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With his bravura hand-held camera work, intuitive sense of camera placement, and stylishly original color palette, director of photography Christopher Doyle has created some of contemporary Asian cinema’s most seductive images. Recently, he directed his own feature, Away with Words, and visited Hollywood to work with Barry Levinson and Gus Van Sant. Augusta Palmer talks with Doyle.

Chris Doyle photographed by Henny Garfunkel

Known affectionately throughout Asia as the Chinese man with a skin disease, Australian Christopher Doyle’s cinematography has not only recorded, but also created the look of Chinese urban modernity. Starting with Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s That Day on the Beach and moving on later to work with Stanley Kwan and Chen Kaige, Doyle really made his mark by collaborating with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. He received acclaim for his bravura camera work in Days of Being Wild and continued working with the director through the trippy California dreaming of Chungking Express and the Buenos Aires nights of Happy Together. Recently, he’s taken time away from his Hong Kong base to work in the U.S. on both Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, while Wong fans anxiously await the 2000 release of the pair’s new Beijing Summer.

Watching Doyle’s directorial debut, Away with Words, which premiered last year at Cannes, is like being part of a collective hallucination that winds through the bars and back streets of Hong Kong only to come out on an Okinawan beach. Along the way there’s plenty of great music plus a total celebration of life, liberty, and beer.

Doyle has some radical ideas about filmmaking. He has disdain for studio protocol, which ties the d.p. to a monitor, and prefers to work without a camera operator. While working on Temptress Moon, Doyle claims he had to drink enough whiskey to sink an oil tanker in order to convince Chen Kaige to fire the operator the Chinese studio system was demanding. According to Doyle, "They realized that they were going to run out of whiskey and that it was more expensive to give me whiskey than it was to pay for the operator." And, he’s vehemently anti-film school, insisting, "The only way you can learn about film is from life, not from other films."

Doyle and I talked over drinks at last year’s Hawaii International Film Festival. The filmmaker is a cyclone, constantly on the move. Many people might be satisfied with being one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the world. Not Doyle. He’s had gallery showings of his photos and collages and has 12 photo books out, though only the recent A Cloud in Trousers is available in the U.S. He even worked as an actor in Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story. He’s as intent on making some more films of his own as he is on continuing his fruitful collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai. And he’s working on a book of sex poems. Just when does he find time to pursue his legendary drinking?


Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you first about your early history. Since leaving Australia to be a merchant marine, you spent time living in Amsterdam, Israel, and India. After a brief sojourn in Hong Kong, you ended up in Taiwan, where you got involved with theater and then filmmaking in the early ’80s, right?

Chris Doyle self portrait
Christopher Doyle: Yes, between 1978 and 1980. It was this transition, and people were coming back and going into civil service, so the [Taiwanese] government was changing and there was support for the arts. We had a bit of government money for our theater group. We started making films that reflected that [change]. And I didn’t even have a visa at that time. I was illegal for six years. I couldn’t officially enter these competitions for award money – I thought the point was making the film, not getting the award. But I was getting awards! And the problem was that I had to use a friend’s name, but I would forget whose name it was. So, this became quite notorious. Over a couple of years they had these competitions every six months and all these films were getting made but nobody would turn up to take the prize. By that time I was invited to join what was then the news department of China Television, and we started to do the Taiwanese "60 Minutes." There was one segment from the American show, and we would create the rest. From that we went on to do this thing that, officially, was propaganda. Every Wednesday at 9:30 on all three channels – they only had three – they showed the same show. We made a film, a documentary, which we called "Traveling Images." Basically, it was going around Taiwan and just filming what we liked to film. It was very poetic; very music-based. We’d do very esoteric stuff. One week we would just do mountains, a whole thing about mountains, or the sea. So, that was my film school, basically. We did that for about a year, and it became extremely popular. I mean, I met the president three times.

I had the most wonderful experience once, when I walked into the Bank of America. At that time, not many people knew that I wasn’t yellow [Doyle was using his Chinese name in the show’s credits]. I was more behind-the-scenes, but our show was known and I had been in the papers a few times because of it. So, I walked into the bank and this girl asked if I was Du Kefeng. I said, "Why?" and she said, "Thank you for making me realize how beautiful my country is." So, I thought, that’s it, I can get run over by a bus, I’ve done something of value.

Because of the show and because of our friendship – I’d interviewed him about 10 times by then – Edward [Yang] asked me to do That Day on the Beach.

It was a studio film, but they supported me even though I’d never shot a film before, and somehow it worked. The first day of rushes was the most terrifying thing. I was sweating like crazy because I had no idea if there was going to be anything on the screen. It really is a miracle that light goes in and image comes out.

Filmmaker: Is your process still so intuitive?

Doyle: Yes. After I’ve seen the first rushes, I never want to see rushes again anymore. I told Gus [Van Sant], "Gus, I don’t want to see rushes. I know what we did." I don’t know how these cinematographers do it, getting up at five in the morning. A lot of cinematographers in America – I guess it’s a different mentality – are scared for their jobs. They’re terrified because it is a system where there’s a lot of unnecessary participation by people who don’t know what the fuck they’re looking at, so they’re all scared that this will get out from under their control. Whereas, my way has always been to put whatever you want to do on the negative or put it into the camera, and if you have reasonably competent people, it will come out that way.

