Over the course of a long and illustrious career, cinematographer Haskell Wexler won Academy Awards for his camera work on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the Woody Guthrie biopic, “Bound for Glory.”
In addition to his work as a cinematographer, Wexler was also an award-winning director of documentary films on race, class and the Vietnam War that were informed by his radical politics.
Haskell Wexler died Dec. 27 at the age of 93. Jeff Wexler, one of the cinematographer's sons, joined us at The Frame to talk about his father's legacy, as well as the things he learned from spending his life on the sets of his father's movies.
In 2003, there was a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild, and they voted your father one of the top 10 most influential cinematographers of all time. What was it about your father's work that garnered that level of respect from his peers?
It's interesting when you mention the camera guild, because obviously he's mostly known for his cinematography and for being a great cameraman. He certainly was those things and he did pioneer a lot of very interesting techniques and he had a certain approach to cinematography that wasn't all that well-known in America — though he drew heavily on French new wave, Goddard, and various other cameramen from the world.
But I think he achieved that level of recognition and appreciation for so many other things — his political activism and his relentless commitment to everything human and decent. I remember I was traveling in Europe one time, and I checked into a little pensione in Italy. I signed my name on the register and the person behind the counter said, in very broken English, "Are you related to Haskell Wesker?" And this was in the middle of nowhere.
He was a rarity in the sense that he was a cinematographer on somewhat-mainstream Hollywood movies — "American Graffiti," for example — but he also directed his own documentaries. There weren't many people who had that kind of combination in their work.
And he helped everyone out. He was so generous, not only with his knowledge and experience, but he would physically help people, too. If someone was going to do a documentary on a subject that was near and dear to his own heart, he'd go and shoot for that person or do whatever he could. It was really just giving his time, attention, and his passion for the subject matter.
When you watch films that your father shot, what do you see?
When I view the films, certainly I have a tremendous respect for the creativity, the artistry, and the choice of what to shoot, and how it gets put together. Those are the things that I've carried into my own career that, even though I'm just a lowly sound mixer who takes the backseat to the image, I learned from being around my father all these years and being on his sets.