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Master cinematographer Chris Doyle on Asian pride and the problem with America.


Miriam Yeung in Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings,” which was shot by Chris Doyle.

Born in the mundane existence of postwar Sydney, Australia, in 1952, Christopher Doyle spent much of his life at large. He was a sailor in Norway, a Thai-based Chinese quack medicine “doctor,” a “cowboy-nic” on an Israeli kibbutz, a well digger in the Indian desert and almost everything in between. He was “reincarnated” in the late 1970s when he met his poetry/language teacher at the University of Hong Kong, who gave him the evocative name of Du Ke Feng (“like the wind”). He was never the same since. — Chris Doyle’s press bio

Save for Gregg Toland and perhaps Vittorio Storaro, no cinematographer in history has achieved the kind of iconic status as the kind currently enjoyed by Chris Doyle. An Australian by birth, Doyle has lived in Asia for nearly 30 years, and his work has largely defined the look of new Asian cinema. Best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai on such films as Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love (which won him the Technical Grand Prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival), Doyle is equally comfortable with a handheld camera as he is with meticulously composed, static imagery. Yet despite the variation in technique, Doyle still manages to leave an indelible authorial stamp on every one of his films, even though it’s nearly impossible to say why Zhang Yimou’s archly formal Hero and Wong’s hyperactive Fallen Angels both feel like a Chris Doyle–shot movie except for the fact that his mastery is apparent in every shot. He’s also directed one feature, 1999’s Away With Words.

Doyle’s personality and professional style are also the stuff of legend. Rumor has it that he prefers to drink while working, and he has never been known to toe the company line in public. Filmmaker caught up with him in New York, where he was making one of his rare forays into American production (other work includes Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights) with M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. The purpose of the interview was to discuss his work on Three...Extremes, the Asian omnibus horror film — Doyle shot Fruit Chan’s segment, “Dumplings,” about a woman who eats dumplings made out of human flesh — but the conversation delightfully veered off the road.


Chris Doyle.
FILMMAKER: Tell me a bit about “Dumplings,” how you got involved. Were there any new things you were experimenting with visually?

DOYLE: Have you seen the film?

FILMMAKER: Yeah, I have. I really liked it.

DOYLE: I think that hopefully one does engage oneself in something you haven’t done before. Fruit’s films are much more organic. They are much more realistic than most of what I’ve done, so I think that’s part of the challenge: put two madmen together and see what happens. Secondly, in my mind, it is a continuation of a project that we started a year or two before, which is an engagement with this so-called pan-Asian cinema. My generation of artists or filmmakers or just people in general, we have to celebrate our Asian-ness.

FILMMAKER: I read some articles where you described yourself as an Asian filmmaker who happens to be pink.

DOYLE: Yeah, I just happen to have the wrong skin. The more I rub myself against the yellow, the yellower I get. [laughs] I’ve often said I’m an Asian with a skin disease, because I started making films in Asia, and obviously what I’ve done has certain repercussions and certain resonance, and I should be very proud of that. And it just happens that I’m one of the few non-Asian, non-yellow people in this world. But I think most of the people I work with think I’m as yellow as they are. [laughs] And that’s an honor in my mind.

FILMMAKER: Going into this project, did you feel that maybe Asian film was in trouble at all or that it needed a boost?

DOYLE: I thought I was the boost. [laughs] The way I live and talk, if I’m not the boost, who is, you know? I don’t know, I don’t think we need a boost, but I do think we need to celebrate. I think one of the greatest films about Shanghai is Code 46, but it’s Tim Robbins in a hotel room. So I kind of get pissed off with that, and I say, Well, why don’t we celebrate? Instead of celebrating our 1930s-ness, instead of keeping on making another Gong Li movie with lots of red lanterns, let’s move on. And it’s strange that so few people have really engaged today’s consumer society at all. Maybe because it is too new. I think that’s what “Dumplings” is trying to do; it’s trying to address one aspect of this thing, which is the fetish for beauty.

FILMMAKER: You are currently working on a U.S. film. Is there a fundamental difference in the process of filmmaking between the U.S. and Asia?

DOYLE: No. I think the real difference is the level of energy. In Asia now it’s like the Australian new wave, the cinema novo in Brazil, the French new wave. Why? Because there was this confluence of intent and economics, and all those elements sort of matched up at that time. What is strange in the west is — well, not strange I guess — is that people are lost. Let’s be honest. [laughs] People are lost, whether you blame 9/11 or whether you blame the lack of education in schools. Whatever you blame it on, it doesn’t matter. Whereas in Asia, people are finding their voice. It’s been a long journey, you know. Everyone in China is on a roll, [laughs] there’s no question.

