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Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, Medium Cool, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Coming Home, The Secret of Roan Inish, etc.) has worked with many of the world's most accomplished filmmakers. His son, director Mark Wexler, offers a look at his famous father's life, and in the process helps bring together a father and son the film industry once served to separate. Featuring interviews with George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, Elia Kazan, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Julia Roberts, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda.
 

 The Moment of Truth

Before I became a filmmaker, I was a photojournalist. It was a job that often put me in risky and dangerous situations. Hanging out of helicopters thousands of feet above ground, or finding myself with a loaded gun pointed at my head—these were all part of a day’s work. But none of the perils of photojournalism compare to the fear I’ve experienced as a documentary filmmaker: the moment when I show the completed film to my subject.

To make a meaningful documentary portrait of someone, you have to spend months—even years—with them. During this time, you develop a bond that even their closest friends don’t have. The subject puts his or her trust in you, and often allows you to film their most intimate and vulnerable moments. Then, after you’ve distilled hundreds of hours of film into a coherent, organic piece that you think tells the essential truth about someone, your subject sees his or her life played out on screen. The problem is, it’s often not what they think of as the “real” them.

Every scene can bring a different reaction from the one you expect. I happen to think that it’s my duty as a responsible filmmaker to show the finished product—the film in which they, and all their warts, have a starring role—to my subjects. In person.

Then, I have to sit quietly, while they tell me exactly what they think—usually in excruciating detail.

This is what I have come to call “the moment of truth.”

I learned from my photographer days not to show my subjects any photos until after the assignment was over. Seeing a still picture, particularly a candid one, is usually a shock and elicits reactions such as “Oh my God, is THAT what I look like???” The way we picture ourselves differs drastically from how we look in photos or on film, and this difference is starkly revealed when a subject sees his reproduction.

When I became a filmmaker, I remembered this lesson. After all, a film is millions of still photos, along with the added element of sound. And, if you don’t like looking at yourself on film, I bet you’re not going to like to listen!

It can be very hard for people to watch themselves, and harder still for them to accept the inescapable fact that thousands of other people are going to see them in all their glory. A word of advice to other documentary filmmakers: To avoid disaster, get a signed release from your subjects before you film a single frame.

But a signed release doesn’t let you off the hook entirely. You still have to show the film to your subjects. When I finished Me & My Matchmaker, I vividly remember the afternoon in Chicago when I went to the house of Irene Nathan, the Jewish matchmaker I’d been filming for nearly two years. I probably worried more about that screening than about making the film, debating endlessly where we should watch it, and whether to show it to her alone or with a group of her friends (who could hopefully convince her it was good if she didn’t like it).

We ended up in her kitchen watching the video on a tiny TV with rabbit ears. As the credits rolled, she turned to me and said, “My dining room table looks so messy in the movie. It’s a disgrace! Can you cut that part out?”

The stakes were much higher on my most recent film, Tell Them Who You Are, which is about my father, the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and our relationship. Being a veteran filmmaker and documentarian, he knew the power of the image and how, through the editing process, events could be portrayed in many different ways. That’s one of the reasons why he refused to sign a release until he saw the completed film.

I prepared for the screening by listing every scene he might object to—it was a long list—and wrote out detailed reasons as to why each one was important and had to stay in the film. I even consulted an astrologist to determine which day to show it to him. (Hey, Nancy Reagan uses one.)

While this film was being made, my father and I dealt with issues on camera that we had never talked about face-to-face. I came to know him better in two years of filmmaking than I had in a lifetime as his son. It was an intimate look at him and our relationship.

And now, he was going to see it all from my perspective, to step into my shoes and essentially look at himself through my eyes. The night before that screening, I got no sleep.

The one thing you can count on is that your subject’s reaction will always surprise you. After watching Tell Them Who You Are with my father, he praised it, said he hoped many people would see it, and didn’t ask for a single change. And, he signed the release!

It was a moment I’ll never forget.