Space Age Bachelor Interviews Christopher Doyle — October 6th/1997
(Note: A version of this interview appeared in Issue 11 of Space Age Bachelor magazine)
The following is an interview I did with Christopher Doyle, the Australian born cinematographer, before a seminar he conducted at Robson Square during this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. As of the interview date, Doyle had done the cinematography for all but the first of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies — Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, and most recently Happy Together, for which Wong Kar-Wai had just won the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.At that year’s (1997) Vancouver International Film Festival, Doyle had also done the cinematography for three other movies — Four Faces of Eve, Yang Yin: Gender In Chinese Cinema, and his first Korean movie, Motel Cactus. He also made a cameo as an actor in Comrades, Almost A Love Story.
I kept my tape recorder running during Doyle’s seminar, which occured immediately after this interview. View the transcription of Doyle’s seminar here.
Also, Jason Anderson did an interview with Wong Kar-Wai, which was printed in Space Age Bachelor issue 11, alongside the transcript for this Doyle interview. View it here.
Subsequently, Jason did interviews with actors Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Wong Kar-Wai for the film In The Mood For Love – read the article here.
Listen to the interview or read below:
SAB – Well, I don’t usually flatter people before I do an interview, but …
Doyle – (laughing) Well, don’t start.
SAB – Well, it’s pretty good luck anyway, how things work out. I got a call saying the interview wasn’t going to be till afterwards (his seminar), so I didn’t get the chance to write out my questions.
Doyle – That’s alright, don’t worry. Shoot.
SAB – Well, could you talk about the contrast, between the sex scenes — cause I saw Motel Cactus the other night, and the end was so heavy and beautiful and deep, the color. Could you compare that to the starkness and black and white of the opening love scene in Happy Together?
Doyle – Well, Happy Together is actually black and white much against my wishes in a certain way. The film was processed in a different way for the entirety of Happy Together. It was very heavily push processed, and then we increased the grains by reduping the film again. We were really working for grains and contrast and a very special image. Whereas for the last section of Motel Cactus, we were looking for a very saturated, very heavy image. Which I was quite afraid of actually, because the content is so heavy, but the director thought he wanted to go in this direction with the very static camera. Motel Cactus has this very conscious choice of having each section have a different look or style, which we didn’t totally achieve, because there wasn’t the same complicity between me and the lab in Korea, like I have in Hong Kong. We were originally going to bring the film back to Hong Kong. So there’s a couple of things, so the variations are now either visual variations in the movement of the camera, or the way the film is framed, or what lenses we were using. Whereas in Happy Together, which is the sixth film we’ve (Wong Kar-Wai) done together, including the lab. It’s always been the same lab we’ve used. The input of the lab is very important in my work now, because if you’re working on a Wong Kar-Wai film it is so improvised, and so much stuff is up in the air, and it’s totally unscripted. So in terms of the visual choices, it’s usually pretty much ad hoc. It’s pretty much impulsive and on the spot. So the post-production is pretty important. The black and white in Happy Together — I think Wong Kar-Wai would claim that the black and white represents what happened before …
SAB – Yeah, the past. I had a feeling about that …
Doyle – Yeah, you come into the film at a certain point in the story.
SAB – Because later on in the film, when they have a flashback it goes into black and white. ‘The days when we were happiest together.’ The waterfalls are the first color part.
Doyle – Yeah, but that’s also a timeless thing. Personally, I think the black and white represents just a way of disorientating the audience a bit, just to say this is not the same time as the other times. That’s a more valid way to explain it. Like all Wong Kar-Wai films, I think they are pretty much about time. As you see, 3 O’Clock is pretty much repeated throughout the film.
SAB – Yeah, that’s why I like all the films. I got into them right after a girl broke up with me. I watched all of them in one weekend right after, and since then I’ve been in love with these movies.
Doyle – Yeah, all of my films — well, I said once, actually to Tarantino — he was saying that he needs a good home and a loving environment when he’s writing. He likes to go off into the north of New York State with his girlfriend, and write these very violent films. And I said, ‘I’m the opposite. I make my best friends when I’ve just broke up with someone.’ And actually all those films — all the ones you were talking — happened when I was quite depressed.
SAB – Not Wong Kar-Wai, but you?
Doyle – Yeah, me. He’s always depressed. (Laughing) No, he has a very good marriage, a very solid wife.
SAB – So in these movies — the guys have such incredible charm, like in Days of Being Wild, when Leslie says, ‘I’ll remember this minute forever.’
Doyle – Yeah, ‘give me one minute of your time … this is the beginning of the rest of your life,’ kind of thing.
SAB – Can you be that charming?
Doyle – No, no, I wish. Those lines are all Wong Kar-Wai’s lines. I don’t know how he became so charming. (Laughter). That line was chosen by the film magazine as the line of the year, and you can imagine how many poor young girls in Hong Kong lost their virginity because of this line.
SAB – Well, there’s so many. It’s unbelievable, these lines, but I suppose I can talk about that in the article. Well, you must feel very lucky to see all these beautiful girls. Is it true that all the Hong Kong stars try to get into Wong Kar-Wai’s films?
