My Father, The Cinematographer: Mark Wexler's Personal Journey to Reconnect with His Famous Dad
By Bob Fisher
Tell Them Who You Are, which will be released theatrically in April through THINKFilm, is a 95-minute summary of a personal journey for Mark S. Wexler, who explores the career of his famous father, cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The story unfolds through Mark's eyes, and in the words of his dad's collaborators and friends. The documentary is carved out of some 120 hours of material, which includes interviews spiced with the young Wexler's own sometimes-acerbic conversations with his father.
Haskell Wexler, ASC, is truly a legend in his own time. He earned Oscars for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976) and other cinematography nominations for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, (1975) Blaze (1989) and Matewan (1987). His cinematography credits include other classic films such as In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Coming Home (1978).
That's just one dimension of Wexler's extraordinary career. He is also a political activist whose documentaries include Introduction to the Enemy (1974), filmed during Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden's 1967 visit to North Vietnam, Interviews with Mai Lai Veterans (1970) and Bus Rider's Union (1999), which he shot with a handheld DV camera. Wexler filmed At The Max (1990) a 50-minute IMAX concert with the Rolling Stones and directed and photographed Medium Cool (1969), a counterculture classic that mixed fiction and cinema vérité against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. His portfolio also includes Latino (1985), a narrative portrait of the Nicaraguan civil war, which he produced, directed and funded.
"My dad cast a big shadow. It was always challenging being his son on many levels," Mark says. "The process of making this film was a great experience. My dad is a very busy person, and I got to spend a lot of time around him--much more than I would if we were just seeing each other socially. I think that being behind the camera has given me a clearer picture of who he is as a person, because I was talking to his friends and observing him. Then, of course, there was the process of spending hours and hours examining him under the microscope, looking at footage while we were editing."
The young Wexler culled the title of the film from boyhood memories. "When I was growing up, my father would say, ‘Tell them who you are,'" he reminisces. "He meant, ‘Tell them you're Haskell Wexler's son.'"
His mother, who is his father's second ex-wife, is a painter. One emotional sequence documents his father's visit with her at a home for people with Alzheimer's disease. "As I was filming them together, I was thinking, ‘I need to get a loose shot here that will cut into the next shot,'" Mark recalls. "At the same time, I was listening to what they were saying and experiencing a lot of feelings. As a filmmaker, I knew I needed certain elements to make the scene, but I'm also part of the story as their son. It's hard for me to watch that scene now."
The young Wexler made an early decision not to follow the path blazed by his father. "I went to school at UC Santa Cruz," he says. "I was going to be a cultural anthropologist, but realized I couldn't make a living doing that and decided to get into photojournalism. I was interested in people and how they make their way in the world."
During the past 20 years, he has performed photojournalism assignments in 56 countries for publications ranging from Life and National Geographic to The New York Times. His photos have also been featured in such diverse books as The Power to Heal and Passage to Vietnam, and displayed in prestigious galleries.
The young Wexler produced his first documentary in 1993 for National Geographic Television. It was a short film about identical twins. He earned accolades for Me and My Matchmaker, a 1996 portrait of a Jewish matchmaker in Chicago, and for Air Force One, a one-hour, primetime special that aired on PBS in 2001.
"The idea for Tell Them Who You Are has been percolating for years," Mark says. "I did some shooting with my dad in 1996 at the Democratic convention, but didn't feel quite ready to commit to a whole film. I was living in Australia for about three years when I decided I better get started, because my dad was approaching 80. I came back to the US with a loose idea for a documentary about fathers and sons, but decided to make it more of a personal film. When I read a magazine story that supposedly is objective, I always wonder who is behind the words, and what their point of view is about life. That's why I felt it was important to tell the audience that this film is my point of view about my relationship with my dad. I think it's more honest to state that up front.
"I think my dad was hesitant in the beginning, but I was persistent, and after a while he agreed," he continues. "I didn't have to explain the process of filmmaking to him, but I think that actually made him more wary, because he realized how things can be interpreted and cut together in different ways. But after a while when you are around someone for a long time with a camera, they forget it's there. That took a few months."
He decided that talking with his parent's friends and colleagues would give him a rounded picture of who his father is as both a human being and filmmaker. "To tell the truth, I didn't know exactly where we were heading, but I think that's part of the joy of making documentaries," he says. "My dad and I have had a difficult relationship. I hoped the film would be a vehicle for reconciliation."
