Reflections in a Golden Eye: An Interview with Christopher Doyle

Legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle tells us about his creative partnership with Wong Kar Wai, being inspired by the spaces in Hong Kong and the beauty of Maggie Cheung, and how he now longer sees the world through human eyes

Feature by Alan Bett | 01 Mar 2012

Through the lens of Christopher Doyle we view an imagined reality, a world containing some of cinema's most beautiful images. He seduces us with cheongsam-clad Maggie Cheung’s sashay down a snug Hong Kong street; bathes Brigitte Lin’s iconic profile with myriad fractured light and breaks our hearts with Leslie Cheung’s solitary tango around his dilapidated flat, his dilapidated spirit its unwilling twin. Sitting opposite me now in a Hong Kong Soho bar, he sips red wine. Doyle is not a man of pregnant pause, more one of prolapsed streams of observation and opinion all interlaced with mischievous laughter. What I’m interested in is his role as cinematographer. Did he capture or create these images, how did he sculpt his art into celluloid?

When asked ‘why Hong Kong?’ he sweeps his hand at the steep, cramped lanes way down below our eagles' nest patio. “I think the early films I made with Wong Kar Wai were pretty much informed by Hong Kong...the energy of the place, the frenetic collage of the light and space, the way in which people are continuously interacting. I think all those things are very basic to why the films are the way they are.” We need only look towards Chunking Express, an energy-exuding accidental masterpiece made in just four months while the epic Ashes of Time was in a protracted post production. Doyle tells me that it was filmed in his own flat just down from where we sit. The famous mid-town escalator that attracted Tony Leung’s forlorn gaze sits within view. It’s about having nothing but ‘space and intent’ I’m told, location is key. “It’s like feng shui, it’s like why are we sitting at this table, we’d rather sit over there.” In Happy Together, for example, proximity defines the relationship; characters are pushed together in restrictive space, their flared emotions like opposing magnets. “If you look at most of my films they’re actually about people in space, I guess that’s what I respond to and it can be a very small space like In The Mood For Love...I think that definitely comes from my having made films in Hong Kong. The only thing that’s basic to what you do is where does it take place and what does this place inspire or announce or demand or suggest of who the people are?”

Leslie Cheung’s solitary tango in Days of Being Wild

The connection was not only with the space but also the individual. Doyle’s relationship with Wong Kar Wai ranks amongst cinemas greatest collaborations. He views their journey as a process towards simplification, a distillation of thought. “It’s like a sculptor taking a block of stone and ending with Giacometti, a piece this small. I think that all the films that we made up until In the Mood for Love were basically refining an idea, and then somehow it all came into place. That was the sculpture hidden in the stone.” And what a sculpture they uncovered. This heartbreaking love story told through gilded imagery provokes nothing less than emotional overload.

Their nine works were all made without scripts, finding a film rather than constructing one. I doubt this would sit easily with Hollywood producers, a cultural disparity Doyle affirms. “The didactic nature of western good and evil, which is a Judeo-Christian concept, is heaven and hell. There’s a conflict then there’s a resolution which is the classic way that people are taught to make scripts in the west. We’re a lot like a mandala, we’re looking for the essence of the thing, it’s like Tai chi, it’s like tantric sex. You’re looking to complete the cycle.” Whether this is an east/west debate or one relating to independent filmmaking versus establishment is unclear. What’s true, however, is that his theme, rather than story-based method, has allowed true art to breathe. When he flippantly dismisses the concept of narrative it's hardly surprising; in his own directorial works Away with Words and Warsaw Dark the two ends of the cycle never quite meet. Is anoesis his ultimate onscreen goal – pure sensation devoid of cognitive content? “It has to be about the engagement, about the integrity of your intent. You may have a blueprint which you sometimes call a script, you may have a blueprint which is perhaps just an idea, let’s make a film which celebrates Glasgow for example, or Hong Kong or Berlin. Or you may just think, let’s make a really good fuck film. So that’s enough sometimes, if there’s complicity, if there’s engagement, if there’s a give and take.”

A kinetic ode to Hong Kong – Faye Wong in Chungking Express

So, the relationship with director and location is key, but what about the most unstable of elements, the stars? How does he define the dynamic here? “I say there’s only three people in cinema, which means the actor, the audience and me in-between...the energy has to be transferred directly to the audience between what is presented on the screen and what the audience is engaging in. So our job as cinematographers is to be that bridge, that conduit.” He explains the importance of trust, allowing the actors to perform, whether that requires encouragement or a non-existent presence. Permitting them to strip down to uncomfortable base emotion. “Dance is the most important thing. The dance between the camera and the actors.”

A waitress comes over and Doyle asks for five tequilas. A pint of beer? "No, a gallon!"  

He chats, she laughs: thus Doyle's method of working with his actors reveals itself. There are no pre-defined roles here, only trust and equality, all simply from ordering drinks. I suggest that his job was made somewhat easier by the fact that he photographed such beautiful people; Carina Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Brigitte Lin and of course Leslie and Maggie Cheung. He agrees “Because when you have beautiful skin light reflects off it. You don’t have to light people like Leslie or Maggie.” These are not only beauties but true artists. “If you try to make art it’ll seem forced and artificial. But if you’re an artist every gesture has an elegance. If you’re Maggie the way you walk tells us where you came from.”

Maggie Cheung’s famous walk – In the Mood for Love

And his own skill, where did it come from? "Learned" he tells me, dismissing any thought of natural talent. He ponders then nods to the street below “I’m sitting here and I’m looking down at that flag and that guy standing there and I know exactly what lens to use, and it’s kind of scary sometimes. What a beautiful shot that is.” The unassuming man vanishes into the crowds, unaware that he was just framed in the cinematographer’s eye. Doyle’s first job in Southern Taiwan ran into problems when he didn’t realise the film stock being used was too slow to record and produced only a black screen, but he evolved. “What happens in the process of becoming a cinematographer, your eye actually becomes like a camera, it learns to see.” Years later he played squash with his father and he couldn’t see the black ball against white background, an indicator to him that he was on the right path. His art had now expanded into the everyday. “Probably Picasso thought women were cut up in different shapes...probably Bukowski thought everyone was as drunk as he was...the way in which you live and the way in which you see and the way in which you express it becomes one, and that’s an astonishing gift.”

It all becomes one in Doyle’s filming of Zhang Yimou’s Hero

Here is a true artistic maverick. Untrained academically and individual in thought, living outside the principles of mainstream moviemaking. “I don’t understand your conventions; I’m not going to replicate them because I don’t care about them.” He refuses to share the cannibalistic influences of modern filmmakers, preferring to work from music, literature, life. “The light bouncing off that guy’s head is much more interesting than a reference to a film noir from the forties... People keep on referring to other films through films, what’s the point? We should refer to flowers through films...we should refer to the pleasures of touch through film. Otherwise it’s not going to engage, it’s not going to be transcendent.” This organic approach has treated us viewers to aureate beauty on the silver screen, a mirror to human emotion. As the interview finishes he asks with a childish twinkle in his eye, “Have I been a good boy?” As far as cinematic convention is concerned, thankfully not.