[Editor's note to those easily offended by coarse language: Christopher Doyle curses like a sailor; in part, because he actually was one, in a way, before he discovered photography and cinematography (he worked on fishing boats). But cleaning up Doyle's language would be like slapping a pair of boxers on Michelangelo's David, and we wouldn't want that, would we?]
Christopher Doyle may be the greatest cinematographer working in the movies today. He is certainly one of the most respected and perhaps the most idiosyncratic. An Australian by birth, he lives and works predominantly in Asia (among his films are Wong Kar-wai's multi-textured Chungking Express and In the Mood For Love) with forays to the US (where he shot, among other films, Gus Van Sant's unique Psycho remake) and Australia (the beautifully spare Rabbit-Proof Fence). He was guest of honor at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival, where two of his most recent works were featured: the lush Last Life in the Universe and Zhang Yimou's new martial arts epic Hero.
I managed to squeeze an interview into his busy schedule the morning before his "Master Class" presentation, essentially an on-stage Q&A in front of the festival audience. A 50-year-young artist with wispy gray-white hair pulled back in a small ponytail and a pea-green army jacket, he didn't simply enter the press room at interview time. He burst in like a madman on his fifth cup of espresso, springing through the room like he was the long lost Marx Brother reviving an old sketch - a combination of Groucho's impertinence and non-stop verbal volleys and Harpo's pursuit of the ladies. The white-haired dynamo immediately acquainted himself with every woman in the room, kissing hands and coaxing kisses, teasing and flirting with the flabbergasted young women of press relations before he finally ushered himself out "before I really get into trouble."
Getting him settled wasn't easy, but once we found a room to ourselves, he turned to me like I was a new bar buddy and said: "So... my name is Chris." Thus began a memorable interview, punctuated by puckish stray comments, many of them so off-color they drop off the color charts, and explosive bursts of laughter that defy description, somewhere between a bray and a cackle, yet utterly disarming. Along the way he was joined by his traveling companion, a young woman named Ariana, and launched into an impromptu chorus of the Monty Python song "Sit on my Face," but most of the interview was taken up with his passionate ideas on making images and telling stories, and his philosophy of filmmaking. We began the interview looking over some DVDs of Chris Doyle's work with Wong Kar-wai. He picked up the Hong Kong import of Days of Being Wild, their first collaboration. "You have to get the Japanese version," he remarked. "The color is wrong on this one. It's not green enough. It was all green, but then they kind of 'corrected' it when I wasn't there. They took away the green because they thought I didn't know what I was doing."
Days of Being Wild
Did you know what you were doing then?
No. I think I started to know what I was doing in the middle of Days of Being Wild. Up until then it was like - in Chinese, they say, "Your eye is high but your hand is low," which means you can't achieve what you want to do. You have all these fucking aspirations, you expect to do something great, and actually you complicate things. Because your hand is low. In the middle of Days of Being Wild, it was either I was going to get fired or I was going to leave, or I just sort of stepped back one step. I think that's the whole point. That's what I try to talk about now. The intimacy of the act - which is like, you know, at my age, you need glasses to see anything close up - and then how to step back.
That's the thing: the balance between being so fucking involved in something that it has energy, it has intimacy, it contacts people, and yet being removed enough to say, "Yes, no, yes, no, no." That's the job. And it was actually in the middle of Days of Being Wild that that happened, because I had made this really complicated shot; I had five filters on the camera, and we're trying to do this five-minute shot with incredible moves. It was just, at that time, we were thinking of style, instead of discovering style. We were imposing instead of receiving. I think [receiving] is what's happened ever since. You get to the point, for example, in Ashes of Time, where you realize you can't light the desert. If you're Dino De Laurentiis, you try to light the desert. Big mistake. If you're us, you say, "Fuck, we can't light the desert, so let's go with it." That's the difference, and I think that is possibly an Asian perspective, possibly a more mature perspective on how things really happen, and possibly just getting older. It's a mixture of all those things.
It's interesting how you describe it as being intimate while at the same time stepping back for perspective...
That's just it. I think the whole thing about filmmaking is that it has to be engaging enough that I have to believe enough of what I'm seeing that it becomes universal. It's really that simple. That's why it doesn?t matter anymore what language it's in because, if you're really saying something, then we'll hear it. Up until cloning starts next year, we're all more or less biologically and spiritually... There are places where we interconnect and the only way you can interconnect is if you disconnect with yourself. If you don't know who the fuck you are... I think that's the whole point. People go to film school to learn about filmmaking. No. Why don?t you go out and learn about life and then...
I was in Istanbul two weeks ago and I was just amazed that the film school was actually people who were studying medicine and engineering. I thought, "This is the best film school in the world. Much better than NYU," because I was at NYU the next week and they were total assholes. They were all about contracts and business. It was just a marketing thing. [In Istanbul] they all speak English, they learn in English. I thought, "This is the future." That you have people from other disciplines who are interested in filmmaking. We spent the whole day together. It was the most engaging experience I've had in... I want to make a Turkish film next year, because that's it, it's about life, it's not about technicalities. You show me the green button and I press it and the film rolls. That's about it. That's what I know.
