Musings

Haskell, Not Related   12/27/15

Haskell Wexler was a family friend.  My dad, Sy, knew Haskell from the early days of Hollywood filmmaking, and had many mutual friends.  Sy was an educational filmmaker, and active in the cinema community in Los Angeles starting in the late 1940’s.  Somehow the two knew each other, and shared many good times together over the years. Playboy film critic Arthur Knight,  esteemed  editor Irving Lerner, novelist and well known writer Ben Maddow and Haskell were frequent  dinner guests at our house on many occasions, and Haskell’s distinct voice and laugh still echo in my mind, as I tried to overhear the lively conversations from my bedroom. Besides my dad’s jokes, which brought racous laughter, filmmaking, war and politics, changing social values and the state of the planet were frequent subjects.

For my bar mitzvah, I received from a $100 stock certificate for Allied radio, owned by Haskell’s family.  That was the first and only stock I every received, and I treasured it, but later cashed it in for 8 cents.  Didn’t matter, because Haskell was such a large personality and my parents totally admired his work and craft.  Sy and Haskell shared credits on The Savage Eye, and Haskell was interviewed for an educational film about the creative process, produced by Sy.

When I was 12, I announced that I wanted to be a cinematographer, after seeing The Professionals, shot by another family friend, Conrad Hall. My mother called Haskell and told him the news…he said, “Great, but can he spell it?  Later, my dad bought for me Haskell’s NPR camera, with rare Beala motor, and custom handgrip.  I shot many rolls of ASA 25 ECO with that camera, very confortable on the shoulder or on a tripod, and I miss those days.  I still have the camera.

We occasionally visited Haskell and his family at their home in the Hollywood hills, and marveled at the racecar in the garage…and the always-interesting food nibbles his wife prepared.

One year he paid me and a buddy to clean out his storage in the attic at Hollywood Rentals, a dusty but overflowing mountain of camera gear, collectables and artifacts, all with a story attached. He approved of the final inspection, which left him more room to stash memories.

Haskell was at my son Aaron ‘s first birthday, and was incredulous when I told him Aaron was sleeping….Haskell said “Wake him up! He’s missing everything!

His work was always interesting, simple and unobtrusive, In The Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair, my favorites for their entertainment, suspense, story and of course I knew the man behind the camera!

Haskell, Conrad,….only the first names need to be heard to know who they were and what great cinema they contributed.

I loved his camera work, like millions, and our family watched in black and white as he accepted his Academy Award with few simple words “For Peace and for Love”, ...my mother gasped and said ‘Bravo Haskell!

The man brought enjoyment, inspiration and creative thinking to millions, and will continue to do so for generations. What a life!

Interesting People I have met:

Ansel Adams, Nadia Boulanger, Conrad Hall, The Dali Lama, Ronald Reagan, Peter Herd, Sandy Kofax, Leonard Orr, Rachael Rosenthal...

SHOOT NOTES  JOHNNY MORRAN, feature, June 2003, photographed with Panasonic Varicam.

I recently finished my second feature shooting with the Panasonic Varicam. The entire film took place in a working bar, in the heart of Hollywood. Originally a stage play, the story is about 9 regulars who talk about life, death and everything in-between. The practical set was lined on one entire length with mirrors, which were problematic, but we managed to use effectively. With little power available in the circa 20's building, we had a small Honda Geni humming away in the street, feeding 16 Dedo lights hanging from wall stretchers. My home built 12v 25w RV light bulb in a soup can powered from an auto emergency 12v power supply provided sufficient and a highly maneuverable eye light.

The camera worked hand held, with a custom Birns and Sawyer hand grip, on a Porta Jib and on various sticks. I wished for an Easy Slider for more precise positioning within the confines of a bar, but the ball head at least let us tip the sticks for some reach. Only problem happened early on, when the camera frequently went into self cleaning mode, making it the noisiest thing on the set. We replaced it with different body and never had another problem. Through Michael Bravin of Band Pro, I was fortunate to obtain a set of Digi Primes for the shoot, which gave us a look that was sharp, contrasty, deep blacks, occasional not quite blown out highlights, and ease in using selective focus for dramatic effect. I pulled stop for the opening shot, looking out the door of the bar to connect us with busy Cahuenga Blvd. Panning around, I went from f16 to f1.6 smoothly. We used the 7mm, 10mm, 14mm, 20mm, 28mm, and 40mm, and they seem to be the best of any of the video lenses I have used. The simple and easy to use back focus tool kept everything at prescribed tolerances, important in a location with many lens changes, a camera running 10 hours a day, and no air conditioning. Although we shot the entire piece at f1.6, lighting off the 17' Panasonic monitor, the editor reported no soft focus, flares, missing pixels or sound drop outs. I did notice the color perception of my operating eye would change after a few hours of close viewing the eyepiece monitor, something I don't like about shooting video, but I guess that comes with the territory. The eyeball strain suggests maybe I should pay more attention to eye nutrients. The camera set up numbers I preferred to use are from local shooter Deanna Esmaeel, which gave us a middle of the road look, yet film like in quality, sort of like Fuji stock. No filters were used, preferring to soften light at the source, and am looking forward to the HD on-line and film out. I believe the Varicam/Digi Prime combination offers a highly effective package.

