Mark Wexler documents his brittle and rivalrous relationship with his radical dad
Now in his eighties, Chicago-born Haskell Wexler has long balanced mainstream success as one of Hollywood's top cinematographers (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) with his strident political work. He's more well known for his street-credible career as a director of politically charged documentaries and indie features, of which the best known is Medium Cool, a 1968 antiwar drama filmed during the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
But Haskell was never in the running for Father of the Year, as the new documentary by his son Mark Wexler makes clear.
"I'm not doing a Mommie Dearest," says Mark, who was in town last month to promote his film, Tell Them Who You Are. "But obviously the relationship is not a Hallmark card and never will be. Still, the film allowed us to connect in certain ways that weren't possible without it."
The film's title is a characteristically egocentric quote from Haskell, who urged Mark as a boy to use his father's name to open doors. But papa Haskell also threatened to slam the door on Mark's documentary project halfway through the 18-month shoot. When Mark asked Haskell to sign a standard legal release enabling Mark to show the film publicly, Haskell refused, saying he would need to see the completed film before giving consent.
"If I were the subject of a documentary, I might do the same thing," Mark says. "We're both filmmakers, so we know what can be done in the editing room."
Ultimately Haskell gave his blessing to Mark's unflinching portrait, which also features interviews with other fucked-up kids of celebrity parents (e.g., Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas). "After we had a final cut, I arranged for him to see it, just the two of us," Mark says. "He was extremely emotional watching it, but he didn't ask for a single change."
Although Haskell hectors Mark about his "conservative" political views throughout Tell Them Who You Are, the film leaves Mark's politics undefined, and he declines to discuss them in detail. "I may not be as conservative as the movie makes people think," he says. "My dad is probably further to the left than I am to the right."
This isn't the first time that Mark has used his personal life as grist for a documentary. His first film, Me and My Matchmaker (1999), chronicled his tentative attempts to find a mate using the services of an Orthodox Jewish yenta. (He remains single.)
Mark believes Haskell is proud of Tell Them Who You Are, but hasn't heard his father say so. "I've shown the film to a friend and he said, 'You know, if I went into a McDonald's and went postal and killed 30 people, my dad would say 'Jim, you're a great marksman.'" Mark adds, "But that's not my dad's parenting style."
Tell Them Who You Are opens at the Music Box on Friday 20.