Truth is Fiction: The Work of Haskell Wexler, Part 1

Movie audiences of the ’60s and’70s were privy to a group of auteurs that pushed the boundaries of cinematic form and content. Just as post-WWII Hollywood focused on docu-dramas, psychological noir and social conscious to reflect growing American unrest so did the filmmakers of the Vietnam Era. Added to this were concerns of disenchanted youth and the role of the media. Influenced by the New Wave, they searched for a new realism that reflected reality and moved beyond the spectacle pictures of the studio system.

Cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler was key to the stylistic development of this movement. Among his credits are America, America (1969), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Faces (1968), Medium Cool (1969), American Graffiti (1973), The Conversation (1974), Days of Heaven (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1977). His work in cinema verité brought a new style to Hollywood that attempted the wedding of documentary and feature. A new realism, a sense of being there was instilled into features. Enhanced by naturalist Method acting and existential narratives, Wexler’s filmmaking style blurred the lines between truth and fiction.

Wexler’s career as a documentary filmmaker began in the late ’50s. Having dual interests in film and social issues, he sought to bring forth the true nature of people and their predicaments. A man of paradox, he was heavily engaged in bouts of struggle for the lower classes while driving in around in classic cars and living a playboy lifestyle. In the early ’50s he led a protest against working and wage conditions at his father’s factory. A few years later, his father bought him a studio and became his business partner.

Wexler’s first film, A Half Century with Cotton, examined the family and social life on a cotton farm. While the film received some praise, the owner of the farm was upset with the finished product. He had thought Wexler was going to be filming the cotton process, with a special focus on some large harvesters he had recently bought. Wexler was forced to use the documentary’s profits for reshoots. In addition, he was pressured to hire union workers, something he had originally wished to forgo. The unions would continue to hound him for the rest of career, as Wexler would often attempt to skirt the rules while shooting quickly with a skeleton crew on low budget projects.

After Cotton’s financial loss, Wexler was forced to close his studio. He continued to work on industrial and social documentaries in his hometown of Chicago, although he was forced to make commercials to pay the rent (a recurring theme throughout his career). His documentaries began to develop a verité style, popularized by Frederick Wiseman in such works as Titicut Follies and Warrendale. In these films, the presence of the camera displays guard and prisoner, principal and student, stripped down to bare relationships of force and will. The reflection renders a societal framework, based on power and obedience. Verité required a sparse crew, the use of available light, and a handheld camera style. The attempt is to capture people acting naturally, as if the camera is not there.

Verité is based on long cuts, letting things unfold. Whereas Hollywood features would often cut on a dramatic moment, verité—and most documentaries after—keep rolling. Even when things seemed to have stopped, the camera stays on to record the subjects’ reactions and emotions, the catharsis of the piece. As Wexler notes in an interview with Film Quarterly (Vol. 21, No. 3), “you would see that change happening, and then something would start again. When you get to that moment, I don’t think there is anything in films that I have seen that can match it. You never know what is going to happen. So by the nature of it, you shoot a lot and hope that your instincts and their instincts take you to the right place.” It’s this unpredictability, of waiting for the drama to unfold, which holds interest for Wexler and other documentarians. The precedence of this technique shifted to a style of longer takes that focus on character. The emphasis of features via verité became actors working their way through reaction and emotion.

Wexler’s documentary The Bus presents verité as process and product. It follows a group of African-Americans on a road trip to a civil rights march in Washington. Initially, the people featured almost appear to acknowledge the camera. They are self-conscious—aware they are being filmed. In general, whenever there is a camera, people are on; they feel a need to perform. After a while the need withers. They begin to ignore the camera, move freely, act naturally. The camera is just a fly buzzing around, a minor annoyance that fades into the background.

Widening One’s Perception of Others

In addition to social causes, Wexler was interested in psychology. Several of his documentaries attempt to widen one’s perceptions of others. The Case Officer follows the case of John Stockwell, a CIA officer who was leaving the agency. Stockwell wanted his story on tape so he would not be killed. The film serves a document to the Agency and its no hold bars effect on its employees. The Swine Flue Case examined a fraud perpetuated about flu vaccine in the early 1980s. Dr. Tony Morris was originally held as being responsible and was fired for his purported involvement. The process of filmmaking discovered otherwise and ultimately vindicated him.

