Interview Modesto Bee

INTERVIEW in MODESTO BEE Oscar-winning Haskell Wexler brings tales of his work on ‘American Graffiti’ to Modesto tribute


THE EVENT in Modesto, California

When two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler met George Lucas, the Modesto native was just a skinny kid in his 20s who loved cars and was thinking of going to film school.

Lucas was introduced to the already-accomplished Wexler on a racetrack in the early ’60s. Wexler had a racing team at the time and was in the pits with the crew when one of his mechanics brought Lucas over. The future filmmaker told Wexler he wanted to go to the University of Southern California film school and Wexler said he knew an instructor there. A recommendation later and the rest is film history.

“I basically I responded to his — I guess it’s a cornball word, but his passion,” Wexler said. “He had a really strong visual graphic sense.” Lucas has publicly thanked Wexler, who went on to serve as visual consultant on his second film, “American Graffiti,” for his help and contribution to his work.

Wexler will speak at the “American Graffiti” 35th-anniversary tribute Saturday at the State Theatre.

Now 86, Wexler remains active in the industry. He has just completed directing “A Sense of Wonder,” a film based on the life of Rachel Carson, the writer and scientist behind the landmark 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which is credited with helping to start the environmentalist movement.

While he gained fame initially as an innovative and legendary cinematographer, Wexler often has branched into this other passions throughout his career — directing features and documentaries.

Wexler has two documentaries in the works: one is about a soldier being court-martialed for refusing to go back to Iraq, the other is about taking Martin Luther King Jr.’s message to China.

Wexler won Oscars for best cinematography in 1966 and 1976 for the films “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” respectively. He also was nominated for “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Matewan” and “Blaze.”

His feature directing includes the 1969 film “Medium Cool,” about the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and his documentaries have spanned subjects from nuclear war to labor unions and sleep deprivation in the film industry.

More recently, he worked as cinematographer on the HBO series “Big Love.”

Wexler spoke with The Bee from the Santa Monica home of his son Jeff, who works in film as a soundman. Wexler’s eldest son, Jeff worked on the “American Graffiti” set when he was in his 20s with his father, helping out the sound mixers.

Q: Your career has spanned features and documentaries, cinematography and directing. Do you prefer one over the others?

A: Any way that I work in filmmaking gives me the satisfaction of expressing something I believe in and am interested in. That’s a plus of being in the filmmaking (business).

Of course, writing, directing and shooting your own picture is the ultimate satisfaction, but it also has all the fears, anxieties and doubts that come with being the sole author of anything.

Q: Your documentaries tend to focus on social issues/advocacy, from politics to labor unions and working conditions. Where did that interest come from?

A: I would say that’s how I was brought up. I was brought up to be what my mom would call a good citizen and trying to be a good person. And if you are an artist and have the blessing to communicate that to other people, it is a privilege and an obligation.

Q: Why more focus on documentaries of late?

A: I don’t get offered to shoot feature films, mostly because I don’t know if they insure cameramen that are 86 years old. Also it’s a given that you’ll be working 14-, 16-hour days. I’ve been campaigning the directors guild and other places to change that. (It is a topic he exposed in his 2006 documentary, “Who Needs Sleep?”)

Q: So, why did you want to come and be a part of the Graffiti Tribute?

A: I wanted to come because of my affection for George and also for me to remember the good experience that I had with everybody up there. George keeps in touch with me and has been very generous to me.

Q: Did you ever think the film would help spawn a car culture?

A: I was fascinated with cars and George also was very interested in cars. There are car nuts who continue to proliferate not just in America but the world, and a lot of it centers around “Graffiti.” That’s what interests me about “Graffiti” and the Modesto thing — it’s a community thing.

Q: What was it like working with Lucas on the film?

A: George would talk to (the actors) occasionally before the shoot. (His style) was very cool and understated. George’s manner at that time was reserved. The doesn’t mean that it was not good direction, but it was less flamboyant than many Hollywood directors with an electric megaphone to his mouth and chair that said “Director” on it.

Q: Did you think the film would become a cult hit?

A: I had no sense of that at all. My whole sense was wanting to do something for my friend George. He asked me to come when he first showed it to Universal. He showed it … without the music and (Universal) was ready to dump the film completely. Even though it was made, for those days, very economically. … Afterward, Universal was very surprised. I think in relationship to the cost of the film and the money it’s made, it is now considered one of the big moneymakers of all time.

Q: What do you plan to talk about at the tribute?A: I am going to talk about what they want me to talk about. I might need to refresh my memory — it was 35 years ago. But my interest in the project has sustained itself over 35 years, for professional and personal reasons. I also like the idea of a community honoring one of their own.