Papa Dearest: “Tell Them Who You Are’s” Haskell Wexler Battles His Offspring
by Brandon Judell
Mark Wexler has made one of the most bizarrely entertaining, yet frustrating, documentaries of the year. The subject is his 82-year-old dad, Haskell Wexler, who besides directing “Medium Cool,” was the cinematographer for Elia Kazan‘s “America, America,” Mike Nichol‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Milos Forman‘s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and John Sayle‘s “The Secret of Roan Inish” among many others.
According to those in the field, Haskell the Senior is brilliant but contentious. Innovative but ball busting. Hire him as a cinematographer, and you get a man who really wants to direct your film.
Well, Wexler the Junior interviews the folks who worked with his dad plus his compatriots including Peter Bart, Verna Bloom, Michael Douglas, Julia Roberts, George Lucas, and Albert Maysles, but instead of concentrating on a great cinematographer’s craft, the documentary is about what a bad daddy Haskell was throughout the decades.
Yes, this is a deliciously self-indulgent, at times witty, often moving 95-minute whine by a son who’s clawing his damndest to get out from under his father’s shadow, but who winds up instead getting over-shadowed once again.
The following is recent telephone chat with Mark Wexler.
indieWIRE: This film is so entertaining. Are you shocked by how amusing it is to viewers? And is the finished product what you thought it would be when you started?
Mark Wexler: Whenever you make a documentary, I don’t think you really know what the final product will be. Part of the joy for me in making documentaries is that exploration of your subject or theme. So the unknown is always an interesting point.
I knew I wanted it to be a personal film about my dad and myself. I thought a lot of people could relate to our interaction and our story, and it could be helpful to them as well. In that sense, I didn’t know what the outcome of the film would be. How it was going to end.
iW: You say you knew it would be an exploration of your relationship with Haskell. When you first interviewed all the stars who worked with your father, did you initially ask them questions about filmmaking and then throw in a few queries about father/son relationships? Was that your goal from the beginning?
MW: I initially wanted to make a film about fathers and sons. My father was going to be one of those subjects of the film. And once I started filming my dad, I realized that I had a pretty good subject. I didn’t need other fathers and sons. So then I decided to center around my father as the primary focus of the movie. But a lot of the celebrities and the people I talked to spoke a lot about their relationships with their parents. Some of that’s in the movie, obviously with Michael Douglas, and then with Jane Fonda talking about her father Henry. But hopefully some of the others will be on the DVD.
Obviously, they talked about their relationships working with my dad, but I sort of set kinds of questions about [families]. Some of these celebrities have kids who are in the movie business, so what is that like for the kids? What was it like growing up with their father? So there were some themes that I was developing that kind of ran through all the interviews.
iW: Now you don’t always come off very attractively in this movie. At times, your father doesn’t off well either. One wonders if you are aware about this occasional lack of appeal? Do you consider yourself brave for putting your annoying side on celluloid?
MW: I was aware of that. I think my father was extremely brave in deciding to do this project, and I felt that I had to be at least as vulnerable and as exposed as he was. I mean not as least, but something of my personality, my vulnerabilities, and you know. We’re all very complex people. I wanted that to come out in the film. I didn’t want it to be like I’m the good guy and he’s the bad guy. That kind of story which it isn’t. It’s a story about two people. A complex relationship.
iW: The film is so insightful, at least to the audience, about your relationship. Yet I kept wondering if you both had any sense of how you were both coming off. It appears you were arguing with Dad and thinking you were making your case in the brightest light possible while Haskell was arguing back, believing he was scoring points. Sometimes it came out a draw, but often not.
MW: Right. I think I have a certain amount of self-awareness, but I don’t know if you ever know how you’re coming across. Also, you come across differently to different people. People watch the movie and have a different reaction to my father and to me. It depends on what kind of lens they’re viewing the movie through and what their kind of family background has been. All that factors into how they see our relationship on the screen. But I did feel the need to show different sides of myself as well as . We saw a lot of sides of my father, and we have to see me in sort of a raw form if you will.
iW: What comes up frequently is that your father and his friends feel your conservative politics came about as a reaction to his left-wing politics. Would you accept that analysis? Is that what spurred you on the way to the Right?
MW: Yeah, there probably was a reaction to the way I sort of defined myself as opposed to him. I think he is way far left than I might be far right. I’m probably more centered, but I may not come across that way in the film. I think it was a reaction to my father’s very strong opinions on the left. Not all of which I disagree with by the way.
iW: I just keep wondering about the editing process when you saw all your footage. Lord knows what we didn’t get to see! But what you did include is often like a car crash in mid-action. When reviewing what you’d shot, did you keep going: “Oh. My God! Did I really capture this? Am I really going to use this?”
MW: It’s an interesting process. Just being able to study your father in the editing room with the sound off and watching all the nonverbal cues. My background is as a cultural anthropologist before I became a filmmaker. It was just fascinating to be able to have all that time, kind of looking at your parent on a screen… I was going to say dispassionately, but not always dispassionately.
But there was an editor. My editor Bob DeMaio did a fantastic job. I really could not have made this film without him, and I think we see things in a very similar way. But also with his kind of feedback, I was able to sort of wheedle down some sort of gems of the movie, hopefully. But it was just a process of watching.
First of all, the movie gave me a lot of time with my father that I probably wouldn’t have had. He’s a very busy person, and I have my own stuff going on. We spent a great deal of time together making this. I think that was really beneficial for both of us. Then, of course, in the editing room, having all that time to go over all the interaction. I felt I had to make this movie. It was either going to be massive therapy or make the film. Making the film would be cheaper, I thought.
iW: Is your brother in the film? I don’t remember him.
MW: He’s my half-brother. He’s seen briefly.
iW: I bring it up because I came across an article on him during my research, and I forgot about that moment in the film. Has he seen the film, and what is his reaction?
MW: (abruptly) I’m not sure if he’s seen the film actually.
iW: Is his relationship with your father the same?
MW: I think it’s very different. I found that talking to families, you could have three kids and they can be born like a year apart, and they have very different experiences of their parents, which I think is fascinating. He probably had a much different experience of my dad than I had. My dad and I spent a lot more time together in the later years than my brother had. I think he does have a different relationship.
iW: Now I’ve met several directors and artistes throughout the years, and a percentage of them come off at times as egomaniacs. For your father to be as great an artist as he is, did he have to put everything else aside like family. This film was dedicated to Conrad Hall. Is he the opposite of your father in that sense?
MW: That’s a good question. I’ve asked myself this now. To really succeed in this business or any kind of art form, do you really have to give up a lot in terms of family? I think there is some tradeoff here. You do have to give up some to really quote “make it” unquote.