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“This is the Headline: ‘You Can’t Do It Alone. So Do It With People You Love'”: DP and Director Christopher Doyle on Filmmaking Amidst the Pandemic

Christopher Doyle on set

Scheduled for this year’s Cannes Film Festival was a 20th-anniversary screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Along with awards for actor Tony Leung Chui-wai and editor, costume designer, and production designer William Chang Suk-ping, the film received the Grand Prize of the Superior Technical Commission for directors of photography Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bing.

Doyle had hoped to present his latest films, including Love After Love, at the festival before it was postponed on April 14. Directed by Ann Hui, Love After Love is a period romance adapted from a work by writer Eileen Chang. Doyle was finishing post-production work on the film when the lockdown began. He spoke with Filmmaker from his apartment in Hong Kong, a day after his mother passed away in Australia.

Filmmaker: How are you doing?

Doyle: Okay. There’s nobody in my street. I live in the middle of Hong Kong, and it’s the quietest I’ve ever seen. Even the taxis don’t have any passengers. 

Filmmaker: I’m sorry to hear about your mother.

Doyle: She didn’t die from the virus, but old age. She was 95 years old. It was hard because nobody could visit her. I couldn’t go because there is a 14-day quarantine entering Australia. Even my sisters who are in the same city couldn’t see her. That’s the tough part. It’s tough to go alone.

Filmmaker: What’s happened with your work? 

Doyle: Let’s take a step back because it’s a bit different here from other countries. First of all the Chinese film industry is controlled by the government. Censorship usually works like this: you provide a script, they approve it, you make a film, and they have to approve it again. The problem is, the person who approved it maybe has left office or retired or been demoted or something. So you never get an answer. Over the last two or three years I’ve made at least five films that have never been released. A couple were made in Hong Kong and can’t be released in China because they had a little bit of so called “political dialogue.” 

This has had a huge influence on Hong Kong filmmaking. Production is dependent on the Chinese market, therefore most of the talent has already gone to China because it’s the only place where you can make any money. Distribution is also reliant on the Chinese market. So the whole political thing has a huge impact on what we can or cannot do and how a film can be financed and released. We used to make 300 films a year. Last year there were 40 films.

Over the last year or so, the censorship department officially became part of the propaganda department of the Communist party. Back in the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin said that art should serve the cause. He especially meant cinema. In China there are actually fewer restrictions on most art. You can do nude photography, for example. You can portray sensitive issues like sexuality and politics on stage. But cinema is the most controlled art form in China. And now they only want to make patriotic films. I don’t know if you’ve seen any recent Chinese films, but they’re all like China Saves the World. 

Let’s not be naive about Hong Kong people. They’re survivors. Don’t forget, for the people of my generation, their parents all fled China. 

Filmmaker: This is all before COVID-19.

Doyle: Cinemas have been closed for a while. I’ve made two films, both with women directors. One is with Ann Hui, we made it in China with a mixture of Hong Kong and Chinese financing. And I also made a totally Hong Kong-financed film in the last six months. They’re pretty good, they’re okay. The producers hoped they would go to Cannes. Also this is the 20th anniversary of In the Mood for Love. So it was going to be a huge year in Cannes for us. 

Love after Love is an Eileen Chung story, most of her stories are set in wartime Shanghai or Hong Kong, love stories, period dramas, the guy is an asshole. They have huge following as literary works. Ann has made a few, I shot one called Red Rose, White Rose. In Chinese this one’s called A Bowl of Incense, a metaphor for virginity. It’s set in the ’40s in Hong Kong, but we shot it in China because there is no more 1940s Hong Kong in Hong Kong. 1940s Hong Kong doesn’t exist anymore. Even the ’60s doesn’t exist. In the Mood for Love, we shot a lot of In the Mood for Love in Bangkok.

We finished the grading of Ann’s film about a month ago, and the Hong Kong film a week later. Of course we were wearing masks and all that sort of stuff.  We didn’t really talk about the virus, we were just happy to have made the film. And I think perhaps that’s the only way to address it. Is this really what you live for? If you only “want” to do it, don’t do it. Do it if you need to do it.  Do it because there’s nothing else you can do. Don’t be a cinematographer if you want to be one. What is a cinematographer? Orson Welles said, “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”

Filmmaker: What about your finances?

Doyle: I had a script for my own film, it’s set half in China, half in Australia. We were ready to go. Now it’s off. We suffer as filmmakers because we have no real income. I mean, what is the monthly salary of a cinematographer? Some months it’s zero, nothing. I don’t see how we qualify in most countries for relief. Secondly, filmmaking is such a social endeavor. We’ll have to find a way to work somehow. Obviously things like animation, computer-generated work will explode, which is an interesting evolution in cinema. But for a cinematographer who is not very computer savvy it will be tough. I’m okay in a certain way because I write a lot, I make books, I do collage and stuff. Although it doesn’t make any money, at least intellectually and morally, in terms of keeping up the energy I think I’m okay. But for many people it must be a chasm.

