PARK CITY, Utah — "Hey, I'm going to be 83 in a couple of weeks," Haskell Wexler says, the fire in his voice contradicting his age. "This could be the last thing I shoot, and goddamn it I was going to make the best film I could. I'm worried about America, I'm worried about my grandchildren, I'm worried about my country."
Acknowledged worldwide as one of film's master cinematographers, nominated for five Oscars and winner of two, Wexler has always been a man passionate about social issues. But in his strong new documentary, "Who Needs Sleep?" which was set to debut Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival, he has provocatively joined his two concerns, taking a movie-business issue and gradually revealing its wider implications.
"This 24/7 culture must stop," he says simply. "The only thing we really own is our time, and I fear it's being taken over. Who is going to have time to read a book or talk to their wife?"
The genesis of "Who Needs Sleep?" was a 1997 event that shook working Hollywood. Assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, driving home after a 19-hour day on the set of "Pleasantville," fell asleep behind the wheel and died in the resulting crash.
"His daughter was sick and he'd promised her he'd be back as soon as he could," Wexler says, still troubled. "John Lindley, the [director of photography] on the film, said to me, 'What if Brent had run into a school bus?' " So Wexler embarked on an examination of what in the culture of Hollywood makes these inhuman on-set hours the norm, not the exception.
"Producers do what they do, but they do it incorrectly and stupidly," he says, warming to the subject. "Shooting long hours doesn't really save them money, but some people at computers at international headquarters of international corporations who know nothing about the film business decided paying overtime was not of any consequence. So that's how this system came about."
"I'm a well-known leftist, my tendency is to get on a soapbox, but doing a documentary for me has always been a learning process," continues Wexler, who gave a co-directing credit to his editor, Lisa Leeman. He embarked on an extensive investigation of the sleep process, discovering among other things, as Dr. Eve Van Cauter says on film, "Sleep deprivation is unique to the human. There is no other animal that sleep-deprives itself."
Wexler also confirmed what anyone who puts off going to bed already knows: No one performs well without sleep. "We work in a potentially dangerous business," the director says. "Even actors were saying, 'It's bad enough I can't remember my lines, I don't want the guy on that cherry-picker crane to be sleep-deprived.' "
Because everyone on sets understood the problem, when Hershman's death happened Wexler remembers that he "sat at a table with representatives of all the major studios and their lawyers, all saying publicly that working these insane hours has to stop." But it's eight years later and it hasn't stopped, and a frustrated Wexler has some theories why.
"For one thing, the producers were concerned that all the guilds spoke unanimously on one issue; they imagined the specter of everyone's contracts expiring at one time," he says of a classic management fear of worker solidarity. "And there was a term President Bush used: We don't want our managerial flexibility impeded. I heard an interview with Thom Mount (former head of the Producers Guild) and he said most of the producers hoped the issue would quietly go away."
Making these factors worse, especially for the on-set workers, is Wexler's contention that "the places that could insulate us from avarice and greed have failed us. OSHA, the unions, the EPA, you name it. OSHA gave us the runaround, the unions gave us the super-runaround. The unions are in bed with the producers; they make deals without ever consulting or listening to the workers at all."
"Who Needs Sleep?" also examines the situation in Europe, where French crews, for instance, insist on proper meal breaks. "Marty Scorsese told me that when they were shooting 'Gangs of New York' in Italy, they fell behind and the people in New York told them they would have to work six-day weeks. He went to the Italian crew and they looked at him and said, 'It's the weekend.' Marty said, 'But we'll be paying overtime.' And they said, 'It's the weekend.' " And that was that.
It's when he talks about the effect this culture-wide mania for excessive working hours is having on our society that Wexler is at his most eloquent. "We have to stop this way of identifying ourselves with our work. These ideas of manliness, of being able to cut the mustard, to do the job, are so inculcated in us that it makes us accepting of situations that are unsafe and unhealthy.
"What I learned making this thing, and I'm trying to say this without sounding more pompous than I usually do, is that the scale between human values and corporate values is askew."
Though he can sound as implacable as an Old Testament prophet, one thing brings tears to Wexler's eyes and that is the mentioning of his great friend and fellow master cinematographer, the late Conrad Hall, featured prominently in "Who Needs Sleep?"
"I can't look at some of that footage, I can't think about Conrad," Wexler says, overcome. "We were complete opposites in personality, he was such a lovely, good man, a lover, a dreamer, a Tahitian. I wanted the film to be good for Conrad."