FILMMAKER: Do you feel like you’re in hostile territory right now?

DOYLE: You know, I was in Kazakhstan two weeks ago, and that was nothing. This is hostile territory, this is bullshit. I don’t know if it should be said so bluntly, but [laughs] every people gets the government they deserve. Sorry, that’s a reality. The present climate in most of the western world is of course anti-artist, because the function of an artist is to open people’s eyes, and that’s not the function of a Texas oil-based meritocracy. Hello! And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that’s why we make our films the way we do. Because you don’t have the freedom, you don’t have the integrity, you have to remake everything we’ve done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don’t you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you’re remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you’re going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you’d actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what’s really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me.

FILMMAKER: Are you asking me?

DOYLE: Yeah, I’m asking you. Are you American?

FILMMAKER: Yeah, I was born and raised in New York.

Bai Ling and Miriam Yeung in “Dumplings.”

DOYLE: The problem is that 99 percent of the world is looking at this country this way. And it’s very strange that Americans don’t seem to realize it. Therefore we make our films and make our films, and you remake our films the way you want to remake them. [laughs] Have you ever seen Shall We Dance?

FILMMAKER: The first one?

DOYLE: The Richard Gere version.

FILMMAKER: No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen the original.

DOYLE: Well, the new one is the biggest piece of shit. You don’t even know what the fucking thing is about. And with Shall We Dance, we’re not talking art. We’re not talking Kieslowski or Tarkovsky. We’re talking mainstream Japanese film, and you can’t even get that right. Come on. Hello. In other words, you lost the fucking plot.

FILMMAKER: Don’t you think these bloated Hollywood films are an easy target? Do you watch any American independent film?

DOYLE: Does anybody? Hello! Come on. Come on, you can’t be so naïve that you don’t know that the only thing they do in the U.S. is look at the box office. It’s not a film industry anymore, it’s an accounting department. [laughs] There’s only two departments in American cinema — the insurance department and the accounting department. There are no filmmakers anymore.

FILMMAKER: You don’t think so?

DOYLE: No, absolutely not.

FILMMAKER: There are no more filmmakers in America?

DOYLE: Uh-uh. If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don’t you think he’s lost the plot? Think it through. “I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!” Are you crazy? There’s not a single person in the Oscar voting department who’s under 65 years old. They don’t even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he’s a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let’s appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.

FILMMAKER: For a lot of young filmmakers, or aspiring filmmakers, in this country, myself included, the films that you make and that a lot of other Asian films make, as well as a lot of other films from France and Iran and other countries, give us all hope that it is still possible to make good films.

DOYLE: Yeah, but then I go to New York Film School, and even the teachers are trying to tell the kids what I’m saying.

FILMMAKER: How do you mean?

DOYLE: I mean, I go to NYU, and all the teachers are there, and then they’re interpreting what I say. I say, “Just do it.” And the teachers say, “What he really means is if you really work hard within the system, then you’ll get somewhere.” [laughs] So what can we do? Well, there’s a lot we can do that is not expensive. You could send a DVD to your friends, it could be online, and you could be in all these film festivals. And just with a digital camera. In other words, you could even make a film with your bloody phone now, you know what I mean? [laughs] Isn’t that fantastic in a certain way? It’s so strange that young people are actually hedging their bets instead of just going out there and starting to do stuff. The only way that any of us became so-called filmmakers is by not hedging the bets, and trying, and then seeing if something works. Don’t worry. Yeah, people can steal your ideas, but they’re not going to steal your heart. [laughs] What are you going to do? Are you going to wait? I mean, look what happened to Kubrick. The more he waited — I mean, Eyes Wide Shut is a piece of shit, come on. It’s flustered; it’s someone frustrated by his own ideas. It’s like cheese; it molded, you know? [laughs] Maybe 20 years ago it would have been more interesting, but it has no relevance anymore. And you can’t do that. Because what we do is a product of where we are. I mean, all the films I’ve made are a response to the films I’ve made before, and hopefully a response to whatever sociopolitical environment I’m living in.

FILMMAKER: How would you compare the experience maybe of working on a film that you shot quickly, like Chungking Express, as opposed to a film that took a long time, like 2046?

