“Where are you from?”
“New York. Or do you mean the publication?”
“I don’t give a shit.”
So began my sit-down with Christopher Doyle, who would’ve landed on almost anyone’s very short list of world’s greatest cinematographers were it only for his long, sadly defunct relationship with Wong Kar-wai. Those handful of features, of course, don’t even come close to covering the scope of his career, and though I went into this with the hope of focusing on numerous restorations they’ve handled for a forthcoming retrospective (and inevitable Criterion set), it became clear that making this, or anything, the sole subject when you’re sharing a pre-noon beer on the last day of an exhausting festival (ENERGACamerimage, where he’s treated as both friend and royalty) is an opportunity wasted.
Doyle is everything you’ve heard: verbose, profane, hilarious, immensely generous in sharing both intellect and time. As soon becomes clear, I decided to let him take our conversation where he wished.
The Film Stage: Can you tell me about your time as a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand?
Christopher Doyle: Let’s go back to the big picture. My first film, I made when I was 32 years old. I left home, my family, when I was 15, and then I left Australia when I was 19. Then I traveled and traveled and traveled and traveled and went through all sorts of things, including what you just asked about. I worked in a kibbutz as a cowboy; in India, we dug wells for irrigation; in Thailand, I was selling quack medicine. [Laughs] Etc., etc. This is the thing, this is why we’re at Camerimage, this is why we’re talking now: I think life experiences inform your view of the world. Perhaps informs or suggests the stories that you can share. Like you, you watch my films. Like many students, they see something in what we do, which is eclectic or innovative or unexpected.
But that’s not important. The important thing is you. You can’t be Christopher Doyle. I don’t want to be Christopher Doyle most of the time! [Laughs] Most of the time I’d rather be somebody else, but I’m stuck with what I have, and what I have is experience, which is life. That’s what has to inform the way in which you work, the way in which you live, the way in which you celebrate what matters to you. In my experience, again, the spaces in which I lived or work inspire the way in which the film looks. So that’s a very important perspective. It really matters that you see with fresh eyes. Now, how are you going to get there? Whose eyes are there? I think that’s the important thing.
That’s why we come to Camerimage: because we have to encourage the kids and have this conversation, now, to say… if you imitate me, first of all, you don’t drink enough. Secondly, you don’t live the life I’ve had. So why would you bother? If you imitate me, as the film school tells you you should, then you’ll just be another of the 10,000 people wanting to make films. So why should they choose you? But if you learn in your own way, if you are true to yourself, maybe. It will take a while. It took me ten years before I felt, “Okay, I feel I know what I’m doing.” But if you don’t take that journey, who gives a shit? Who gives a shit? You’re just A-B-C-D in the line-up. Why would they choose you over someone else, unless you have a certain vision, attitude, panache? I think that’s what it’s really about. What’s the question, by the way? I forgot.
It’s just a tidbit I’ve found so fascinating, and only a half-sentence or something on Wikipedia. It says you were an oil-driller in India, cow-herder in Israel, “doctor of Chinese medicine.” Pretty immediately it then says you shot Edward Yang’s That Day, on the Beach, and that leap has always fascinated me.
The leap from one to the other is what we’re trying to talk about now, which is people. Almost every film I’ve made has been with someone who was a friend first and happened to make films, and I think that’s really important. I think when we talk about film school, I always say it’s great for your sex life—which is a metaphor. It means you have a connection with people. That’s what happened with the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers—Zhang Yimou, Kaige—they were all in the Beijing Academy together and had a certain idealism together. And they were together. There was nothing else to do, except exchange ideas. In the west it happened at USC with George Lucas and Coppola, all those people, that they had time together to be idealistic. Because you’re a student and don’t have the pressures of the world, so you can be idealistic. You can have ideas germinate, you can have this wonderful space, and then, okay, you step out. That’s what happened.
I’ve been fortunate and lucky enough that Edward was a friend first. Gus Van Sant was a friend first. Jim Jarmusch was a friend first. So all these people I collaborate with happen to wish to make films. But the real resource, the real integrity, came from our friendship, or our intent. So the film is just a by-product; it wasn’t the point. I think that’s important, especially for kids. The thing is, if you want to make art, you have to become an artist. If you want to be an artist, you have to work on it. And it still goes on. Everyone I work with, it’s not because of the script, or it’s not because of the money—sometimes. It’s because I think we can spend six months or a year together and enjoy each other’s company. Why else would you do it? I mean, any film, you’re going to spend at least six months with somebody. Why would you spend six months with Michael Mann or James Cameron? Are you crazy?
