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Extended Interview: Remembering Haskell Wexler, 93, Legendary Cinematographer & Activist

Web ExclusiveDecember 29, 2015
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In Part 2 of our look at the life and work of Haskell Wexler, we air clips from “Rebel Citizen,” a new documentary about his life, and speak to the film’s director, Pamela Yates. Wexler is perhaps best known for his 1969 film, “Medium Cool,” which captures the upheaval surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He won two Academy Awards for cinematography in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” about folk singer Woody Guthrie. His documentaries tackled political issues including the Southern Freedom Riders of the 1960s, the U.S. government’s destabilization of Nicaragua, U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, and torture under the U.S.-backed junta in Brazil.

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StoryDec 28, 2015Haskell Wexler Dead at 93: Legendary Cinematographer, Activist Captured the Struggles of Our Times
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of our remembrance of the legendary filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who had died this weekend at the age of 93. One of the nation’s most revered cinematographers, he is perhaps best known for his 1969 film, Medium Cool, which captures the upheaval surrounding the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago. Haskell Wexler won two Academy Awards for cinematography for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory, about folk singer Woody Guthrie. Over his six decades of filmmaking, he also received five Oscar nominations and an Emmy.

I wanted to turn a trailer for a new documentary about the life of Haskell Wexler. It’s called Rebel Citizen.

HASKELL WEXLER: The best thing that winning those Academy Awards things are—the best thing of it is that when I say some of my ideas, somebody’s going to listen to it, and they’ll preface what I say, “Academy Award winner da-da-da-da-da.”

PAMELA YATES: Meaning because you won an Academy Award, then they want to see your documentary films.

HASKELL WEXLER: Yeah. They may more publicly denounce it, as well.

I think that we should remember that social change can happen when people join together with some strength. What’s discussed about Medium Cool a lot is the way it was made.


HASKELL WEXLER: Yes, and that, I would say, it’s 80 percent stolen from Godard. I wanted to break the proscenium that people that say that this is a documentary. This is my view of what of the truth is.

PROTESTERS: The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

HASKELL WEXLER: You know, I got canned from Cuckoo’s Nest when the picture was almost through. And nobody could tell me why I got canned. But I did find out that the FBI was talking about me, because at that point I was being looked into to shoot the Weather Underground, who were on the most wanted list. They were radical and somewhat violence-oriented.

2012, racism was showing itself in ugly ways.

REPORTER: Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old, was walking in the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision…

HASKELL WEXLER: It’s now—it’s not just black people, but any rustlings that seriously challenges the system.

PAMELA YATES: Do you consider yourself a patriotic American?

HASKELL WEXLER: Absolutely, without a question. You notice there was no—not the slightest hesitation in reply to your question, Pam? Absolutely. And I would like to be considered as nothing else but.

We’re not military people. We’re filmmakers. So that’s why we’re making a film. It’s—make other people feel the profound transformation that they’re trying to work on us.

PAMELA YATES: What advice would you have for the next generation coming up?

HASKELL WEXLER: To be silent or to be fearful to say something is debilitating, and I hope that they don’t fall victim to that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer of Rebel Citizen, directed by Pam Yates, a documentary about Haskell Wexler’s life. Pamela Yates is co-founder of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating documentary films that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice, something I think that Haskell Wexler deeply hoped his films would do, as well.

Pam, can you talk about how you first met Haskell?

PAMELA YATES: I had a film at the Los Angeles Film Festival called Resurgence: The Movement for Equality vs. the Ku Klux Klan, and he came to all the documentary films at the Los Angeles Film Festival. And we connected there, and we made fast friends. And then he asked me and Tom Sigel and Scott Sakamoto to go to Nicaragua and film the Contras, the counterrevolutionaries that were being funded by the CIA and had bases in Honduras, trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And he asked us if we would go and shoot some film, because he was going to make another feature film, Latino, which was going to be a hybrid film just like Medium Cool, and he needed some documentary images in order to be able to mix the documentary with the dramatic script that he was then writing. And we did. We went to the border, and we actually were able to talk our way into the Contra camps. And we went on about a 100-mile journey by foot with the Contras, walking into Nicaragua, and exposed what the CIA-funded military, militia, were doing at the time. And so, I think that really bonded us for life. Later, Tom Sigel and I went to Nicaragua with him. Tom was camera, I was sound, and we were the crew on his film, Latino. We spent five months in Nicaragua filming Latino. And that bonded us forever.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the influences on Haskell Wexler, why he went the route he did? I mean, he was a big-time Hollywood filmmaker. He did everything from Cuckoo’s Nest to—although I think he was fired before the end of it—to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the Woody Guthrie film, both of which he won Oscars for, Bound for Glory.

