Interviews from "Expanded Cinematography":
"A Career in Cinematography"
Conversation with Oscar-winning DP Haskell Wexler, ASC
and GCI Co-Founder Yuri Neyman, ASC
The following is a transcription from a recorded conversation between two cinematographers, Haskell Wexler, ASC and Yuri Neyman, ASC, about the art, craft and humanity of cinematography. We begin discussing Haskell Wexler’s 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” -
Haskell Wexler: Look it I can just tell you certain things. At that time in studio photography, in black and white, the tradition was to have the units on the edge of the sets. There were electricians around the perimeter of the set and since it was black and white we would hook up all the lights to a dimmer board. There was a man on the dimmer doing essentially what is done on stage shows. For example if someone was walking across the room and you were following them, which you would usually deal with by putting a couple open ends on the bottoms on lights, which would diminish the intensity of the light until the person walked out of that unit and into another. That can be in accomplished by using a dimmer guy. The basic lighting style in such a film at those times was seldom the style of just finding the sources of light in the set, a window and so forth and to use them as the apparent primary source of the light. You will still use that, but what you do is take that overt source of light, which you can see in the picture and you enhance that with your own lights. Most of the lighting was done from the top. One of the things that I did more of in Virginia Wolf than was common in a lot of films is that I had more lights on the floor. And also the big issue always is the stop that you worked at in relation to the light levels. And if you had a scene that required a deeper stop, then you had to raise the light level or try to work with the director on the framing of this shot, which determined how much depth of field you wanted. I’m just talking about lighting now.
Yuri Neyman: In the film it is very noticeable that you changed the character of the light from very bright and very harsh in the beginning of the film and close to the end of the film it became much more subtle and darker. Have you used the same type of the light for both light characters? I don’t know what units you had been using in the sixties.
HW: I see what you mean. What I was trying to do was show a subtle passage of time, to begin to show some predawn light. It’s sort of a dramatic license. Also to not make it boring. If the quality of the light that bounces back at the audiences face is uniform. In other words, if it is the same tonality that hits back at the audiences face, there is a kind of visual boredom that occurs. That’s why there’s in Virginia Woolf, there’s a scene in the kitchen, early on, which I lit that scene very fully. I actually overexposed it a little bit. I wanted it to seem very bright. Not just for the character of it. I wanted a variation light. Also, that set, I had a silk over the top of the set that lights hit. So there was ambient light, not source light. That whole transition from dark night, which is in the opening scenes coming in and more fill light so to speak, was part of the attempt. The other thing is, the studio had been complaining that everything was too dark.
YN: It’s a very common complaint.
HW: There were serious complaints when we were shooting back east, that it was too dark and they knew that I was inexperienced. There might have been some political background. It was a pretty serious thing. At one point Mike Nichols said later on, I think it’s too dark. So I did increase fill light a little bit. After the film Mike Nichols gave me a photograph in this silver frame, but there was nothing in the photograph. The photograph was all black in this silver frame. And he wrote, “it’s too dark Haskell.”
YN: It’s a very funny story. Studios always have a problem with cinematographers. I remember one of my films I shot for Disney, I got a call from executives saying something to the effect “Yuri I’m paying this actor so many million dollars and I’d like to see both sides of the face for this money.” It was almost like a joke but it was from real executive. One of the most remarkable visual characteristics of your film is how you shot nights. Everything was great, but nights have a very special part in the visual saga. In 66’ you probably used something like stadium lights. What lights have you used for this wonderful backlight, which is filling everything for the night scene.
HW: Well Double-X film had just come out, which is faster. I don’t think it was Tri-X. I would just basically get something, which would simulate moonlight on exteriors.
YN: I see, because there is an article, by Herb Lightman About this film in American Cinematographer says something to the effect, that for the parking lot sequence you had been inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½”, that you and Mike Nichols both admired the film and decided to use similar camera approach with a kind of “swimming” quality. In his article he said “in the famous parking lot sequence Nichols and Wexler, both admirers of Fellini’s…”
HW: Ah, ah, ah, that’s all bullshit
HW: You know when people get asked questions by writers and so forth, they give all these motivations and connections. You know ”I was inspired by so and so”. You know that’s all bullshit.
YN: Ok, because I was trying to figure out what was this “swimming quality”. I had never heard anything like this. All complex questions usually have very simple explanation and you put it very eloquently, “It’s all bullshit.” Yes.
HW: You know, Mike Nichols and I, didn’t talk about photography per say. We were both trying to do our thing, you know.
YN: I Understand. Have any films or photographs been a source of your original inspirations, what the lighting style is supposed to be, or were there any of cinema verite films, which you maybe kept in mind, just to say, this has to been a scene along the same line. Not to repeat it, but something that became a source of inspiration in your own artistic drive. Is there any film or photograph or photographer, or cinematographer who was inspiration for you in your visual approach to this film?
HW: On that film? No. Actually on that film I was learning a lot from my gaffer, the incredibly talented dimmer guy and my general view on photography. I knew certain facial characteristics, which Richard had, that he was concerned about, which were his pockmarks. So I knew how I tried to key him and I also worked with the makeup man on that.