Have you had experiences with them?
Of course not. They don’t know what to do with me! [Laughs] Because they think the world revolves around them. The world doesn’t revolve around anybody. The world revolves around beer, sometimes. [Clinks glass] It revolves around complicity. The world is based on intimacy, on shared ideas. I mean, in my world, anyway.
There is that famous back-and-forth you have with Wong Kar-wai, where he asks if that’s all you can do, and you’ll say, “Yes. Now I want to go home.” Not an exchange I imagine between people who aren’t close.
It’s the same thing. I work with many first-time directors, at least ten of whom have been women. In Chinese they say, “The problem is.” There’s no problem. [Whispers] There’s no problem. The script says, “It’s snowing outside and she’s very unhappy.” It’s raining and she’s not a great actress. [Laughs] So what do you do? Okay, so what do you really want to talk about? And I think this is the great privilege of collaboration or trying to create the space in which a film could be made. It has to be some kind of compromise, some kind of give-and-take, and some kind of learning. I think that’s a very human thing.
It’s not a technical thing. For some people, it’s difficult, but for me this is what it’s about. The script is a blueprint, but the film is a process. I think that’s really important. Sometimes people are not quite prepared for that process, so sometimes you have to help them go there. Usually, once you start to see what you’re doing, hopefully you understand where you can go. Which is the opposite to, “Okay, it was shit. Spider-Man is not going to work today. Let’s put $100,000,000 into making it look better.” I think we have absolutely opposite attitudes to what’s filmmaking. We make the film we can. They buy the film they think they want. I’m not sure which one… of course, they have the box office, but I think we have the integrity. It’s a little bit different.
To the point of “the human aspect,” I know you recently did a series of restorations with Wong Kar-wai.
How do you know all this stuff? You know more than I do with what’s happening!
Janus is doing a presentation of them next year, from what I understand.
Next year is the 20th anniversary of Mood for Love. If I didn’t move on, where would I be? I think this is important for me, personally. It’s the same journey; I’m continuing it. I’m not stuck with Mood for Love. I mean, I’m very proud of it, but my next film is my best film. This is, again, what we’re trying to talk about. I don’t remember how I made Chungking Express, and yet every single storyboard I’ve seen for the last 20 years includes images from either Chungking Express or Mood for Love. [Pause] What a waste of time. Why don’t you do your own shit? I mean, I moved on.
It’s like… ah. This is strange: I’ve suddenly had an epiphany. So in this story—and I actually made a film which is very similar—it’s a Catholic myth, there we are. Knock knock knock. There’s a river. And then a woman comes and walks across the river. So the monk puts the woman on his back. And his friend helps him across the river. Then he leaves the woman on the other side of the river. And his friend, the other monk, says, “You shouldn’t touch a woman. You’re a monk, you shouldn’t touch a woman.” He says, “But I left her here, on the other side of the bank. Why are you still obsessed with this?” So in other words: we did it and it’s done. Don’t obsess about it. Move on. I think that’s my attitude.
Of course I’m extremely proud of Mood for Love, but I really believe my next film is my best film. If I didn’t work that way, if I didn’t have an intention, if I didn’t have that integrity, if I didn’t have that motivation, if I didn’t have that trust in the people I work with, what the fuck? I should retire. I should’ve stopped working after Mood for Love. It’s very important to realize that all the films took us to a very special space, which is the integrity of the idea, the way in which it’s expressed, and, I guess, the… rhythm of the film. Which is musical. So I don’t know. Pff. It’s possible I may never make a film as good as that; I don’t give a shit. I’m going to make other films trying, at least, to be better than that, or at least be… true to me. Whatever. It’s stupid to use words to explain. [Clinks glass]
And this is why we’re in Camerimage: you have to encourage the kids to not refer to our works. Don’t think these are the pedestal unto which you want to climb. No. I think it’s the opposite. I think the point of Camerimage and of me coming here every year is to say, “It’s only a film.” But it’s your life. It’s only a film, but it has to be yours. If you don’t have a life, how are you going to make a film? I think that’s my real message, in general. What a privilege I’ve been given to have this voice called “cinema” to express stuff that matters to me. I come here every year, I never see any films because I’m so busy preparing my talk.
Why am I so busy preparing my talk? Because I wish to say something that I never knew how to say in another way. I never. I don’t know how good or bad the talks are. Some of them seem to go okay; it seems to inspire people. But actually I spend more time preparing my talks than I do on most films, because it’s reflective. And it’s fantastic. That’s what Camerimage is about to me: focusing with a real intent on what we do and why we do it. If we can communicate that and maybe encourage another generation to have that naïveté, to have that optimism, I think that’s why I’m here.
