‘We are making multimillion dollar student films’
First published 2004 in the Asian Film Festival Quarterly
Osian-cinefan, New Delhi. The most awkward press conference I ever attended- Christopher Doyle is a misfit in the world of politically correct routine press conferences. He is swaying and wants his beer badly. I am sitting in the front row just a hand away and I am scared to ask anything. There is an uneasy silence. Even the journalists who have press cards unlike me are not asking anything. I am blank too, but nevertheless ask the first question about his journey from a wanderer to a cinematographer. The moderator of the press conference re-phrases the same question for some reason and he looks at her and starts to narrate his journey. Everybody starts to write but wait… listen what he is talking about- “You see it all started when I was an embryo and was lying on the beach. There was wind and waves washing me off. It was a terrible start.” He then begins to fake a sob, resting on the shoulders of the stoic moderator…
Welcome to the world of Christopher Doyle, the Shakespeare of post modern cinematography.
Film critics and journalists are always busy intellectualizing his work while he is wary about theoretical explanations that are just thin shadows of his visual intensity. What comes up to the fore so often that his art is based not on intellectualizing but practical and strategic needs. His favorite example is of Fallen Angels. The black and white shots in the film were due to a bad film stock. He appropriated that mistake by making it black and white. The way it appeared in the film it looked that it had a structure and gave a meaning to the film.
After the press conference I meet him again to ask few more questions. His eyes lighten up as he sees my Gandhi writing pad. He points at the charkha logo and says “You must have more of these in your country.’
You can not cut him while he is speaking. For him, every question has an answer. There was a senior journalist sitting in the last who interrupted him while he was on. Christopher Doyle answered his question reluctantly but added later, “You are a pain in the ass”.
Here is an interview with Christopher Doyle, who made a rock star appearance at Osian- Cinefan film festival.
You have a twenty five year old career. Lot of cinematographic innovations that you are credited with must have a basis. What is it? Where does it come from?
There are lots of things that have to be felt and considered in order to innovate. For example colors. There is lot of theory regarding choosing a color scheme. Storaro 1 (Vittorio Storaro) claims that green is the color of wisdom, of knowledge. Now why does he say it? Is it going to be applicable today also? Times have changed. Haven’t they? This Storaro theory can mislead many people (points at me). It’s hazardous. Follow what he says and all the films will look same. There can be no unified theory on colors. In Asia especially for countries like India and China red has a cultural significance. Does Renaissance talk about it? When we were shooting Hero there was a flashback sequence to be completed. Everybody said lets use black and white; somebody said lets use color of the skin. I suggested we use green. For me, the past is green.
How do you choose a project?
People matter for me not the script. Even if a very bad director comes to me and is full of shit even then I will work with him if I like him. It depends on where the person is coming from, value systems and so on. Every director is different. Everybody has a way of functioning. Pen-ek Ratanaruang was always telling me to go slow in the Last life in the universe. He says if you go fast then we will screw on the editing table. But that is his style. Wong kar wai is different. He is always asking for this and that. This cognitive, lets-have- fun approach is what we are known for. He does not care much about the result as long as we are happy with the frame and shot. When such a film comes out I can say this is my film too as there is lot of collaboration between director and cameraman in all the films that I do.
Every film that you do throws at viewers a visual surprise. Is it a conscious strategy?
I am getting old. There is not much innovation that I can do. It’s very tough to do new things at this level. So there lies scope for the young people. They will redefine the way we see image, not us. Then there is the danger of repetition. You set a trend and everybody hails you but you should not continue doing it. Folks did dogma and stuff but what’s new now. Move on. Make way for new things.
Is there something like a “new thing?”
Wong and I take multiple things at one time, but we’re never repeating them. We shot Happy Together in South America for this only. Nothing is original. I agree. Concepts will remain same but you could give it a very different perspective. Now when you say that it means lot of collaboration and effort. Usually it has to happen between the art department people, camera, lights and choreography. When we start talking a lot of shit comes out. Everybody is saying to other and especially me “Give me something new”.
People in the press conferences do not expect you to talk about film labs and film stocks.
But that is what we are supposed to do all the time. Post-production is very critical for Wong and me. The kind of work we do it is very important to make use of the same lab. I value their suggestions as our films are so improvised; there is no script at all. So the visual alternatives are decided upon the editing table or film labs.
What’s your India connection?
Oh ya I was in Bihar during my travels. I used to do organic farming in a convent.( then he gives a detailed argument for organic farming) There were some 50-60 young women and I was the only man there. So you see…
Everybody in the festival is talking about Asian film making. Is there a real divide between Asia and others in the way we make our cinema? What are the dynamics of working in China, south East Asia? What really happens on the location?
Asian film making is very different it’s like the theory of charkas 2 or Zen. It’s very cyclical. This is reflected in the way we tell our stories. It is not like Hollywood people who have very saleable popcorn narratives. They have terrible ideas and they sell it.
On location the stakes are very high and also the kind of people who you work with can sometimes push you very hard. For example this young girl who was doing costumes for Hero kept on testing a particular dye on her own hand. She could do it on a cloth or tell an assistant to do it. But she wanted to feel it herself. What do you do when you work with such people?
Funny things happen all the time when you are out in the sun with the camera. .I was shooting an ad campaign for Nike in Shanghai. Apart from the technical and creative crew there were these company executives who had these documents or files in their hands and kept on checking out if we were shooting what we told them. Often they would stall the shooting telling that a particular shot was not in the storyboards. Who gives a damn about storyboards if you are getting better visual possibilities on the location? I am always trying out new shots on the location. That’s my job as a cinematographer. There are hundred better ways to take a shot. Who the hell were they? Will accountants teach us to make films?
You are openly critical of your work... unlike lot of other people in the industry.
That’s my trick. Seriously there are lots of things that only the self knows. You have to set your own standards. I know my work I am the best judge of what I do. Rest is bullshit. There are many problems in my shot taking that only I can make out. When I look at a shot I say, “Chris you fucked up. You should have stopped rolling a second before”. This kind of criticism is best and keeps you fit.
Be it the waterfall in Happy Together or Tony Lieung’s apartment in Chungking express, space unravels in layers and looks very three dimensional.
Filmmaking is not a theoretical exercise. There is wind, bad weather, good weather and hell lot of other technical problems when you are shooting. It teaches you a lot of things. I really learnt my camera when I was shooting in the desert. I have shot 5 films in the desert. Desert is a crazy place to shoot. The landscape and atmosphere determines a lot of my work. Lot of times it comes before everything. For example the Hong Kong cityscape has determined our aesthetics for a number of films. Its very cramped with small stuffed apartments, shops etc.
The flat in the Chung king Express has been really well shot. Infact we had a class lecture on memory and urban claustrophobia.
That’s my apartment.
You must be joking
No its where I live. Tony leungs apartment in the film is actually where I live. Its right in the middle of Hong Kong. Everybody knows my address there. Isnt it beautiful?
Tell us more about the kind of relationship you share with Wong kar wai.
Wong kar wai has a beautiful house where we spent lot of time drinking together and then we sleep. (Laughs) jokes apart… he has a strong family and a very solid wife.
I think I have spoken many times on our style. Wong once told me, “Remember the day when we took 53 takes for a shot”. This was for Days of Being Wild. The lovemaking shot… we kept taking retakes for two days until we got it. We are always thinking on the sets. That’s why our films go on and on. I was supposed to shoot Crouching Tiger… but “In the Mood for Love” kept on going on and on. Very Asian style… that is we choose a location first then search for a story. You could say we are we are making multimillion dollar student films.
A lot of cinematographers, film students follow your work and look up to you. What is your message for them?
I will say that I am making mistakes all the time but I think about them and try to learn from them. I never thought that I will do all this but since now I am doing it I must work hard. Sometimes my assistants are left uncared as I am working on and on at a stretch. Then I would say at last that if I can do it so can you. There are lots of people trying to copy our style. But there can be only one Fallen Angels and only one Wong Kar Wai . You cannot be doing again and again what has been done before If you don’t have big tits do not make them.
1. Vittorio Storaro- Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC known chiefly for his work with Bernardo Bertoluucci with a vast legacy of seminal works like the Conformist, Apocalypse Now, Reds, The empire of the sun and The Little Buddha.
2. Chakras- Life seen as a continuous cycle of regeneration and decay.