Roger Ebert Home Writers & Filmmakers Remember Haskell Wexler

A note from Chaz Ebert, Publisher:

My heart aches that we have lost one of our most legendary filmmakers, the Oscar-winning cinematographer and documentarian Haskell Wexler. My heart goes out to his wife, actress Rita Taggart; his children, Mark (who directed the frank documentary about his father, "Tell Them Who You Are"), Jeff and Kathy; and his extended family, including his sister, Joyce Issacs, and his nieces, actress Daryl Hannah and director Tanya Wexler ("Hysteria"), among others. He is preceded in death by his beloved brothers Jerry and Yale.

Haskell was revered as much for his social activism as he was for his film work, and was a tireless advocate for those who had no voice. He spoke truth to power whether he was advocating on behalf of shorter hours on film sets, as he did in his self-financed documentary "Who Needs Sleep" (which can be viewed in full here) or for safer work conditions on sets. He called the 2014 death of Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old assistant camera operator on "Midnight Rider," criminal negligence. 

In 1968, he shot one of his first political documentaries, "Medium Cool," in Chicago, and coincidentally was able to combine his fictional footage with footage of the actual demonstrations taking place during the Democratic National Convention. In 2012, he returned to Chicago with director Andy Davis ("The Fugitive") and Mike Gray to document protests against the G-8 Summit and NATO. It resulted in his documentary "Four Days In Chicago." 

One of his last big advocacy pushes was to warn the powers that be against going to war. Yet he was a war hero who survived two weeks in a lifeboat after his Merchant marine supply ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Indian Ocean on November 13, 1942. His wife Rita attributes his lifelong fight for justice and world peace to this experience. She said, "It gave him a sense of urgency to get things done. He still lives with this awareness of the fragility of life and the obligation one has to honor others." As a Pacifist he never tired of advocating for peace. 

Haskell was also rather shy. In one of the shortest acceptance speeches at an Academy Awards ceremony Haskell said when accepting the Oscar for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "I hope we can use our art for peace and for love."

Roger always wrote highly of Haskell's work, often noting (like in his 4-star review of "Bound for Glory") about how he expected such images to last with him a lifetime. In 2003, when Roger received a Special Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, Haskell was the one who presented him with the award. 

Two months ago in October, Haskell was healthy enough to attend the New York Film Festival's premiere of director Pamela Yates' film about him called "Rebel Citizen." Though usually wary of calling attention to himself rather than to his movies or his causes, he told me he was pleased with her film. He had battled cancer the last few years, but his long-time vegetarianism and healthy living helped him live a high quality life for a man over 90 years old. When we presented him with the Golden Thumb award at Ebertfest in 2013, he knelt on the floor to show us how to make best use of a new camera. His movements were as limber and graceful as a 20-year-old's.

On December 5, I had the privilege to be a co-presenter with Haskell at the International Documentary Association award show in LA. We presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Gordon Quinn on the 50th anniversary of Kartemquin Films. Haskell was in fine form and good spirits. He was pleased to be able to acknowledge a fellow Chicagoan who had also devoted his filmmaking career to social justice. Once toward the end of Studs Terkel's life I asked him who was around who still embodied the principles he held dear, Haskell Wexler was the first person on his list. 

Even at age 93 (he was born February 6, 1922), Haskell left us too soon. But he died with his boots on and with fire in his belly. He was working on another film, and on another anti-war message on his blog.

A collection of remembrances from contributors and filmmakers can be found below. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's obituary for Haskell Wexler, along with a transcript of their 2013 conversation about "Days of Heaven," click here.

Lexi Alexander, director of "Punisher: War Zone," CBS' "Supergirl"  

There probably isn’t a filmmaker who doesn’t admire Haskell Wexler’s amazing body of work. As a matter of fact, I just used one of his shots from "The Conversation" as a reference on the set of "Supergirl," in an effort to create tension with negative space. (Side note: waving reference shots from Maestros like Haskell Wexler around is a risky move in TV and not always welcome; I wouldn’t recommend new directors to do this unless they know the showrunner appreciates it.) 

