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“We Were Inspired by Haskell the Activist, the Person, and Not the Hollywood Legend and Cinematographer”: Cinematographer and DOC NYC Honoree Joan Churchill and Sound Recordist Alan Barker on Their Wexler Doc, Shoot from the Heart

Alan Barker and Joan Churchill (Photo: Haskell Wexler)

Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) is the subject of Shoot from the Heart, a new documentary short by Joan Churchill and Alan Barker. Shot over a ten-year period, it follows Wexler as he works on a music video, interacts with film students, and accompanies Jane Fonda to a festival screening of Coming Home. A highlight of Shoot from the Heart is a dinner Wexler shares with documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. The meal extends over hours, with additional footage supplied by Chris Hegedus. As the two reminisce about Sally Rand and Joe Penner, three distinct approaches to documentary filmmaking emerge. It is a remarkable opportunity to learn how filmmakers work. 

Joan Churchill, ASC, has worked on a wide range of films, from Gimme Shelter to Soldier Girls. She has collaborated with filmmakers like Nick Broomfield, Barbara Kopple, Rory Kennedy, and many more. Churchill was the first documentary cinematographer accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers, and the first woman to receive the British Academy Award (BAFTA) – Flaherty Feature Documentary. She has served on the Documentary Executive Board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for over a decade. This year she will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from DOC NYC, and Shoot from the Heart will screen at the festival on November 11 before traveling to EnergaCAMERIMAGE and IDFA 2021.

Alan Barker has had a long career as a sound recordist and mixer, as well as cinematographer. He and Churchill have worked together for 35 years. Filmmaker spoke with Churchill and Barker by phone from their home in California.

Filmmaker: Let’s start by putting the footage of Shoot from the Heart in context.

Joan Churchill: We were inspired by Haskell the activist, the person, and not the Hollywood legend and cinematographer. Our interactions with him were what he was doing in the last ten years of his life, making social issue documentaries, where he frankly ran circles around us. We followed him as he pursued his passions — mentoring Latinx film students, filming protests, fighting the union to get them onboard with his “12 on 12 off” campaign for sane working hours. He was incredibly active and furious with the state of the world. But he also never gave up hope.

Alan Barker: I’d like to add that Haskell did not want to be filmed. He resisted it. So the footage we have of him is mostly off-the-cuff stuff we managed to shoot while he was engaged with something else, like a union dispute, or appearing at a film festival. 

He didn’t want to be the focus of anything. And he definitely didn’t want us following him around in public with cameras because it put attention on him that he did not want. So a lot of the footage was done with very primitive little consumer cameras that we could carry in our pockets. That was one of the technical challenges to making the film.

Churchill: I think the initial proposal was that Jane Fonda was going to Beirut to put on The Vagina Monologues with her friend Eve Ensler, and I said to Haskell, “Why don’t we shoot it together? And at the same time, we would make a film about him. We were sitting around a table with his wife Rita and the cinematographer Tom Siegel, and they all encouraged him. 

Haskell said he wanted to make an anti-war film. We ended up agreeing that we would help him do that, but at the same time we would be making a film about him.

Filmmaker: How much footage did you shoot?

Churchill: Well, we shot for ten years, so I would say a least a hundred hours.

Barker: That would be a bare minimum. But a lot of it is super informal. You know, stuff at dinners that we filmed with a little action camera we would put on the table. It was the only way we could get him because otherwise he would be self-conscious.

Churchill: Once he stopped shooting Hollywood films and devoted himself to making documentaries, he loved meeting our filmmaker friends. We would have these big dinners where he could meet all these documentarians. And since most of us were shooters, we would just sort of pass the camera around. 

One of the people that we brought early on was a trauma surgeon named Jonathan Kaplan, whom I met in Iraq. He’s lived his life on the frontlines of many hotspots in the world and can describe graphically what war is like. He’s written a wonderful book called The Dressing Station. Some of the others we shot with Haskell were Susan Meiselas, the photojournalist, and Hubert Sauper, who directed Darwin’s Nightmare. 

We had a great session with Saul Landau, who was Haskell’s documentary partner, talking about all the adventures they’d had in Latin America, shooting in high-stress, dangerous situations. 

Our plan is to do a series of short films with these people Haskell intersected with.

Barker: Shoot from the Heart is not “a film about a great man” in the conventional sense.  This is a short that introduces Haskell. It will be followed by a series of encounters Haskell had over the ten years we filmed him, encounters that will be available online.  This is a film in pieces, the viewers will choose which pieces they want to watch. Documentaries are usually too long.  This “film” or compilation of encounters will be even longer than the average film, with the difference that viewers can choose which parts to watch.

Filmmaker: How did D.A. Pennebaker get involved?

Churchill: I’ll lay the scene out for you. Chris [Hegedus] and Penny and Nick Doob had come to town to shoot something on spec. They went out and rented a JVC camera. On that day I had gone off really early in the morning with Haskell, who was running to become president of his union, local 600. Alan was off on another shoot, he’s gone, actually earning money. 

We came back in the evening and Penny and Chris and Nick are complaining about their camera. And I’m saying, “Well, check out my camera, it’s fantastic.” The beginning of the scene is Chris shooting with my camera, just to play around with it. And then we started having this conversation, which she fortunately was shooting. 

