MM: Do you think, 30 years ago, there would have been more outcry about these kind of social issues?

HW: What I’m saying is that, incrementally, the frog’s in the hot water. We have lost our human base. When you get down to people, person to person, when they’re relaxed and they don’t have their jobs or lives threatened, and you ask, ‘What do you want out of life?,’ they’ll tell you “I want enough to eat, I want to be able to read, I want to be able to have my place, I want to have my family. I don’t want to have to hate anybody or beat anybody.” That whole thing happens incrementally. It goes through our educational system, it’s how you get your marks. It’s how you win, and it goes on in our precious sports, in all those things. The term “rugged individualist,” you know? That whole idea that if you work hard enough, then you will “succeed.”

You don’t see victories for socially good things. You see military victories, the camaraderie, the joining of action and the feeling and dedication of groups who are organized to kill. But that same thing is what makes progress reverse. Take the civil rights movement. You see marching in the streets, singing, holding hands. That positive factor is a group force, it’s a people force. And our media, our drama and our social content derides that. That’s why in China, for example—I worked on a film called Bringing King to China—they don’t want any particular religion or group or idea, not on the basis of the content, because a sense of community and accomplishing things together can be a threat to the controlling powers.

MM: That’s exactly what Bound for Glory was about. Right?

HW: Bound for Glory was so much weaker than it could have been. I mean, Woody Guthrie was a friend of mine, and David Carradine was no Woody Guthrie. David Carradine was a pot smoker, and I’m not saying anything about smoking pot, but he was a laid back kind of a guy. And that’s important. Woody was out there with the people, involved with them. And so David Carradine’s character was maybe more acceptable, dramatically, to the audience when Hal Ashby made the film, but…

MM: That’s really interesting to me. The movie was so lauded and, for my money, it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever. Obviously you were praised for it as highly as you could be; you won the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1976 for it. But you weren’t happy with the portrayal of Woody Guthrie?

HW: No. The family didn’t like it, either. The music was really bad. And David Carradine was stoned out of his mind most of the time, so he wouldn’t tune his guitar. My son was a sound man on it.

MM: I noticed you shot from a lot of angles where you didn’t see him actually playing. You didn’t see his fingers—

HW: Probably, yeah. But anyway, it’s a good film. It was a step in the right direction.

MM: It’s an amazing film. The lighting alone—all magic hour shots. And you gave it that soft glow to create a nostalgic effect.

HW: I want to show you this new DVD of Elia Kazan’s America, America. The thing that I liked about working on it with was that it told Kazan’s personal story about his family coming out of Anatolia, coming here for the new life that America gave so many Europeans.

MM: I read somewhere that’s the film you’re most proud of making. Is that true?

HW: Yeah. And, of course, I did it with an Italian crew, so I learned to speak in filmmaking Italian pretty well. I had all kinds of debates and arguments about Kazan being a stool pigeon.

MM: I was going to ask you about that. How did you reconcile your feelings on the blacklist with what he did?

HW: Well, I knew some of the people who he stooled on. And it ruined their lives. Actually, one of them committed suicide. Others left the country. And he didn’t have to stool. Kazan didn’t. He was set as a New York director.

MM: I interviewed Rod Steiger, who hated Kazan for that reason. But you worked well with Kazan? You enjoyed working with him as a person?

HW: Yes. And I did vote for him. I was on the board of the Academy.

MM: For the lifetime achievement award?

HW: Yeah. And there are a lot of great stills from America, America. We had a great still man on that. And, of course, it was black and white. And we never saw dailies, which was unusual. And I thought that was pretty good discipline for me as a cameraman, because [it let me] do things more dangerously (laughs). I think if I saw [dailies] it might have made me more conservative.

MM: Having won the last Academy Award for black and white cinematography, do you lament the passing of black and white?

HW: Yes. And I lament it because I got really good at it (laughs). But there’s also a whole argument that some people, one of them Conrad Hall, put through, about black and white. There’s some idea that the Greeks did not see color; they saw things in black and white, and [Hall] thinks that, with black and white, you put in your own colors. And it’s sort of a philosophical thing. Lighting-wise, I worked with James Wong Howe on Picnic. That was his first color film, and the people from Technicolor were selling him on the way they said he had to do it. “You have to have certain ratio between the key and the fill, otherwise it doesn’t work in color.” And Jimmy Howe just said, “Well, I’m gonna do it basically like black and white, except the film is slower.” And that’s what he did. And it was sort of a breakthrough in the way color films were made.

MM: How should a moviemaker think about light? I know a producer thinks about it as just illumination. But a cinematographer thinks about it more in an artistic sense, considering mood. As both a great cinematographer and a great director, how would you encapsulate how one should, when first planning a film, choose this stock or that stock, or the best kind of lighting package? What is the first thing to consider?

