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Legendary Cinematographer Comes to Campus

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Haskell Wexler, winner of two Oscars and widely considered one of the most influential cinematographers of his time, is coming to Notre Dame to present his latest film, “Who Needs Sleep?” Scene senior staff writer Brian Doxtader held a phone interview with Wexler in anticipation of his arrival.

What is the film that you are screening here, and what is it about?

The name of the film is “Who Needs Sleep?” and it’s a documentary I completed about seven months ago. I’m a working cameraman, and there’s a “secret situation” that happens in show biz, which everyone thinks is exciting and entertaining. As a matter of fact, routine work on films and TV is 14, 15 hours regularly with very little time between. My investigation of this started when a friend and assistant cameraman fell asleep at the wheel and killed himself driving home after a 19-hour day. That’s essentially the film.

Why is this now an important issue?

I worked on the documentary you saw over the period of a number of years, and over those years the hours increased and the research on how important getting a decent sleep is to your health and safety has increased. Medical research shows that cognitive ability is impaired, so really when they work you long hours, you’re paying overtime for inferior work and for dangerous work, because oftentimes the work of a cinematographer is very dangerous. We work from camera-cars, from cranes, in physically dangerous situations with heavy equipment. It’s a serious matter of safety.

How is this serious matter being addressed?

Of course, all kinds of organizations, especially those within the federal government, have now pointed out that about 70 percent of car crashes are from fatigued drivers. Unlike alcohol or drugs, it’s difficult to diagnose when the cause of a crash is fatigue, but they’re now determining that “falling asleep at the wheel” is a chief cause. They do this by first ruling out drugs, alcohol or mechanical failure. Then, in most of these accidents, they also determine that there are no skid marks. When you fall asleep at the wheel, as I have done (and frankly, all my co-workers have done), you just sort of drift off, because you don’t know when you’re sleep-deprived.

How else has this matter personally affected you?

Disruption to your family life is immense. People with kids go into work on Friday morning and get home Saturday morning – if you have kids, their time off is the weekends and you’re most going to be a basket-case trying to catch up on sleep on those weekends. Since I finished the film, the situation has gotten worse. But because job situations are tight, people don’t want to speak out about it because they’re afraid that employes will just say, “Well, we’ll find someone who can cut the mustard.”

How is the film being received within the industry?

It’s interesting because “Who Needs Sleep?” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Critically it was applauded, but when industry distributors were there, nobody bid on it. I asked one of the industry people that I know, “How come something that’s being so well-received won’t be bought?” and he said, “Well, it’s viewed as ‘industry-unfriendly.'” Of course, I got tremendous response from workers – I’ve gotten hundreds of emails, and the film’s reputation is growing worldwide. There has been a lot of progress, with things like insurance companies and lawsuits. But really, there have been a lot of accidents on the set and off. People in the business, the workers who are on the set, know that it costs more to work those longer hours because your productivity drops drastically.

What are you looking forward to about being at Notre Dame?

I don’t want to just come and air my big beef about a particular problem. I want people to know that it’s great to be interested in film, and I hope people see that.

How did you get started in the industry?

When I was really young, I made small movies at a time very few people had movie cameras – we’re talking about 1937 here. I was in the war for five years, then I went to make documentaries. I was an assistant on the newsreels before television and gradually got to work on feature films as an assistant out of Chicago. It was a different time – to be upwardly mobile was easier then, I think.

Are there any directors you’ve worked with, or films that you’ve worked on, that have been particularly memorable?

I liked working with John Sayles. I particularly enjoyed working on a film with him called “Matewan,” which was nominated for an Oscar [Writer’s Note: in 1988 Wexler was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar as well as for the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for this film.] I worked with Hal Ashby for a long time and Norman Jewison in the early days. I sort of prefer to direct now and am doing documentaries. When Sayles has another film, I’ll probably do that.

How do you think the industry has changed since you’ve entered it?

Everything is more corporatized. Everything is more quantified and they want, at least out of cinematographers, someone who is fast and makes an acceptably good picture and gets along with people. With video and hi-def, there are always producers and marketing people hanging around the monitors with their opinions on how things look. There are some terrific filmmakers out there, of course. It’s shocking how many good films are made.

What films or people have influenced you the most?

Early on, I worked under James Wong Howe, who was a director of photography. I shot second-unit for him on “Picnic.” He was a big influence on my photography. A lot depends on the script, though.

What other projects have you directed, and what upcoming projects do you have in store?

Besides “Medium Cool,” I’ve directed a film called “Latino,” which I wrote and directed, and it’s a pretty good-looking film. I’ve also shot in combat areas, with the Contras and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. I’m working on a thing for HBO. Previously, I shot “Big Love” for them, which was a really good experience. I also shot a film for them called “61*” which was directed by Billy Crystal. On directors, I really like Billy Crystal – he’s a great director and a decent human being and a good actor. In “Who Needs Sleep?” he talks about working on “61*.”

Is working on television a lot different than working on features?

Depends on the television. Except for sitcoms, in general, television hours are very long. In general though, I would say that television is a lot like features nowadays, except for a few very complex features, which have a lot more scope to them. Photographically, when you’re shooting features you do a lot more coverage and wider shots. When you shoot for television, everything is very tight, because you have to think about things like screen size and the TV size.

Would you say you have a particular style or approach to your cinematography?

No, I don’t think so. Some people say that, but I try to make the style fit the film. There probably is some perceptive person who looked at all the films I’ve shot and could say, “This is his style,” but I couldn’t say that about myself.