But even more than for his artistic genius, Mr. Wexler earned my respect and gratitude for shooting the documentary "Who Needs Sleep," and for coming up with 12on/12off, a campaign to minimize the often inhumanely long hours crew members spend working on set before driving home exhausted and tired, thus risking their lives. He was an artistic genius, but more importantly, he was a really good man who cared about the safety of others.

Bobby Bukowski, cinematographer of "99 Homes," "Time Out of Mind"

What a generous spirit, he was. Just weeks ago, never having met, he called me out of the blue, informing me that he had just seen "Time Out of Mind" and "99 Homes" and was moved and thrilled by the films and their photography. "I'm talking about cinematography. That's cinematography." I was floored. It is clear that his heart was as huge as his talent, his spirit as open as his art. He found so many of us, tracked us down and for the moments we had his ear he sent us aloft. Our great master, letting us know his eyes and his heart were open to us. What more beautiful of a gift could he bestow upon us? I swim in it as in a sea of delight! The world is less without him. Long will you live in my heart and my eyes, Haskell. Thank you!!!

Guillermo Del Toro, director of "Pan's Labyrinth," "Crimson Peak"

Haskell was perennially young and forever committed to whatever cause needed him. He was anti-mainstream but capable of reaching large audiences if by default. He was a man—paraphrasing Brecht—that fought always for what was right and was thus indispensable. His loss feels harder when you realize how many real-world issues he tackled through his art and generosity.

Steve Erickson

The following is an excerpt from Steve Erickson's review of "Tell Them Who You Are," a 2004 documentary by Haskell's son Mark about his cinematographer father. The rest of the review can be found here.

Films don’t get any more oedipal than “Tell Them Who You Are,” a documentary about director/cinematographer Haskell Wexler made by his son Mark.

Haskell is a pioneer of cinema vérité, although, aspiring to objectivity, he prefers the term “direct cinema.” Even his two fictional films, “Medium Cool” and “Latino,” include strong documentary elements.

Mark’s approach could hardly be more different. His film is a first-person account of his relationship with his father, in which he airs the family’s dirty laundry from a profoundly subjective point of view.

Haskell’s career spans more than 50 years, showing a sense of the impact of the 1960s on its children. Although Haskell, now in his 80s, is too old to have been a baby boomer, the counterculture left its mark on him. His persistent radicalism seems principled and brave, but he expresses it abrasively, has trouble with intimacy and can’t relate to his own family without engaging in toxic, petty power struggles.

Donald Liebenson

Almost 20 years ago, I interviewed Haskell Wexler in his element; not on a film set, but working behind the scenes at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, which was being staged in Wexler’s (and mine) hometown. In 1968, another Democratic National Convention, one upstaged by anti-war protestors and steeped in what then Mayor Richard J. Daley termed “disorder,” was the tumultuous backdrop for Wexler’s directorial debut, the X-rated “Medium Cool.” What a difference almost three decades makes. This time, Wexler was an invited guest to the convention on assignment for “Nightline,” which commissioned him to explore the contrasts between the two conventions and its voices of protest. 

As passionate as Wexler was about shooting film (“I think I’d die if I couldn’t shoot,” he proclaimed in an interview for the Criterion Collection edition of “Medium Cool”), his real passion “was for human beings and justice and peace,” his son Jeff said in a statement released after his father’s death. When we spoke, Wexler was encouraged by “a tremendously overt attempt (on the part of the protestors) to be sane.” But he also bemoaned what he perceived as a strong sense of apathy, powerlessness and cynicism,” and he hoped to recapture 60s-era passion. "People in 1968 were alive and interested and ready to fight and argue for the democratic process," he told me. "There's nothing worse for democracy than when there is withdrawal.”

