Friends and Colleagues Remember Haskell Wexler
In his rich and impactful career, Haskell Wexler inspired, mentored and befriended scores of filmmakers, who, spurred by not only his artistic verve but also his unwavering commitment to social issues and his singular wit and wisdom, went on to make a difference in their own careers. We reached out to various friends and colleagues of Haskell Wexler to share their thoughts about the late filmmaker.
Although Joan Churchill (my wife) and Chris Burrill (a dear friend) knew Haskell for much longer, I finally met him around 20 years ago when asked to do sound for an interview he was shooting for a documentary. I arrived at the location, a dingy apartment building in Hollywood, expecting to see a crew setting up. There was no crew there. I was afraid I had the wrong address. There was a tall, elegant man in a black leather jacket standing next to a parked Jaguar. We spoke; it was Haskell. He opened the trunk of the Jag pulled out a Sony VX1000 and said, "Let's go."
I could hardly believe it. Here was perhaps the greatest cinematographer of his day, a man who changed the visual language of film. There was no crew, no lighting gear, no tripod and no pretense of any kind. It was the two of us on his mission to document something he felt was important. His documentary work was like that to the end: simple means, meaningful messages.
—Alan Barker, Sound Recordist
I was lucky enough to meet Haskell Wexler in 1971, when he hired me straight out of film school to translate and assistant edit a "special project."
He had just returned from Chile, where he had been interviewing Salvador Allende when a plane full of political prisoners from Brazil landed unexpectedly in Santiago—in trade for a political kidnapping. "We have plenty of film leftover, so let’s get going!," Haskell said to his partner, Saul Landau, and they proceeded to do an impromptu documentary of the Brazilians revealing and re-enacting the torture they suffered under the military dictatorship. Brazil: Report on Torture became one of the few records of what was happening there under the guise of anti-communism.
In 2014, the Brazilian Government gave Haskell a special honor recognizing his service and finally apologized for having instituted a ban on his travel there.
Haskell and I remained lifelong friends, and I never cringed when he hollered his high praise of my subsequent profession: "Hey! She’s a Lady Cameraman!"
His ability to see and address injustice at the drop of a hat will be greatly missed, as will his warmth, support and extreme generosity of spirit.
—Christine Burrill, Cinematographer
I first met Haskell when he called me out of the blue in 1969 and offered to help me prepare for a shoot (Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins). Haskell had heard the shoot was going to be entirely handheld and suggested I use a brace he had designed for the NPR camera. He also showed me how to build banks of photofloods very cheaply that we could erect inside the tent we were shooting in. Both were invaluable, but more than anything, I was amazed that he would call to offer his help in this way.
He was my mentor and friend from that time on.
Haskell was such a supportive and generous friend to so many. When he walked on a set, the word would go out, "Haskell’s on set!" And everyone would come up to him, from the crafts people on up. Each would have a story of how Haskell had been an influence or a help (often in material ways) for them or their families. He never turned down an opportunity to work on a documentary project and wouldn’t dream of charging people for his work. I remember the astonishment on the face of Ted Danson when I suggested Haskell would love to come and help us shoot. Same with Judy Chicago, and so many more. People would feel it was a visitation from God, but Haskell was always self-effacing and embarrassed by the attention. He would deflect this by always engaging people, asking them about themselves and their work. Often, this would result in a relationship that would develop into something long term, thus adding to his ever-widening circle of friends.
Haskell, to the end of his 93 years, never stopped being an activist. His feature credits read like the definitive history of American cinema, but he was always involved in which ranged from films about torture in Brazil (with Sol Landau), the Vietnam war (with Jane Fonda), the Weathermen Underground (with Emile diAntonio and Mary Lampson), dangers of nuclear proliferation, racism, world peace and his pet peeve: long working hours killing his union sisters and brothers. He always had his camera with him. That was how he interfaced with the world. And much of what he shot he would post on YouTube or on his personal blog. But most of all, Haskell was good fun. His energy and passion exceeded many who were half his age. He had a million limericks, most of them quite naughty, acquired in the Merchant Marines (where he had spent many days on a lifeboat after his ship was torpedoed). He would produce these ditties at the most inappropriate moments, to everyone’s delight or shock. He had tales to tell about every important moment in the last 80 years, usually from personal experience, usually because he was there with a camera.
As he said when accepting his first Oscar, "I hope we can use our art for peace and for love." It’s hard to lose our mentors and elders. We need them more than ever now.
