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A Film Issue

Our Two Favorite Cinematographers Speak - Part 2

Christopher Doyle is an Australian-born cinematographer who has lived and worked throughout Asia for more than two decades. He is most renowned for his eight-film collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.

by David Feinberg
01 September 2009, 12:00am

Images courtesy of Christopher Doyle
Christopher Doyle, HKSC (aka ), is an Australian-born cinematographer who has lived and worked throughout Asia for more than two decades. He is most renowned for his eight-film collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. On classic, largely unscripted films like Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, Chungking Express, and In the Mood for Love, Doyle helped create one of the most visually stylized bodies of work in cinema, all despite having never received any formal training whatsoever.

Upon leaving Australia at age 18, he had stints on a Norwegian cargo ship, as a cow herder in Israel, a well-digger in India, a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand, and many more... or so goes the legend of the man whom some call Dù KŠ Fēng, or “Like the Wind.” Drawing on his travels and many late nights spent in bars with artists and actors as his preparation, Doyle shot his first film in 1983 and has since enjoyed a long tenure as Asian cinema’s busiest Australian.

After the film 2046, which was released in 2004 and which took five years to complete, Doyle and Wong, despite admittedly being able to read each other’s thoughts, decided to have some time away from each other. Since then, Doyle has stayed busy working with directors around the world, most recently with Neil Jordan on Ondine and Jim Jarmusch on The Limits of Control. We talked to him from his Shanghai hotel room after a day of filming his latest project.

Vice: Hi Chris. You’re in Shanghai right now?
Christopher Doyle:
Yeah, I’m in Shanghai and I’m staying on the 26th floor. It’s about 104 degrees here. These bloody fucking mosquitoes, I don’t know how they can fly this high.

What are you working on?
I’m working with Stanley Kwan, a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker. He’s a major Hong Kong-based director who tends to make quote-unquote “gay” or, as they might say in Hong Kong, “women-subject” films.

You’re known for being a very spontaneous presence on the sets of the films that you shoot, and for working without scripts on the films of Wong Kar-wai.
You can make incredibly meticulous notes, but when it comes to the actual shoot you still throw the script away. You have to. For me, it’s about the energy and the inspiration and the possibilities of what’s being attempted in the story. It’s kind of like sculpting. It’s getting rid of the stone to see what’s really inside it.

Like the legend of Michelangelo seeing David within the marble.
Yes. It’s a process that’s most basically motivated by a response to what is there. Maybe it comes from working in film communities that don’t have access to large budgets or that have minimal technical facilities. It’s part of being used to working with what you have as opposed to what you want. So, one gives and takes from it, as one does with tai chi, a basis of martial arts. Or one searches for the center of the whole as one does in meditation. You push in a direction and aim for a removal of the unnecessary.

That’s not the way most Hollywood cinematographers would talk about their work. It’s so refreshing to hear it spoken of this way.
I think that film has all the qualities of music. There’s repetition, there’s rhythm, which is a certain grace and a certain reserve at certain points. It has a spontaneous emotional energy, and it’s not stylized, it’s not, what’s the word…

It’s a bit like jazz, kind of improvisation-oriented?
Just like jazz. You start and then you have your solo stuff, you move along on certain themes, and then you all try to end up together. It really is a jam session. I think that’s wonderful. All art should aspire to that.

On all those great films directed by Wong Kar-wai, you also worked with William Chang as both the production designer and editor. Given the amount of footage you and Wong Kar-wai would shoot without a script on a film like In the Mood for Love, it seems like the hardest job was up to the poor editor. He had to piece it all together.
William is pretty ruthless! [laughs] That’s his great quality. It’s astonishing. When we work together, it’s in a very unspoken way. We don’t really discuss things. We don’t really have production meetings. It just happens. Again, I’m not being facetious, there’s just some common frequency with those guys. There is a communal response to something that actually is never articulated. Even when we go to a location, we don’t really talk. We just kind of walk through and decide if it’s good or bad and if we are going to go with it. Then, perhaps we come back and say, “How about that wallpaper?” or something like that. But that’s about it. It’s not like the Western sense of the production meeting, with various heads of departments sitting down to discuss something.

Happy Together (1997)
But it helps that William Chang the production designer was on set with you and Wong Kar-wai. He would contribute to the story and have a great sense of it going into the edit room as William Chang the editor.
Yes, and the thing about William is how pragmatic and how astute his removal from his own participation is. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much money or time, including his own, has gone into something. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it could be cut down, it will be cut down. But if it should be, for example, a three-minute sequence of just Maggie Cheung walking up the stairs, then that’s what it will be.

And Maggie Cheung on the stairs in In the Mood for Love is definitely a memorable image. Before picking up a camera, you traveled and lived around the world. What compelled you to do that?
Necessity. I don’t know. I have no idea. When I left Australia, I was studying literature during a very drug-oriented, politicized cultural environment in 1969. Vietnam was going on, people were being drafted, all this kind of stuff was happening. Also, most Australians—and I am talking about white Australians for the moment—feel isolated. There’s a great deal out there in the world that you haven’t experienced, so you try to get exposed. I wanted to know something that I only knew through literature up until then. I wanted to have it firsthand instead of having D.H. Lawrence or Borges or Bukowski tell me about it. So I became a merchant marine, and then I ended up in Europe, and then I ended up traveling in Israel, and then I traveled cross-country to India, and I lived there for three years, and blah, blah, blah. And I do believe that was my film school. I totally believe that.