Notes from Location: June 1997

Most of us working in the film business pride ourselves on the quality of our work, and prefer to be involved on artistic endeavors that can entertain, motivate and move audiences to new and exciting heights of adventure, storytelling, laughter and emotion, while providing a showcase for sometimes amazing audio visual experiences. Whether it be features, sitcoms, documentaries or video reportage, freelancers have a great opportunity to work, create and learn on a wide variety of projects.

However, sometimes the assignment is not necessarily high concept, not "art house circuit," not a career move, but just a gig that calls for good work.

Its 7am and the temperature is in the low nineties. I open the motel room door and am hit by a wall of humidity that is oppressive and exhilarating, amazing for this Hollywood native. We fall in our respective positions in a ragged line of assorted vehicles, and journey across town to the day's location. I am sitting in the back of our camera van, steadying the Arri BL with my feet, applying sun screen and reading the script pages for the days work. I am the DP on this shoot, RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH, produced and directed by the king of the low budget-busty-babes-in-bikinis-with-bombs-and-bullets feature series, Andy Sidaris. This is my 6th film with Andy, and so I know the approximated plan for the day: as many set ups as possible shooting the least amount of film, an explosion or two, perhaps a chase on motorcycles or jet skies, love scene, shower or hot tub situation, some firecracker gagged bullet hits, and cleavage whenever possible. Lunch, when the caterer is ready. Andy's films are popular overseas, are consistently among the top national rentals, out performing many studio releases, and run on cable, somewhere, just about every night.

My first feature ad DP, and my first project with Andy was MALIBU EXPRESS, in 1984. It was shot with a 2C inside a Cine 60 blimp, with standard primes and a 25-250 zoom. I was coeditor on the film as well, learning the elements of storytelling and the importance of coverage, pacing, screen direction and slating. I went on to shoot 4 more Sidaris films, HARD TICKET TO HAWAII, SAVAGE BEACH, PICASSO TRIGGER, and GUNS, finally giving way to DP Mark Morris. But now, shooting in Andy's hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana, we are reunited for another of his simple, colorful, very successful films.

Our equipment package is a BL 4, an Arri 111, two Eyemos, and the same 2C we used 12 years earlier. We have 1 gold and 2 silver shinny boards, a couple of 1ks, a 2k, 3 midgets, and in lue of HMI's, my 2 2FAYS,' which provide daylight without a ballast. Our only "toy" is a Losmandy jib arm, mainly used to facilitate quicker set ups and to import a few "production value" camera moves. Our 21 person crew is 2 camera assistants, mixer, boomer, gaffer, two griptricians, make up, wardrobe, transportation, and a few local PA's, who start a bit bewildered but soon warm up to our speed. Several former Sidaris crew have gone on to bigger projects, amongst them John Vecchio, rigging gaffer for "GILBERT GRAPE, EDWARD SCISSORS HANDS, and ED WOOD; Voya Mikulic, gaffer on DOLORES CLAIBORNE, PAYBACK; and Steve Gerghie, script supervisor on BREAKDOWN. Many other crew folks paid their dues on a Sidaris project.

This is my 40th feature, and even this mostly day exterior shoot takes all the experience and discipline I have been fortunate to retain in 25 years of shooting. Andy works at top speed, without video tap, his infectious enthusiasm contagious, and despite the heat and humidity, the crew rallies together to get the most out of the day.

Two weeks later, back in Los Angeles, we convene in the parking lot of a Burger King, and head off to steal a few shots of our principles walking though the LA airport. Heads turn as 6'1" actress/Penthouse Pet of the Year Julie Strain poses purposefully beside a Mercedes 500SL as we struggle to record a few lines of dialogue over the din of the surrounding planes and traffic. We do get it, as well as a few extra shots, and are exiting as airport security slowly cruses by. Six set ups, 1/4 page sync dialogue, airport production value and $8 in location/parking fees. Approximate time: 22 minutes.

Back at The Sidaris manse, we watch for the first time 1/2" dailies. The crew and I marvel at the intense green of our Louisiana exteriors, and how great the women look. Doubling Hawaii in Shreveport, the #1 coral with pola gives the look an expensive patina, and our 6 plastic ferns artfully placed for effect really makes the settings tropical. Nobody will know this Hawaii based story was shot on a minimal budget, a couple of shinny boards, small crew and no dolly. The great cooperation of the film commission and good old southern hospitality amongst the locals really helped.

