film, the additional credit by Haskell Wexler, which is normally an acknowledgment that you came in and filled a few gaps. But I understand it was much more comprehensive than that. Can you give us a little bit of the back story about how you came to work on it?
Yes. The producer, Bert Schneider, called me in to see some footage that Nestor was shooting and he said that they were going way behind schedule and that Nestor had an appointment to go with Truffaut, so I’d better look at it because they were way behind. So the time came that I had to go up there …
There being Alberta? Was it in Canada that they shot it?
Yes. The other thing—I have to mention that Nestor was an old-time friend of mine, and he also had a certain philosophy of how to shoot through photography, sort of pure. In fact, what he said to me when I came to relieve him was, “Now remember, just use what’s available. Available light.” And when you shoot films—I said to him, “Nestor, what’s available on the truck?” He also said, “No diffusion.” He had an idea that if the camera were just there and photographed things as they were, that then it would be more honest. And of course, I don’t agree with that philosophy, but I do agree with Nestor. My assignment was to go up and maintain the kind of images, which were incredible to see, that he began.
And yet it might be a good point here to bring up the fact that you have a lot of experience as a documentary filmmaker, as someone who photographs life. And one of your landmark movies, "Medium Cool," was equal parts drama and documentary to some degree, wasn’t it? Looking at this movie tonight, I was thinking that in a way, it seems like it was created so a documentary could be made about it. So it seems like you could fid into that.
Well the imagery is Terry Malick. I mean, it’s not just Nestor and me. What you’re looking at all the time—Terry is a weird guy. I mean, he is—sort of ecologically spiritual. All the cuts to the animals, and even the way the actors are in relation to the scenes, to me, it’s not like regular actors. You’re sort of looking at them a lot.
They’re also wildlife, in a way.
But the main thing I want to say about Terry is what I also want to say about photography. What’s in front of the camera is not just what we do through the lens. I mean, Jack Fisk for example, the wardrobe, the grips, all that are part of what we do. And that’s not to make me sound like some generous guy, but actually, that’s what photography is. I don’t know how many of you read Roger’s review of the film, but how Roger reviewed the film is yes, like most reviewers, he talked about the actors, the photography, the different aspects of it.
But then he talked about the story, Terry’s story, and how those elements coalesced, or how Terry made them coalesce with the help of the editor.
The reason I want to make that point is that that’s what I like about what Roger says about films. After he adds all this up, he says, “What are they telling us? And how well do they tell us?” Then he filters that story of, “Is that the kind of story that fits with what I like or that moves me or interest me?”
That’s what made him so great and valuable, and I don’t think anybody here could help thinking about Roger as this movie was unfolding, not just because he liked this movie so much, but because I think this movie expresses his spirit. There’s something extremely generous about this movie and the way that it looks at people.
And he gets at that actually, you mentioned his review and I think it might be good to read a little piece of it: “Days of Heaven’s" great photography has also generated a mystery. The credit for cinematography goes to the Cuban Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film. "Days of Heaven" established him in America, where he went on to great success. Then there is a small credit at the end: ‘Additional Photography by Haskell Wexler.’ Wexler too, one of the greatest of all cinematographers.” Aw shucks! “That credit has always rankled him – “
He was my friend!
“And he once sent me a letter in which he described sitting in a theatre with a stopwatch to prove that more than half of the footage had been shot by him.”
“The reason he didn’t get top billing is a story of personal and studio politics, but the fact remains that between them, these two great cinematographers created a film whose looks remains unmistakably in the memory.”
I don’t think he just said that because you shot so often in Chicago.
Actually, Nestor and I and Bert Schneider, the producer, met and after I saw the film and saw how much I shot, I showed my regular Hollywood selfishness and thought I ought to share the Director of Photography credit with Nestor. And then Bert said, “Well, you already got the Academy Award, and the Academy will only have one credit for DP.” So then I got generous and I said, “Yeah, Nestor.”
