HomeLife-Changing MoviesHaskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Haskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Delving into the Timeless Cinematic Impact of Haskell Wexler, an Innovative Filmmaker Ahead of His Era. How did he melt his talent into film-making? The truth unfolds here.

Haskell Wexler, a luminary in the realm of cinematography, carved an indelible mark on the film industry with his unparalleled vision and artistic prowess.

Renowned for his ability to infuse raw emotion and social commentary into his work, Wexler’s cinematography transcended mere visual storytelling, serving as a powerful medium for advocating social change.

Whether chronicling the turbulence of the 1960s in “Medium Cool” or delving into the complexities of human relationships in “Bound for Glory,” Wexler’s work exuded a rare blend of visual poetry and unflinching social relevance.

Also Read More: Hitchcock And Grant: Darkness Behind The Charm

Haskell Wexler: “The Conversation” Influenced to Work On “One Flew Over the Cuckko’s Nest”

Devastated after being replaced by Bill Butler in “The Conversation,” Haskell Wexler’s reluctance to shoot “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” stemmed from the fear of facing a similar fate.

However, his acquaintance with co-producer Saul Zaentz, forged during their involvement in the anti-war and hippie movements, ultimately led him to embark on the project.

This collaboration with novice producer Michael Douglas, who had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s renowned novel, saw Wexler brought on board to visually depict the compelling tale of R.P. McMurphy.

The screenplay’s portrayal of McMurphy’s defiance against authoritarian Nurse Ratched resonated with Wexler, reflecting his own tendency to question conventions and rebel against rigid norms.

Haskell Wexler: Collaboration With Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson, a familiar face to Haskell Wexler since their collaboration on Studs Lonigan in 1960, was cast as McMurphy.

Louise Fletcher was chosen for the role of Nurse Ratched under the direction of Milos Forman.

Forman, known for his acclaimed works in Czechoslovakia, initially harbored concerns about Wexler encroaching on his directorial responsibilities due to his experience.

Despite this, Forman’s admiration for Wexler’s artistry prompted a dinner meeting to gauge their compatibility.

During their meeting, Wexler’s genuine enthusiasm for Kesey’s book and the screenplay resonated with Forman.

Haskell Wexler
Haskell Wexler

Wexler’s assurance of delivering a raw, realistic aesthetic without overshadowing the narrative captivated Forman, leading to the pivotal decision to entrust Wexler with the cinematography.

This encounter began a collaborative journey that would ultimately shape the visual narrative of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Renowned for his amiable nature and unwavering commitment to the craft, Wexler sees his role as adhering to schedules and budgets and accentuating.

When the script demands, the leading lady’s allure enriches the story through his mastery of lighting, framing, and emphasis.

While he values collaboration, his fiercely independent spirit sets him apart from other directors of photography.

In a departure from the norm, Wexler’s ownership of his own equipment, which he leased to production companies, posed a challenge to the conventional studio hierarchy.

He believed studios were wary of this practice as it diluted their control over production.

Wexler contended that camera operators who owned their equipment were better equipped to deliver exceptional results, as they were intimately familiar with their gear, unlike those reliant on rented equipment.

This testament to Wexler’s dedication and ingenuity underscored his unyielding pursuit of excellence in his craft.

Haskell Wexler Influence On Oscar-winning Production

After Haskell Wexler was brought on board, Paul Sylbert, an Oscar-winning production designer, joined the team, and preparations for the film commenced at the Oregon State Mental Hospital.

Dr. Dean R. Brooks, the hospital’s director, assumed the role of the head of the institution, while other patients and staff were also given minor roles.

However, during rehearsals, a temporary financial setback caused unrest among the crew.

Amidst this, a concerning incident unfolded during rehearsals at the hospital. Dr. Brooks, accompanied by the head psychiatrist and head nurse, visited the ward where the actors were rehearsing, only to witness a distressing scene.

They found the director, Milos Forman, orchestrating a chaotic and unsettling enactment of a pill distribution scene reminiscent of a 19th-century psychiatric hospital.

Patients were being mishandled, and some were forced out of their wheelchairs, leading to shock and dismay among the hospital staff and production team.

Sylbert had a premonition that Forman intended to depict a grim and archaic mental hospital setting.

This suspicion arose from the limited research material he provided, which consisted solely of a 1940s Life magazine article.

It depicts the deplorable conditions and mistreatment prevalent in mental institutions of that era.