You say your best film is your next film, which led me to your IMDb. And as much of a fan as I am, it’s a little hard to keep up.
Of course. Because I do five films a year.
It’s heartening to see. You talk about this in an almost spiritual way, but I wonder about the physical aspect: how do you maintain stability with that schedule?
I’m not alive unless I’m working. I mean… it’s fucking beautiful. Actually, I’m quite curious myself. I’m a piece of shit when I’m not working. I have diarrhea and I drink too much. This is why we’re talking now. I just feel alive now, because of the engagement. I think our intellect, our brains, our intention are a physical aspect of us. I really think so. Fucking, I just know I am who I am when I’m working. The exchange of ideas and intent of a story, the give-and-take between a climate and director. My need to push the team ahead. Pff. I’m a piece of shit when I’m not working! [Laughs] I’m really a piece of shit. I’m just an old man.
Your brain is telling you what you need—it’s as simple as that. So your brain tells your body. This morning, at 4—which is noon, Hong Kong time—I was just so full of energy and started writing more stuff. That’s what I need. I don’t know how other people find it. I find it in my work. I find it in this conversation. I find it in the talks. I find it in the challenge of working with first-time women directors. I find it in the possibilities of the space in which we’re going to shoot the next Cambodian film—one of my next films is Cambodian.
[Pause] What a piece of shit I am. It’s like, why don’t you relax a little? I mean, these two talks, I didn’t see any films here because I wanted to prepare my talks, because I want to be true to who I am in order to connect with where the kids could hope to be. It’s really weird. It becomes a kind of obsession… I was born Catholic; that explains everything. [Laughs]
[Clinks glass] I think we’re fucking evangelists in our different ways. Hopefully we’re preaching a truer faith. I’m only who I am in what I do. Really. Actually. But then something like this gives you the chance to step back and observe. And I think he’s an okay guy, because he’s trying.
This one. [Points to self] I think he’s okay. I think he’s trying hard—maybe too hard sometimes. Maybe he fucks up from time to time. But I think the intent is good. That’s all I can say about this person. I think the intent is okay.
Photo by Arturo Almanza K
You’ve talked about writing as very important to you.
I’ve written fifteen books. I’ve written many screenplays. What’s the difference? I’d rather read a book than watch a film. Because a book gives you a space. I read Lolita when I was, like, eight years old, and I read it when I was 15 years old. If I read it now, it would be a different book, because it’s my book. What’s the difference? That’s the important thing. If, in cinema, you get to that astonishing rapport… I mean, the great thing about literature is that it’s yours. Because you read it. Not your mother. Not your classmates. You read it and it meant something to you. To me, that’s always been the aspiration of what we do: we create something. The problem, of course, is, film is time-based. Film has a different distribution system than books do. So, unfortunately, it’s not often that we get to go back to see what it was really about.
But I’m totally sure that the way in which the films are made—my own films and the films of Wong Kar-wai—are totally informed by literature, not by film. It’s not what they teach you in USC. It’s not three-part structure—never. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t work. But I think the films we make are jazz. The films we make are literary because it’s an engagement with how narrative can work. Good guy, conflict, now they’re friends—which is 90% of American films. It’s the same shit. So aren’t we trying to create another experience or another ambience or another engagement with the audience?
Literature is, to me, music. Literature and music are basic sources. They give us this place to have an investment. You interpret as you wish. Music doesn’t explain itself; why should a film explain itself? [Laughs] Why should a film not just be about… as we know in porn. Porn is just about the girl masturbating. Or the guy fucking the girl. Or the two lesbians jumping around in front of the camera. They don’t pretend that it’s more or less than it is. Unfortunately, actually, porn has too many conventions. I think I should start a porn company.
I’d definitely watch.
Yeah! [Clinks glass] This is why I’m here. I want the kids to know how wondrous it can be, how much a space can suggest to you. This wall is driving me crazy but it’s kind of… if you wanted to make a sci-fi movie, we could make Nostalghia, a Polish version of Nostalghia—just somebody crossing back and forth. It would say something. I don’t know what it says, but there’s something about it that intrigues me. Why do they have all red chairs? It’s about looking, it’s about experiencing, it’s about engaging with a space. I’m starting to like this space. I want to start shooting in it in an hour or so. I feel the story coming out of this space—but in a bloody hotel.