Craig D. Lindsey

While we'll always remember Haskell Wexler for shooting many a classic, trailblazing, cinematic work, we also shouldn't forget he lensed a few lousy flicks at the tail end of his career.

"Three Fugitives," "The Babe," Michael Moore's lone narrative effort "Canadian Bacon"—they all had Wexler as a cinematographer. Hell, in 1996, he was DP for the mediocre, one-two punch of "Mulholland Falls" and "The Rich Man's Wife." I bring all these forgettable films up as a reminder that even when Wexler worked on half-assed films, the work he did on them was anything but. No matter how much these films faltered in the writing or the acting or the direction, there was still a smooth, appreciative professionalism when you saw it laid out on the screen. I'm pretty sure you had Haskell to thank for that.  

Patrick Z. McGavin

What’s striking, in studying Wexler's work, is not just the directors he worked with, but the breadth, range and very different temperaments—aesthetically, personally or politically. One wonders about the collaboration between the celebrated progressive and the left’s bête noire—Elia Kazan, on the director’s most anguished and personal work, “America, America.” He also worked with key members of the New Hollywood Cinema, like George Lucas and Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick and some uncredited work on Francis Ford Coppola’s great “The Conversation.” He also did some work on John Cassavetes’s landmark “Faces,” arguably the greatest American film of its decade. Not to mention collaborations with Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison.

And then, not slowing down, his choices became even more off-beat and difficult to categorize, working with rising young figures like John Sayles or Ron Shelton (“Blaze”).

Lighting and shooting was his great gift to filmmaking. But if there’s a lament for an artist who lived until he was 93, it was that Wexler did not make more fiction films. Watching the Criterion Blu-ray of “Medium Cool” a couple of years ago, I was blown away by the combustible mélange of cinema vérité-documentary techniques interpolated with nonfiction material and the marked influence of Marshall McLuhan. As a physical reconstruction of a time, the movie remains urgent and deeply compelling.

Look out, Haskell, it’s real,” is the famous spontaneous line of that film, indicative of the particular conditions surrounding its making. There is a whole generation of Chicago political filmmakers and documentary artists—Andy Davis, Peter Gilbert, Loretta Smith, just naming a couple I know personally—who worked with him or studied with them. He found time always for young filmmakers or those working on difficult, personal documentaries whose production history lasted years. He never lost his enthusiasm. He was a visual artist who gave freely of himself. Like another canonical figure of Chicago, Augie March, he touched all sides.

Nell Minow

Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” In the middle of a feature film, we heard a member of the crew speaking to the director about real-life danger surrounding them as they filmed. Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” exploded the lines between fiction and reality, between form and content, between a movie and the news. No one remembers the storyline of “Medium Cool,” something about a cameraman. But the idea that he filmed in the middle of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, letting events no one could have predicted influence and lead the story was thrilling. And, even in that chaotic era of smashed boundaries throughout every part of the culture, Wexler’s film had a jolt of electric revolutionary fury that inspired a generation of filmmakers.

Wexler’s cinematography in films like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Bound for Glory,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” showed his remarkable range and understanding of time, place and mood. His son Mark Wexler’s documentary about him, “Tell Them Who You Are,” shows a complicated and often challenging man. The scene where Wexler tries to direct his son’s placement of the light and the camera shows the strains in their relationship. But it also shows us the artist who cared more than anything else about getting the shot just right.

Jana Monji

This morning, I re-watched the 1966 film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." So much has changed since I first saw it that emotionally it resounds more than before and I've also gained a greater appreciation for light and framing.

The late Haskell Wexler won an Oscar in the Black-and-White Cinematography category. The category was eliminated, making this the last film to win. Despite the ugliness of the story and even Elizabeth Taylor's Oscar-winning performance as the vulgar Martha, if you look at the lighting and the composition, you only see beauty.

Some black and white films streamline and avoid clutter to keep our attention on the action. Not so in this film. We see what we need to see and the light alternately caresses and obscures.