In my traditional film school, I was taught that narrative filmmaking has to be scripted and scheduled and budgeted right down to the minute and dollar. For example, there’s a screenwriting formula where a 30-page script equals roughly 30 minutes of screen time.
Yeah. Well, what if a script was 24 pages, and in the middle of page 3 it says, “Then they make love”? That means they can only make love for ten seconds, right? [laughs] And then it says, “Now they fight,” but what if you have a scene from a movie like Crouching Tiger or Hero, you know? And in the script it just says, “Now they fight!” So, when people say, “What’s your motivation for making a film? Isn’t the script important?” Well, how many good Shakespearean films have you seen? Maybe five? And how many did they make? So, obviously, there’s another aspect besides the script.

You came around to filmmaking in your 30s. Had you at least done photography before that, during your many travels?
No, not even photography. I never had a still camera until I was shooting Chungking Express. The first camera of any kind that I ever used was an 8-mm movie camera, and that was just to impress a girl. You know, it’s the usual kind of thing, right?

I wonder how you were able not only to pick up cinematography so quickly but also to make such unique and beautiful images.
I think that, like an athlete’s muscle memory, visual memory is something that just has to be tapped. In my case, the visual experience of a place like India stays with me, or I remember the color of the light in Israel or the fog in Bruges, where I also lived for a while. Maybe that’s relevant to the way in which I light an Irish landscape, for example. I’m not sure, but it probably is. It’s not conscious, but it’s there.

You work a lot in Asia or in China and then go to Europe or come to the United States to shoot too. You’re still moving around quite a bit.
It’s a great pleasure to work outside my usual cultural environment, but I also feel most comfortable in this place. In my environment I have a Chinese name. Most people don’t even know my English name, so I have a certain freedom that I think is basic to the artistic pursuit. This is where I grew to be the way I am. These are the people whose film culture and social conditions and concerns I am most familiar with. These are the people whom I can talk more directly to.

When you went back to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, did you have the eyes of a foreigner after spending so much time in Asia?
Absolutely, absolutely. It was fantastic. I left when I was 18 and I went back about 30 years later. I do believe that I am a filmmaker because I was born in Australia, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

Last Life in the Universe (2003)
I like the saturated colors and textures in a lot of your films. How much of that is drawn out of working with the film lab and how much is based on the way you shoot?
Because I really do come from a poor technical environment, or a less proficient technical experience, I always felt that if it is not on the negative, it won’t be in the film. That’s the kind of mentality that I have day to day. But we could enhance the things that already were apparent by playing with simple lab techniques that are very organic and very direct. They’re not digital techniques.

So it’s in the film before it gets to the lab.
Yes, the vibrancy of the colors is there. The colors and that vibrancy and the energy of the films themselves come from that environment. For example, when we did In the Mood for Love, we said, “There’s going to be a lot of red.” You have to be careful of red, because it is such an evocative color in Chinese culture. To put red anywhere, it really says something. It smacks you in the face and has a certain resonance. All colors have cultural baggage.

You were a consultant on the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, which was remade into The Departed by Martin Scorsese. It’s not a totally recent trend, but there have been a lot of remakes going on in American cinema.
Well, obviously the structure of certain industries is based on money. What’s been happening recently in Western cinema culture is franchises and remakes. It’s the commercial functionality of that quote-unquote “industry.” As people in different parts of the world will tell you, there are certain aspects of Western culture that have hit a brick wall.

People say America is going through the fall-of-the-Roman-Empire phase. I was at the cinema just the other day, and in the lobby there were posters for upcoming films and they did all seem to be about the end of the world, like 2012, which is an apocalypse movie. I saw the Harry Potter poster, which looked very scary, and the GI Joe poster and Transformers 2 poster. These films that are coming out, they’re franchises and they seem to be pretty fixated on the end of humanity.
These are films that have lost their voice. Nowadays, the work is taken away from real artists and it is done by committee, as we see with most commercial or—let’s say just for argument’s sake—Hollywood-style films.

Asian cinema has grown a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.
Well, for example, you had a new wave in France. You had a new wave in Hong Kong, you had a new wave in China and Korea and even in Argentina and Brazil at one time. It’s all a sort of sociocultural thing coming together at the right time. It may last for a certain period of time but usually it doesn’t last for very long. And usually it comes out of the energy of the moment. Look at the fifth generation in China. Why was there an explosion of creativity? Because you had the Cultural Revolution. People had been denied so much for so long and there were so many stories waiting to be told.

