Christopher Doyle became a world-famous cinematographer almost by accident, but he got his bad-boy image the old-fashioned way: he earned it. Over the course of 35 years and about a hundred films, Doyle, 65, has achieved legendary status, renowned for creative camerawork, gorgeous visuals and his contribution, in collaboration with directors like Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou, to Chinese-language cinema, achieving lofty artistic heights in the process. He has a roomful of awards and a reputation for eccentric behaviour but in truth, he’s happiest with a camera – or a beer – in his hand.
Doyle has been described as the “Keith Richards of cinematography”, and it’s a role he seems to relish. With a serious slouch, non-designer stubble and a head of signature silver curls, Doyle is more at ease in a dodgy bar than say, the presidential suite of the Marina Bay Sands, where this interview takes place before he attends the Singapore International Film Festival premiere of The White Girl, which he co-directed with Jenny Suen. He lives up to his reputation by wearing what appears to be an unfinished coat, with tailor markings and temporary stitching still visible. Instead of lining, the inside of the coat is covered with bilingual text, scrawled by friends like the comments column in a guest book. “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird,” says one. “A friend in need is a friend in debt,” reads another.
At 18, Doyle left his hometown Sydney on a merchant ship and muddled through various odd jobs in Israel, India and Thailand, eventually ending up in Taiwan where he learned Mandarin and taught himself photography. Impressively, he landed a job as cinematographer in director Edward Yang’s debut feature That Day, on the Beach (1983), winning a Best Cinematography prize for his troubles.
After moving to Hong Kong, Doyle made his mark in arthouse cinema with movies like Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000) and Hero (2002). He also worked with directors like Gus Van Sant, Phillip Noyce and M Night Shyamalan, but despite his itinerant ways it’s Hong Kong where he feels most at home – the small apartment he keeps on Hollywood Road has also served as a location for a few of his films. For Doyle, every neon-lit street and dingy walk-up has its own story to tell.
You’ve described what you do as searching for possibility in imperfection. How would you define your distinctive visual style?
There’s no style – I think it’s just a response to the feng shui of the space. In filmmaking, a particular space helps to make the actor more coherent, more focused – all I do is to record that. It’s all about creating a situation that works and you allow it, with your supervision, to take a form it couldn’t have taken alone. Film is not just an artistic pursuit, it’s political. By political I mean engaging with society, I don’t mean making trouble. All films should be like that. People need to be entertained but entertainment also has to be political. Why are so many films about people shooting each other? It’s the wrong political statement.
You have a well-deserved reputation as a wild card, a maverick cinematographer.
Most cinematographers are so boring. It’s not about technique, it’s about people, it’s about making progress. Wong Kar-wai makes one film every five years – I’ve made five films already this year. It’s got something to do with wanting to share as much of this journey as possible. I grew up in the 1960s and I’m Catholic – I don’t want to lose that. The morality of Catholicism is important to me – don’t believe, but trust. The three things that are a great privilege to me in my world are: I was born white, I was raised Catholic and I learned Mandarin. Language to me is the basis for communication. I have this idea that people are basically good – I’m a very optimistic pessimist.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you love women and in your hands, the camera has a special relationship with female actors. Yet in personal life you’ve never settled down.
I wouldn’t want to live with me – would you? I had three sisters, a special mother. I just grew up with women – they are a source of energy and they also calm me. In my films there are always women behind the camera too, because they see the world in a better way. My mother is 94, my sisters are with her. I think they’re proud of what I do but even if they were not, I’d still be doing what I do. I wasn’t there the day my dad died, I knew I wouldn’t be there because I was making a movie. There’s something bigger than you, bigger than just family.
In Chinese cinema you’re known by your alter ego Du Kefeng, which means “like the wind”. Is it Du or Doyle behind the camera, creating memorable scenes of energy and intimacy?
I’m two people and they still care about each other. As Chris Doyle I’m just watching the proceedings, it’s very freeing and I really like to watch me behind the camera – it’s Du Kefeng who does all the work. I work quite fast and can probably save producers some money. Most people my age will tell you what to do but with me you just tell me what you want and I’ll try to make it happen. As I get older I want to do even more, I don’t get a sense of time running out.
What advice would you give to budding filmmakers?
I know people study my films – I don’t even remember my films! The kids really relate to me and I tell them that if this old guy can do it, anybody can do it. It’s a “chi” thing, taking everything you can and making it your own. Don’t try to be me – there’s no way you can take as many drugs, drink as much or love as much as me. I really don’t care what other people do, I’m as lost as they are – and it’s a pleasure to be lost.
Story first appeared on The Business Times.