And this is where you have to be as an artist. Whatever methods or process you need. As I said: for me, it’s reading. For some, it might be seeing other people’s movies. I understand, I understand. These give you some kind of energy. Or maybe it’s sex or cooking. I think whatever gets you there is what we should celebrate. Whatever gets you there will take you somewhere special. Then you will be the artist that you are or the filmmaker you need to be, and you won’t be Super Chris. You won’t be just another cog in the wheel.
So we’ll get there. Let’s hope for the kids. If we don’t have the kids, we don’t have a future. Maybe I should change what I said: my next film is your best film. Or my best film is your next film. Maybe I should readjust. I hope so, as naïve as I am. [Clinks glass] You can’t learn film from film. I mean, I’m very worried tonight, because they’re going to show Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Have you seen it?
It’s a wank. I know you’re a smart guy and you know all this stuff. But what are you giving us? This is our obligation. I really believe our obligation is, hopefully, to share something that matters. Film doesn’t matter. Technique doesn’t matter. Lighting doesn’t matter. Some of my favorite films look like shit. I love anything that Johnny English does. Sacha Baron Cohen is, I think, the greatest filmmaker of the last 20 years—much better than Peter Greenaway. Because he’s really pushing ideas into a special space. Sacha Baron Cohen, to me, is like Derek Jarman: he’s fucking there because he connects. He’s audacious. He’s beautiful. He tells us something about the world that you wouldn’t know otherwise.
That’s what it should be. That’s what the function of cinema is—especially cinematography—is to show you the world in another way. Now, ha ha ha, our challenge is how to get to you. I’ve made so many films that you’ve never seen, but I made them with the same intent, with the same energy—perhaps more energy than Mood for Love. But you’ve never seen them. So our challenge is not the challenge of ideas and integrity and what we can communicate, which is what we’re talking about now. Our challenge is how to get people to see what we do. I’ve made 110 films, you know. [Laughs] But you’ve only seen ten of them, probably.
I’ve seen more than that.
But most people have only seen, like, six or seven. So it’s not going to stop me. [Clinks glass] I have nothing else to do! [Laughs]
I just saw That Day, on the Beach for the first time last year.
The restoration looked amazing, and I couldn’t believe it was your first film—which I’m sure you’ve heard before.
Do you know the story?
Yeah: Sylvia Chang was Edward Yang’s girlfriend, and then…
Oh, you know all this stuff? Do you understand Chinese?
I read an English-language interview. I don’t know Chinese at all.
Do you know the backstory? It’s the most beautiful story in the world.
She was your benefactor, and there was a co-cinematographer who’d show up…
Yeah, and he’d go off fishing. What a fucking… who was I? I’d never made a film before. I’d never lived anything before. [Clinks glass] Edward, again, because we were friends. And he’s a wanker. He wanted to change the world. I know, I understand his attitude is, “Fuck the system.” And we fucked the system and they went on strike. It’s an astonishing story. Actually, we should make a film about that. And Sylvia, who happened to be the niece of the boss of the studio… there’s lots of good stuff going on. And then I won Best Cinematography. I’d never made a film before.
Where? Golden Horse?
Golden Horse. I won Best Cinematography. [Clinks glass] And then I knew, “Shit. I’m in deep shit!” [Laughs] “Oh, fuck. They actually think I know what I’m doing?” And I still don’t know. I still don’t know. I have great assistance, and I think naïveté, that wonder, that actually… the first day we shot rushes, I was like, “Oh.” I mean literally, I was like, “Oh.” Because I’d never made a film before. And it looks okay. I think that wonder always stays with me, and I think that’s why I come here. I think we have to get back to that wonder. This system now, where you’re looking at everything on playback, no. I really think you have to be scared and anticipate and go out there and make courageous decisions that you can’t turn back on, instead of fluffing everything. Then it becomes a commercial. I think that’s the big difference. And I say it with all the kids I work with. Of course they have to live, so they make commercials, but then the commercial vision is, “Everything is perfect.” Have you ever been married?
Don’t do it. Okay?! [Laughs, clinks glass]
Yeah! But then we divorced and I think it’s the best decision we ever made in our lives, because we’re together forever, but in a different way. It was a decision. She’s produced three of my films and she lives in France. It’s forever—love is forever. I think intention, and what we’re saying about filmmaking… it’s all Edward’s fault! [Laughs, clinks glass]
Well, he is one of the big people for me.
You mean I’m not big enough? Is that what you’re saying?
No, you’re definitely one, too. There can be more than one.
Don’t tell me the others, please. Whatever you do. I don’t want to know. This is what you have to talk about. This is why we share. If I can do it, why can’t you? Look at the piece of shit that I am. Look at this strange journey I’ve taken. Can’t you do better? I’m serious; I’m not being facetious.