A few years ago I read a brilliant book called The Man Who Heard Voices, about the making of M Night Shyamalan's ill-fated Lady in the Water. Since then I've wanted to speak to cinematographer Christopher Doyle who, on the set of that film, had a penchant for grabbing men's genitals, kissed women's stomachs and went pantsless when studio heads visited. "You're looking very fuckable," he said to one actress the first time he saw her in costume. Chris Doyle is well known for his passion for alcohol, often while he's working, and Shyamalan hired him because, as well as wanting a beautiful film, he wanted some "danger."
Chris, who was born in Sydney in 1952 but has lived everywhere, has worked extensively with Wong Kar Wai, as well as Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch. His new film, Shinji Imaoka's Underwater Love, is a pink film, a Japanese soft porn genre which dictates that the films must feature a certain amount of sex scenes, be shot in one week, and in single takes. Underwater Love concerns a woman in a fish factory who finds herself mixed up with a half-human creature that lives in the lake. It's also a musical, and while there's nothing particularly fantastic going on, its oddness has stuck with me. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to Skype Chris Doyle for half an hour last Sunday.
VICE: What have you been up to today? Day off?
Chris Doyle: No no no, always working, doing my new book.
What's it about?
It's called Why I Am Not A Painter, taken from the Frank O'Hara poem about the creative process. It's about my work, basically.
How long have you been working on it for?
Forever. My whole life! You know the classic, Picasso is in a café and he can't pay the bill so he makes a drawing on a napkin and he gives it to a waiter, and the waiter says, "That's not worth anything, it only took five seconds." And Picasso says, "No, it took the whole of my life."
Indeed. So, Underwater Love. I watched it this morning and I'm still trying to figure it out.
Ha! Don't worry, you don't have to figure it out, just succumb to it, that's the point.
My favorite bit is when they go to the house where he used to live as a kid. The film's got an eerie heart that doesn't get explored much.
Right. I'm almost as new to the genre as anybody. Pink films are like sex newsreels. They're mass-produced, they have to be churned out, they're almost like soap operas, there was a market there that had to be filled. So I think perhaps, like you say, there are certain conventions of the genre that haven't been explored, because usually they don't have the time to, because they have to have sex every seven minutes. We added music, and perhaps a slightly deeper emotional engagement. I've seen some Pink films and some of them are ridiculously engaging and I think we kind of captured that spirit. The great thing is we made it in five and a half days, so it was non-stop, and there's nothing more or less than what it is. And that's what, to me, is the most engaging thing about it, it doesn't pretend to be anything else, it's just what it is.
Is that the shortest amount of time you've ever spent shooting a film?
Yeah. And I think the process is more evident as a result. It's back to the energy of student films, without all the blah blah, where everybody's trying to work out what the hell they're doing. I love it, because it gives me an "I'm no better or less than this kind of film" feeling, which is great. It perks you up a bit. What porn are you watching at the same time as this?
I'm watching Underwater Love. No, I’m just talking to you, of course! Speaking of watching porn, there's this book on the making of Lady In The Water, which I'm sure you haven't read.
Why would I? I did it!
Exactly. You feature in the book quite heavily.
Something in there that's quite apt in relation to Underwater Love, is in one of the first meetings with Night, where you said, half-joking I assume, "All my references are from Japanese porn."
Yeah, of course I was joking! But to be honest I have acquired a reasonable knowledge of the nuances. In Japanese porn, there's something resonant about some of the women. And it's not the boom boom, it's usually their eyes, believe it or not, and I'm really being serious. And of course that's the engagement you want from porn. I want to invent a machine that takes the guy out of the scene. But yeah, when I said that, of course I was joking. Night is a pretty serious guy, and I'm not sure how it helped or hindered him or the film but I think he came to great terms with me, and I think we're friends.
Night said he hired you because he thought some inspired madness might benefit the film.
Hmm! Am I supposed to say I'm not inspired, but I'm just mad? Or I'm only inspired, but not mad. Which one do you want? You gotta take them both.
I will. The author described you as someone who had "so obviously rejected societal conventions." Would you agree with that?