The haunting images of patients in tattered smocks, moving listlessly, and enduring inhumane treatment served as the primary reference for the production designer.

Moreover, Forman’s decision to screen Frederick Wiseman’s impactful documentary “Titicut Follies” for the cast and crew further reinforced this bleak vision.

The documentary, centered around the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, vividly portrayed the brutality and degradation suffered by the inmates, evoking a sense of despair and desolation.

These influences shaped Forman’s approach, paving the way for a harrowing portrayal of the institutionalized in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Sylbert continued, recalling the incident, “Brooks, who was more significant than me, stood beside me, and I sensed his increasing frustration.
Suddenly, he erupted with a loud exclamation, declaring, ‘This needs to end!’ He stormed towards Milos, trailed by the two women, emphasizing, ‘This has to stop!
You’ve been here for weeks, months – don’t you understand how an institution operates?’ Brooks vehemently reprimanded Milos before the entire cast and crew, criticizing him thoroughly.”

Dr. Brooks Conforntation With Milos Forman

Dr. Brooks, deeply concerned about the inaccurate portrayal of his hospital and the potential negative impact on its reputation, confronted Milos Forman, the director, about the need for a more realistic and tranquil depiction.

Sylbert emphasized the necessity of establishing a serene environment at the outset to contrast with the disruptive arrival of Randall McMurphy.

He stressed the importance of creating a calm setting as the foundation for the ensuing dramatic tension.

Shortly after that, during a dinner at a downtown Salem hotel steakhouse, William Redfield, who portrayed patient Harding in the film, disclosed to Sylbert that Jack Nicholson.

Haskell Wexler on one of his work
Haskell Wexler on one of his work.

It was revealed that Nicholson and a group of critical actors held nightly rehearsals in his room, effectively sidelining Forman and assuming directorial responsibilities.

This shift in leadership stemmed from Nicholson’s loss of confidence in Forman after the altercation with Dr. Brooks.

Sylbert later confirmed this account while working on another project, “Biloxi Blues,” with cinematographer Bill Butler, who affirmed that Nicholson had refused to communicate with Forman and had directed the film through Butler.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Jack Nicholson Seeks Guidance from Wexler

During filming “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Jack Nicholson, disillusioned with director Milos Forman, turned to Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, for guidance.

Instead of directly engaging with Forman, Nicholson sought Wexler’s feedback after each take, often incorporating his suggestions and altering dialogue.

One notable instance was when Wexler proposed a change in Chief’s dialogue, suggesting the line “Juicy Fruit” instead of “Oh, gum.”

Despite Forman’s skepticism, Nicholson supported the idea, leading to the alteration in the script.

Furthermore, Wexler’s recollection of a summer camp rumor about saltpeter prompted Nicholson to incorporate the line,

“I don’t want to be slipped saltpeter,” during a scene where the inmates were waiting in line for their medication.

These instances illustrate Nicholson’s collaborative approach with Wexler and his proactive involvement in shaping the film’s dialogue and performances.

While filming a scene featuring Nurse Ratched in the glass booth,  Haskell Wexler aimed to capture a more sympathetic portrayal of the character, diverging from her usual stern appearance.

Wexler and his gaffer, Gary Holt, discussed how to infuse more depth into the character’s expression, as her seemingly calm demeanor concealed a tumult of emotions beneath the surface.

While setting up the shot at a distance, Wexler and Holt deliberated on how to address the issue of Ratched’s flat facial expression.

Unbeknownst to them, Louise Fletcher, the actress portraying Nurse Ratched, overheard their conversation. The following day, Fletcher candidly confronted Wexler about her perceived “flat face,” revealing that she had read his lips.

This revelation surprised Wexler, as he had not intended for his concerns to reach the actress in such a manner.

Interestingly, Fletcher’s ability to read lips stemmed from her upbringing, as her parents were deaf.

This unique skill allowed her to grasp Wexler’s unintended remarks and proved instrumental in her future Oscar acceptance speech.

The speech was for her role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where she thoughtfully translated her words into sign language as a tribute to her parents.

Louise Fletcher: Reacts To Wexler Discussing Her “Flat Face”

The hallway lighting posed a significant challenge for cinematographer Haskell Wexler during the filming of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The hospital ward’s walls, painted in shades resembling brown eggs to symbolize Nurse Ratched’s smothering care, inadvertently interacted with the fluorescent lights, casting a ghastly green tint on the surroundings.

