CHAMPAIGN — After Haskell Wexler took over the shooting of "Days of Heaven," which was behind schedule, the original cinematographer gave Wexler some instructions.
"Nestor (Almendros) is a friend of mine, and he has a certain philosophy of how to do photography," Wexler related after the movie was shown during the opening of the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival on Wednesday night at the Virginia Theatre.
Almendros told Wexler to use only available light and not to use diffusion. "If the camera was just there and shot what was there, it would be honest," Wexler related.
Wexler, who quipped about using what was available on a movie crew truck, was assigned to maintain the kinds of lyrical images — one audience member compared them to those of painter Andrew Wyeth — that Almendros had begun.
Wexler said he did not use diffusion but did play with natural light, using big bounces. And for interior shots he used lights outside the house to simulate sunlight coming through a window.
Almendros set the visual tone of the movie, he said. But its imagery is director Terrence Malick's, not just those of the two cinematographers, Wexler said.
The legendary cameraman went on to say Malick is "a weird guy" who is "sort of ecologically spiritual." That's one reason for cuts to animals in "Days of Heaven" and for the relationship of the actors to the scenes, he said.
"They're almost wildlife in a way," film critic, editor and director Matt Zoller Seitz, who handled the Q-and-A with Wexler, said of the actors.
Starring in the movie, released in 1978, were Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz, then a teen-ager who narrates the story.
One reason the movie was behind schedule was Malick would have the cast rehearse during poor light and wait to shoot scenes until the mystic hour between day and night, when natural light is most interesting, Wexler said.
"There was a lot of dead time waiting for the best light," he said.
The Oscar-winning cinematographer said he did not have any talks with Malick while making "Days of Heaven." Unlike most Hollywood directors, Malick doesn't talk much, or point to give direction, Wexler said.
"Days of Heaven" won Almendros the Academy Award for best cinematography. Wexler was ineligible for the award, as he was credited with additional photography on the movie.
Wexler, who is 91, has two Oscars, among other awards, for best cinematography — one Academy Award came in 1966 for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and was the last one given for cinematography of a black-and-white film.
The other came for "Bound for Glory," the 1976 bio-pic about Woody Guthrie, whom Wexler, a World War II vet, had met during Wexler's time in the U.S. Merchant Marines.
In that movie Guthrie, played by David Carradine, hops freight trains to go West.
Wexler said he had wanted to be a hobo when he was young because he saw hobos near his childhood home in Chicago.
"When I graduated from high school I ran away with the May queen and we rode the rails to California," he said.
Seitz, though, recommended to the Ebertfest audience Wexler's "landmark" movie "Medium Cool," released in 1969. Ebert showed that movie at the 2003 Ebertfest, with Wexler as a guest.
Wexler wrote the fictional film and directed it, shooting it in cinema verite style during the riots at the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago.