Cinematography POSTS The Film Business

Interview with Cinematographer Christopher Doyle

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Christopher Doyle in FilmCraft: Cinematography.

One of the world’s most audacious and brilliant cinematographers, Christopher Doyle was born in 1952 in Australia, but has spent most of his professional life in Asia. Prior to his first DP job in 1983, he had worked as an oil driller, a cow herder, and a doctor of Chinese medicine, but it was his 8mm and video work that inspired Taiwan’s Edward Yang to hire him for his debut film That Day, on the Beach. Fluent in Mandarin, Doyle subsequently found himself a popular cinematographer in Hong Kong and China.

In 1990, he shot the second feature film from up-and-coming Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, Days of Being Wild, which began a collaboration between the two that included some of the most iconic Asian films of the next two decades: Chungking Express and Ashes of Time in 1994, Fallen Angels in 1995, Happy Together in 1997, In the Mood for Love in 2000, 2046 in 2004, and Wong Kar-wai’s segment of Eros—The Hand—in 2004. He also worked as cinematographer for Chen Kaige on Temptress Moon (1996), Zhang Yimou on Hero (2002), and Fruit Chan on Dumplings (2004), as well as producing Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (1993)…

“Hopefully the function of what we do gives resonance to the image. The function of the cinematographer is to be the bridge, the conduit between the audience and what’s in front of the camera. To me there are only three people in cinema: the person in front of the camera, the audience member, and the person who is the real passage between them—the cinematographer. Of course there is a logistical structure, and a director and producer to facilitate the interface. But for the engagement to be direct and compelling, I really believe we have to be transparent and remove ourselves enough so that the passage between the actors and audience is direct.

Most of the people I work with are friends and it’s a relationship. I spent so many years of life with Wong Kar-wai and many other gifted, committed artists and why would you do it if you don’t love them? Why would you spend six months—or four years in the case of 2046—with someone you didn’t share a vision and commitment with? You see so many people who think they can further their so-called careers by working with assholes, and many western filmmakers are assholes. You have to cut them loose. No, it has to be a friendship to start with.

The directors don’t know what the fuck to do with me most of the time. I guess I compromise them into being “indulgent.” Hopefully something unexpected comes out of that. Wong Kar-wai always says “Is that all you can do, Chris?” And I think he is right. What he is saying is “I want more from you” and “Do you really think that’s enough?” He knows that I can do more but you don’t know what you can do unless you push yourself beyond what you thought were your limits. “Is that all you can do?” is an extremely important question and my answer is “It won’t happen again.” It has happened to me many times where you do exceed yourself, and it’s because of the trust that actors give you, and the support of the crew.

Of course, film is a whole group of people getting together to do something which is actually beyond even their own comprehension, hopefully bigger than oneself. It’s written down but it’s not expressed. When you find form in an image or a gesture or perhaps in the relationship between the camera and the space and the person within that space, it’s astonishing. It was there all the time, but didn’t come to light until you found it.

My job is also to inform myself and the audience through visual experience and enhance it or suggest another visual experience. I have used green moonlight in many of my films, not blue moonlight which is the convention. Blue moonlight comes from the past when they had oil-lamp floodlights which gave you a suggestion of night being comforting. One hundred years later on, people are still following this convention. But if you go to Venice or if you look at the Pacific, moonlight is not blue, it is green. If you are in LA or London, the sky is tinged with orange light from the incandescent lights that illuminate the city. You have to record that visual experience and share it. Moonlight can be green or it can be pink. The same thing applies to other conventions, such as certain camera movements, or the consistency of light sources—even a so-called “seamless” edit. Art is supposed to transcend the mundane, the accepted, not condescend to it.

If you are working with digital media, such as a cellphone camera or the Internet or even 3D, the energy and the challenge comes from applying the peculiarities of the medium, not trying to replicate the tone qualities or conventions of film. Derek Jarman’s eye responded to and exploited the grain, contrast, and random response of the 8mm camera’s iris to light changes to create works of great beauty with the simplest of means.

I have basically been a foreigner more than three quarters of my life and you have to be an outsider from the inside if you want to be a cinematographer. You have to be close enough to the experience, but removed enough to see it in another way. That is what art is about. I know Chinese society because I have lived in it, but I was born in another country. I am a white guy in a yellow world. I am not even Christopher Doyle, I am Dukefeng. That is extremely liberating. Why are so many of the great cinematographers in America non-American? Anthony Dod Mantle makes Danish films—he is British; Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam are just as inspired even living in village London. Only when you are looking from the outside will you see stuff that resonates, which people understand but have never seen until then.

…I always operate my own camera. Always. Everyone knows that, even the unions. My contracts state I am director of photography, and I am camera operator. When we did Temptress Moon, the director asked if his best mate could operate the camera. Traditionally, visitors bring gifts of whisky and fruit to Chinese sets. In my anxiety and frustration I finished a good bottle and a case of oranges watching and trying to get someone else to do something I couldn’t communicate, and yet I knew exactly how to do. Operating the camera is intrinsic to how I work. I have to operate because I don’t think I want to have an idea translated or reinterpreted, I just want to do it. It’s not getting from A to B that counts, it’s how you get there. Otherwise it’s too far removed from the process for me and if you are not engaging with the person in front of the camera, how can you articulate something that you want to share with the audience?

…I don’t think lighting is everything. I believe location and climate are everything. On Last Life in the Universe, we found an old dilapidated villa, an hour out of Bangkok. And I knew when I saw this house that this was the third character in the film, this is what the film was about.

Most of the films I have done have limited budgets, so you do what you can, not what you want. You don’t impose a style. Going back to Wong Kar-wai, when you don’t have a script, the style has to evolve from the state of the image that you work up. That is fundamental to how my own work has evolved. So as soon as I see a space, I make decisions: yes, no, yes, no. On a Wong Kar-wai film, that’s all you have. It’s basically the Feng Shui. The space implies certain possibilities. The position of elements attracts the body and eye to sit there and avoid that corner. The light falls in a way that implies “peace” or “anxiety” so you respond to that and perhaps enhance it a little. Feng Shui informs intent.

…I hope this attitude, this approach, is encouraging to younger filmmakers because, if they really want to make films that is probably all they will have. They will have a shitty little camera with shitty resolution and no detail, but if they regard this or the ability of inexperienced actors or lack of lunch money as a limitation they are missing the point. “There are no problems, there are only solutions” might sound a little like a Starbucks cliché, but don’t let “the eyes be higher than the hand” as they say in Chinese. Do what you can. Don’t get stuck on what you want, and then when you find a crack in the possible go through it. It’s your crack—”that’s how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen assures us. And the way the light gets in and the way you respond to it will be unique, and only yours. Don’t try and imitate others, certainly don’t try to imitate Christopher Doyle. The only reason to make films is because we have something to say, to articulate our personalities.

…If you aspire to something greater than yourself, others will step up to it. It’s beautiful to watch. Our job is to be real people open to the possibilities that the process of filmmaking offers and hire good people who know what they are doing. You have to assume the role. It’s master and commander. The master is the director and the commander is the cinematographer, but you can have really good shipmates.

I am an anti-intellectual about the process because I think once you start intellectualizing, you scare the kids away from making their own mistakes. It also implies that we are above everyone else. I despise the hierarchy and sense of privilege, and the implication that it takes so much research and effort and correct knowledge to be what we are. I disagree. I happened into what I am doing. I am not an art student. Apparently I am partly color blind. I was never an assistant. Someone just gave me a camera and I am here.”

Excerpt from  FilmCraft: Cinematography by Tim Grierson and Mike Goodridge © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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