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Remembering Oscar-Winning Cinematographer Haskell Wexler


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He died Sunday at the age of 93. Wexler won Oscars for "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf" and "Bound For Glory," and was nominated for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Matewan." His other films include "Coming Home," "The Hoodlum Priest" and "In The Heat Of The Night." He directed the documentary "Introduction To The Enemy" about the trip Jane Fonda made to North Vietnam during the war. He wrote, directed and shot "Medium Cool," a feature film about a fictional TV news cameraman during the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Wexler filmed the movie during the convention and shot the protagonist in the middle of the real-life rioting. I spoke with Haskell Wexler in 1993. Film technology changed dramatically during Wexler's career. When he was starting out, he shot in black and white and had to use ingenuity when he didn't have the technology to get the shot he wanted.


HASKELL WEXLER: Well, when I started, we had just the camera and the person, mostly. And if you wanted to do a dolly shot, particularly working in Chicago where I began, you'd get in the back trunk of a car, and you'd have a friend drive the car, or you'd get in some kid's little wagon that he plays with and have someone pull that for dolly shots. Lighting was very primitive. And still it was really the way to learn because sometimes some of the modern technology is so extreme and so compartmentalized that we lose sight of exactly what we're doing.

GROSS: Is there a shot for a feature film that you did in a kid's wagon, getting pulled along?

WEXLER: I used to do that all the time. In "Virginia Woolf" I had a thing which the grips called the paraplegic which was a wheelchair thing that I had made up years before where I could stand on this bicycle-like device and be pushed down the hall, and then step off it with a handheld camera. I used it in a shot where Richard Burton goes down the hall to get a gun in a closet. And I wanted to get some excitement, and the hallway was too narrow for the dollies that they had at that time. So it was quite useful.

GROSS: You did one of the early helicopter shots for films. And I'm thinking of the last shot in the movie "Picnic," and you were the second unit cinematographer on that. Would you describe the shot and how you did it?

WEXLER: The helicopter was a U.S. Navy helicopter. There were no civilian helicopters available to film companies, so they just made some stuff out of two-by-four wood. And I would straddle a two-by-four out from the helicopter with a camera and what we call a high hat, which is a low metal stand. And we were shooting CinemaScope on that film, which is anamorphic, so the lens is very big, and of course the cameras in those days were very heavy. And I had a rope around my waist, and the rope was attached into the helicopter in case I fell off. And the shot was a shot that began with Kim Novak going out of a house and getting into a bus. Then it was supposed to go over the countryside and find a freight train on which Bill Holden was standing. And then after seeing a good look at the freight train, the camera was supposed to move up into the sky for the end credits.

GROSS: So let me get this straight. You were not in the helicopter but dangling outside of it on a two-by-four?

WEXLER: Yeah, we'd sit on it like on a horse, on a two-by-four, and holding onto the camera.

GROSS: Gee, what did it feel like? It must have been a real dizzying feeling.

WEXLER: Well, you know, the whole idea of fear when you're looking through the camera is a different phenomenon. I've been in wars and in riots and hung out of many helicopters in the early days. And there's a detachment that happens when you look through the camera. You're looking for the shot.

GROSS: You've done a lot of documentary work throughout your career. On your feature, "Medium Cool," which you wrote, directed and shot, you use documentary footage even though it was a fiction feature film. And part of the documentary footage that you used was of the organizing at the Chicago convention and the riots there. You were actually shooting during some tear gassing, and you got gassed while you were shooting.

WEXLER: Yes, I did, and so did some members of our crew. There was no actually stock footage in "Medium Cool." I wrote the script. I wrote the riots. And I integrated the actors in the film in the park during the demonstrations. But nowhere was it like we had stock footage and then later, in editing, integrated it into the film. It was all done at the time.

GROSS: So when you were shooting the demonstration that ended up getting tear gassed, and you got gassed yourself, I imagine you had to stop shooting then.

WEXLER: Yes, I had to stop shooting. People - I mean, I certainly didn't know that tear gas felt like it has - like it does. I don't know whether you've ever experienced it. But when you hear the word tear gas you think, well, your eyes will burn and that's it. But that whole feeling of your whole skin burning, that you can't breathe, you can't inhale, you feel suffocated - it's a very, very terrifying experience.

GROSS: One of the issues in "Medium Cool" is, does being behind the camera shooting the action remove you from the action and remove you from any responsibility for what happens? Was that a big issue for you, personally?

WEXLER: Yes, I think that the whole voyeuristic attitude of filmmakers or of me personally - of shooting documentaries and so forth - is an important issue. And it was an important issue to me, personally. And the whole question of when - when do you put the camera down or when do you keep shooting to get the shot. And a number of times in my life I've had that question hit me very hard. When I was in Vietnam with Jane Fonda, I was shooting a farmer in a field - just a pastoral scene. And while I was shooting him, an explosion occurred right - he blew up right in my lens, so to speak. And he had stepped on a landmine. And some people came out - they were like paramedics - came out from a little clinic and carried him in to this little house where they treated there him with herbs and things. And I was shooting all this time. And there was only one guy who helped to pull him. And I had to think whether I was going to keep shooting or help the guy. And so I kept shooting and then they put him in this little clinic, and I photographed through the window while they had to amputate his leg. And I felt very strange because I didn't - I felt I could have helped, but I didn't help. But then I also felt elated that I was getting a shot that would be important to the film.

GROSS: Looking back, are you sorry that you kept shooting instead of helping?

