Haskell Wexler: Cinematographer / Activist is Candid As Ever

Ed RampellCategories:Featured ArticlesMusic

Rock Cellar Magazine

Haskell Wexler
As one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, the Chicago-born Haskell Wexler has worked on close to 150 films and been the director of photography for many of the world’s greatest directors.
Wexler won Academy Awards for lensing Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and for Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory – the 1976 biography of musician/activist Woody Guthrie.
He was the DP for In the Heat of Night, which scored the Best Picture Oscar, and he also received Best Cinematographer nominations for Blaze, Matewan, and Best Picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  His filmography includes American Grafitti, The Conversation, Coming Home, Colors, No Nukes, and Mulholland Falls.
Wexler has also helmed and worked on a number of socially-conscious documentaries, including the 1974 Vietnam War documentary Introduction to the Enemy, starring Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.  He was the DP for Michael Moore’s only feature, 1995’s Canadian Bacon. and directed several features himself. One of those fiction films, Latino, has recently been released on DVD to mark the 25th anniversary of the Iran-Contra Scandal.
Haskell Wexler sat down with Rock Cellar Magazine to discuss his film career and his continued social activism.
Rock Cellar Magazine:  Arlo Guthrie is publicly supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement and Tom Morello sang his father’s This Land is Your Land at Occupy L.A.  What do you think Woody Guthrie would make of the occupy movement?
Haskell Wexler:  Woody Guthrie would be out there singing his songs.  He sang Pete Seeger’s The Banks Are Made of Marble:
“But the banks are made of marble, With a guard at every door, And the vaults are made of silver, That the workers sweated for.”
The last verse has to do with taking over the banks.  I was thinking of transcribing that music for Occupy Wall Street.
I knew Woody fairly well, mostly when he was about to ship out.  We were both Merchant seamen; we talked in the National Maritime Union hall.  After the war I’d see him at meetings, and was a friend of the family.

RCM:  What do you think of David Carradine’s portrayal of Woody in Bound for Glory?
HW:   He was wrong for that part.  I’d wanted Martin Sheen to play Woody – he was tight, little and full of energy.  David was cooled out by all kinds of drugs and was a withdrawn person.  Musically, he didn’t do right by Woody’s music.   There was a big dispute with the Guthrie family…
Director Hal Ashby’s drug problem made it difficult.  One night he and David decided I should be fired, because they were way behind time.  They were doping it up and said the guy doing second camera would take over from me.  Early in the morning I went to Hal, screamed at him, and told him “I’m going to be there, and stop making decisions by smoking and sucking it up your nose.”  The next day I told the cameraman on my camera to get the fuck off and I went to work, and nothing was said later about that.
Haskell Wexler & Hal Ashby on the set of Bound for GloryHaskell Wexler & Hal Ashby on the set of Bound for Glory
Arlo and Pete Seeger came out on location. I knew Pete back when he was in the Almanac Singers, before they became the Weavers.   It’s still a good picture and a part of American life I’m very proud to be part of.
RCM:  What’s your take on the Occupy movement?
HW:  I’ve been filming since it started in L.A., and it was ignored by the media at that time.  I brought a placard down there with a saying by Gandhi:
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
That’s been the history so far of the Occupy movement.  When people have problems with their mortgages and jobs, many feel they’re a failure – that they didn’t work hard enough or speak well enough.   That it’s their fault things are going so bad.  When they see their bodies right there (at occupations), they see we have something profoundly in common.   That force – which the system tried to laugh at.
Wexler at Occupy L.A. October 2011Wexler at Occupy L.A. October 2011
When it finally broke through and the movement was recognized, the media said they were “just a bunch of spoiled kids, dope smokers who don’t know what the hell they want.”  To demean it as something laughable; but that didn’t work for very long.  It’s still an ongoing struggle.  They’re trying to find out how to fight.  It’s very exciting times.
RCM:  Was your film Latino (1985) the first feature film about U.S. covert actions in Central America?  And didn’t you direct it before the Iran-Contra Scandal was even exposed?
HW:  That’s correct.  Preparing for the film, I met American soldiers who were based in Honduras and helping the Contras.  But I had no visible evidence of what was going on, because it was a secret war – mostly secret from the American people.
The Contras were still making inroads into Nicaragua… just generally terrorizing people. We were in Ocotal, Nicaragua – there’s a scene there where a big chicken truck blows up.  You see people running, some bloody, someone carries a child in her arms.  A week before, Ocotal was hit by the Contras who were based across the border in Honduras – with American advisers and soldiers – which is the basis of my script, and which was happening even as I shot.
“Latino” (1985) Directed by Haskell Wexler
RCM:  Cinema Libre Studio has released Latino on DVD to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Iran-Contra affair.  What are the lessons to be drawn from Contra-gate?
HW:  The Contras had a torture manual, printed in Spanish by the U.S. government.  When it was exposed, nothing was done or said.   The idea of accountability in Vietnam, Nicaragua and now Iraq – the media never has that in its quiver.   When you see time after time there is no possibility of Nuremburg [war crime trials], we’re doomed to have it repeated.
RCM:  Talk about the music you used in Latino.
HW:  Jackson Browne was helping me.  Little Steven (Van Zandt) wrote a song at the end. Greg Landau did some of the music; he’s a producer, especially with Latin American music.  George Lucas also helped us with the film.
RCM:  You directed Medium Cool –  the quintessential ’60s power to the people picture, shot against the backdrop of the riots during 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Can you speak about that a bit?
HW:  Onscreen, the demonstrators chant “The whole world is watching,” which I was pleased to know was chanted at Wall Street recently.  My thought regarding the ending of Medium Cool was about the relationship between fiction and reality.  In the sense that some other photographer could be shooting the same things I was shooting, and make a different story.  I wanted to say this is what is in my heart, this is my artistry.