PAMELA YATES: Well, you know, he was from a prosperous family in Chicago. And that prosperity gave him the artistic freedom to follow some of the dreams that he had. I think that you have to look at the influence on—influences on his life, like Studs Terkel in Chicago, who taught him what fascism was all about. And as a result of that, Haskell tried to volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He tried to go to Spain to fight with the republican forces against fascism in the 1930s. And they wouldn’t let him go, because he was too young. He was only 15 years old, and they said he was just too young. So, he had to ride the rails back to Chicago and back to his house. But as a result of that, he was labeled by the FBI a “premature antifascist.” There were also other political influences on him, like Saul Landau from the Institute for Policy Studies. And he would always align himself with people who he thought he could have conversations with, who he thought he could learn from.

It was the same when he was making his documentary films. You know, the way that he really related to politics was to get close to a political movement, get close to the Bus Riders Union, try to understand other people’s lives that weren’t from prosperous backgrounds, and how could they together work to tell their story, which could have an influence on lessening inequality in the United States. So, those were a lot of the influences in his life.

But he also had really great artistic influences—Elia Kazan and Hal Ashby. You know, he loved working on big film crews. He loved working in the feature film environment. And he said it was like captaining an ocean liner around the world. But then he also loved working on small, intimate crews on documentary films, which he called the speedboats, that could turn around really fast and be very versatile. And he celebrated cinéma vérité. He was good friends with D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, who we also lost this year. And both Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker worked on The Bus in 1963. In fact, D.A. Pennebaker told me that he designed the 16-millimeter camera that Haskell used on that shoot, Haskell’s very first documentary film.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to, what, 60 years, to 1954, the film Salt of the Earth, though that wasn’t his film, but he was instrumental in getting it made. I mean, this is the time of the blacklist. Haskell Wexler helped to get that film processed at a lab in Chicago, risking everything. I mean, he was working as a technician, a lab technician, at the time, risked getting blacklisted by IATSE, which was the union of film and stage technicians that had ordered none of its members to participate in the making of this film. Can you talk about why Salt of the Earth was so significant and Haskell’s role in this?

PAMELA YATES: Because Salt of the Earth employed many people, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, who were blacklisted. And they said, “To hell with this. We’re going to make the film, and we’re going to get it done, and we’re going to tell the story, not of our own story, but we’re going to tell the story of copper workers who had gone out on strike.” And this was so important, as well. I mean, if you look at Salt of the Earth, it’s also a hybrid film. There are a lot of non-actors in that film. There are a lot of documentary techniques. And Haskell went to bat for them. He was always trying to find where were the places that he could be where he could play a supportive as well as a protagonistic role in getting things done. And I think that’s why he took up documentary filmmaking, as well. In documentary filmmaking, there are no stars, and the person behind the camera is not a star. But so much can get done, and so much can get said, and so much can be left for people to think about and ponder throughout the years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Haskell speaking, when he came to our studios in October, about Salt of the Earth.