WEXLER: I try not to think about it because I rationalize out, well, how much help could you really be, you know? And maybe if people saw this, they'd realize the brutality of war and figure out there's got to be some better way than killing human beings who are just trying to farm a field.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1993 interview with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He died Sunday at the age of 93. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He died Sunday at age 93. Let's get back to our 1993 interview.


GROSS: You've done a lot of political documentaries, but you've also done hundreds of TV commercials. Is that a contradiction at all, especially considering that the documentaries have been for - I don't know how to put it - anti-imperialist (laughter) causes? You've done a lot of documentaries in Vietnam, Central America. So is there any conflict in your mind between, you know, selling your services for a lot of money to make commercials and then, you know, doing things probably at your own expense that were documentaries about politics?

WEXLER: Well, there is a contradiction in a sense. If you're making commercials which sell products which are unhealthy or which are unnecessary, I think that you are part of a system - I am part of a system which encourages people to buy things and do things which are not to their best interest. And to that extent you could say it was contradictory.

GROSS: Some of the many commercials that you shot over the years were for Marlboro cigarettes. You did a lot of the Marlboro Man campaign, right?

WEXLER: Oh. You...

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about getting - what? (Laughter). What were you going to say?

WEXLER: So you looked me up pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, we got your number. (Laughter). But I'm really interested, you know, since that became such an iconic commercial. And then it became so controversial afterwards because one of the Marlboro Men got cancer, lung cancer. So can you talk a little bit about creating the image, creating the icon?

WEXLER: Well, of course the general idea was dreamed up by the advertising agency and so my job was to realize that. And we down to Lubbock, Texas, usually and onto a ranch and we would pick cowboys who looked the part and photograph them under dramatic situations - rounding up wild horses or running through streams and then reaching in and taking a drag on a cigarette. Now, I have to - in my defense, I have the say that general knowledge of the deadly nature of cigarettes was not primarily in my mind and nor was it on these poor cowboys, who - many of whom who've died of emphysema since we were shooting.

GROSS: When you were younger, you joined the Merchant Marines. Why did you go to sea?

WEXLER: Well, it was patriotic, for one thing. It was just the beginning of World War II and my dad had been in the Navy, and I just think I preferred that. From my image of digging around in the mud like a grunt, I preferred fighting the war from ships.

GROSS: Now, a ship that you were on was torpedoed - I believe this was off the coast of Africa - and you were wounded, and you were on a lifeboat for 14 days with, I believe, 17 other men. Is that right? Do I have that right?

WEXLER: You - I don't know where you're reading all this stuff, but it's pretty accurate, yes. It was in 1942. I was on a ship called the Accelo(ph) coming back from the Red Sea and we were sunk off the coast of Africa by a German submarine. And I was in a lifeboat for 14 days and landed and lived with the Pondos in South Africa while - who took care of us and took care of me. I had some wound in my left leg.

GROSS: Just give me a sense of what it was like to be on that raft for 14 days. Were you sitting? Were you lying? Was there room for your whole body to stretch out? Were you in a lot of pain?

WEXLER: Well, I was - I think I was 19 and we were in a lifeboat, not in a raft and we were jammed in. The first couple of nights were difficult because there were heavy swells. And I had a thing like a bicycle pump which is a bilge pump-like thing to pump the water that was coming in the lifeboat, and I had one of the guys, a saloon messman, I asked him to hold the hose over the side because it had a curl in it, and I had to pump. And I'd pump with my right arm till it gave out and pumped with my left until it gave out. And then I noticed that he had collapsed and that the hose head was not going over the side of the lifeboat but back into the lifeboat. And I think that was the only time that I really felt like I wanted to give up. We had chief engineer, who - a guy named Finnegan (ph) who came back. He was an older guy and he came back because we needed chief engineers at that time. And he died on the boat, and another guy and I had to decide whether he was really dead. You know how in the movies they just sort of reach down and look at somebody and they say, oh, he's dead? Well, it's not that easy - at least, it wasn't for us. And so after putting things in front of his mouth and trying, we realized he was dead. And so a guy name Milton McCord (ph) and I had to dump him over the side, and that was a rough time because he was a good guy and it's the first I really was close to anyone dying.

GROSS: And you had to be the one to declare that he was dead, and you weren't even that certain.

WEXLER: Well, most - Milton McCord and I, the two guys in the boat who were about the strongest, in best conditions. A lot of the guys had swallowed a lot of oil and some of them had gotten shrapnel from when the torpedo went off. And so we were sort of in charge of the boat.

GROSS: Do you think that you had the courage to do certain things you might not have done if it wasn't for that experience?

WEXLER: I do. I think that it gave me a really strong feeling of my life force and a confidence in myself. I felt like I was a man. Before that point for some reason, I always felt I was a boy (laughter). In fact, they called me the baby on the ship 'cause I was the youngest guy on the ship. But I always felt that way. And then I felt that that experience, because of the responsible nature that I found I acted all during that traumatic time, that I felt that I was a man.

GROSS: Well, Haskell Wexler, I wish we had more time to talk. We're out of time. I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WEXLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Cinematographer Haskell Wexler died Sunday at the age of 93. Our interview was recorded in 1993. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews from 2015. Gloria Steinem reflects on the choices she made in her life, a life that has profoundly influenced women around the world. And Jeffrey Tambor talks about his Emmy award-winning performance as a transgender woman in the Amazon series, "Transparent." Season two is now on Amazon. I hope you'll join us. We'll close with Motorhead's "Ace Of Spades." The heavy metal band's lead singer and bassist, Lemmy Kilmister, died of cancer yesterday, just a few days after his 70th birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORHEAD SONG, "ACE OF SPADES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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