Last year I did three films in Japan. I don’t know why. I’m like the Tom Waits song, “Big in Japan.” I won best cinematography for a film I did in Japan last year, They Say Nothing Stays the Same. I think I might be the first non-native to win. It’s written and directed by Joe Odagiri, who acted in a film we did called The White Girl. It’s a two-character story set in the Meiji period, the 1850s, when Japan was trying to modernise. One character is a boatman with a ferry, but they’re building a bridge so he’s going to lose his future. Like what’s happening to us. He runs into a girl and there’s an engagement. It’s very simple, one set, one river, one boat. It was fantastic fun. Joe kept saying to me, “Chris, think 1950s Japanese film. Don’t move the camera.” He’d say things like, “Wider! Wider!” I said, “Joe, you won’t even be able to see the people on their TV screen or on your phone.” Because it was CinemaScope, super wide angle. And I won the cinematography for it because of Joe. Just very simple, very image based. I mean nothing happens. 

If you’ve ever worked in Japan, they’re extremely Japanese about everything. I’m a very impatient guy, but they have to talk about everything. You suggest something and a half-hour later he’s, “Okay.” We’re sitting there and the gaffer would say, “We have to wait for the light,” and I said, “I don’t give a shit about the light, let’s just shoot the fucking thing.” He says, “No, no, no, we have to wait for the light.” We’ve been waiting an hour already. But he says, “What do you mean? An hour? What’s that? When I worked with Kurosawa sometimes we’d wait a month for the light.”

I love Joe, we’re very close. At the end of the year we’re going to do another film together, hopefully.

Filmmaker: Do you think you’ll be able to find financing for projects like this?

Doyle: That’s not usually the cinematographer’s job. When I direct then I have to face that question, how to convince people this is going to be something.  Even Ridley Scott talks about it, it’s all politics. He’s made 2,000 commercials, so he knows the give and take between the client and the sponsor, the investor. It might mean, as some actors in the West have suggested, cut the salaries. Bring things back to a more manageable level. It’s always been one of the challenges of cinema. We only have this much, we want to do this. Like that film Ed Wood, I give you a hundred thousand dollars, you get Bela Lugosi. 

We’ve always had that give and take between aspiration and limitations. Look at Derek Jarman. Look at Blue. He’s dying from AIDS, he made a film from his death bed. Or Caravaggio. He doesn’t have sculptures, so he puts cloth over a piece of cardboard and suggests that this is the papal palace. Fucking genius. These astonishing leaps of creative energy are actually sometimes imposed by the limitations of budgets.

That’s the optimistic view. The reality might be ARRI goes out of business, we’re back to using a Canon 5R to make movies. That’s what I make my films on now, I was out shooting yesterday in the parks of Hong Kong. 

In any culture, the next generation is going to take it into their own hands in some way. During the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong, the proliferation of creative work, the art, the focus, the energy, and the irony, I’d never seen before. I didn’t think Hong Kong kids had it. No one thought they had this political volition and acumen. I have hope for the kids. A few people are out there making astonishing stuff that I don’t dare make because getting sick, etc., etc.

Yesterday I responded to something and it became something for me. That’s my way of doing things. That’s why I can work with Japanese directors even though I don’t speak Japanese. It’s intuitive, it’s a give and take, it’s why the films are the way they are. 

Things are going to change enormously. Asano Tadanobu, the great Japanese actor, is a very close friend. We started talking about doing something. Wong Kar-wai, we’re talking, we’ve got to do something. It’s taken a while. The laxative is working. We’ve been purged. The detox, whatever the metaphor is. We’re all talking. My little team, we’re starting to ramp up the energy. We’re going to get stuff out as soon as possible. That’s the first step. It’s the only choice you have. Perhaps the energy is regenerative. 

As in most of my films, I’m not speaking for me. We have to speak for others. This perhaps is the point that may come out of this, that you realize you’re part of a community. That community may have shrunk to you alone sometimes. But how do we expand it? 

Filmmaker: You can’t make a film by yourself.

Doyle: This is the headline, this is the bold type of this experience. You can’t do it alone. So get it together. Do it with people you love. Make the film for yourself. If it doesn’t have integrity, who gives a shit? Then it’s another Fast and Furious, another franchise, a repeat of the same old shit. If that energy is true, it’s universal. If we’re true to ourselves, people will connect, people will respond.

Filmmaker: In movies it always comes down to money at some point.

Doyle: You tell me the budget, we’ll make it for that. Usually. People who know me a little bit, as opposed to my reputation, they know we’re going to work fast, it’s not going to be long days, we’re going to come in on time and under budget. I’ve very proud of that. That is an attitude. that’s what matters now. People in smaller groups, with better intent. 

Filmmaker: You’re going to bring cinema back.

Doyle: No, I brought sexy back. I think Justin Timberlake’s a wonderful person. His mother loves me because I made her boy look good. 

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