—Joan Churchill, Cinematographer/Director
Working with Haskell Wexler was a predictably unique experience. He’d breeze in full of energy from his drive from Santa Barbara to LA. He loved cars and driving fast, and I love cars too, so my favorite first question was, What car did you drive in with today? So we’d talk about cars for a while. And then we’d get to work on his film Bus Riders’ Union.
Truthfully, I didn’t know how we were going to make a dramatic film out of people riding buses. There were no major characters. There was no single conflict. But Haskell was passionate about this story. And it was his passion, his deep empathy and respect for people struggling to make a living, riding buses for hours a day just to get to work and back, that inspired me to dig deeper and join him in his love for the people he fought for, and for the fight. And he loved the fight. He was fearless and almost mercurial when he followed his subjects into City Hall and to the various County Supervisors’ public meetings, melting into the scene, disappearing with his small camera, and catching the moments. THE moments. I started to see the story he was so dedicated to—it wasn’t in a script, it was in the people. It wasn’t just a conflict—it was their lives.
The last time I saw him, just a few weeks ago at an event in LA, we argued passionately about some political situation. I can’t remember what it was about. But I’m pretty sure he finally won me over. Again.
—Johanna Demetrakas, Director/Editor
Haskell seemed invincible. As Steven Pizzello, executive editor of American Cinematographer has written, "I was never so surprised to hear that a 93-year-old had passed on."
I worked with Haskell on the doc Who Needs Sleep? as editor and co-director. Haskell was already in his 80s, and still going strong. He was smart, passionate, ornery, stubborn, fierce, compassionate, kind. When he had an editing idea, he was fond of quoting Dennis Hopper: "Well, it works in my mind…" He had an amusing way of running out of hearing-aid batteries at work-in-progress screenings, just when the feedback would start…
Haskell was larger than life and totally present, accessible, ready to engage, argue, debate, complement, whatever was required. He seemed committed to authenticity. While we were working together, my dad’s health declined steeply, and Haskell offered his shoulder to cry on. He spoke of his relationships with his parents, and confided that he sometimes still “had conversations” with his mother—his way of continuing to relate to her. He allowed himself to be vulnerable, he collaborated, he cared—about social justice, about art, about relationships.
I found him to be a mix of modesty and ego—he initially didn’t want to put himself in Who Needs Sleep? But I was certain he was the logical storyteller; he had that unusual mix of fame and integrity that audiences would pay attention to, and when I found out that he, too, had once fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed his car (his beloved red El Camino), I coaxed, wheedled, and ultimately convinced him to put himself in the film, for the sake of the cause. It’s so much fun to see Haskell as provocateur and activist in the film.
He had the best stories ever, about filmmaking, the Hollywood machinery, unions, political movements. I wish I’d asked him even more. Who Needs Sleep? is a game-changer; Haskell may not have changed Hollywood’s exploitive and inhumane schedules yet, but the film is shown in film schools, and "12 on, 12 off" has become a standard of reform for humane and healthy filmmaking.
In his 90s, he was still working, still advocating for social justice. We’ve lost one of the greats, but he leaves so much inspiration behind—in his films, his cinematography, in his activism, and friendships and mentoring. As Haskell loved to say, "Take it easy, but take it"
—Lisa Leeman, Director
Haskell Wexler was my life-long friend and mentor.
Haskell was well known as the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory, but his incredible body of work making political documentary films over seven decades is less known.
For more than 30 years I’d been having conversations with Haskell about life, love, politics and cinema, and what it means to be a politically engaged documentary filmmaker. Every morning when Haskell woke up, he railed against the injustices in the world and what we have to do to end them. Earlier this year, I filmed one of our conversations over several days and turned it into a documentary called Rebel Citizen. In Rebel Citizen, he told some great stories: Did you know that in 1963 Haskell made The Bus, a film about a group of civil rights activists as they traveled overland from California to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech? This documentary has great resonance with today’s Black Lives Matter movement. He made a host of films about US intervention in Latin America, in Nicaragua and Brazil. These films profoundly affected how I chose to take artistic risks as a committed filmmaker.
His fearlessness was contagious: His film Underground about the radical Weather Underground fugitives (which he made with Emile Di Antonio and Mary Lampson), cost him his job as the cinematographer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when the FBI came to the set to investigate him (Bill Butler took over as cinematographer). Yet he never stopped making risky documentaries. Haskell was one of our most honored elders at 93 years old. He fought for social justice up until the day he died.
—Pamela Yates, Director