Wednesday, January 20, 2016


In honor of the great cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler, who passed away last month at the age of 93, enjoy highlights of one of his Cinematheque appearances from July 2009. He appeared for  a screening of Medium Cool (1969) and Coming Home (1978) at the Aero Theatre. Mr. Wexler spoke to the audience during intermission after Medium Cool in conversation with fellow cinematographer Richard Crudo. Following are highlights of the question-and-answer session, which largely focused on Medium Cool and Mr. Wexler’s career in general.

First, let me ask you a few questions. How did Medium Cool come together?

H.W.: Subterfuge!

Peter Bart was at Paramount and he knew that I was a good cameraman and knew I wanted to direct, and they had a picture—written by Conrad Hall’s friend, Jack Couffer—called Concrete Wilderness, about a young boy who discovered animals in the city—pigeons—and I went back to Chicago to do all of the shooting there (although the story had been set in New York). Once I was in Chicago I realized that my city had changed, it was different, so I wrote a different story. Actually I wrote it pretty much as you see it on the screen, and I just found all that [material] recently in my papers (the Concrete Wilderness story), and I called in to Peter Bart and asked, “Do you mind if I change the story?”…so I wrote the story and the script that I had envisioned. For the end—I thought that there would be some form of police action, pretty much because both political parties were denying the young; and there was the anti-war movement; the country was upset with the assassinations. Actually, I wrote a lot of it expecting black people to be [more] involved in it—that’s pretty much it. Of course, when the film was finished, they didn’t want to distribute it for a lot of reasons, including the Democratic party, Mayor Daley, the Gulf + Western Corporation. And it had to go through a lot of difficulties, and then when it was released, it had an X-rating.

I wish I could have recorded the ratings people when they decided to give it an-X rating. One of the things they said about the scene with Bob Forster and Marianna Hill—the nudity and everything—was that one of the guys said, “You can’t see much of her, but you see him running around with his thing jumping up and down,” and they also complained about the language….

R.C.: Is it true that during the scene where Forster is chasing the girl around the room naked that the camera crew also had to be naked as well? I read that somewhere.
H.W.: I was the camera crew! And it was a wide-angle lens. I asked Marianna Hill if she would mind taking her clothes off for this film and she agreed very quickly. As for Forster, all he said was, “You don’t understand, I’m from Rochester, N.Y.” I didn’t know what he meant by that—but then I went back there with him; he was a pretty “square” guy! 

In the love scene where Marianna Hill describes Forster as an egotistical self-centered touchy cameraman—my wife loves that line!

R.C.: So much of the movie has a documentary-like or almost a “found” feeling—the camera is just picking up something that’s absolutely happening one-time-only, for real. How much of it is actually documentary and how much of it was scripted or just improved? In so many spots it’s got a great, great quality….

H.W.: It’s just a mixture. Many of the people in front of the camera were not actors per se, but I knew a lot about them and spent time in uptown with them. I was just thinking [in a neighborhood scene] where you see all the kids, you see the way people live and …you would not see those people in a movie anywhere else. There was a kid—just a naked kid walking around, and I didn’t put that kid in the scene; he was just in the backyard and that’s how it happened….

R.C.: Was there ever any film in Forster’s character’s camera?

H.W.: I don’t remember, but I’m sure he thought there was!

R.C.: One more question. The birds, the film is full of the imagery of birds. Even in the background—photographs of birds and so forth.

H.W.: It was the idea of the peace dove. The background for all of this is that we had the military in Vietnam, and many people didn’t want to go to war and felt like we were lied into it…there was a division in our country which was pretty wide—you see this in Coming Home with the notion of what was “patriotic” and what was “unpatriotic.”

Questions from the Aero Audience

Audience Member: How do you feel about the relationship between the cameraman and his subject changing nowadays—what with digital cameras so prevalent and the fact that everybody is a cameraman of sorts?

H.W.: It’s hard for younger people to imagine a world where there were not a lot of cameras around. You see where I was shooting in this film, there were hardly any other cameras in the scenes. In the film, there’s the “Mondo Cane” scene when Marianna Hill talks about the point at which you stop becoming an observer and become the participant—whether you are watching the show or being a part of the show: This is a concept that’s very important to me.

Audience Member: What’s your favorite film and what’s your next film?

H.W.: I’m only making documentaries these days; there are not too many jobs for old cameramen in features. I don’t really have a favorite film, but this film, Medium Cool, is mostly mine because I directed it and I didn’t sleep much for weeks. I do want to encourage people to use the new tools to tell stories that may not be told now and share them with the world.

Audience Member: What do you like in cinema today that’s comparably groundbreaking?
H.W.: I think there’s tremendous amount of great work—but because it costs money to make any kind of film, really, you have to be able to have some thoughts and ideas and not just live through television and from what’s acceptable, and to try to make your life interesting and inspire yourself so that that inspiration can be reflected in your work, while you’re also earning a living doing it.

Audience Member: When John Cassavetes [dropped out of the film], how did that affect filming and budget—and, going back, how did you find Peter Bonerz and Marianna Hill? It’s interesting that Cassavetes walked away from the picture.

H.W.: Peter Bonerz was in an improvisational group—an offshoot of Second City, which was in Chicago, and I was lucky to have Peter because he was good with actors and even helped with directing Forster. I forgot how we cast Marianna Hill. Elia Kazan said that casting is 85 percent of directing, and in this film a lot of that was sheer luck.

Audience Member: About the soundtrack: how did you get all of the Mothers of Invention to participate?

H.W.: Frank Zappa was a friend of mine, and I had a deal with him, and I had shot a picture of his called Uncle Meat—a bizarre film that you might be able to find on Netflix [and which was subsequently screened at the Egyptian in August]. Mike Bloomfield, who did a lot of the music, was my cousin.

Audience Member: The scenes with Verna Bloom in the demonstration—were they real documentary footage or a mixture of real and staged, and was she in any danger?

H.W.: Verna was right in among the demonstrators—there’s a scene where the National Guard has cordoned off the park and nobody was supposed to leave the park, and I told Verna to try to get out of the park [for dramatic effect], so she went through a line of National Guard men and one guy was very polite—he looked her over a bit!—and let her out without any trouble, so that scene didn’t work out!

Audience Member: In the very last scene when Robert Forster is driving a station wagon and you see the reflection of trees in his windshield—was that a car mount?

H.W.: Ah, the reflection in the windshield! I got that idea from a Godard film called Weekend.