One of the first issues the young Wexler had to resolve was whom to interview. It was potentially an endless list of people who have worked with his father on political documentaries as well as Hollywood films. He pared it down to some 40 people, including Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, George Lucas, Albert Maysles and John Sayles, among others. It took 12 to 18 months to get some of them to agree, but he persisted, and eventually interviewed almost everyone on his list.
Mark explained what the film was about, and he was frank about his own feelings and relationship with his father before he turned the camera on. "When you expose yourself on a personal level, people are more likely to be honest rather than speaking in clichés," he says. "That's how we established rapport. I guess I'm sort of a non-threatening person, and that was probably another factor."
The documentarian doesn't believe in "grabbing" shots on the sly. The main exception to that rule was vérité-style scenes with his father. Those were usually walking and talking shots, and conversations while driving in cars and occasional sit-down interviews.
"The film is a combination of traditional and contemporary, first-person documentary filmmaking," Wexler says. "While filming the material with my dad, it was primarily just me shooting alone with a handheld camera. During the sit-down interviews, I wanted the subjects to look good and feel comfortable, so we found appropriate backgrounds in quiet areas and sometimes used a bit of stylized lighting. Several fantastic cinematographers, Jon Else, Sarah Levy and John Ealer, worked with me on the sit-down interviews, so I could concentrate on the conversations.
"Michael Douglas was extremely open about his relationship with his father," Wexler continues, "and I don't think Jane Fonda was expecting me to be making such a personal film. She got very emotional during the interview, talking about her own son, who is an actor, and her own relationship with her father [Henry Fonda]. Jane offered insights into whether the child or parent should initiate reconciliations, and how important it is to act before it's too late."
Wexler says that he was doing rough mental cutting while shooting. He had a wall filled with cards outlining the flow of the film. It was a malleable process, more like creating a tapestry than a three-act story with a beginning, middle and end.
He says that editor Robert DeMaio was instrumental in shaping the film. They had previously collaborated on Me and My Matchmaker.
Wexler chose to shoot with a DV-Cam because he wanted a compact and lightweight camera that was unobtrusive, easy to use and reasonably priced. "I think I did a few more interviews than I really needed, because I was obsessed with getting as many points of view as possible," he says. "A few really good interviews that didn't make it into the film should be on the DVD, including people talking about how their children have had a tough time with them being celebrities, and children of celebrities discussing the same issue from the opposite perspective.
"Martin Scorsese says that 90 percent of making a successful feature film is in casting," he continues. "I think that's even more so with documentaries, because if you have a dull subject, there's not much you can do about it. You can't write their lines."
There is a tense scene during the film while son is taping a conversation with his father at a hotel in San Francisco. There is a glimpse of the sun moving toward the horizon in the background. Mark suggests moving outside on a terrace before the sun goes down. His father refuses and insists that what's important are his words. When Mark persists, a frustrated Haskell says, "I am the star of your fucking film!"
There's also a poignant scene where Haskell is showing his personal camera equipment to a potential buyer as though he's ending a chapter in his life, and a shocking moment when he refuses to sign a release for Mark. "My dad was serious when he said he wasn't going to sign the release," he says. "That tension went on throughout the film. I didn't know whether I could sell the movie or have it go out to the public until the very end. The moment of truth was when I showed my dad the film. He was extremely emotional. He praised it and said that if no one else saw the film it would be really good for the two of us, but he hoped that many people would see it. It was a very emotional time for me, too. I felt I had succeeded in what I had set out to do. Any other praise for the film is icing on the cake."
After Tell Them Who You Are screened at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival strangers who hadn't spoken with their own fathers for years told Wexler they were going re-establish contact. He had the same reactions from fathers who said they were going to try to reconcile with their children.
"There were times when I was discouraged, because I wasn't able to get interviews I thought I needed, and I became concerned that the film was going to fall apart," the documentarian admits. "What counted in the end was having a vision and being passionate about it." His advice to aspiring filmmakers before they embark on projects is to make certain that it's something they feel extremely passionate about, because it takes a huge time commitment and dedication.
"Without my dad's cooperation, this film wouldn't have been possible," Wexler says. "He's the subject and the star of this film. I don't think many parents would allow their child to see them in such an intimate way. I'm grateful to him for giving me that opportunity. He's a good father who has his own style of parenting. I know he loves me. I want people to know I believe he loves me, and I hope that comes through in the film."
Bob Fisher is a film industry journalist who has focused on writing about the art of cinematography for the past 30 or so years. He wrote the first of many articles about Haskell Wexler when the cinematographer won the Oscar for Bound for Glory in 1977.