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Mark Wexler on Haskell

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Haskell Wexler, ASC, one of only six cinematographers to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, cemented himself in history by commanding the look of such classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and In the Heat of the Night. He is still active at 82.In the documentary Tell Them Who You Are, Wexler is the same as ever, getting the camera lined up just right, the light metered perfectly, the big moments captured beautifully.But he’s not the film’s primary shooter. He’s its subject. “I’m the [expletive deleted] star of this movie!” Haskell tells the film’s director and producer, his son, Mark S. Wexler.In spite of being a very capable filmmaker in his own right, Mark spends much of his time in the film in the shadow of his Alpha-male daddy. “I showed him the final cut and he was moved,” Mark said after late-November screening at UCLA. “He praised it and said if no one else sees it besides the two of us, that it would be worth making the movie.”It was the nature of Haskell’s parenting that inspired his fortysomething son to turn the camera toward him for a 93-minute examination of a relationship built on shaky ground. The result is an oddly satisfying take on what it’s like to be the son of a man whose name rhymes with rascal.“He didn’t want this film to be about his career,” Mark said of Haskell, a Vietman-era antiwar protester who feared being stalked by the FBI. “He didn’t want this to be a tribute film. It’s about a complex man who has a lot of sides. He was not the typical parent.”Mark, a photojournalist whose 1996 documentary Me and My Matchmaker explored his own dating life through a portrait of a feisty Jewish matchmaker in Chicago, knew from the very start his father would be a subject worth chasing.Says Mark: “I had a friend say to me the other day that if he went postal at a McDonald’s restaurant and shot 13 people, his father would go, ‘(Son), you’re a great marksman.’ My dad’s parenting style is different. He shows his love in other ways.”Mark never receives positive reinforcement during Tell Them Who You Are, a title taken from Haskell’s own advice to his son about the way he should introduce himself to people.“I am the son of a famous father,” Mark says in voiceover during the film’s opening moments. This was supposed to set the tone for a documentary originally conceived as a more general look at sons and fathers. But once Mark’s digital cameras got rolling—a Sony PD-150 and DSR-570—the portrait of the harshly irreverent Haskell took over.“[Expletive deleted]… the sun setting,” Haskell tells Mark at the mere suggestion of moving themselves to a spot that gives Mark a better-looking shot. “This isn’t a [expletive deleted] Miller beer commercial!”Appearances by Ron Howard, Jane Fonda, Billy Crystal, George Lucas, Sidney Poitier, Dennis Hopper and the late cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, ASC and his cinematographer son Conrad W. Hall move the story forward to a somewhat illuminating end, which involves Haskell’s stricken and estranged ex-wife, Mark’s mother.Though Mark never confronts Haskell head-on about his failings as a father (the elder Conrad Hall had similar issues, Mark says), the son finally gets his father to agree to sign a release form to allow the film to see its way beyond the editing room.“It’s not a Hallmark-card relationship,” Mark says. “It goes up and down. Next week, it might be different, but there’s hope.”The effort was named one of 12 documentaries on this year’s official short list of Oscar contenders released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The finalists will be announced January 25.

Written by Tony Moton

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