YN: When I saw the film yesterday I was paying attention, cause all his pockmarks, they are not exactly exaggerated, but they at least had not been hidden and he was a big star then. How were you able to get away with this, or was it just how it’s supposed to be, if he has pock mark he has pock mark.?
HW: I don’t know if your students know about non-reflex cameras and about rehearsals or if they want to know anything about history or camera movements, but lighting is photography. It’s difficult you see though, because anything we’re talking about is some forty years ago and anything that happened then I’ve already said in about six million articles and are probably closer to the fact of the matter, or at least the fiction of the matter.
YN: Well, what would be your advice for young, today generation of cinematographers? What would you say that have to pay most attention to in their studies of the art and craft of cinematography.
HW: I would give them two pieces of advice. The first piece of advice I got from James Wong Howe, and that is “simpler is better.” At the time, multiple units were the thing. Even then of course, if you looked at one of my key lights you would see 10 century stands in front of it. One with a stick, one with an open end, one with a dot and way behind there was a light. In other words, simpler is better. And also, know what you are trying to say to the audience visually. Sometimes you want to withhold information, by not showing too much, and sometimes you want to emphasize certain things. It’s something you can’t tell people, it has to grow out of their own intention of what their doing. If their only intention is to do something that’s satisfying someone else, then they have to know what that something else is. Someone has to transmit that thought to them and see if you can translate it into photography. Right now we’re talking words, and what has to be done is for directors to look at other films with their directors of photography and say I really like what they did in this film and so forth, let’s talk about that kind of look. Or like when I worked in Italy a number of times, my gaffer and I would go to the museums. He would take me to museums and we talked about that kind of lighting, whether that type of lighting would be appropriate. So you have to have frames of reference of things you like and things that fit the film. I’m very rebellious to systematizing what we do. I think that it has to come from a philosophy of vision and of storytelling. People can get that from seeing other films but also they have to get it from looking in the world.
YN: Can I ask you a couple more questions not related to the film?
HW: Yes, go ahead.
YN: You are now a classic of cinematography, you have been for some time and hopefully you will do more work. How do you describe the difference between cinematography of today and cinematography of 30 or 40 years ago? Obviously the role of cinematographer is the same, to be visual storyteller. Do you think new technology is changing something in his prime task?
HW: The overall thing that is different today is that the cinematographer is not the magician that he used to be. When we filmed with non-reflex cameras and no video tap and without the incredible pressures on most filmmaking now to “Get It Done.” At the end of a shot the director would ask “Is it ok for camera? Is it ok for sound? Print it.” Now no one asks that question, no one thinks it. In the old days we had dailies and the cinematographer had Cinex strips, so he had some idea looking at it, but not necessarily the same day. We had some position then, now directors of photography are more in an assembly line situation. A good photographer in general is considered one who can keep a pace, can deliver material that is good enough so that if it is fucked up they can fix it in post. His general position in the creative process is generally minimized by factory type production, as are the directors. Now that doesn’t mean great films can’t made and great photography can’t be done, and in fact it is being done. The attitude of the cinematographer and the attitude of the system have different demands on it though.
YN: What work lately from a cinematographer and what film has most impressed you?
HW: What cinematographer? Well there are a whole bunch of them. Most cinematographers, with the technical and creative level, there are thousands of them out there. Those who have the opportunity to be special so to speak are those people who have the opportunity to be special. The general technical level exists in a lot of them, but the demands of what might be called artistic photography is minimal. So I wouldn’t name names. There are all kinds of guys out there shooting under their skill level, way under their technical skill level. For all kinds of reasons, budgetary, getting it done, fixing it in post. All those things. I don’t know if you want to encourage people that you are teaching people at AFI to fit into the system the way it is. You just have to let them understand the tools. I mean, I don’t know what you do.
YN: Well, you know it is a part creative, as our profession is always in between creative aspect and technical aspect. This is art and craft at the same time. And there are some cinematographers who like to be more craftsmen than artists and some who prefer more artists that craftsmen and everybody in between.
HW: That’s correct.
YN: So our profession is not a single line profession, it kind of envelops in itself many different types of cinematographers. And this is one of the beauties of our profession. And your word about first of all they have to be sincere and express their ideas and express their feelings about the script is probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice young cinematographers can have, that is to be very sincere and to be very true to their feelings.
HW: Yes, yes I agree completely with what you are saying. See I’m in a different place in my life now. I don’t know how to describe it.
YN: Well you described it very eloquently. We totally understand you are a classic of cinematography. You did many films in the past 40 years, different scripts, with different styles and means of expression and you have been great in every one of them. And one of your greatest qualities is to be flexible and understand the demands of the script and director. And this is why you did so many great works. I hope this interview and showing your film in a few days will help young cinematographers to understand more about cinematography not only from craft point of view, but from artistic and more importantly human point of view. I think this is very important.