Happy Together (1997)
I watched Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which you shot, the other night. It fits in many ways with some of his other recent films such as Elephant and Last Days. I also think it fits with some of the films you’ve made with Wong Kar-wai as well, with this kind of fractured chronology and, I guess you could say, meditative style.
After seeing one of the most beautiful and complete pursuits of an idea in his trilogy that is Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, I had to think, “Where can you go?” Harris Savides was the cinematographer on those three films. He’s also a good friend of mine. One of the things that I wanted to do with Paranoid Park was to move on and yet not lose that commonality—to pursue another thread of the incredible and informative journey that was that trilogy. You have to share something. It’s like a little journey together and you are going to bring along a bit of your own baggage.

You’re able to build a new kind of process with each director, but do you ever find it hard not to use one of your old tricks or techniques?
I think that there is a big danger of that, but I think that can happen in anything. One has to be very worried about parodying oneself, unconsciously or consciously. If you work with people who have quote-unquote “integrity,” or people who have similar intentions, they will prevent you from that.

And some people must look to work with you just to try and get a re-creation of your work on an earlier film.
There are those who say, “OK, these are going to be the references for the look of this film,” and then they show me one of my own films! I start laughing. I say, “No, I can’t do that,” and they say, “What do you mean you can’t do it?” and I say, “Well, I’ve already done it. How can I do it again?”

You have worked with a lot of first-time directors. In fact, some films were able to get made because your name was attached.
It is a great honor to work with friends, and if my saying that I am doing a film with someone who may have never done a film before will help to get the film made, I couldn’t be more proud of that. Also, I can’t be more proud that some of the greatest filmmakers around also happen to be friends. I mean, what more do you want in life?

There’s talk everywhere now that film is dying and video will soon be all there is. How are you responding to the change in technology in filmmaking?
Up until The Limits of Control, the Jim Jarmusch film that I shot a year ago now, I had never used a DI.

For the non-film nerds out there, a DI is a digital intermediate, in which the footage is rendered through a film-to-video conversion process and can then be manipulated using digital techniques. Sorry to interrupt…
I was afraid of DI. But you know, you’ve got to live… What’s the expression? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Chungking Express (1994)
Right. One thing that’s certainly good about the shift to video is that it’s easier for amateurs to make and distribute their movies now.
The excellence of the image really has to come from the excellence of the intent. It doesn’t come from the hierarchy of money. Now you can put yourself out through YouTube. You don’t even have to bother with waiting for some bloody studio to green-light it. I think we are in this incredible period of time where the challenge that TV made to cinema in the 50s is being manifested a hundredfold. It’s crazy—it’s fantastic. Now we really have to be better than before if we’re going to say that we are professional filmmakers.

You mention the challenge that TV made to cinema. The internet is now kind of doing that to TV. But I guess the internet is challenging everything, really.
I think it’s fantastic. I mean, all those shit movies, they can fight against it like the music industry tried to fight against MP3s. But it’s only excellence—it’s only quality—that will really get people. Of course, the franchise kings of the world, the American Idols of the world, will push mediocrity. But there’s a great deal of space for the rest of us now.

With high-definition video, there is the ability for clarity with a very clean, crisp look to it.
Kids today are spending something like 60 percent of their time in front of some kind of screen, whether it’s their phone or a TV or a computer. Their visual experience is extremely different from how ours was. And so, when people talk about digital image making, I think that they should talk to the kids and not to me. I think that my work comes from landscapes, it comes from books, actually—and it comes from music. Therefore, the way in which I express something is confined to, I guess, or initiated by those concerns. I would rather read than go to a movie. And I am not being facetious. If I have the choice, I rarely go to the cinema.

Do you feel pressured to try shooting with the new RED camera? Everyone is saying, “This camera is amazing. It’s the future.”
It’s just a tool. I still don’t really know anything about it. I mean, I know a little bit because I forced myself to know it, but it’s really the same thing as before—just another tool. You’ve still got your eyes, you still have got to know how you perceive things and how you approach the technology and the possibilities you’ve seen in their application. That makes the art. Everyone will tell you that a truly beautiful color film should have really clean reds and really beautiful greens and deep blacks. So what happens if you saturate the blacks and push-process the film and it looks really grainy?

Has it been hard for you to work on larger-budget, studio-type pictures?
You know, ten years ago Gus Van Sant called and said, “Let’s do Psycho”. Or, for example, there’s the M. Night Shyamalan film that I did, Lady in the Water. Those were fantastic experiences. I would never have had so much respect for craftsmanship if I hadn’t done them. And they also informed me about the qualities of a more complete, more technically astute Western working environment. I could say, “Is that really the kind of film that I want to make?” Well, yeah, at that time that was something I wanted to know.

It’s a movie-by-movie thing for you.
I think all my decisions about work are based on very personal motivations at the times that I’ve made them. And it’s always been about people. Night and I, we don’t think exactly the same, but I have great, great respect for him and I regard him as a friend. I have great, great respect for Barry Levinson, [of Liberty Heights] and regard him as a friend. Our paths cross, and there are communal intentions and respect because we are all filmmakers. Same with Jim and Gus and Phil Noyce and Wim Wenders and Anthony Dod Mantle. I guess I knew that if I worked with Night, I could work in that kind of mainstream, high-profile, high-budget environment. Then I wouldn’t be afraid of, you know, Spielberg.

Hey, he might read this and give you a call, so you never know.
Yeah, exactly!