One of the secrets to successful low-budget-high-production-value film making that I have learned, is to go out with minimal equipment, small crew and get plenty of coverage for editing. A few inexpensive toys can help occasionally, but the idea is to work hard and fast. On this shoot, our 5 ton Ryder rental truck has a few shelves to carry the lighting package, but most of the room is taken up by plastic tropical plants, wardrobe and props. The Sidaris van, a 91 Econoline, is shelved and has a roof mounted camera rack. The camera package, from Hollywood Camera, in LA, is minimal and basic. A few of my "candy" filters help us deal with hot skies, coloring parts of the frame, and embellishing sunsets. The successful Sidaris look is Kodak 1/2 stop overexposed, clearly lit faces, plenty of cleavage, and lots of cuts. It's not sexist, and according to Andy's wife, producer Arlene, their films celebrate the human body, male and female.

The cast and camera crew are briefly relaxing in the outside patio of a Burger King on Front Street, in downtown Lahina, on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The morning was spent getting shots of 3 ninjas, their "good guy" captive, and Playboy Playmate leader, on board a tourist submarine 1/2 mile offshore.

The work was hard, hand holding the Arri 111 in the tight quarters of the nose section of the sub. We get our shots and the usual extra coverage before making way for the patient tourists who don't seem to mind waiting in the hot Hawaiian sun for us to clamor out the hatch. The day moves slower than usual as we work around the popular tourist attraction's schedule, and we expose 800' for a scripted 1/8 of a page, a high ratio for any Sidaris sequence, but the sub is so unique that I convince Andy we are shooting material for his next epic.

We spend 3 days on Maui shooting wide shots, sunsets and boats, which will cut seamlessly with our Shreveport footage. 1st AC Ken Little, 2nd AC Cliff Jones and I are now the crew, and we get in a few minutes of world class snorkeling, one of the better benies of this gig, before setting up for two or our girls romping along the tourist soaked surf in skimpy suits, pretending to be on deserted Savage beach. We frame out bogies with the help of the doubler on the zoom, and when I see the dailies I am surprised at the great look of barren, Savage Beach island, on the exact spot of one of the world's busiest tourist spots.

A FEW THINGS TO THINK OF WHEN YOU GO OUT TO SHOOT A BIG PICTURE ON A SMALL BUDGET: Keep the camera and lighting package small, taking only the necessities. Prep and mark the gear well, making sure everything works easily. Take extra cables, tools, cans, bags, eyepiece chamois, air, and a 24 hour number to call in case of ? A Flexfill can be a lifesaver, as well as a few cube taps, hand dimmers, some party gels, various vitamins and a portable alarm clock. Keep the set ups to what can be managed quickly and safely. A good crew is a happy crew, and be communicative with newbies and local hires.

Whether we break new ground or shoot the same old same old stuff, be professional with your employer, thankful for the work, and recognize that as filmmakers we have the ability to entertain, educate and transform the world in which we live. Today's B movie genre of chases, car crashes, gunplay and tantalizing sexuality may give way to a more loving, heartfelt world, which will still need filmmakers and film crew.

The New York Times ran a lengthy piece on the Sidaris operation in the Arts and Leisure section, Sunday, August 3, 1997.

Return to Savage Beach and other Sidaris films are available on DVD.

www.andysidaris.com

Andy Sidars passed away March, 2007.

http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=asidaris

Letter to Arlene, March 9, 2007...

Dear Arlene....

I was saddened to hear of Andy's passing. I wish all the best to you and your family.

However sad the occasion is, I only have fond and happy memories of Andy. He gave me my first real start as a DP, and although nervous as hell on the boat in the Marina shooting Malibu Express, Andy made me feel confident and I was thrilled to be their with him. On that same film, while living in a 1 room apartment in Westwood with a newborn son, we shot in Bel Air, and I will always remember walking home to Westwood from location after wrap, reflecting on the day and fealing really good about the work. That film was my start in the business, and I am proud to say that Andy Sidaris gave me the opportunity.

Andy always asked about my son, Aaron, now 25, and he as was proud as I was about his accomplishments. His welcome was always warm and genuine, and whether it was a ham and cheese sandwich or a buffet in Las Vegas, he was always concerned with the comfort of myself and the rest of the crew. Andy had a big big heart, and looked me straight in the eye and was direct with his communication. I hope to be as clear in my life.

We always had a close working relationship, and Andy mentored me in the art of finding a 2 frame cut, nit picking as he called it, but it was ultimately brilliant. I probably learned more about the craft from Andy than from anyone else, even though he wasn't a trained filmmaker. It was timing, the thing he knew best. We always had a good time on the movies we did together, and as part of the Sidaris family, I will always be proud of my work for Malibu Bay Films. The world is a better place because of Andy, his contribution to the genre is legendary, and I feel very lucky to have known him.

I understand you will be having a memorial service for him, however, I am embarking on a working cruise to his favorite place, Hawaii. He brought me their for the first time many years ago, and somehow I have maintained that connection. I will reflect about Andy while looking at the sunsets, the beaches, the surf, and think about the filmmaking situations that we encountered together, that I will always remember with gratitude, love and laughter.

Sincerely,
Howard Wexle

©2004-2017Howard Wexler