HW: Yea, I agree. I think the night before last they showed “Medium Cool” at UCLA and I photographed it and I also directed and wrote it. It features a news reel photographer, and he is accosted by some black guys saying, “your not showing what’s true. You’re just showing some stuff that doesn’t relate to what’s really out here.” His response is, “Hey, I’m good. This is my job, this is what I do, I do it well.” Now, what I’m saying as a director of photography is, that’s not enough. I think it’s important. I think also if you are going to make that the limits on your life, then you’re a cog in the system, which may not be expressing what you want to express with your art.
YN: Yes and I think it’s most important because technology can change and script can change, but ability to express your feelings through visuals, probably will never change as long as profession will exist. This is probably the most important part for all of us to remember.
HW: Yes. Now do they ever discuss the shooting of commercials? I’ve shot a lot of commercials and it’s the perfect example where everybody, you know the agency and the clients have an idea of how it should be photographed.
YN: Well, I think it’s an extremely interesting and unknown territory for many about what a cinematographer does in commercials. I would be very glad to one day have a conversation about it. Maybe even a chance to see your commercials. The role of cinematographer in commercials is very different from his role in feature films, obviously. By the medium and whole circumstances. It is becoming a very important area of application of cinematographer’s skill and talent. I would be very interested when you have time to talk about commercials and your life in commercials, which are totally unknown. If I would have an opportunity to see some of your commercials, I would be very glad to talk to you about it. It is extremely rare and to hear about commercials would be very important for history and for all of us. I would be very glad if you could find the time to do it.
HW: Yes. You got your work cut out for you. My friend Conrad Hall and I, had these discussions and I asked him to discuss the director of photography and he would say, “We are storytellers, we are storytellers and we try to tell the story in images.” That’s kind of a cornball expression, but coming down to it, that’s what we are.
YN: If you’re talking about commercials, you are telling a different kind of story, which is not necessarily your story. I worked also in commercials and it is a slightly different line of duty for a cinematographer in commercials.
HW: It’s also part of the techniques. I know guys who specialized in shooting food. I specialized in car commercials. Years ago I did 80% of the car commercials, I did Wells Fargo, I did all the Marlboro Cigarette commercials.
YN: Yes, well I would be very glad to one day discuss the role of the cinematographer in commercials and how his art and craft transforms into commercial world. Well, thank you so much for your interview. Definitely we will print it and show it to you. We will talk to Stephen Pizzello and maybe print some of it. As a minimum many of your points of view I would like to bring to students on October 1st. I will make Xerox’s of the article about your film for everybody. Maybe I will suggest to copy the article and put it on website, because it is a very important film. People need to know their history. Without knowing history you cannot create something new.
HW: I just thought of two technical things. Number one, the zoom lens was just available and it allowed you to look through the lens at the same time with a prism.
YN: Ah yes, it was an Angenieux lens right? Angenieux F4/24-240mm, 10-1 lens right?
HW: Yes. It was a very slow lens, so I couldn’t shoot at a 2.8, but there were a number of zoom shots, which was quite unusual at that time in feature film. The last shot of the film, which was in a studio of course and they’re sitting by the window and the camera goes on by them and out to the exterior, that was a dolly and a zoom shot connected. Which had not been done at that time as far as I know.
YN: Have you used for this shot your now famous wheelchair construction, which allowed the cameraman to go up and down on a platform?
HW: You know I was a big follower of Raoul Coutard. Coutard used wheelchairs on a number of Goddard films. I made what we called the paraplegic, which had bicycle wheels on the side and I stood on it. It had a low step off and then they would push me in that and I would step on or off it in a handheld shot. They nicknamed it “paraplegic.” It was a hand made stand up wheelchair. You know, wheelchair shots made you sit there at a relatively low angle. With this device I was able to stand and I had pads under my elbows to help hold the camera, then I would stand on or off it. Does that make sense?
YN: Yes absolutely. I have seen a picture of this wheelchair in the magazine. It shows a picture of you with an Éclair camera with zoom lens.
HW: I have two favorite (Russian) films. One is The Cranes are Flying and the other is Chapaev
YN: Chapaev is a very unusual choice. Why Chapaev?
HW: In The Cranes are Flying there is a scene where it begins in a streetcar or bus and the camera follows this guy out of the bus and through a big crowd and at the edge of the crowd the camera rises up high and on the street is this huge parade.
YN: Yes, the farewell scene.
HW: And I met that cinematographer in Russia.
YN: It was Sergei Urusevsky. It is the same DP who shot I Am Cuba. Sergei Urusevsky. And this scene is called something like farewell to war. This was one of the most famous scenes. I understand your fascination with this scene, but what about Chapaev? What fascinated you in the film Chapaev?
HW: I just remember I love the character, because he was a little rebel within the system you know?
YN: Yes, he was a great actor. He created one of the most remarkable characters. You obviously have seen I Am Cuba.
HW: Oh yes. I know the Cubans didn’t like it and the Russians didn’t like it. They had a unanimous dislike for that film.
YN: Yes, they both expected to have a traditional propaganda film and they receive neither. He(Sergei Urusevsky) did a lot of great films in color as well in the beginning. He never graduated from a film school. He was a painter who became a cinematographer.