Even with all the new technology, I watch recent films where the shaky camera and moments of blurriness seem like unintentional sloppiness. There is not a moment in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" when you feel that the focus goes out and snaps back in due to poor quality control.

In "Virginia Woolf," George kills an imaginary son with an imaginary telegram. Wexler will live on in the imaginary world he recorded for Edward Albee's play about the bitter marriage between Martha and George. Albee wrote a portrait of a marriage, but Wexler gives us a master's lesson in portraiture.

Steven Pizzello, executive editor of "American Cinematographer"

I feel compelled to post a very fond farewell to my fiery friend Haskell Wexler, ASC, a true icon who always stood by his core principles—politically and artistically. Haskell seemed to recognize that I appreciated and respected his rabble-rousing, and he always gave me a sly little wink when he was winding someone up—or pretending he couldn't hear them by conspicuously adjusting his hearing aid. (In fact, he often COULD hear them, but probably figured that fiddling with his earpiece was more tactful than responding to whatever shinola they were trying to sell.) Haskell's behind-the-camera credentials speak for themselves, but we'll soon be giving him a full, Viking-style farewell in the pages of American Cinematographer. 

Recently I spent a good deal of time interacting with Haskell while preparing a Camerimage tribute to his lifelong blood brother Conrad Hall, and he seemed as spirited as ever; he was in his usual state of high dudgeon, lambasting long hours, Donald Trump and every other sociopolitical injustice he'd sniffed in the wind. I'm going to miss sitting next to him at board meetings, where was a wary presence until he inevitably raised his hand to address some contentious topic or point of order. He and Connie both had the "built-in, shock-proof shit detector" Hemingway recommended for writers (and, in my view, all honest artists), and he applied it to his entire body of work with legendary effect. He literally embodied the term "piss and vinegar," and I can honestly say I was never so surprised to hear that a 93-year-old had passed on. 

The industry will sorely miss him, and I hope others will step up to continue his crusade against the debilitating impact of long working hours—a crucial and very worthy cause. I've heard even Haskell's sworn enemies concede that they admired his obstinate stance on moral issues, so they clearly recognized his balls even as they were bitching about his philosophical positions. I admire anyone who stands up for what he or she truly believes, and Haskell had that quality in spades. Hopefully he's already bellying up to the Hereafter Bar, elbow to elbow with Connie and Billy Fraker. So long, man—you've earned the right to rest in peace after fighting the good fight for so many years. Here's a link to the initial "In Memoriam" we've published on the ASC website, but stay tuned for more reflections, reminiscences and a full analysis of his contributions to both the documentary and cinema disciplines.

Michael Polish, co-writer & co-director of "Northfork"

Was it ironic that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" played last night on AMC? I remarked about Haskell's coverage of a group of actors. The different size close-ups blend with the personalities of each character. 

I met Haskell a couple of times through Daryl Hannah, (Haskell's niece). He was a kind man—I recall watching a Chicago Bulls basketball game at Daryl's house in Santa Monica. While the emotions of the game swept the room, I could sense Haskell watched the game through a different lens—he was viewing something we couldn't see. I was curious, and he just smiled. Haskell didn't say anything. I believe he appreciated the gift of seeing a situation.

Jessica Ritchey

What movies have lost in slowly abandoning opening credit sequences can be keenly felt by watching the one for Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night." Shot by the late Haskell Wexler, “Night’s” credit sequence is a masterclass in visual clues and textures setting you up for the story you’re about to see.