The use of natural and available lighting was a big part of Wexler’s repertoire. Hollywood had become accustomed to elaborate lighting processes, even for outdoor shoots. The resulting polish marked features as fantasy and illusion. There was little visual connection with real subjects and locations. Working with director Irvin Kershner on projects such as Stakeout on Dope Street, Hoodlum Priest and The Face in the Rain, Wexler grew adept at the use of natural light in addition to the use of handheld camera. Kershner, like Wexler, had a background in documentaries; together, they used what they knew. Eventually, the use of professional actors, more elaborate lighting set-ups and higher-end cameras allowed these small films to appear closer to Hollywood quality. Initially, however, the fiction looked like reality; what was scripted appeared as a verité doc.

Quick set-ups and small spaces allow for little to no lighting rigs. To avoid bland imagery, it became necessary for the cinematographer to understand the possibilities of what was present. Unlike many other directors of photography, Wexler rarely uses lighting ratios or footcandles, instead relying on what his eye tells him. By building upon the existing beauty of (and by developing faster cameras with large apertures) he was able to get a wide range of lighting tones that enhanced the subject’s native setting. This attracted Hollywood execs looking for an answer to the demands of a changing audience. The use of reality-based lighting became a trend over the next two decades, and continues to be used on many independent and realist features.

Shooting off the cuff with Kershner also required Wexler to be adept with a handheld camera. As Wexler notes in Film Quarterly, “[T]here is a point where impromptu improvisation is good, and a point where it begins to hurt.” In a documentary, it often becomes necessary to get a particular shot; it is a tool to use for practical purposes. In a feature, it needs to be crucial to the psychology of the characters and the story being told. The rush of shaky-cam and found-footage films over the past decade illustrate the benefits and hindrances of shooting hand-held. Form needs to be in service of the content or the needs of the filmmakers; it cannot exist purely for stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Wexler’s creative philosophy is based on learning through process. Documentary is not just show and tell; if something is too forcefully presented, it loses its validity. In Dennis Schaeler’s Masters of Light, Weskell discusses the importance of an open-minded viewpoint: “If you decide to do a documentary on a certain subject and have preconceived notions about the conclusions of that subject and one tries to impose those views on the subject, then the film will suffer. One part of a documentary is learning.” Even though the final product is a fixed medium, it is the improvisational process and the ability to review and rewatch film that allows its creators and viewers to come to new understandings. Film and television have the ability to influence, change habits and behaviors. Moving to Hollywood, Weskell hoped to apply this philosophy to features.

Wexler’s first studio feature as director of photography was Elia Kazan’s America, America. An intensely personal film for Kazan, it composes a realist account of an immigrant’s journey to the States. Wexler tread lightly, using restraint. His job was to make sure the material was respectable and not exhibitionist. He used a handheld camera in a couple of sequences, but mostly stuck with what he believed were Hollywood conventions accented by natural lighting. Becoming accustomed to the new system put a lot of stress on the cinematographer. To relax and understand his environment, he recorded extras in wardrobe standing around between takes. Unaware they were being filmed, he was able to pick up their individual nuances. When reviewed, it provided a distinguished amount of authenticity. The footage eventually made its way into the final film when it was used to show immigrants waiting at Ellis Island.

Wexler used a similar technique to understand the psychology of a crowd in The Thomas Crown Affair. Using hidden cameras, Wexler and director Norman Jewison filmed armed robbers exiting a bank heist. Repeated several times they were able to observe the reactions of the crowd—actually a lack of reaction, as many pedestrians seemed either to not notice or disregard the armed men. Unfortunately—do to a lack of obtaining releases and guild issues—they were unable to use the footage in the final film. It did however influence the final shooting of the scene, determining how the situation could unfold in a realistic manner.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was Wexler’s largest challenge up to that point. Coming in after the original DP had left, he had a lot of ground to make up. He also had the unenviable task of making Elizabeth Taylor appear ugly. Wexler was able to overcome this by working closely with first-time film director Mike Nichols and gaffer Frank Flanagan: “photography is a difficult thing to discuss. The only way is for a cameraman and the director to see a lot of films together. Then they have a point of reference.” Wexler had to quickly adjust to the Hollywood machine, shooting in sequence, establishing and rebuilding large lighting setups, matching frames and compositions days later down to the footcandle. Despite the intense studio production, he was able to experiment. Implementing some handheld footage captured the characters in a free, naturalistic manner that reflected the shaky psychology of a tumultuous marriage. However, the earlier freedom of documentary-style filmmaking was becoming rigorously structured. The necessities of illusion began to warp the verité principals.

The Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory, used another technique that became popular during early 70s. Flashing essentially involved pushing the film negative with more light in order to desaturate it. Here Wexler has flashed nearly the whole film. The technique helped soften shadows, allowing for a washed out look that reflected Guthrie’s upbringing in middle America. In addition, the cinematographer diffused the image with dust, smoke silk screens and backlight to obtain the weathered look of the dustbowl. Throughout the film, Wexler also used various techniques to pastel the colors. The film starts with earth tones that increase in saturation and variety as Guthrie journeys to the California coast. Here, Wexler also incorporated the “between take” documentary method with extras that he used on America, America. The composite result is clearly a case of illusion based on a sense of memory, character psychology and historical interpretation.

Throughout the sixties and seventies Wexler worked on several critically acclaimed films, honing his style, receiving awards and making a reputation for himself, both good and bad. He claims to have directed the opening sequence for In the Heat of the Night, setting the tone of quiet humidity, sex and authority that permeates the small southern town. Of the film, Wexler noted in Film Quarterly that other than the opening, the making was “far more interesting than the film itself, more complex, more revealing about the characters.” Even in features, the process revealed more than what would ever end up on screen.

On American Graffiti, Wexler implemented night for night shooting, something rarely done at the time. He used large floods to mimic headlights and moonlight, attempting to get across that the activity on screen was really happening at night. Truth, even in so minor a detail, was important to Lucas’ nostalgia. A car aficionado, he also shot a lot of the exterior and interior car shots, using hidden lights and floods to provide the illusion of movement. He used flashing to mimic the glare of passing headlights. His experience with low-level natural light contributed to the Oscar winning cinematography for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

However, he did not receive recognition, something that embittered him to the Hollywood process (Wexler claims more than half the shots in the film are his—but he claims a lot of things). He worked on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Conversation, but was fired from both jobs. Having been a documentary director, Wexler liked to move fast and hated waiting around. He would shoot things quickly, then start shooting other script elements, ahead of schedule and without the director. Making the director seem incompetent, stating that you could do a better job, did not endear him to the Hollywood brass.

Wexler’s documentary philosophy influenced feature filmmaking through the Vietnam era, helping to popularize techniques such as the hand-held camera, natural lighting, and flashing. The verité style blended reality and fiction, creating a new method helping audiences to identify with characters on screen. Unfortunately, as with most good things, Hollywood has a tendency to popularize these elements and dilute them. In the case of verité, the stylistic devices of lighting and camera were used to present fiction and fantasy as reality. It’s one thing to see truth in the racism of a small town or the complex relationship of a young couple; it’s a stretch to see it in the international exploits of Jason Bourne.

But to work in the machine, to be successful in Hollywood, one has to accept this pollution of ideals. It becomes necessary to resist the seduction, to keep one’s personal principles separate from the spectacle. Creative artists as outsiders aren’t respected so they try to fit in with the culture; the radicals are left or dismissed. Wexler was lucky that he entered into Hollywood during a time of change, when producers and studios were searching for something new to relate to a disillusioned audience. His political activism and social conscious were an attraction to the Hollywood left. His ability to work quickly, under budget made him popular. The assertive personality behind this talent, however, also labeled him as being difficult to work with. Most of his early features show this bravado; many of his later do not.

Art is control, manipulation, a specific depiction of society. Once again, from Film Quaterly: “A good filmmaker…should say something. He has to have something burning. In the end that’s the only defense against what we’re all afraid of. The seduction. Everybody wants approval, the proper places to give you approval.” Artists do their thing and hope to be seen by other people, but at the same time they have to work with a system in order to maintain a living. It is a double-edged sword, one that traps the artist between principle and conformity, between reality and fiction.

Wexler continued to make documentaries in order to fuel his artistic spirit and desire to learn. His ability to capture reality and psychology made him a player in Hollywood, but after the initial zeitgeist of the late-’60s the concepts of verité largely became just another stylistic cinematic crutch. Still, Wexler had one last comment on the role of media, the wedding between documentary and feature. His 1969 film Medium Cool would mark an important point in the dialectic between life and art, of truth and fiction.