And then afterwards, a little while after, because there was a little dispute, I realized that Nestor set the style, he and Terry set everything, everyone else that I talked about who presented what was in front of it was theirs, so that I think the way the titles are is correct. And I emphasize that because Nestor’s not here for himself, and he was a great, good guy, and I love him very much.
Is it possible now, even so many years ago, to look at the movie and say, “Oh yes, I did that shot, Nestor did this shot,” or does it all blur together for you at a certain point?
I kicked [my wife] Rita a couple of times during this screening because I remembered a couple of things that I like.
Are there particular sequences or individual shots [that are yours]? It feels seamless when you’re watching it, but obviously it was not.
I don’t know how many scenes are totally mine, but a lot of it—and actually what I’m most proud of, are part of scenes Nestor shot that were not completed or cuttable. One of the things that took so much time is when we were working in Canada, there’s a long magic hour where it’s neither night nor day, and the light is very interesting. And Nestor would actually have the actors rehearse in the bad light and they would wait hours. It’s one of the reasons they were behind schedule.
So you’d only shoot two or three hours a day that way.
Yeah, that’s the reality. That did take time, and that’s why they were way over schedule.
Can you talk a little bit about Terrence Malick’s working methods? I’ve heard stories that he goes into production with a detailed script, and the actors read it and say, “Oh my, this is completely, fully fleshed out and I can’t wait to do it,” and then they get out there and it’s something else entirely. I wonder if A that’s true, and B what "something else entirely" would mean?
For this film I didn’t have any talks with Terry, although I knew him. We both had the same agent when he was a writer and I wrote a big long treatment, and my agent Mike Medavoy said, “I’ve got this young writer who should work on your script.” So I hired Terry to write this script that took place in Brazil and he came back with a script that was absolutely not my script! But it was really good. No one ever made it.
What was the name of it?
It was called "Bernardo," it was about a Brazilian piano player involved in a pseudo-kidnapping.
How did you communicate with Malick on the set?
Terry does not talk much. I mean, Terry is the opposite of Hollywood. Mostly they’re always pointing, they’re talking. Nowadays they’re on the thing like this [mimes speaking into a walkie-talkie], but with Terry, the actors would come out, and there weren’t like regular scenes in regular dramatic films.
The only thing is, I know Terry discussed, when he knew I was going to come out here, to talk about "Days of Heaven" and I knew he gave it a thumbs up. So anything he doesn’t like about me, or residue over the stuff with Nestor, I think is pretty well gone.
When was the last time you saw the movie all the way through?
I looked at—after all, we made it  years ago, so I looked at it the night before last, and I recommend—I saw the Criterion thing and in the Criterion thing there’s long stuff with Nestor talking, with me, with [Almendros' lead cameraman] John Bailey. It’s a really good analysis of the film. and fits in very much with what Roger wrote in his very good review.
Let’s take a few questions from the audience.
Q: Hi. First of all, I’d like to say congratulations on what I think is the best movie of all time. I just want to ask specifically about the light in this movie. When you were working in magic hour, did you intend for every shot to come out like it was an 18th century oil piece? How did you know it was going to turn out as good as it ended up being? What was the intended effect and did you see the mysticism on set or did it reveal itself later?
When I shoot, I’m not conscious—I mean I do know paintings, I do look at them—but I respond to what’s in front of the camera, knowing it’s a period film, and I kept very close to Nestor’s ideas. There’s very little diffusion in the film, but there is playing with nature quite a bit, big bounce, white bounce to go back. One of the things Nestor did is two people—the sun is coming in in one directions, two people are talking to each other, OK? Normally, one person would be in backlight, but the other person would not be. Their face would get full. But since the backgrounds could be undifferentiated, both people could be speaking in backlight. You understand what I mean?
MZS: Not exactly. Could you spell it out for us a little more?