The first images are abstract points of light, an effect Wexler achieved by shooting through a piece of screen, that coalesce into the lights of a train. This will be a detective story and already the audience is being tipped into to thinking in terms of seemingly unconnected bits of data that will reveal themselves to be interconnected parts of a larger pattern. The red train rolls on, the boldest bit of color against the nighttime gloom. It passes a small town where the shadows seem to hang heavy in the air, the summer heat turning them deep midnight blue. The train passes a sign, “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE TOWN OF SPARTA, MISSISSIPPI. WELCOME!” But a note of unease is felt. Maybe it’s the grime on the sign, maybe it’s how in the darkness the red of “WELCOME!” has taken on the shade of dried blood. But the audience knows not to trust that sign. There will be secrets in Sparta. Ones it will not admit to outsiders, or even itself. The train rolls to a stop at a tiny local station. A figure who all we see of him are his legs steps out. He’s clad in grey slacks and good shoes, and the unease of his walk toward the station suggest he’s none too thrilled about being there. He walks in, and the last image is a little dog watching him with curiosity. He’s clearly enough of an outsider that even the local strays pick up on it.

It’s a terrific collaborative effort of script, direction, and Ray Charles’ magnificent title tune, but Wexler’s photography makes it all take wing. Combining the deep shadows of film noir with the primary colors of the mid-sixties Wexler creates a canvas for a murder mystery whose visuals can reference everything from Southern Gothic to the cleanly shot police procedurals then on television. It gives the film a startlingly modern feel. None more so when we finally meet that outsider, a Philadelphia detective played by Sidney Poiter. Wexler detested how other cinematographers didn’t bother to learn how to shoot actors of color properly. Either they would over light them or leave them drowning in shadows. Wexler shoots Poitier like a movie star, and it’s still undeniably radical to realize that he is supposed to be the audience identification figure. He’s starts out knowing as much about the case as we do and we follow his piecing it together with increasing appreciation, and apprehension for his safety.

“In the Heat of the Night” isn’t a true neo-noir, there’s still a chance for justice of a sort in this story. But it’s undeniably a story about people being harmed by systems bigger and more malevolent than themselves. Wexler’s genius lied in understanding that malevolence might just as easy be hiding in plain sight in a shining, scrubbed clean plantation house as in the shadows at the edge of town.

Peter Sobczynski

The only trouble with sitting down to write a brief appreciation of the career of the late Haskell Wexler is that there are so many things about him deserving of celebration that it's hard to know in which order to mention them. As a cinematographer, he was simply one of the greatest practitioners of that particular art that the world of cinema has ever been blessed with—his contributions to such films as “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Conversation,” “Bound for Glory,” “Coming Home” and “Days of Heaven” helped make them into the classics that they became (and earned him Oscars for “Virginia Woolf” and “Bound for Glory”). He could effortlessly move back and forth between slick commercial entertainments, like “The Man Who Loved Women” and “Three Fugitives,” to the smaller-scale dramas of frequent collaborator John Sayles, to documentaries and concert films. 

As a director, he made one of the great first feature films with 1968’s “Medium Cool,” a mix of fact and fiction about the gradual politicization of a formerly blasé TV news reporter (Robert Forster) that found him shooting literally in the middle of the riots that befell that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Still one of the most genuinely radical feature films to ever come out of a major studio, one can only imagine what the reaction of the higher-ups at Paramount Pictures was when they encountered the finished film for the first time.) 

Wexler was also a tireless promoter of progressive social and political causes, even at times when such outspokenness was not considered to be a smart move for anyone wanting to get ahead in Hollywood. There was more to him than can adequately be summed up in a mere paragraph so my recommendation for anyone wanting to know more about Wexler is to look up “Tell Them Who You Are,” a wonderful 2004 documentary about him directed by his son, Mark Wexler, that saw him looking over his career and life without apologies or kid gloves, and then check out some of the films that he shot over the years. 

While watching these films, be prepared to come to the realization that with the shift to digital cinema, in which virtually any visual idea can be expressed with the help of computers, and the increasingly timid nature of the film industry as a whole, we will likely never see the likes of Haskell Wexler, either as an artist or as a person, again. Movie lovers around the world were lucky to have him for the time that we did.

