The American War Crew: A Conversation with Warren Haack

A rebel at heart, Warren Haack is a former professor of Cinema at SFSU, an anti-war protestor and a lover of good music. Having freshly escaped the rain, we sat down to chat about his experience on-set in Vietnam during the filming The American War and his memories of the social climate of the 1960’s in San Francisco.

5170913b23af6.image.jpgSophie Clement: So how did you get in to film, what was your journey?

Warren Haack: Well, I was a musician, I still am a musician, but it was in the 60s and I wasn’t very pleased with the club owners and the night life and breathing smoke and stuff… I came to SF State in the 60s to major in business and I hated it. I was supposed to take over my father’s business and it was not for me, I was flunking out and I had a friend who said “Hey Warren, there’s this class where all you do is watch film and then you write a paper and you get an A” so I took it and it changed my life and I became a film major. Because of my musical background, I got involved in sound instead of, say, cinematography. Then after I graduated I ran a recording studio downtown for 10 years; it was for an educational publishing company that made media for classrooms. That folded and I went surfing for a couple of years, so to speak, and then got a job here [at San Francisco State University] in Cinema.

SC: Wow, sounds like an interesting background.

WH: Yeah it is. Through the years I’ve done documentary films, although I did one narrative piece and it put me in the hospital, I got appendicitis from the stress so I’ll never do that again… Documentary film, in a way, is harder than narrative because it’s not tangible, unlike narrative where you’re working from a script, you have a shot list, you have a set and it’s kind of rote but with documentary you go out in the field, you have some ideas, you go start interviewing people and it usually doesn’t end up the way that you think, so then you have to… stick with your plan and not have a film or realize what’s going on and change it. And then even when you start editing you still don’t know what the film’s going to be about because it kind of reveals itself. So you sometimes have to be ready to change horses in midstream and come up with a new idea.

Do you like that about it?

I love that about it! Sometimes it really works out well – I did one film where it was just like every turn in the road was a new surprise that made it better – and then I’ve done some films where it’s just like, I don’t know with the grace of God how I’m going to get through this, this is just insane, what am I doing, you know. And then there’s some things that you never finish… I think it was James Broughton that used to say “You never really finish a film, you just abandon it” when it’s time to put it out there.

So do you also direct as well as doing sound design?

Well I do documentary film, which involves a certain kind of direction where you go out and interview people… so I guess you could say that I do. I think of directing more in terms of narrative, but yeah. I went to Cuba, I went back about six times on my own and shot a feature there about the music and dance because it was so outrageous, and that was the kind of thing where I literally got on the plane and I said, I have no idea what I’m going to find and what I’m going to do but I’m going back with my camera and I started making friends and shooting… and then I just went back, and back, and back, and ended up with a picture.

That’s cool! And it seems to me from everyone I’ve talked to so far that that’s how documentary happens – you meet someone, you go somewhere, you see something and you think, there’s more to this.

Exactly, you get a door open. And it’s really important in documentary to give back to the people that you take from and I’ve been talking to [Daniel] Bernardi about this and I really want to complete this whole thing by going back to Vietnam and seeing these people and thanking them again.

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So were you on set in Vietnam?

Oh yeah, I did the on-location sound.

And how was that?

It was a blast! I’d never been to Asia before. And we had Trang [the producer] along who was the person… who arranged everything. It was wonderful, it was really interesting. And this is why the film [The American War] is such an important film, because, even as a war protester in the sixties I had no idea what really went on, how much they were tortured, how bad it was and the kinds of things they did to win the war. I mean, the woman that was in charge of the “Longhair Women” who built the Ho Chi Minh trail; 400 women built the trail, that’s incredible! A thousand mile long trail through jungle and over mountains and stuff, how wonderful.

Did you enjoy experiencing things from a different perspective?

You know, being older I connected with people like Vo, who is my age, and the Longhair army woman is my age and we talked a bit about backpacking and stuff. I showed her my pack and she was interested in the new technology of packing because she had to carry twice her weight on her back in a basket, but she said “Oh no, not for me, I can’t lift it anymore”.

So the film is going to be shown in Vietnam then?

I hope so; I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be. I mean that’s one of Daniel’s most important aspirations is to have it accepted by the community that it came from.

And how did you end up being involved in this project?

Well I’ve known Bernardi since he was chair here [at San Francisco State University]… so we were talking one day and he said to me, “Warren, I’ve got three vets lined up in Vietnam that I wanna go interview; you wanna go and do sound?” and I said sure, so I got thinking and I said, “Daniel, you’re missing an opportunity. Don’t go over there and make three short films, let’s make a feature”. So it turned into a much bigger project and then Trang and her Dad, he was finding people at the last minute because there was one person that the government wouldn’t let us interview because he was subversive and then there was another person who actually died between the first time we were going and then the second time when we actually did go.

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Finding people was interesting; we went out to scout the Hoi An prison at night because we wanted to go film it during the day with another interviewee… well we went there and the guard, Huynh, who was in charge of the prison, was drunk and he came at us and said something like “These goddamn Americans come here and they just want to steal everything”… then the next day when we went back we had the official government person with us and his tune was completely different. And so then we started talking to him [Huynh] on the side and asked him if he’d like to be interviewed and that’s how we met him. And that’s an example of how documentaries evolve.

And do you think this is an important story?

