Haskell Wexler, Storyteller of Our Times

Haskell Wexler, Storyteller of Our Times.

I worked with Haskell Wexler twice when he filmed my one-man plays. He agreed to film them because he believed in the stories that they told, and he was kind and gentle and supportive of the challenges that I faced as the writer/actor/co-producer. Haskell was a revered figure in the world of filmmaking, respected for his groundbreaking work as a cinematographer but disliked by some for a certain stubbornness and willingness to clash with directors. More power to him. But he never clashed with me. What he did do, in his kind and gentle way, was change the look of the films. I always performed From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, about labor leader Harry Bridges, with 2 chairs, a podium and a coffee table. He suggested, in that slightly raspy and high-pitched voice "Ian, I think we should have a set. I'll call Gordon." "Sure, Haskell" (what was I going to say, no?) Gordon was, of course, Gordon Davidson of the Center Theater Group and arguably the most powerful man of the theatre on the West Coast, who recommended one of his favorite set designers, Martyn Bookwalter, who said "Sure, Gordon," and we had a great set. "Ian, I think we should do some re-enactments with the guys from the Local (ILWU Local 13). "Sure, Haskell." And we had 50+ longshoremen standing by. That was in 2003, and Haskell was 81.

On March 3rd, this year, Haskell was the Director of Photography for the filming of To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine. He was 93. It would be one of his last days of filming. I loved the brick wall of the Lillian Theatre, in fact it was one of the reasons that I had chosen the space. After some test shots..."Ian, I think we should use the black drapes," with the same voice. "OK, Haskell," with some reluctance. He was right. The day of filming started at 12 noon and we finished at 10 PM. Haskell sat in the second row of the audience, with a new camera that he had never used before, and his framing was immaculate. THEN, as the audience was milling around and beginning to leave, he was interviewing them about the play and Thomas Paine, full of energy, laughing out loud and giving his own reactions. We left at close to midnight. I was exhilarated and exhausted -- it was a huge day in my life -- and Haskell was tired but glowing. This is what he did, filming stories that he cared about.

The other thing that he did was to challenge bullshit whenever he saw or heard it. A friend of mine who had known Lenny Bruce described him as having a hypocrisy button. Haskell had a whole set of buttons that went off whenever he saw any kind of hypocrisy, inequality, injustice or downright lie. He was the most committed and unrelenting critic of wars, corporate power, worker abuse, any government that did not respond to the needs of those who elected it... it is a long list.... that I have ever known. He used his camera, his voice, his pen and his keyboard to constantly challenge and shine a light where some people did not want it to shine. He used his camera and role as a director to shoot films such as Medium Cool with the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as the backdrop. And he was kind enough to film my two plays because he though the stories to be worth telling.

He came from privilege, road the rails to San Francisco, was in the Merchant Marines and changed the way that films were shot. He had a very successful career (go to http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005549/ if you are not aware of his work) but he always wanted to interview the workers, the poor, the ones struggling, because that, in the end, was what it was all about for him, those were the stories that he really wanted to tell.

Special thanks to the Thomas Paine film crew: Joan Churchill, Alan Barker, Bill Megalos, Batiste Fenwick, to everyone else involved in filming the two plays and to Haskell Wexler.

Ian Ruskin
Director, The Life of Thomas Paine Productions
Director, The Harry Bridges Project