DOYLE: I think your real question is, Where is the energy? I think the energy is in the eclectic mixture of people with a certain intention sharing it. And like in 2046, what happens is that it becomes too ethereal, and I think the audience feels that. I really believe that if we are energized, if we are encountering something, if we are sharing something, then the audience will share the same thing. Now with 2046, it was a five-year shoot, and then you’ve got all the ups and downs with whatever it is, whether it’s accounting problems or it’s stylistic problems or whatever — doesn’t matter. What happens is that it becomes a much more methodical kind of film. It has a certain austerity. Whereas a film like Chungking Express, we needed to get it done at that time and we did. And I think in another way, the “Dumplings” or the Thai films that I’ve done, I think they all have that integrity, which is, Yes, here we go. It’s not more or less than what it is. I think our purpose as filmmakers or as storytellers or whatever you’re going to call us is to say that at this particular point with this relationship, with this social structure, in this political climate, this is the best film I could do. I think that’s all we can do. Then we’re not exploitative, we’re not the Spielbergs or the whatever. Then it becomes extremely personal, for better or worse. So don’t get confused by digital or non-digital or money or not — just do the best fucking film you can with your abilities at that time. I mean, why else do we make films when we could have gone into real estate? [laughs]

FILMMAKER: Which of the films that you’ve made are you the most proud of, or which are your favorites?

DOYLE: The next one. Always.

FILMMAKER: Always the next one?

DOYLE: Has to be. Otherwise why would you continue? [laughs] You mean I’m going to retire? I don’t think so. [laughs] If I retired, I should open a girls’ boarding school, I think. [laughs] And then I’d be really in deep shit. Yeah, of course it has to be the next film. It has to be, it has to be.

FILMMAKER: How do you pick which films you work on?

DOYLE: People, always people.

FILMMAKER: The directors?

DOYLE: No. Partly of course. That’s the one that usually calls you up and is in your face. Yeah, it has to be about the people; otherwise why would you spend, for example, five years on 2046? Why would you spend five years of your life with someone you didn’t love? There’s no way it’s about career, and certainly it’s not about money. It has to be about people. If every day you’re going to have an argument, you go home and what are you going to do — beat your wife or your husband? [laughs] I mean, why? I don’t understand that there’s this aspect of western filmmaking which is about confrontation and all this kind of stuff. And I won’t mention any names apart from Oliver Stone. [laughs] So if I give you shit, you’re going to give me more. Lars von Trier. Why? I don’t think so. If I give you trust, you should give me more. So it is a cultural thing. And I don’t think it’s fruitful. I think that if I give you shit for three months or six months or whatever, it’s going to be a better film? You mean to say that 9 Songs is a good film? I don’t think so. I mean, she’s a very beautiful and fuckable woman, but what’s your point? In other words, you put someone in a situation of compromise in order to elicit so-called acting? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the only way to get there. I really don’t. And I think that you can engage in a much more intimate and personal way.

FILMMAKER: Are you going to direct another movie?

DOYLE: I am. Next year I’m doing two.

FILMMAKER: Can you give me a little idea about what they’re about?

DOYLE: One is about a Japanese country-music cover band on the road escaping from who they think is a mafia boss, while in fact they’re walking into country-music hell. And then the other one is about new Chinese women. I’m researching this one. [laughs] How come nobody really celebrates where China is now? As you probably have guessed, I know a few young Chinese women, so I figured using them was a kind of a metaphor for the energy of the society at this moment. And again, they’re both road movies basically, and this one just goes from east to west in China. It’s about money, it’s about ambition, it’s about why China is where it is now. And it’s mainly based on a young Chinese woman who exemplifies all of that basically. I’ll direct those. Because my feeling is, I keep on saying all this shit, encouraging young people, so if I don’t do it myself, then it’s a lie.

FILMMAKER: I heard that you are not going to be shooting Wong Kar-wai’s next film. If you don’t mind me asking, what was the reason behind that?

DOYLE: Who said I’m not going to be shooting it?

FILMMAKER: I thought that Darius Khondji was attached.

DOYLE: Do you believe everything you read?

FILMMAKER: No. Is that wrong information?

DOYLE: I don’t know. [laughs] Ask Darius. I think that certain relationships need their time to mature, that’s all. Don’t worry. There’s more coming.

FILMMAKER: That’s good to hear. You guys are such an amazing team.


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