I hope so. Wouldn't you hope so? Firstly… Why would you want to be anyone else, or like anyone else? Why would you wanna fit in? If you aspire to something more. I think I knew that since I was a kid. So I left home very early, I always knew that there was something more, and I think that came from being Australian. The only access you have to something more than rugby or surfing is reading. So of course that takes you down various trails. And secondly, I've lived in various incarnations in a lot of countries. And finally because I came to film very late, I was 32 when I made my first film, without any experience. So I think if you don't have it, flaunt it. Because I can't be as good as someone like Gus Van Sant who's been making films since they were in their teens. So I think one has to go out on another limb, whether it's anarchy or complicity, just going for whatever comes into your head. And I certainly think most cinematographers are much much more conventional people, and that is in general the rule for the cinematographer, you have to be a stable anchor to the boat, and that's understandable. I don't discourage anyone to go through the ranks and learn the craft and continuing to learn the changes, keeping up as a scientist or a doctor should do. But that hasn't been my way so far. And I have to live with the repercussions.
Well you've always said that your life experience is more important to you. And practically every article about you begins with an intro listing some of your previous jobs—sailor in Norway, Chinese quack in Thailand, well-digger in India, kibbutz worker in Israel…
I'll tell you a story about that. I have very close friends who used to have a jazz club in Hong Kong. I was there every night, I was their photographer, just because I was their friend. Four of them were Supreme Court judges. And one day I came in and there had been an article like the ones you're talking about, and the head of the Supreme Court, who was a little bit drunk, said to me, "If you came before my court I'd throw you in jail for lies like that. I saw this article in the newspaper about you being a Norwegian sailor and this and that—what total bullshit, that's impossible." And I realized, fuck—even someone I regard as a friend doesn't believe how I live. And certainly, it's so far outside of convention, I better fucking forget about convention. I'm doomed no matter what. Kids from film schools say to me, "I love your work, I wanna be like you, I wanna make my first film next week." And I go, "Yeah. What have you done? You've been through an academic system, and if you've been to film school I assume you have a certain amount of wealth, what the fuck have you done in life? What are you gonna tell people? You gonna talk about your high school experiences in America? Or how wonderful it is to go skating illegally in Trafalgar Square? What the fuck are you gonna talk about?" It's a problem. Of course, if you don't have anything to say, why open your mouth? It's just gonna be platitudes. Or something clichéd. Or something totally unnecessary to anyone else's experience. That's what you see all the time. People making films about making films. Because that's all they know!
It's like that Eddie Murphy story, that he did his first stand-up gig when he was a kid, and all he had to talk about was the shits he did in the toilet.
Yeah. Exactly. This is it. One could be Proust, living in this incredibly complex internal world. He could write a book about a cup of coffee, but there's a lava flow of ideas that come from inside. But most of us have to have a physical, personal, emotional experience of something to actually articulate it. Very often I meet someone who says, "It's really great to meet you because we referenced your work." And I say, "Why the fuck didn't you make something original instead of just copying my stuff?" Of course nothing is original, but everything has to be absorbed as opposed to regurgitated.
How much would you say alcohol has influenced your work?
When it's beer, about 4.5% - 6.7%…
Ha ha. If it's wine, 11% - 13%.
Yeah. Do you still drink as much on set?
I'm getting disappointed in myself. I used to hate Bukowski because he stopped drinking when he was 76. I'm slowing down a lot earlier and I'm very disappointed with myself.
I'm sorry to hear it. OK, one final thing from that book I wanted to ask you about. That author says the art of photography is like sex to you, and the actors on the set were enthralled by the almost lustful passion you had for the work. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely, we could all be multi-millionaires if we went into real estate. We're not stupid people. Well, present company excepted. But why else would I do it, of all the choices in life… I still don't know where my next job is coming from. Believe it or not I have nothing in the bank. I still have no fixed abode. Really, I don't live anywhere. I live on planes.
Is that by choice?
Well it's obviously a mixture of choice, engagement, and an aversion to certain things. You go full-speed ahead, the track is engaged by the passengers that come aboard, which are the actors, the collaborators… and that's extremely invigorating. The great thing is to be hungry. Therefore you try harder. I am getting to a certain age. I know there are people around me of my age that seem a lot older, but that's because they're not with young people, they don't have the engagement, they believe that the questions have been answered, or there's no need to respond any more. The great thing about being with people in our world, or young people in general, is they have the stupid questions. And we know they can't be answered, but trying to answer them is extremely engaging. And extremely energizing. And I think that's what it's about.
Underwater Love is out on DVD November 21. There will be a one-off screening/ premier/ launch party with a gig by Stereo Total (who did the soundtrack) on October 16 (tonight!) at London's Rich Mix. Find out more here.