After Francis Ford Coppola fired him from The Conversation and replaced him with Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler was devastated. He would not have agreed to shoot his next feature, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had he known he would once again be fired and replaced with Bill Butler.
From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Wexler was active in the anti-war and hippie movements, and he knew Cuckoo’s Nest co-producer Saul Zaentz from attending demonstrations in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the time, Zaentz was co-owner of Fantasy Records, based in Berkeley. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be his first film with another novice producer, the actor Michael Douglas. Douglas had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s highly acclaimed novel, published in 1962, from his father, Kirk, and had asked Zaentz to collaborate with him in making it into a film.
The screenplay, by Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman, concerns R.P. McMurphy, a patient who’s been sent for evaluation to Oregon State Mental Hospital, where he shakes things up. McMurphy (like Wexler) questions rules and conventions, and challenges authority. His nemesis, Nurse Ratched is a rigid, sadistic disciplinarian who, under the guise of helping her charges, irreparably harms them.
Jack Nicholson, whom Wexler had known since they’d worked together on Studs Lonigan in 1960, would play McMurphy. Louise Fletcher would play Nurse Ratched and Milos Forman would direct. Forman had directed The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde, both Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, in his native Czechoslovakia. The small film Taking Off (1971) had been his first American movie.
When the producers suggested Wexler as cinematographer, Forman was concerned that, since Wexler had directed a film, he might try to encroach on Forman’s job. Nevertheless, he admired Wexler’s work, so he had dinner with him to see how they’d get along. Forman wrote in his memoir: “He struck me as the gentle, quiet type. He was very enthusiastic about Kesey’s book and the screenplay, which Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman had written. I wanted a sort of a raw, realistic look for the film, but not so tawdry that it would pull attention away from the story. Wexler said he knew exactly how to give me this look, so I offered him the job.”
Wexler can be extremely congenial, and he believes it’s his job to stay on schedule and on budget, make the leading lady look good (when the script calls for it), enhance the story’s interest with lighting, framing and emphasis, and help the director. And while often cooperative, he is also extremely independent. Unlike most other directors of photography, Wexler owned his own equipment and rented it to the production company. He said that studios discourage this because they relinquish some control. “It has to do with studios wanting to hire below-the-line workers, and they don’t want you to be loan-out companies or little entrepreneurs on your own,” he said. That view is shortsighted, he thinks, because cameramen who buy their equipment maintain it well and are accustomed to it, enabling them to do their job better than if they use rentals they need to get used to.
After Wexler was hired, Paul Sylbert, who won an Oscar a few years later for Heaven Can Wait, signed on as production designer. By January, 1975, the production company had been in Salem for a few months assembling a cast and preparing. They were shooting the film in an unused ward at Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, where the book is set. The hospital’s director, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, would play the head of the institution, and other patients and staff had small roles.
One day, about a week into rehearsals, Sylbert was in the production office trying to get some money for his crew, who had not been paid because the production had temporarily run out of money. Dr. Brooks came in with two women — the head psychiatrist and the head nurse– and told Sylbert he wanted to go to the ward where the actors were rehearsing, and where they would film. Sylbert said he’d accompany him. When they arrived, they walked to the front of the ward where the actors were rehearsing the pill distribution scene early in the film, where a nurse and orderlies give the patients medication. Sylbert recalled that he and Dr. Brooks were shocked to see that “It was bedlam. Milos was having them drag these patients to the pills, it was just like they were doing a 19th century madhouse.” Some of the patients were forced out of their wheelchairs and hauled across the floor.
Sylbert had had an intimation that Forman might want to portray an antiquated and inhumane mental hospital because the only research he’d given the production designer to guide him in devising the sets was a Life magazine article from the 1940s on institutions of the period. The story had pictures of patients in long smocks, walking like zombies and being treated horribly. Also, Forman had screened Frederick Wiseman’s 1966 documentary Titicut Follies for the cast and crew. That film, set in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, chronicles brutal guards bullying, taunting and humiliating inmates, who are confined, naked, in barren cells.
Sylbert continued, “Brooks was standing next to me, and he was a big guy, bigger than I am, anyway, and I could feel the heat rising in him. And all of a sudden, he let out a bellow and he said, ‘This has got to stop!’ And he charged toward Milos with the two women on his trail, saying, ‘This has got to stop! You have been here for weeks, months, don’t you have any idea how an institution is run?’ He chewed Milos’s ass up one side and down the other. And this is in front of everybody,” in the cast and crew.
Dr. Brooks was understandably concerned that an inhumane and inaccurate depiction of his hospital could damage its reputation and mislead audiences about treatment of mental patients in general. Additionally, portraying the hospital as chaotic at the beginning of the movie would undercut the drama and destroy the premise. Sylbert explained, “What you wanted was a calm, tranquilized, literally – that’s what a pill scene is, a tranquilized environment – in which somebody throws a rock. And that’s Randall McMurphy; he comes splashing into the institution. But if it’s not quiet and calm and tranquil to begin with, you don’t have a place to go.”