HASKELL WEXLER: Well, Salt of the Earth was a film made by blacklisted writers, and writers and actors and all that. And then, because of the union working with the government, they had no way of developing the film and making, actually taking it on. So, the director of the film came to me, and he said, “How can we get this stuff? Where can we get it developed?” And then, and so, in Chicago, there was a young guy who inherited this laboratory from his father, and very decent good guy. And I said—I think his name was Freddie, I forgot—”Can we—can just you and me go in with one of your technicians and develop this film?” And he said, “Sure.” And then we did. And so they had the film, but, of course, then the next step of blacklisting this thing is, where are they going to show it? And projectionists wouldn’t show it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Haskell Wexler talking about his involvement in the processing of the film Salt of the Earth, made about the mine workers striking in New Mexico. The film came out in 1954. A number of those people in the film were not actors, but the actually miners and their families themselves. In Rebel Citizen, you play a clip, Pam Yates, from Haskell’s 1965 film, The Bus, accompanying people, chronicling people on the bus to the 1963 March on Washington. And this was a conversation between two women.

WOMAN 1: Someone’s going to attack your husband, maybe to take his money, maybe to—I don’t know, maybe to—in order to attack you. These situations occur. We see them in the paper every day. Would you stand by and let someone attack your husband, or would you pick up the nearest stick to hand and bang the other guy over the arm, over the head, anything, to knock him out of commission, so he does not destroy your husband?

WOMAN 2: I would hope that my actions would be nonviolent ones. I would hope that possibly I might try to restrain the person, because I’m not always certain that I don’t—

WOMAN 1: I’m not saying kill him. I’m saying—

WOMAN 2: No, no. I’m not—

WOMAN 1: —knock him out of commission so he can’t kill or hurt your husband.

WOMAN 2: So that—so that I might be able to restrain him, hold onto his arms, something like this. I’m not certain that I might not try something like that. I’m not certain that I don’t approve of that sort of action, a restraining action. There are some pacifists who do that, some pacifists who don’t. But I would sincerely hope that I would not pick up the nearest thing handy.

WOMAN 1: But what would you do?

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from The Bus. Pam Yates, can you talk about Haskell Wexler’s documentary? It’s interesting, because we come to know another bus story, and that was Spike Lee’s film, [Get] on the Bus.

PAMELA YATES: Right. Well, this was Haskell’s first documentary. He thought that the March on Washington was just so important, such a seminal moment in American history, that he had to be on that bus. And he got on the bus with his crew, and they stayed on the bus all the way across the country to Washington, D.C. And it’s so interesting, because so many of these really thorny and fraught issues that were facing the civil rights movement then are the same kinds of issues that we’re discussing in Black Lives Matter today. And it’s had quite—it’s had quite a bit of resonance with that movement and with filmmakers discussing the movement and with filmmakers discussing who actually gets to tell the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Yates, I wanted to ask you about the films that Haskell won the Academy Award for, you know, the making of Mike Nichols’ first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and also Bound for Glory, which was of course about Woody Guthrie.

PAMELA YATES: Sure. Well, I think that the cinematography in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is stunning. And it’s this black-and-white photography that was aptly suited to the story that was being told, which is the horrible disintegration of a marriage. So, it was Mike Nichols’ first film. Mike Nichols obviously was a well-known theater director, but he had never been on a set, and he had never shot a film. And so, I think Haskell was really instrumental in helping him understand how it was that they were going to tell this cinematic story. They knew each other—

AMY GOODMAN: I have to, for a moment—I have to, for a moment, go to the clip from Rebel Citizen where he describes being told he’s going to make this film.

HASKELL WEXLER: Well, you know, I was supposed to do a film with Kershner called A Fine Madness, and I was signed up to do it. And they were friends of mine. It was a James Bond-type film. And then—and a different cameraman was set to do Virginia Woolf, Harry Stradling. The next thing I knew is that I was called to Jack Warner’s office, and said—and, I mean, that was something, because it was just like in a movie—a big desk and this guy back there. And he said, “Mike Nichols wants you for his film. You’re going to do his film.” So I said, “Well, you know, I can’t, because I’ve signed up with Kershner.” And he said, “You’re going to do it, or you’ll never work in Hollywood again.” And so I did. Of course, I knew Mike Nichols in Chicago. We were friends. I mean, I got an Academy Award for it, but Mike had never been praised as high, because what you put in front of the camera is important, and of course I was a good complement to it in the framing and the moving and all that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip of Haskell Wexler from Pamela Yates’s film, Rebel Citizen. So, take it from there. How did he know Mike Nichols? Why was it so important he make this film? Why did Hollywood want him to make it, Warner want him to make it?