Of course you accumulate certain experiences, but basically it's about how you see things and it's about what voice you have. If you have something to say, then people will listen. If you have nothing to say, then you make or remake Shrek 3. [laughs his hyena laugh] Or, as in America, you buy the rights to all these wonderful Asian films because we've run out of ideas. Hello! Ha-hah! We've run out of ideas so, "Fucking hell, how come they have all these very interesting stories? Let's buy them!" And then you put it on a shelf and you don't know what to do with it and then you don't realize until the Beijing Olympics in 2008 how far Asia has gone, and then you say, [whispering] "Fucking hell." And that's what's going to happen. That's the future of the nest in fifteen to twenty years. And it's already happening. Filmmaking in Asia is much more dynamic because people have a voice. People have a voice because they have a story, because they're actually living instead of negotiating or litigating. [laughs]
In the Mood for Love
Is that why you keep working in Asia?
Well, I started in Asia. It's not a matter of "keep working" or not. I left Australia when I was eighteen and I've been a foreigner for 36 years. I've never been anything but a foreigner. I think that engages. I think that's very important to the way I work because as a foreigner you see things differently, and as a cameraman, you have to see things differently to inform the image. It all, it all, it all, it all, it all makes sense.
But, I started making films in Asia, in Taiwan. I started making Chinese-language films so, yeah, I regard myself as a Chinese filmmaker, but I just happen to be white, or pink, actually. It's kind of like a delayed adolescence. I feel I grew up there. I was in my thirties by the time I was growing up. I still haven't grown up. It's just more familiar. But, like we said, you have that balance. The point is, you have that balance: you know enough about it, but you still have a remove. I know Chinese culture, but I don't know it academically. I know it day to day, sleeping with... that's all right, we won't talk about it. You live it. And yet, of course, I still have my Catholicism, I have all that stuff. It's a very liberating balance.
How did you become a cinematographer? Your official bio lists a lot of activities, but it doesn't say anything about photography or cinematography in your past.
No, no, no. In my family, the batteries would rust in the camera before we would finish a roll of film. I finally found two or three photos of me when I was a kid, but I think that's probably the only ones that exist. I was reading since I was five-years-old and I was always interested in literature. To me, cinema was where you'd go to pick up girls, you know. Hya-ha-ha! I don't think ever I saw a film. [laughs] I was too busy trying to get my hand down her tits. Really.
It was never a dream, it just happened that I was traveling for a while. I think it came out of the frustration of language, that I had been a foreigner for so long that I got to a point where I had been traveling for fifteen years and it was like, "Oh, yeah, oh, oooh, ah." My English was down to that level because I hadn't spoken it for fifteen years. And I thought, "So what's the alternative to language?" There's images, I guess, and I just happened to be with artists. I'm always with musicians, I'm always with dancers, and one way to convey the energy of music and dance is to translate it into another form. And that's it. It wasn't anything, it just happened to be... [waiter comes into the room and Chris motions to him] Do you speak Dutch? Do you know the word "Heineken"?
Waiter: The beer? Would you like one?
Two. But don't tell my mother. I'll show you my ID later.
How did you wind up behind a camera for That Day on the Beach [directed by Edward Yang]? That was your first film, wasn't it?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the first film I made. For that time it was important because it was giving a voice to Asian women, basically. Western women would appropriate it as a feminist film, and it is, in the good sense of feminism. It was, "Okay, so let's talk about things," and basically, it's two women talking and trying to translate ideas into visual things.
I went to Taiwan to study Chinese because I realized that there was English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic, and maybe Russian, if you really care. Those are the languages, and China was closer, so I went to study Chinese. And, as usual, I hung out in bars, as you kind of notice, and people in bars are usually musicians and artistic kinds of people, and we just fell in together and we lived together and then, of course, I liked somebody and I wanted to make her a star. It's the usual stuff, basically. It was just another language, that's it, and then for some reason - again, because I was older - I was in my thirties by then - when I started making films, I had accumulated a little life experience so I wanted to articulate things which were a little bit more complex that I could actually do [laughs], and people noticed that and they said, "Why don't you do something?" And for some reason, Edward Yang - I was hanging out with these kinds of people, I had no experience really, just making my own films - and for some reason, they trusted me. It was like a big scandal, this white guy shooting [a Taiwanese film], and it was a major studio film at that time, because there was only studio films at that time in Taiwan, and they had 35mm cinematographers on salary and Edward Yang chose me. So they all went on strike. [laughs] Which I understand totally. They should. So we negotiated and we worked it out and that was it.
And then we made this film that won all these awards and I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I fluked it. And then I got really scared and I thought, "Shit, maybe I should learn something about cinematography." And then I went to France and tried to learn cinematography and I realized that I don't give a shit, actually, and I came back to making films basically as I could until Days of Being Wild. So basically, learning through mistakes.
That's the thing about the films we've made, that they are an appropriation of a lot of mistakes, and I think that's a really important dialogue that I should have with other kids. Because the rest of the world, in the film schools, what they tell you is that you can be logical about it, you can learn how to make films. You can't learn how to make films. You gotta make mistakes and you have appropriate the mistakes, and then you learn from those things, and then you have a voice. That's the real trajectory, that's the real journey. When you write, you know, you look and... "I don't need so many adjectives, no." Really. I studied writing and then I couldn't write for twenty years. Now I've done fifteen to twenty books because it's just a pleasure. When you get away from the bullshit, when you get away from the academic, when you get away from... But you've absorbed enough of it. Of course you have to work on the technique, but the thing is to work so well that the technical stuff becomes so familiar that it's not even there. Then you're starting to write, then you're starting to make films, then you're starting to articulate, then you're starting to make bullshit like I am now.