Scout Tafoya

Haskell Wexler saw the future. He was as radical as you could be and still call Hollywood home. He was tapped into the underground, saw two steps ahead, and still cashed Hollywood’s paychecks. He believed in the tangibility of things, the stability of movements and objects, and was fascinated when things began to waver. He did uncredited work on "Days of Heaven," "Faces" and "The Conversation," all films about people turning away from society, rules and regulations. Heroes pull away from capitalism, law enforcement, marriage, right and wrong, and try to find something resembling stability in a nether region that straight white people were only just learning existed at all. He gave us the ultimate statement on mistrusting the official story, of turning your back on what you know, in "Medium Cool," his debut and one of his rare fiction features; It was too out there for Hollywood. He’d direct hard-hitting documentaries from then on, but that bizarre hybrid wouldn’t have studio backing ever again. Watch the 1968 Democratic national convention explode in front of his heroes. He never seems lucky to have caught the events. His camera’s certainty makes it seem as though he knew this outcome was inevitable. America could not exist between the broken polls of the buttoned up conservative movement and the thunderous progressive destruction of the emerging currents of the left. Every piece of American identity was being explored and Wexler wanted all of it on film. Feminism, black power, communism, diaspora communities, sex, violence and unrest. That was the world as he knew it.

He responded in kind. If America couldn’t handle freak art like "Medium Cool" (it would prove time and again that it couldn’t), then he would provide a stable environment for real artists to say something they could understand. Hal Ashby called him his conscience. He was the backbone of liberal American images from the mid 60s to the 90s. Think about "In The Heat of the Night," a too-obvious script given tactile sensitivity by Wexler’s stillness. Look at the sweat on everyone’s brow, the nervous light reflecting on everyone’s face, bringing their inner turmoil out into the open. He’s as calm and observant as Sidney Poitier’s sleuth. Lefties like Ashby, John Sayles, Dennis Hopper and Milos Forman relied on him to keep their feet on the ground. He made sure they spoke clearly, that their action wouldn’t lose anyone in the front or back rows. He was their diction coach. If he didn’t have the signature look of peers Gordon Willis or Vilmos Zsigmond, he had posture and poise. He would prepare for a better future by giving progressives a steady hand. Think about the now-famous hybrid shot in "Bound For Glory." A crane brings him down into a crowd of people and he gently steps off and follows David Carradine’s Woody Guthrie through a crowd. He proved that no movement or shot had to be seen as impossible. If you had a message worth saying, he would find a way. That was what he did all his life. One of his first gigs was a tech under the great James Wong Howe on the underrated Josh Logan film "Picnic." The last shot follows a bus and a train, neck and neck on their way out of a one-horse town, towards a brighter future anywhere but there. Howe loaded his heavy camera into a helicopter and Wexler grabbed it and hung out of the craft to get the shot. He’d do anything for his art, because he only made art that he knew might make a difference. His work changed things for the better and we need more like it.

Pablo Villaça

I could write volumes about the magnificent work Wexler did as a cinematographer. I could write entire tomes about his versatility and his contributions to the history of cinema. The man was—IS—a legend.

Instead, I'll simply thank him for one of his less known works as a documentary filmmaker: "Brazil: A Report on Torture." Co-directed by Saul Landau (what a team), that film helped to shine a light on the brutal, inhumane and systematic torture of Brazilians during the military dictatorship. In 1968, the military had introduced the infamous AI-5 (Institutional Act 5), which basically ceased all free political activity in Brazil (four years after the coup) and gave them carte blanche to arrest, torture and kill anyone who opposed the regime. So, it's amazing that only three years after that, Wexler and Landau realized the importance of denouncing what was happening in Brazil, interviewing many of those who had just escaped from the military's claws. (Some of those interviewed in the film ended up killing themselves years later; their bodies had found freedom, but their minds were stuck in the torture chambers.)

Haskell Wexler wasn't just a superb filmmaker; he was a sensitive human being, one who understood the concept of empathy and how much it informed who we are as a species.  

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