Of course it is, it’s a very important story, to challenge the status quo of the American military is really important. I’m anti-war and anything that can stop war or slow it down is important… it’s what’s ruining the world… and the Western philosophy of divide and conquer and kill and exploit, its time in the sun is over, it’s time for something else. So if this film can help bring out the other side and help some people. In any filmmaking experience there’s preaching to the choir, well that’s good but doesn’t change anything, then there’s the hard edge, the hard Right or the Republicans or whatever, you might get to some of them and then there’s the middle of the road. This film is not going to appeal to the lazy, uneducated American, (and unfortunately that’s becoming more and more the norm in this country), because this film requires you to sit there and read subtitles and use your mind. So hopefully it will get on educational television, I sure hope so. I know it will get on television in Europe, Germany and Asia, they’re going to snap it up. What happens in America, who knows.

So tell me Warren, you were the right age to have been part of the armed forces during the Vietnam War, is that right?

Yes, I was the only person in my family who got drafted but I flunked my physical so I got out. They had a lottery every week.

And were you anti-war prior to being drafted?

Well, in my heart I’m anti-war… there were weekly protests… they don’t have protests here anymore like they had during the Vietnam War, there were mass protests in the city and in Oakland… a lot of it started in the Universities and then spread to downtown. Marches blocking the streets, all non-violent although some of it got bad when people started blocking railroad tracks going out of the Naval supply stations and the train ran over them. So it didn’t always turn out well, but it was a certain time, the sixties, it was the worst and the best. The worst was the war but what came out of it, in terms of culture, was the best – music, the bands, the dancing. The creative arts that came out of the sixties I think was a result of the oppression of that time, of the war, the contrast of the bad and the good.

Speaking of creative arts and anti-war protesting, you made a student film/documentary during that time called Selective Service System in which a young man intentionally shoots himself in the foot to avoid carrying out his service in the U.S. Army. The subject Dan Lovejoy, approached you about making this film, is that correct?

Yes he was also a student, a friend of mine who I’d known for some time. He wanted me to film this particular episode…

207735-selective-service-system-0-230-0-345-crop.jpgAnd it’s all real? He really shot himself?

Yeah it is, and there’s a lot of people who watch it and say “how did you get that effect?” because they just don’t want to acknowledge that someone would do this, but through history people have cut off their hands, they’ve shot themselves, they’ve done all kinds of things to avoid going to war. So I took pause on agreeing to do this but I realized that if I didn’t shoot it somebody else would because he was a man that was gonna do what he was gonna do so I agreed to do it.

Well he obviously had a very strong conviction about it!

Both of his parents were in the army so he was an army brat and his name had come up, for the draft.

And was this incident a secret? In the film the origins of the injury are kept quiet from the police and the ambulance crew… After the event, did he then come out and say, “I did this on purpose”?

No, not until afterwards. This is what I wish we could have filmed: when the ambulance arrived with a policeman, they wanted to know why the serial number had been filed off the rifle and they said “Until you answer that we’re not going to administer any first aid” and I was little concerned that he was bleeding but they said that he could lie there and bleed for another twenty minutes and it’d be no problem. And he didn’t anticipate hitting an artery.

For you, being there and filming that graphic scene, what was your experience?

I had never seen someone get shot before, or even an animal. I had the Eclair camera which holds 400 feet, which is thirteen minutes, so my instructions were, once it starts, don’t turn it off and I really wasn’t prepared for what I was seeing and that’s why the camera kept moving around because I would take my eye off the camera to look over there and see what was going on.

I think it takes a lot of guts to be a cameraman in that situation and record the details!

It brings up another issue in terms of filmmaking, probably more for news than for cinema, but at what point do you say no and put down the camera and help this person? In 1970, people were less inured to violence than they are now so it created quite a reputation and for me the making of The American War after the making of Selective Service System kind of completes this 50 year circle that started out with me as a war protester making a subversive anti-war film and actually Sam Green who did the Weather Underground called it “one of the most subversive shorts ever made”… then coming around to making The American War which is subversive in that it tells a truth that is not the mainstream truth. So when I saw the woman have a seizure in Danang when we were filming and I flashed back to Dan [Lovejoy] lying on the floor bleeding I realized wow, what a metaphor for a connection here, for me.

So the general mood of the everyday citizen toward the Vietnam War at that time was one of dissent?

Warren 2.pngThis is what I told the people that we interviewed [in Vietnam]: there were millions of anti-war protesters here, I mean it was a huge thing and they probably didn’t know it over there, just as we didn’t know how bad the war was and the atrocities that went on until I got involved in making this film… For a long time, films about war more glorified war than criticized it, like a lot of the major Hollywood films, but now that has turned around too. The Hurt Locker, which is really hard to watch – that doesn’t glorify war… finally the establishment has come around to making films telling the truth about the horrors of war.

Where do you think that glorification of war comes from? What do you think that’s about?

It’s about ego. Look at the Hollywood factory, the myth factory and the times, the sixties and the seventies, I mean look at the politicians, they never told the truth. Who’s kidding who? It’s part of the way the media works… broadcast is made to keep you dumb and make you buy stuff you don’t need and cinema is to empower you to wake up and take control of your life and think about the world. Those are two completely different philosophies and that’s why you can’t put them together. And that philosophy of broadcast is perhaps something that helped motivate the thinking behind the films that glorify war.

Check out Warren’s work here:

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