` Two days later, Sylbert had dinner at the steakhouse at his hotel in downtown Salem with William Redfield, who plays the patient Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest. At the time, the two men had been close friends for more than 20 years. Redfield told Sylbert, “Jack has taken over directing the actors.” Redfield said that every night a group of key actors who played poker in the film met in Nicholson’s room and rehearsed the following day’s scenes. According to Redfield, Nicholson’s confidence in Forman had been utterly destroyed when Dr. Brooks bawled him out, and Nicholson was directing the movie and refusing to speak to Forman. Years later, Sylbert confirmed Redfield’s account when he worked on Biloxi Blues with Wexler’s eventual replacement on Cuckoo’s Nest, cinematographer Bill Butler. Sylbert told Butler he’d heard that the actors met in Nicholson’s room each night to rehearse and that Nicholson refused to speak to the director. When Sylbert asked if that was true, Butler told him, “Yes. He never talked to Milos at all, he only talked to me.”
Unwilling to speak to the director, Nicholson turned to Wexler for guidance. After a take, he would sometimes look at Wexler to see how he responded to the performance. As well as making suggestions that Nicholson followed, Wexler also changed some dialogue. For example, after Big Chief says his first words, and takes another piece of gum from McMurphy, in the script he says, “Oh, gum.” Wexler suggested, “What if he says, ‘Juicy Fruit?’” Forman shot Wexler a dubious look but Nicholson piped up, “Yeah! Say ‘Juicy Fruit!’” So he did.
When the inmates were waiting in line in front of the glass booth for their medication, Wexler told Nicholson that he remembered at summer camp kids had spread the rumor that counselors were giving them saltpeter. So Nicholson added the line, “I don’t want to be slipped saltpeter.”
In another scene in the glass booth, Wexler wanted Nurse Ratched to look more sympathetic than in other shots. In some scenes he filmed her to make her look as if she were wearing a shiny white mask, since her habitually placid expression conceals the rage, frustration and hatred roiling beneath the surface. Louise Fletcher was in the booth and Wexler and his gaffer, Gary Holt, were 20 or 30 feet away setting up the shot. Wexler recalled, “I said, ‘Gary, what the fuck are we going to do about her face? It’s so flat. I’ve got to give her some kind of look.’ So, I don’t know what we worked out, but anyway, the next day she said to me, ‘Oh, Haskell, you don’t like my fucking flat face?’ So I thought, ‘Well, Gary Holt spilled the beans.’ That’s not the kind of thing you say to an actress. So I said, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and she said, ‘I read your lips.’” Fletcher’s parents were deaf so she read lips, and when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Cuckoo’s Nest, she translated her acceptance speech into sign language.
The hallway lighting caused another problem for Wexler. Guided by an image of Nurse Ratched as a fiendish mother hen smothering the eggs in her nest with her so-called love, Paul Sylbert had the hospital ward’s walls painted the shades of brown eggs; a brown dado with off-white above. Wexler installed fluorescent lights in the hall, but in those days no fluorescent lights were made specifically to be filmed. In an early scene Nurse Ratched walked down the hall, Wexler observed, “And really looked green. I mean a really bad green.” Apparently the paint had an undercoat of green that the fluorescents picked up. So, at night, Wexler had the standby painter repaint the hall to eliminate the green. Michael Douglas, Wexler recalled, was furious that he hadn’t discussed this beforehand with Sylbert, since this was the production designer’s purview.
Wexler was also challenged shooting the group therapy scenes. Forman wanted to have one camera constantly roving from actor to actor, so they would always give their best performances. Wexler operated the A camera, and had two other cameras moving among the actors, documentary style. However, as Forman noted, shooting this way prevented Wexler from lighting each actor as carefully as he could if the camera were more stationary. Forman later said, “It was not easy on the cameraman, the director of photography, because he had to light a space – practically 180 degrees of the space had to be lit – so it would be usable in the film for the wandering camera. And because when you are shooting in a real location you don’t have the height of a studio where you can hide and hang however many lights and lamps you wish, we had a low ceiling. So the whole job of lighting the scenes was very elaborate and very cleverly done by the cameraman I worked with, Haskell Wexler.”
Shooting on location also irked Wexler. Forman, on his DVD commentary over a group therapy scene, said, “These kinds of situations, when you are shooting on location, are driving the directors of photography crazy. You can see the windows, you can see that it is pretty bright on the outside. But you shoot this whole scene, this whole scene, it took a day or two to shoot and if you watch really carefully you see how difficult it is to control the same kind of mood behind the windows because the weather changes during the day. For a while it’s sunny, it becomes cloudy, it’s raining, but in the film you have to feel it’s the same all the time or you have to do it in a way that nobody notices these changes, which I think was accomplished by the cinematographer.”
Since most of the movie takes place inside, Wexler thought they should film in a warehouse or soundstage. He recalled, “Of course being the kind of person I am, I let everybody know it would be much better to just get a nice, big, huge set and we wouldn’t have to have all the problems we were going to have.” To simulate sunlight, they put arc lights outside the windows. But the carbon rods inside the arc lights burn down and must be replaced from time to time, and sometimes they had to put gel filters over the lights to simulate a different time of day.
Additionally, Wexler thought an American director would have been better suited to tell the story, and that a Czech might not fully understand the World Series or a Native American character such as Big Chief. Wexler felt that Forman needed help, but to others the cinematographer’s efforts amounted to meddling.
Indirectly and inadvertently, Wexler also spooked the producers. The FBI came snooping around the production offices, housed in a motel, asking questions about Wexler. He’d been under FBI surveillance intermittently since eighth grade, when he’d belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group that supported Spanish Republicans fighting Franco and the Spanish Nationalists in their civil war. Now, agents were looking into his association with the Weathermen, a radical left group that bombed government buildings and banks. In January of 1975 they bombed the U.S. State Department, to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. Wexler was friends of two of the group’s leaders, Bernardine Dohrn and Billy Ayers; he agreed with many of their ideas but deplored their methods. He explained, “This is an obvious case where all the good things they were for – being against racism, thinking about poor people – all the things which I very much agree with, go down the sewer by their choosing a path of violence.”
The same year as Cuckoo’s Nest, Wexler shot a film of the Weathermen, Underground, when the FBI was searching for them because of the State Department bombing and they were fugitives. Wexler remembered that contacting them was a cloak-and-dagger affair. First, the director Emile de Antonio called and asked Wexler if he would like to be considered to shoot “some secret stuff.” De Antonio told him that his name had been presented to the fugitives as someone who might be trustworthy. Knowing that de Antonio had directed Point of Order, a documentary about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Wexler agreed. Then, Wexler said, he was given elaborate instructions to shake a potential tail. He was told to drive down Highland Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard, and go into a Bob’s Big Boy there. He was to wait at the restaurant before going to a nearby phone booth and dialing a number. Then, he walked to Los Angeles High School Memorial Park, where a man wearing a fake beard was sitting on a bench. The fellow said, “Hello, Haskell,” and questioned him about where he’d been, what he’d seen.
They continued to vet him, intermittently, until one night they blindfolded him with a bandana and put him on the floor of a car. He was taken to a house that he concluded was near the beach because he could smell the ocean. Some of the Weathermen wore ski masks over their faces. Wexler shot the backs of their heads through cheesecloth as they talked. While he was filming them, Wexler remembered, “I said, ‘What a waste of dedicated, bright young people to have their lives chopped off because of their stupid decision to be violent.’ I said as much, diplomatically, but it was cut out of the film.”
So, although the FBI didn’t suspect Wexler of bombing any buildings, agents were keeping an eye on him, and their presence exacerbated the friction he was causing on the set. Forman later maintained that Wexler’s complaints jeopardized the picture: a few actors “told me that Wexler had been expressing his doubts as to whether I was competent enough to make this particular movie. Before long, the producers heard the same mutterings. They weren’t about to let the situation simmer; they had the most to lose if morale started to suffer.”
Wexler is sufficiently honest and self-aware to admit he was interfering: “I was my usual smartass, let’s put it that way. In areas and places where people shouldn’t be told, ‘Dummy, you’re doing it the wrong way.’” Sylbert observed of Wexler, “It’s his feeling that he’s better than anybody he’s working with, in any area.”
Wexler’s hubris doomed him. Forman had his big opportunity to film an acclaimed book with a star actor. But he was threatened when Nicholson stopped talking to him and started communicating to him through Wexler, an aggressive, opinionated cameraman who was also a respected director. Sylbert thought that with Wexler’s “attitude toward directors, thinking he was better than they are – when you’ve got a director, when you’ve got blood in the water and you’ve got a shark like Wexler – Milos must have felt he was going to be killed.”
Instead, Forman survived and Michael Douglas fired Wexler, when he had nearly finished shooting the movie. The producers hired Bill Butler to film the final scenes —the party and its aftermath. The production then went over schedule, Butler had to leave for another commitment, and William Fraker shot the fishing expedition.
Wexler said he was crushed over being fired from his second Hollywood film in a row: “I wanted to commit suicide. I was so depressed. I was so hit by this kind of firing. I mean, I’m not exaggerating, I was just wiped out.”
Douglas has always said he fired Wexler because of creative differences, not his cinematography. Wexler was on schedule and he said everybody patted each other on the back when they saw his dailies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Best Cinematography. The nomination went to Bill Butler as well as Wexler, because Butler is credited with “additional photography” on the film. The award went to John Alcott for Barry Lyndon instead. But Cuckoo’s Nest was the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep the top five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.