So, back to That Day on the Beach: it got international acclaim and prizes, and I thought, shit, it’s my first film. I don’t know what I’m doing basically. Maybe I should go and learn. I was fortunate enough at that time to have a French-Chinese girlfriend who was going home. So, I went back to Paris with her and lived there for the next six years. I did one film there, Noir et Blanc, a student film [directed by Claire Devers] that also won the Camera d’Or that year [1986] in Cannes. Then I was on ’Round Midnight – just as an observer, an assistant, kind of an intern. I wanted to see how films were made in France, and it was a horrible experience because they’re such snobs. It took me two-and-a-half hours to get to the studio every day, and even if it was raining no one would give me a lift to the metro. I figured, this isn’t for me. And by that time, I was doing a film a year in Asia. So, up until 1991, when we [Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai] shot Days of Being Wild, I was commuting between Paris and Hong Kong. And, my wife said, "Why don’t you stay there, because I’m getting sick of all this coming and going?" And that’s what happened. So, Wong Kar-Wai destroyed my marriage!

Filmmaker: Convenient to have someone else to blame, isn’t it?

Collage by Chris Doyle

Doyle: Yeah, I wish it was true. Actually, it was the best thing we did, because she did the costumes for my film. We’re much closer now that we’re divorced. We love each other too much to live together.

Filmmaker: There’s a perception that you and Wong Kar-Wai have a more collaborative relationship than you have with other directors, is that really the case?

Doyle: Yeah, we talk less. I never see him socially. I just arrive and we work. But I think in any relationship, whether it’s creative or romantic or sexual, the building of trust is the first step. I think the same thing’s happened with Gus or even especially with Barry Levinson on Liberty Heights because he didn’t know who I am, basically. I met him for five minutes, and we decided to work together.

I think that we have worked on stuff that has a certain resonance for us and for other people. And that kind of cements the relationship. And William, too. We never discuss the set. We go look at locations and we never say anything; we just feel if it’s going to work. It’s extremely intuitive. That’s why we don’t have scripts. We don’t need them, basically. We’re looking for the film all the time. The most that he [Wong] does is play some music and say, "I think we should go with this." And then he says, "Don’t you think the avenue would look really good like this?" But we’re talking about music, we’re not talking about some reference like you would if you go for a so-called creative meeting with a commercial filmmaker. We don’t have tear sheets of what the film should look like.

Filmmaker: Is that where the playing with speed, I mean the speed at which you film things, comes from?

Doyle: What I usually say is that music is the most advanced form of art because it’s abstract and yet it evokes emotions. That’s what we, consciously or unconsciously, are going for I’m always jealous of musicians just being able to jam. Unfortunately, we can’t. But I think we’re getting close. Usually the paraphernalia, the technical aspects and the egos, and the monetary constraints of filmmaking make it more like staging an opera than a jam session.

Filmmaker: How has working on low budget Asian films affected your thinking when it comes to the Hollywood projects?

Doyle: Because of economic constraints [in Hong Kong and Taiwan], we can’t afford to "fix it in post." We’ve never said that because we know we won’t have the money then. What we really believe, and I think it’s an aesthetic choice too, is to put as much as possible into the negative. I think that those choices are created by all the factors that govern any filmmaker, which are economic choices. What do I use, Agfa or Fuji? It’s not just an aesthetic choice. It is partly that it’s going to come in 30 percent cheaper. In the States they were shocked when I used Fuji for Psycho. I regard production ethics as very basic to the style of the film. So, when I look at a location or we think about how we’re going to make the film, I do consider how much it’s going to cost. I do consider if we can or cannot have certain equipment. And that is the positive aspect of working both in Asia and with non-Asian filmmakers for me. You get a chance to play with the toys so you can recognize their value, but you don’t take them for granted because you have to go back to the economies of our scale, where you can’t go over a couple of million dollars because you’ll never get it back in box office.

Filmmaker: I don’t get the sense that you’re planning to quit being a cinematographer and focus all your energies on directing.

Doyle: To me [directing] was just changing chairs. But, my personality and my interests suit me incredibly well to being a cinematographer. I’m not a great storyteller and I’m not a logical thinker. I’m not disciplined in the way that I could sit in front of an editing console for hours and hours and make minute decisions about how to adjust things. That’s just not my personality. I’m a bit eclectic. I run around and make a fool of myself, and I can give a director a lot more than he expected. Therefore, [cinematography] is a wonderful job for me. I can think on my feet. I like to move, so I can get the exercise I need by hand-holding the camera. I can dance with the actors – and with the actresses, also. I’d be a fool not to do it. In making my own film, I had to turn down Bertolucci and Peter Greenaway. So, I don’t think I want to do that too often because I don’t think what I’ve got to say is that important. It’s a pleasure to have something to say, and I will continue to make films as a director, but my priority is still cinematography. I am a little bit over the top most of the time, so I figure if you’re not ready for that, you’re going to be in deep shit. You’re either going to have to fire me, or sedate me, or something.


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