By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist June 9, 2011 at 8:01AM
5. The legend goes that Néstor Almendros was replaced by Haskell Wexler because he was going blind. Though he was indeed losing his eyesight, Wexler replaced Almendros for very different reasons.
Almendros actually had to leave the set because he was scheduled to lens Francois Truffaut's "The Man Who Loved Women," a commitment the producers were well aware of. He only had approximately nine weeks to shoot "Days of Heaven," and per most Malick flicks, the director ran over...way over. Producer Harold Schneider (brother of BBS founder and “Days of Heaven” co-producer Burt Schneider) knew Almendros' time was running out and the cinematographer approached his friend Wexler to finish the work. Known for lensing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and "Bound For Glory" Wexler arrived for an overlapping week (according to Almendros’ biography) so the two cinematographers could compare notes.
“Néstor told me, ‘don’t use any diffusion, Haskell. Remember, natural light,’ ” Wexler remembered on the Criterion DVD, but he also seemed to suggest this method wasn’t exactly one that anyone should congratulate themselves over. “You don’t get any gold stars for not using the equipment. You may save the rental, but usually they’ve got the stuff in case you need ‘em so it’s not a virtue, I don’t think. But I think Néstor’s concept was good, it was a useful discipline.”
Still he followed Almendros' dictum for the most part, even against his better judgment. “There were some [darkly lit] shots that he thought would turn out to be black frames,” Weber said, “because there was no light, but he was wrong. There was definitely some low light footage that was on the edge, but we ended up using everything we wanted to use.”
"Néstor was an extraordinary guy, but as I recall his English wasn't perfect and he was also almost blind which was not an advantage for a DP,” Gere chuckled on the Criterion DVD, confirming the little-known eyesight issues of one of the world’s greatest cinematographers. “His ability was to feel light; [to him] it had a texture, it's tactile. He was a major, major artist; maybe a genius.”
According to Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” book on the golden age of 1970s American filmmaking, in order to evaluate his shots, Almendros "had one of his assistants take Polaroids of the scene, then examined them through very strong glasses.” It’s possible this is true, but Biskind was not on set, and over the years, many people have poked holes in his hugely entertaining book.
6. Wexler was initially not pleased at being given a simple “additional photography” credit on the film and felt he deserved more recognition for his work.
The Haskell Wexler extra on the Criterion DVD opens with a portentous and perhaps cryptic quote from the legendary DP. "Whatever I say I believe is true. I truly believe it’s true,” Wexler said. “However, I also truly believe it may not be true.” Considering nothing of major controversy is said after that point, we have to wonder what might have been cut out from the rest of the interview.
What Wexler is likely hinting at is his screen credit, or lack thereof. According to Roger Ebert, Wexler's grief (perhaps anger) over not getting what he deemed his proper credit extended for a very long time after the film was finished. In Ebert’s 1997 reappraising review of “Days of Heaven” he wrote, "There is a small credit at the end: ‘Additional photography by Haskell Wexler.’ Wexler, too, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers. That credit has always rankled him, and he once sent me a letter in which he described sitting in a theater with a stopwatch to prove that more than half of the footage was shot by him."
While that may be the case, according to Almendros’ biography, he worked on “Days of Heaven” for thirty five days, while Wexler worked on the picture for nineteen. The sting must have hurt Wexler even more when Almendros went on to win an Oscar for work that wasn't entirely his, but he’s since admitted he was wrong.
“I had a pretty strong ego trip there for a couple of weeks actually, wanting to get co-credit with Néstor,” Wexler admitted on the Criterion DVD. Ultimately his cooler head prevailed, according to this interview, and he understood why he was brought in. “My job was to see Néstor’s footage, try to maintain what he’s done and to do it to the best of my ability, and I was in awe of what I saw in the editing room, but I was also honored that they wanted me to go up there and [finish] it.”
According to Wexler in this Criterion interview, producer Burt Schneider tried to get him more credit just as the Criterion disc was coming out but he turned down the offer. "It's just photography, that's what lasts,” he said, finally sounding content with his contribution to the picture.