There’s three hours of material from that evening. Even though they’d known each other for years, Haskell and Penny didn’t know very much about each other. They discovered they were two years apart in age. They grew up in the same neighborhood in Chicago, used to go running in the same park. They listened to the same radio shows. They were just astounded that they had so much in common. 

Filmmaker: What was behind the decision to split up the dinner scene throughout the movie?

Churchill: It was so long, and we wanted to have as much of it as we could, so we just started experimenting. 

Barker: I think part of the concept was that the conversation between the two of them is really a debate about manipulation in documentary films. Joan is part of that debate as well. We cut from the debate to various types of footage. Incidentally, we don’t agree with Haskell, the ideas that he’s putting forth there. Neither did Penny. But we wanted Haskell to be able to state his piece. And he was such a compelling person that we felt that his opinion had equal weight to ours. And by the way, he actually approved of quite a bit of manipulation in documentary filmmaking.

Churchill: Most documentaries are put together that way. Nobody gives a second thought to asking somebody to wear the same clothing so that it can be intercut with earlier footage.

Barker: Also, it’s a common mistake to think that the positions that Joan and Penny take suggest there’s an objectivity to documentary filmmaking. There is no objectivity. I make the case, and I think Joan agrees, that vérité footage is actually some of the most subjective footage you can film, because it is a person’s point of view, someone who is not hiding behind interviews and establishing shots and preceding action and all the other conventions of most documentaries.

Filmmaker: Mr. Wexler seems to say that constructing a scene transforms footage in a way that makes it no longer as authentic. 

Barker: It’s one of those “throwing the baby out with the bath water” situations, because there is that element of subjectivity. Haskell’s willing to violate the reality of a situation substantially. Whereas what Joan and Penny are trying to do is convey the experience of having been there from a very personal point of view. It’s two very different approaches.

Churchill: Well, it’s actually three different approaches. I think a lot about what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I’m not sitting there like a cat just watching as Penny describes it.

Barker: You’re more engaged.

Churchill: Well, I’m trying to make sure that I have everything I need to make the scene. Maybe it’s because I started out as an editor.  Any shooter should be given the task of editing her own material in order to learn how to shoot a situation.

Barker: Cutaways…

Churchill: Different angles, which I don’t shoot as cutaways. I shoot as one continuous process, but one that can be edited.

Barker: Explain the exercise we do in seminars.

Churchill: We do a workshop where we take a fairly large group and put them around a table and have them improvise a scene where they’re confronting a smaller group of people. People take turns shooting the scene, and then I end up shooting a little bit so they can see what my choices are.

Barker: The reason for this exercise is it’s one of the hardest things to shoot in vérité.

Churchill: Because where are you going to be? How do you follow a conversation? You can’t get it in the middle of it because there’s a table. So you have to decide to rest the camera or try moving around. But, then you’re going to miss a lot.

Barker: I would add that one of our basic concepts is that you need to be part of the circle. In any human activity where there are more than two people, there is a circle of interaction. Rather than being outside that circle, observing it, you need to be part of that circle. And so in shooting the table scene, the vantage point that works best is to be at the table with the rest of the people, not back behind watching them.

Churchill: It’s astounding how many shooters stand back and shoot over people’s shoulders. I’m always trying to be part of the group. I spend a lot of time talking to people before I start shooting and saying, “Look, I’m probably going to be in your way a little bit, but I’m constantly moving. I hope you’ll understand.” And then people are fine. They’re happy to accommodate as long as you establish a relationship. 

Barker: The key to the circle concept is that a point of view is essential. It’s like having a clear point of view as a participant in what’s going on rather than as an observer.

Filmmaker: In the dinner scene you are asserting that you have a point of view, and Mr. Pennebaker says he doesn’t. He’s just observing. And Mr. Wexler says something about…

Churchill: “It’s all artifice.” And Penny’s response to that is fantastic. He said, “No, the situation is the dinner we’re having right now.”

Barker: Also Penny has that line about the object is not to “adorn,” which I think is a beautiful way of saying that, you know?

Filmmaker: Yes, but he’s still making choices.

Churchill: He would say he makes the choices in the editing.

Barker: Obviously he makes choices when he’s shooting, I think he’s overstating his position there.

Churchill: I worked with Penny a lot. Back in the days when we were shooting on 16 millimeter, he would put a 10 millimeter lens on the camera and just hold the camera down at the end of his arm and shoot without looking through the eyepiece at all. Sometimes it would be fabulous and sometimes it wouldn’t work.

Filmmaker: There’s a point where Mr. Wexler starts to tear up about something he’s shot. Was he always that passionate?

Churchill: He was very, very passionate. Yeah.

Barker: He was also angry a good deal at the time. Angry about the state of the world.

Filmmaker: That must have been difficult to deal with. 

Barker: Well, Haskell was not difficult to deal with, but the world was. He was a fighter. Fighting gave him energy. He never got tired of fighting, you know, fighting with the union, his anti-war activities, stating his opinions. He was a fighter and he enjoyed it. He thrived on it.

Churchill: Isn’t it interesting that at this very moment, the IATSE film workers union is about to strike over inhumane working conditions, including long hours, which was Haskell’s big battle at the end of his life?  He made a film about it called Who Needs Sleep?  The union leaders tried to keep him quiet, which was why he was running for president.  

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