Wexler promptly rectified the issue, having the hall repainted at night to eliminate the unwanted green hue, a decision that later drew the ire of Michael Douglas.

Furthermore, Wexler encountered difficulties while shooting the group therapy scenes, as director Milos Forman sought to capture the raw emotion of the actors through continuous roving shots.

While enhancing the performances, this approach limited Wexler’s ability to meticulously light each actor, given the constraints of the actual location and the need for a constantly moving camera.

Forman acknowledged the challenges this posed for Wexler, praising his elaborate and clever lighting techniques within the confined space.

Despite the complexities, Wexler’s resourcefulness and expertise contributed to the film’s visually compelling portrayal of the intense group therapy sessions.

Filming on location posed challenges for Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Director Milos Forman acknowledged the difficulties faced when shooting on location, particularly in maintaining a consistent mood and lighting amidst unpredictable weather changes.

Despite natural fluctuations, Forman highlighted the need to ensure continuity in the external environment, which he credited Wexler with achieving through his cinematography.

Wexler, however, expressed his reservations about filming on location, advocating for a controlled environment like a warehouse or soundstage instead.

To simulate sunlight, they utilized arc lights outside the windows. Yet, the maintenance of these lights, including replacing carbon rods and adjusting gel filters to mimic different times of day, presented additional challenges.

Furthermore, Wexler harbored concerns about the cultural understanding of the story.

Suggesting that an American director might better grasp elements such as the World Series and the portrayal of a Native American character like Big Chief.

His viewpoint, however, was met with resistance, with some perceiving his input as intrusive rather than helpful.

Welxler’s Involvement With Weathermen: Impact His Reputation

Inadvertently, Wexler’s involvement in political activities led to FBI scrutiny during the production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Wexler’s history of association with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and his connection to the weather forecasters attracted attention from the FBI.

Although he shared some ideological beliefs with the weather forecasters, he disapproved of their violent methods, emphasizing that their noble causes were overshadowed by their use of violence.

In the same year as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Wexler filmed a documentary about the Weathermen while they were fugitives.

The process of getting involved in the project was clandestine, involving covert communications and instructions to evade potential surveillance.

Wexler was approached by director Emile de Antonio, who presented the opportunity to shoot “secret stuff” involving the fugitives.

This led to a series of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers, including coded instructions to shake off potential tails and clandestine meetings with individuals connected to the fugitives.

These experiences shed light on the complex and intriguing intersections between Wexler’s cinematic work and his involvement in politically charged activities.

After being intermittently vetted, Wexler found himself blindfolded and transported to a house, presumably near the beach, due to the scent of the ocean.
Here, he encountered members of the Weathermen, some of whom concealed their identities with ski masks.

As Wexler discreetly filmed them, he couldn’t help but express his belief in the futility of their violent actions, albeit in a diplomatic manner. However, his candid remarks were later omitted from the film.

Despite not being implicated in any bombings, Wexler attracted FBI attention due to his association with the weather forecasters.

This surveillance only added to the tensions he was causing on the film set.

Director Milos Forman later revealed that Wexler’s vocalized doubts about the project and the director’s competence had a detrimental effect on the morale of the cast and crew.

The ensuing discord prompted concerns among the producers, who were keen to avert any potential damage to the film’s production.

Outlook On His Career: Wexler Firing Affects His Emotional Being

Haskell Wexler, known for his bold and opinionated nature, was entangled in a web of conflicts while filming a highly anticipated Hollywood production.

Despite his acclaimed cinematography, Wexler’s tendency to assert his opinions in areas beyond his jurisdiction created friction on the set.

This behavior, coupled with his perceived superiority complex, led to a breakdown in communication and strained relationships with key figures, including director Milos Forman and actor Jack Nicholson.

These tensions culminated in Wexler’s dismissal from the project, a blow that left him emotionally devastated.

While his firing was officially attributed to creative differences, the aftermath of this decision left Wexler reeling, expressing profound despair and a sense of personal failure.

Although the film received accolades and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, the behind-the-scenes turmoil overshadowed Wexler’s contributions.

Ultimately, the production overcame these challenges and succeeded, but the fallout from Wexler’s dismissal marked a difficult and disheartening chapter in his career.

Ashish Dahal
Ashish Dahal
Ashish is a prolific content writer, blends with the creativity with precision in his writing. His work, characterized by clarity and engaging storytelling has gathered a loyal readership. His passion for words fuels his constant pursuit of excellence.

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