HW: Well, your job is to direct the eye and be in touch with the story. So you direct the eye by lighting, by framing and by camera movement. And sometimes you want to have mysteries for the eye, as well. Sometimes the mystery is more in keeping with the story.

MM: Tell me about American Graffiti.

HW: Every year they have American Graffiti celebrations, believe it or not. And they had the 35th anniversary of American Graffiti up in Modesto, California. And I shot a whole little movie about that. And I also shot something at Bob’s Big Boy here in the Valley, where they have all the hot rod cars. And I made a little film about that event. And when George Lucas gave me a lifetime achievement award at Tiburon, we talked, ‘cause I’ve known George, I helped get him into film school. And he gave me help with finishing Latino. He’s sort of like a kid to me, and I have somewhat of a father relationship with him. We’re politically very, very different. George’s conservatism is respectful. I’m totally respectful to his political conservatism. I tried to rile him up when Reagan called this anti-missile thing “Star Wars.” I said, ‘Jesus, George, we’re spending these millions of dollars on something that’s not gonna stop any missile from coming in at all.’ And he’s using the “Star Wars” name, you know. So he did complain about copyright. Nothing political, per se. But they did change the name of it. They started calling it the Missile Defense System, maybe for theatrical reasons. But that’s about as far radical I ever got him to go besides, well, the end of American Graffiti. After they left Modesto, one of the guys was gonna go into the Army, and that whole reference to the Vietnam War was part of my doing.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Conrad Hall? He was a dear friend of yours and, other than you, my favorite cinematographer. Tell me about how you met Conrad and relationship with him.

HW: The timeframe with me and Conrad Hall is long. I met him when he was just coming out of USC. And he was interested in the Éclair camera, so I think that’s how we met. And he formed a company called Canyon Films.

MM: So you met him right after USC? And you became partners with him for a while?

HW: That was much later, yeah. Then we formed a company called Wexler Hall, which made commercials. We did Marlboro commercials, Wells Fargo, all kinds of car commercials, hundreds of them.

MM: Who was the shooter on those? Did you have to talk about that?

HW: It was always separate, because we were shooter directors. When we decided we wouldn’t shoot cigarette commercials anymore, they came to me and they said, “Well, this is for Europe. We’re gonna shoot in Italy, and it’ll only be about four days of shooting, and you can bring your crew from here and you can have a week off in Paris on the way back.” And so I said ‘Well, really?’ And the budget was, I think, three hundred thousand dollars, which was a pretty big budget in those days. And so I said, ‘Well, you’d better talk to Conrad.’ Conrad is my partner, and he’s in the other room. So when they went into the other room I had a moment. I can’t recall what they call those moments. But I said to myself, ‘Jesus, Haskell, you’d be willing to split the profits with Conrad if he says yes.’ (laughs) But Conrad said “No, we’re not doing any more cigarette commercials.” I forget what Studs Terkel calls those kind of moments, some kind of phrase in the English language.

MM: You were friends with Studs Terkel as well, right?

HW: Oh, yeah. From the time I was a kid in Chicago. I acted in the Chicago Reparatory Group, which he was a director of when I was in high school. I played Lindbergh because I was the tallest guy, six-one and a half in high school. And Lindbergh was always a tall guy, and it was live theater. I think I had two or three lines in it. But Studs was my teacher. You mentioned Medium Cool. Studs was the one that found my cast for me. He knew everybody in Chicago. And I was able to get in touch with my city, which I’d lost touch with because I’d been out in California for a while.

MM: That’s fascinating. You didn’t use a casting director, you used Studs Terkel?

HW: Yeah. Because he knew everybody. He knew the real people.

MM: I wanted to ask you about John Sayles and Matewan. Do you have any recollections about your experiences with that film or working with John that you can talk about?

HW: Working with John is always good. On Matewan, it was particularly good because I had shot documentaries before. I shot a coal mine disaster in Centralia, Illinois when I was very young and living in Chicago. And I was really interested in shooting that. And in the piece of the coal mine that we shot in Matewan, I got little aluminum flecks and was able to wet them and sort of throw them on the coal, and it sort of blended in so that the coal sort of gave little light, because it’s very hard to shoot coal and people, particularly black people. I just remember that technical thing. But working with John is a thrill, because it’s difficult. John is used to making low-budget films, and you shoot bing, bing, bing—like that. And he gives his actors back stories, so when they come in, they’re ready to act. You could make a film of any of the backstories John Sayles gives his actors.

MM: You’re very generous with your time and I could talk with you all day, but I’ve taken up twice as much as I was allotted already. Thanks so much, Haskell, and please keep up the amazing work you’re doing, both cinematically and socially, for a long time to come.

HW: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. MM

Featured image courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio.

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