I want to shoot you [Matt] with light up the back of your head, just bouncing a little. So the camera’s right here, by me, and you look good. Now the camera wants to shoot me, but the sun’s coming from over there [from Matt] and it hits me right in the kisser, the front light. That might not look good for the mood of this film. So since we don’t know what’s behind us, we switch places. I sit there and you sit here, so that the camera’s –
So you always get that nice light?
If you don’t understand it, you’re not missing anything.
Were some of the close-ups of the actors in the movie added later? There are some moments in the film of these beautiful, intricate wide shots with a lot of equipment and a lot of people, and suddenly there’ll be a close-up of an actor that seems like it was shot on another day. Was there a little cheating going on in the movie?
Well often, we had a long lens isolating one actor.
What about the wildlife? Did people pick off shots of the wildlife just in between—the buffalo and the birds and all that?
Actually, I shot some but we had a guy named Ryan on 2nd Unit. Even when we were shooting major things, sometimes Terry would see a turkey or some birds or something and he’d be like, “Get that! Get that!”
He’d just call a halt to the regular scene?
The 2nd Unit did a lot of work. Also, the editor, you mention how long he took to edit. He was not somebody to just have a script and just put it in shape.
18 months to edit, I heard.
Q: Mr. Wexler, I have been a fan of your work since Sidney Poitier stepped off the train in "In the Heat of the Night," and my question is about trains. In your work, there’s always this sort of—trains look great in your films, and you use them in interesting ways, and I just wanted to ask you, is that something you personally like? Do you like trains, or do you just find them interesting from a photography perspective?
That’s interesting to me that you say that. In "Bound For Glory," for example, a film I got the Academy Award for, there’s a lot of trains. And also, I wanted to be a hobo. As a matter of fact—yeah!
In Chicago, behind where we lived, there were bums. I used to go back there and give them cans of beans my Mom gave me, and I heard the stories that they’d tell. when I graduated from high school, I ran away with the May Queen, and we rode the rods to California. That’s how I was the first one in the family to move to California, but I did it on a railway train.
If anyone here has not seen his film "Medium Cool," please do so immediately. Not only is it as beautiful as this movie, in a different way, I think there may be some autobiographical aspects to certain parts of it.
Q: Hi. I know a lot of actors describe their experience with Malick as frustrating, but I also know Emmanuel Lubezki, his most recent cinematographer, described working with him as life-changing. What was your experience with Malick on "Days of Heaven" like?
I really don’t think—I do know that Terry had an immense appreciation of images. But I’m not conscious enough about that to say anything about that.
Fair enough. Next question.
Q: Did you ever stage the locust scenes? I don’t think you used CG.
The locusts coming up—we had helicopters that dropped coffee beans, and they were dropped but we shot it in reverse. That’s how the locusts came up!
OK, next question.
Q: First of all, the cinematography is stunning especially when you compare it to other films of the time. The magic hour lighting, the backlight against the planes—I know you had a lot of trouble with the production crew who were used to the old bright lights and everything. What were some of the techniques you used in order to really achieve such a different look at that time?
I think you may have it in reverse. When I came up, the production crew was happy because there was a lot of dead time. I mean, it could be thought of as waiting for the best light, or thinking, or shooting some things which are not heavy storytelling. But actually it was not just me saying it now, but in the Criterion DVD, different people talk about it and discuss that. Basically what we did was, almost all the interiors that I did.
You know, if you’re shooting an interior and Nestor says “Just use available light,” then the light coming in a window in a scene that takes 20 minutes to shoot or wasn’t staged right in that place won’t be there! So naturally you take a light outside the window, simulate it, and it’ll be there at 8:00 at night! So it was that kind of thing. I don’t think I answered your question, but …
I just have to add something for the benefit of any cinematography geeks in the audience. You may or may not be familiar with the Steadicam, a stabilized handheld camera that gets these smooth and sometimes very elaborate shots. It’s the workhorse camera for high-end film production in this country, you see it used everywhere. First use of a Steadicam in a major motion picture was "Bound for Glory." Director of photography: Haskell Wexler.