PAMELA YATES: Mike Nichols—Haskell knew Mike Nichols from Chicago. They were both Chicago natives. So, that was a bonding thing for both of them. And Haskell really wasn’t given a choice. He was called into Warner’s office and told that if he didn’t make this film, he was never going to work in Hollywood again. And so, he did. I mean, he wanted to make the film, and he wanted to work with Mike Nichols, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about Woody Guthrie and Bound for Glory, how important that was and Haskell’s coming to know Woody Guthrie.

PAMELA YATES: Well, he had met Woody Guthrie. And so, when Hal Ashby, who was his friend and colleague, asked him to shoot the film, he was completely excited about it. This is what he told me later. I didn’t know Haskell at the time. But when Hal Ashby asked him to shoot Bound for Glory, he decided to come up with a lot of really interesting cinematic techniques, including the use of smoke and dust to try to evoke the Great Depression in the United States. And his cinematography on that film is still cited today by so many younger cinematographers as an influence on how they decided to pursue their perspective and their visual storytelling style.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to jump ahead to 2012, to a clip from Rebel Citizen. Here, Haskell Wexler talks about his film Four Days in Chicago, that covered the meeting of NATO in Chicago and the big antiwar protests, especially of the soldiers who had come back and were opposed to war, that the NATO meeting generated.

HASKELL WEXLER: Documentary people have to know that, particularly nowadays, they have to be on a mission. And part of the mission is to—is to be like good journalists, search for the truth, have an open mind, listen to as much as you can of different sides of things. When I heard that—what was happening, what the mayor was doing to the city, they were—had words out that they’re warning that these crazy Occupy people were going to come to make trouble in Chicago. But this time, he said proudly, it’s not going to be like ’68. And he mentioned Medium Cool and my name.

You see this ramp right here? It’s the ramp that Verna Bloom came up in 1968 at night in Medium Cool, looking for her son in the middle of the demonstrations. And in the background were the lights from the Wrigley Building and all those, and you could hear sirens going on the street.

And I could see that they had generated fear. The schools were closed the week that the Occupy was there. They had boarded up windows in stores. These are just Occupy people. They just want to make a statement about NATO and austerity and how we’re going—spending more money and more emphasis on killing, when taking from our schools, all that. And they say, “Well, we know that, but, you know, we need and we want to make sure we’re safe.” Once authorities say that some kinds of people—I mean, it’s always more convenient if it’s race, but it can be ideology, and it can be all kind—once they’re considered endangering you, you can, in a—or even their desire to endanger you, which is America, you know, that then those in authority identify them and say, “Don’t worry, we will protect you.” And the protection has to be preemptive.

PROTESTER: But our biggest problem is the police. I mean, right now, I mean, it’s intimidating. What do they need all these police here for? It’s definitely a concern. They’re already—they’re already actively trying to dismantle and sabotage the efforts, the police.

GRAHAM CLUMPNER: But, you know, I would—I would just ask the question, like, if we were starting a new community, if we were starting a new country or building new institutions, would this be why we create police? Would we create police for the sole purpose of holding in a democratic demonstration? Would we create police and say, “Let’s give them military gear to protect us from us”? And the idea that like—that they need to be afraid of us, of all of us, of these American people, what are we to them? What are we to these massive monuments to capitalism? What are we? Because if we need to be like cordoned off and kept away from everyone else—I served this country honorably. I stood up to defend what I thought was a good idea, what I thought was my fellow Americans. And now they’re going to put police on the streets to cage me in?

PROTESTERS: The people, united, will never be divided! The people, united, will never be divided!

REPORTER: For the second time in as many days, Chicago police arrested demonstrators downtown.