RCM: Why the Marshall McLuhan-esque title?
HW:  Actually, one of the guys in the Black militant scene, suggested Marshall McLuhan, he said, “What about Medium Cool?”  So I said, “I don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan. I read some of the stuff, I didn’t understand it at all.  He was pretty smart and so I gave it that title.
RCM:  You’ve also worked on many documentaries, including Underground (about the violent radical protest group The Weather Underground).  What was that like?  
HW:  To work on Emile de Antonio’s film we had to undergo severe cloak and dagger and surveillance.  We had to be at a certain bench at a certain place, and when a red Volkswagen drove by we had to go to a payphone and call a certain number, etc.   They wanted to make sure we weren’t being followed.  It turns out they were close behind, but we lost them.

After the shooting and before anything broke, I lived in the Hollywood Hills and had helicopters follow me and my van.  Two guys in suits changed a tire in front of my house all day long. FBI came to my door and gave a subpoena to my wife.
RCM:  You were a cameraman for Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. clandestine operations against Cuba.  What was it like working for director Saul Landau?
HW:  I’ve made six or seven films with Saul.  He’s taken me on all of these incredible adventures.  We shot Subcomandante Marcos in Chiapas with the Zapatistas.  On Will the Real Terrorist Saul couldn’t take any pictures or sound when he visited one of the Cuban 5 (in prison), but he had him on the phone discussing what happened to him when he was arrested. So I reenacted when the FBI SWAT team apprehended him.
RCM:  Whether working on features such as the antiwar Coming Home with Jane Fonda or on documentaries, you’re one of Hollywood’s most (politically) outspoken filmmakers. Where did your radical sensibility come from?
HW:  I don’t know.  When I search myself carefully I do think it’s from my mother. (laughs)   I even feel strange saying that.  Most people, I believe, when they’re asked profound questions about their own persona are not really able to enunciate it, because it’s a combination of so many things.   But certainly influences early on that I felt from my mother.  I wouldn’t say she was “political” per se; she was sensitive to other people.  She always, when we had food, made sure I ate it all. She’d say, “Remember the starving Armenians.”
My mother let me know that we’re all connected. If some of us become more affluent it’s not because we’re better or even smarter people.  We have a responsibility to ourselves to be a good boy.
For info on the Latino and Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up DVDs see

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