The Sticking Place

Wexler’s Woes on First Pic

Jerry Beigel
, 11 December 1968

Vet cameraman Haskell Wexler, with an Oscar (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) to his credit, had to scrape and scramble like any neophyte filmmaker to get his first picture deal and, like them, now is subject to the whims of a major studio as to whether his picture will go out as he made it.

Wexler has completed production of Medium Cool, estimates it will cost $800,000, all of it his own, by the time he turns film over to Paramount, probably in February. He would like to work on it longer, Wexler said, as well as add an original score, but can’t afford it, what with various post-production costs averaging about $2,000 a week.

Deal with Paramount called for studio to give him $600,000 upon delivery of a finished film, plus a 50-50 share of the profits, which Wexler acknowledged might be hard to find, studio overhead accounting procedures what they are.

Despite financial pinch, which “means not doing justice to the film,” Wexler feels Medium Cool is a good one and will have his stamp on it. The nice thing about the deal, he said, was that he had free rein and no one at Par really will know about his film until he turns it over to them and they then have to pay him. He wrote the script and used much of his own equipment as well as directed, so “almost all the money is on the screen.”

But Paramount then has the right to re-edit and add or delete from Wexler’s film – “why give me the money to do it right when the raw materials are still there” – and then distribute it, though Wexler’s name will be the only one connected with it creatively. “It’s a chance anyone takes dealing with a studio,” Wexler said.

Still, he was puzzled by studio’s attempt to save money on one hand, yet be liberal with another. Par sent an observer. “We called him our spy.” This was in Chicago, where Wexler spent about six weeks. Observer came in guise of a dialog director. “I told him to get lost,” Wexler said, “but he explained his position and so I told him to just not get in the way. We ended up using him as an actor for one scene.”

Wexler could only define the procedure as a “father-son relationship where they spend the money but where they want instead of where it’s really needed.”

If the business end of Medium Cool sounds depressing, the creating of it sounds different.

As Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise predicted the French student riots, so does Medium Cool anticipate and deal with the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wexler wrote the screenplay last winter, before President L. B. Johnson even changed his mind about running, but of course made changes in the script. Pic may be the only feature with actual riot footage from the convention.

Wexler’s experiences in Chicago, both from the city and the film unions, are not heartening, even though “I’m from Chicago and a lot of the people I had to deal with I knew.”

Wexler reports that he was constantly harassed by Chicago Police and Mayor Daley’s office.”The city was up tight with anyone with a camera then. We got calls almost every other day from Daley’s office wanting reassurance that we wouldn’t show the city in a bad light. We didn’t block any traffic so we didn’t have to get a permit or license to film.”

Wexler recounted that Motorola had lent him some equipment, but that he subsequently had to show execs there his script after the Mayor’s office had called them.

Another time, while working in a Negro ghetto where he had gotten to know the residents, Wexler said four police cars and two paddy wagons pulled up. “But the people made a ring around us and wouldn’t let them through,” he said. He called the Mayor’s office, told them the situation and the police were called off, “or there would have been a riot.”

Chi guilds “featherbedding was pretty heavy,” Wexler said. He related one incident where an actor and his cameraman got into the Convention Hall for a brief sequence and also for a brief take of an actor friend for a possible inclusion in latter’s forthcoming film. For that, he had to pay overtime to everyone on the crew, a total of $1,500.

During the riots, Wexler said that time and again he saw the rioters, police and National Guardsmen pause in their tracks whenever a tv van or cameramen came into the area. Then, after making certain the cameraman was ready, they resumed their warfare – to the chant of “The whole world is a watching, the whole world is watching.”

Wexler, himself, got teargassed once when a National Guardsman turned and fired a canister at him. He had filmed the Guard riot training in Minnesota and his immediate reaction was that he canister contained only talcum powder. But it blinded him and he rolled on the ground, the camera operator grabbing the camera and filming it and his subsequent medication “of plain water” administered by some of the demonstrators. Generally, though, he said the Guard was restrained but not the police, who arrested some actors and “pushed us around.”

Medium Cool deals with “illusion and reality,” Wexler said. “The actors act and then there are times when they appear as themselves. It is a film within a film” – all being further echoes of Godard.

As such, film found its best counterpoint in the happenings in Chicago. “You couldn’t believe what was happening, even when you got hit. There was the disbelief that it actually had happened. In the midst of the rioting, in Grant Park, some guys in their late 20s, who I guess always played baseball there, went right on with their game with all that going on around them.”

Wexler has more than 20 hours of riot footage, some of which has been requested by the Justice Department.

Medium Cool stars Robert Forster, Peter Bonerz, Verna Bloom and Marianna Hill, has nude scenes and a love story. Wexler has no commitments for the future as of now, but admits it would be hard if he has to go back to being a cameraman.

© Jerry Beigel/Variety
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