As a cinematographer, Haskell Wexler has worked with Elia Kazan ( America, America), Norman Jewison ( In the Heat of the Night), Mike Nichols ( Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Milos Forman ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Hal Ashby ( Bound for Glory), John Sayles ( Matewan) and, er, Billy Crystal ( 61*).
Now in his mid-80′s, the Academy Award winner can add one more name to the list: Mark Wexler, his son. Wexler père is the focus of Tell Them Who You Are, a documentary by Wexler fils that navigates their bumpy and often contentious relationship.
“I wanted this film to be a mix of biography and autobiography,” said the younger Wexler, who is in his mid-40′s and up until now has made his living as a photojournalist. He looked quite comfortable and sunny as he sat cross-legged in a love seat in the Union Square offices of his publicist, Susan Senk.
Still, his affable smile can sometimes look pained-and it’s there that he resembles his father (at least the father depicted in Tell Them) most strongly.
In the film, which hits theaters May 20, the picture of Haskell Wexler that emerges through interviews with George Lucas, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and others is that of a cantankerous man who holds forth on subjects from filmmaking to politics to pretty much anything else.
The younger Mr. Wexler seems to be picking up on a trend. Last year’s documentary Tarnation was a collage of 70′s TV clips, music and home-video footage that told the story of a gay Brooklyn boy’s childhood-including scenes from his troubled relationship with his mother.
Similarly, Tell Them Who You Are centers on the awkward relationship between the two Wexlers. They argue about politics: In an increasingly frequent generational turn-around, Haskell is a liberal and Mark’s conservative. Haskell, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker in his own right, offers plenty of hair-raising on-camera filmmaking advice. Mark, who is stubborn like his father, often bristles at the suggestions.
The first shot of the film is of the father in his equipment room, ranting and raving about how the shot should be set up.
“Dad, can you tell us where we are right now?” Mark is heard asking Haskell from behind the camera.
“If you don’t know where the fuck we are right now, just look around. You’re making a god-damn documentary,” Haskell responds.
It doesn’t seem like much of an environment for the two to start a soul session about their relationship.
But over the course of the film, the two men begin to come together.
“Change is slow,” Mark said later. “And we’ve never had a Hallmark-card relationship. And probably never will. But I think now we’re more accepting of who we are.”
Mark Wexler’s previous documentary didn’t work out this well. In Me and My Matchmaker, he enlists the help of an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker to find a soulmate. He’s still single.
“My concentration over the years has been, whether it is first-person journalism or documentaries, who is writing this, who is behind the camera, who is shaping this,” said Mr. Wexler. “Because there’s a personality behind the words and the perspective that often the viewers don’t get.”
He sounds like his father, who famously turned the camera on himself in the final shot of Medium Cool, his send-up of documentary filmmaking.
That’s why Mark’s film becomes more than just an exercise in father-son bonding. It’s practically a master class in documentary filmmaking.
“It’s funny making a personal film,” Mark said. “You’re a participant, but you’re also a filmmaker thinking about what you need-you need a wide shot, a tight shot, sound. You’re kind of jumping back and forth between being a character in your own movie and the duties of a filmmaker.”
It’s not just a theory, but a technique that Mark employs to dig out the tensions between himself and his father. In one scene, the two have just returned to a hotel after an anti-war protest. Mark wants to shoot his father with San Francisco and the setting sun in the background; Haskell wants to stay indoors, with golden light spilling across his face. They both become frustrated, and ultimately Haskell refuses to talk. Too bad, right?
“As a filmmaker, I knew that was a great scene,” Mark said. “We’re both extremely stubborn in that scene, which is emblematic of our relationship. I think I might have extended that scene longer because I knew it was good drama.”
And not till the very end of filming did Wexler père fully trust his son’s project; he even refused to sign a release until he saw the finished movie.
When he did, Mark said, he softened up, saying: “‘If no one else saw the movie, it was great for the two of us to have done this together.’”
Then there was one last edit: Haskell signed the release (on film!), and Mark added the footage to the credits sequence.