GRAHAM CLUMPNER: It’s shocking. It’s disgusting to me, the idea that like—I mean, what do you have to do in this country to be a legitimate citizen, besides have money? Like, what do I have to do? I come from a low—you know, a low-income family. I had to pay my way through school, so joining the military was a viable option for me. I went and served and fought in a war. And I come back, and now I’m on a watchlist? At what point did I miss a memo? At what point did I check the wrong box? I don’t know. And I’m not going to be rich. It’s not going to happen. So, I guess I’m on the other side of this for a long, long time. But you’ll have to ask them as to why they’re demonizing segments of their population—any segment of their population—that’s a threat to them. This is a democracy. They answer to us. They answer to us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Four Days in Chicago, that’s featured in the documentary about Haskell Wexler, who we’re remembering today, Pam Yates’s film, Rebel Citizen. The significance of going from Medium Cool to Four Days in Chicago, Pam?

PAMELA YATES: Well, first of all, he felt challenged by Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying that this isn’t going to be another Medium Cool in 2012. And he also felt outraged that NATO was having its summit in the United States, in Chicago, in his hometown. And he felt that he had to go to document it. And he—you know, Haskell was always a very collaborative filmmaker. So what did he do? He went and he found other Chicago filmmakers that he could make the film with. It wasn’t important for him that he got the director credit. It wasn’t important for him that he got the cinematography credit. What was important was that they made a really good film together and that he got to know the activists who were there. I mean, that’s how he came to know James Foley. He just met him on the street. He had a camera. They started to talk. And they started to talk about demonizing people, because James Foley had been in Iraq, he had been in Syria, and he had a lot to say about the war over there. I think Haskell’s always said that our greatest obstacle to being active and to claiming our democracy is fear. Don’t let fear paralyze you. Get out there, do something, speak out, investigate, create.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam, I wanted to go to a clip of Haskell Wexler on Democracy Now! It was soon after James Foley was beheaded by the so-called Islamic State. And Haskell Wexler felt we should know something else about James Foley, that wasn’t being talked about in the mainstream media, as an independent journalist. He was angry, and he was passionate. This is Haskell Wexler on Democracy Now!

HASKELL WEXLER: I’m pissed off. I am angry. I am—I see how the American public is being confused, lied to and given theater, to make us buy that war is the way to have peace, and to use a journalist like Jim Foley, who was truly a journalist—wants to search for the truth, actually was out amongst them, and volunteered to work with my film group in Chicago, which were there documenting an anti—anti-NATO demonstration. In fact, he himself took a camera, and I have 30 minutes of film of him talking to people in Chicago, so that he was not a person detached, objective journalist. He realized that our foreign policy is destructive, when you had a humanitarian crisis that hurt him deeply that he saw in Syria.

And a funny thing is, the government knew what his position is, with all the surveillance, was—and on just students in Chicago who were opposing NATO and the war, the taking of their computers, certainly the look into journalists and their points of view. If they didn’t know before, when James Foley took a camera to work with me and my fellow Chicago filmmakers in an anti-NATO film, there’s no question on what side of the fence he’s on. And the government functions on “you’re either 100 percent for us, or you’re the enemy.” And that’s why a lot of our discussions and other interviews was Jim talking about the other, how authorities can establish who the other is, and once they’re other, they’re less than human, they’re less than smart, and you can do anything to them, because you have to teach them a lesson. So, for them to use him as a poster boy for more violence is obscene, and I think that the country has to know it’s obscene.

AMY GOODMAN: Pamela Yates, as we wrap up, the film you made, Rebel Citizen, you made it because?

PAMELA YATES: I made the film because I thought that everything that Haskell had built in the nonfiction realm should be passed on to the next generation. And we really collaborated in the making of it. It’s really an extended conversation. But, you know, he had a lot of young friends. He was a mentor to a lot of people, including me. And I think he wanted to leave them something. In fact, we were just planning to do Rebel Citizen, Volume 2 at the end of January, when I heard about his death yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: When Haskell Wexler won one of his Academy Awards back in 1967, his son, in talking about his father’s life, remembered what he said on the stage. This was 1967. He said, “I hope we can use our art for peace and for love.” I want to thank you, Pam Yates, for joining us, for making Rebel Citizen, and for being there, speaking to us from Lima, Peru. Thanks so much.

PAMELA YATES: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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