And in this film, the little Hollywood scandal was that Panavision stole the Steadicam suspension, and put [the name] Panaflex on it! I called up Garrett Brown [the inventor of the Steadicam] and [told him]. [The camera we used on this film] was called the Panaflex! But there are some really good "Steadicam" shots in this film.
What are some of them?
When they walk out into the water, you notice the camera goes with them, and then it moves all the way around.
I don’t remember, but there are a couple other times.
Q: In the locust scene, can you talk about how difficult it was dealing with fire and filming that scene? It seems like it’d be dangerous and difficult to do.
It was very dangerous and all the people were extras. It was all OK but the wind changed and I think some people were burned, but not seriously. In all these movies you don’t realize that when there’s fire there’s incredible heat, it’s difficult to breathe and all those things. This was real fire, supplemented a little bit. Special effects did maintain wisps and spires that we were able to use the smoke on. But no, it was very dangerous and a couple tough things happened.
Were all the shots in the fire scene you, or was it a mix of you and Nestor?
Most of the big fire was Nestor’s. There were two other fire things but the crew was so happy. If you just use fire alone as a source of light it burns out if you want to see people. So with some simulated fire light you can—Stanley Kubrick did that when he lit candles and so forth. But most of the big things were all Nestor.
Q: Could you say something about the wheat fields? Were they grown just for this film?
I don’t know—I doubt it.
Next question? Do we have one? All right. Up there?
Q: This is one of my favorite films. I love the narration, but it always makes me think that it’s essentially a visual film, and the young girl connects it all. I’m really curious—did they take your film, the shots you took, and then placed in the narration? I think there’s so much silence there and the film is told visually. Can you talk about how they incorporated the narration with the shots you took?
Yes. You should read Roger’s review because at the time, I was not aware of it, but Roger’s review speaks of Linda Manz as being the main character of the film, because of how she looks at the film. She almost looks at it not like a narrator who’s there at the time, but who gives another layer to it.
I did have one beef with Terry at the time because they’re supposed to be from Chicago, and she has a heavy New York accent!
And so does [Gere]!
Here’s a quote from Roger’s review talking about the use of voiceover:
[Reading] “Against the backdrop, the story is told in a curious way. We do see key emotional moments between the three adult characters; Bill advises Abby to take the farmer’s offer, the farmer and Abby share moments together in which you realize she is beginning to love him, and Bill and the farmer share their elliptical exchanges in which neither is quite able to state the obvious. But all of their words together summed up do not equal the total of the words in the voiceover spoken so hauntingly by Linda Manz. She was 16 when the film was made, playing younger with a face that sometimes looks angular and plain, but at other times, especially in a shot where she is illuminated by firelight and surrounded by darkness, has a startling beauty. Her voice tells us everything we need to know about her character and is so particular and unusual that we almost think it tells us about the actress too. It is flat, resigned, emotionless, but some kind of quirky Eastern accent!”
She’s from the Lower East Side, though, so her accent is for real. I guess they could’ve made [the characters be] from New York and saved some trouble!
Q: As I was looking at this I was constantly reminded of Andrew Wyeth. Was that intentional?
If you want to compare my photography to any great painter, I love it!
[Laughter and applause]
Q: The first time you see the train and smoke coming across the prairie, I was thinking, “Somebody from Hogwarts stole that from you!”
There are a lot of younger directors—and I love this because I’m a huge Malick fan—who are stealing from Malick, learning from Malick, telling a story in a Malick-like way. And in fact, not only is there a new Malick movie in theatres, "To the Wonder"—and if you’ve seen it, you know I’m not crazy—"Spring Breakers" is extremely Malick-like in the way it tells its story, and that director’s first film, "Gummo," starred Linda Manz and had a very "Days of Heaven"-like narration! And Shane Carruth’s film "Upstream Color," has some very Malick-y moments.
I don’t know if "Malick-y" is a word or not, but let’s pretend it is.
Thank you so very much for sharing your time and experience with us.
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