Doyle – Yeah, now, but at the beginning they used to hate our guts. Like in Days of Being Wild, Maggie Cheung used to hate me, because we took two days and 53 takes to do the love scene. Actually, after she gets into bed with the guy, because of this line, ‘Give me one minute of your time,’ and then it becomes an afternoon, and then it becomes every afternoon, and then you see them in bed together. And that was originally shot in one very long take. In the film, it’s cut into several sections. There’s quite a number of different takes in there. But originally we were working with very low light levels, very long lenses, a lot of movement, a lot of interaction between the camera and the actors. I wasn’t handholding that much at the time. The camera was on a dolly. The report between the camera, myself, the dolly pusher, the actors, and the timing and the whole thing, it took us two days to get the shot on 53 takes. And Maggie hated my guts, because a lot of the time that was a technical problem. Now, of course, because the films have become so popular, and most of the actors in our films our usually nominated for Best Actor that year, because our films are always nominated. So there is a certain prestige, but still there’s a lot of frustration. Because these films do usually spread out over a long period of timing, because this method of filmmaking really needs day-to-day reflection, and on the set, we’re always thinking, ‘How does this relate to something else’, because they may have a direction, but there is no script. So the film develops day by day. And sometimes that takes a long time.
SAB – Well, I write about music usually, so what I was thinking you do is you give a great amount of freedom for the film to take its own direction, but then you do this great amount of editing, so I think it’s like improvised music. To take it to the next step, you edit it.
Doyle – I’m a great fan of jazz music, and as you can see Wong Kar-Wai is obviously quite interested in different kinds of music. I think, at last, we get into — well, what I’ve always dreamed of doing is making films, like jazz music, just jamming. That’s very much how we work. It’s really like a jam session. And the music of course over the years is sometimes there before we start, or sometimes Wong comes up to me, or I come to him and say, ‘I think this would be great.’ Or, ‘This really sounds like this part of town.’ I think location and music are the most important structural elements in the films now.
SAB – And Happy Together’s got such a great — well, my brother knows a lot more about music than I do, and he told me there’s Frank Zappa, Astor Piazzola, Caetano Veloso, or something like that.
Doyle – Yeah, exactly. Your brother knows his music. Well, the Zappa came right at the end. We’d been looking for music, and a little bit of it we’d done ourselves. But obviously, the classic tango, actually it’s called milango — this is more of a street-wise tango. It’s a much looser form of dancing than the actual tango, which is what they’re dancing in the film. So that was an obvious choice, because why go to South America and not use its music? But the Zappa came right near the end, when we were still looking. He bought some tapes downtown, and said, ‘This is how I really feel about their relationship,’ and it works. It works very well.
SAB – I love the way the lyrics can match what’s going on in the movie, like that part of Fallen Angels — do you remember that crucial cut, where the guy’s starting to kiss the girl he just at McDonalds, and then it cuts over …
Doyle – … to her masturbating. Yeah. I mean, that song was quite popular in Hong Kong.
SAB – Who sang it?
Doyle – Actually, the girl that was cut out of Happy Together — Shirley Kwan. Shirley was quite popular at that time, and, as you know, in Asia, karaoke is quite popular. It’s quite an important part of most people’s lives, and that was a very popular song at the time. So as you say it was a brilliant choice of associations. Well, I think Happy Together, too. We didn’t get the name of the film until days before we were going to release it. We thought, ‘Why don’t we call it Happy Together?’ The song suggested the title. It didn’t go the other way. Originally, it was called Buenos Aires Affair, which is the name of a Manuel Puig novel, and we thought that was a little bit too obvious of a gesture. But in Japan they kept that name. And my book is called that in Japan, too. But in English, it’s called Don’t Try For Me Argentina.
SAB – So in that scene we were just talking about from Fallen Angels … You got your beer there?
Doyle – Yeah, it’s coming.
SAB – It seems like (his six-pack of Heineken arrives). That scene where she’s masturbating — how did you achieve such a voyeuristic quality?
Doyle – By being voyeuristic. I think most men have a fantasy about women masturbating, or women with women, or all these things that they may not have experienced in their life. I think my favorite image from that whole scene is where she’s crying, and her make-up is all smudged. I think that’s one of the most beautiful images in the whole film. The other thing — I think the voyeuristic theme comes from the fact that it was quite difficult for Michelle (Reis) as an actor, and as an ex-Miss Hong Kong, and who has a rather pure image in Hong Kong — I think it was quite a big thing for her to do it. So her reticence and our complicity, and all these things came together in the way this image turned out.
SAB – Okay. I think one of the most important things I want to talk about is the element of space — the three ideas of repeating spaces, changing spaces, and kind of moving through spaces. Like time, this seems to be one of the most important elements.
Doyle – Yeah, I think space and time are basic elements of any film, but especially so in our films. I think I’ve spoken a couple times about how location scouting is one of the most important determinant of style for us. When we find the right space, and because we have a lot of complicity, similar tastes, and a tacit understanding — that when we find the right space, it implies a certain way of lighting, a certain way for the actors to move through it, and for the art director certain kinds of textures and things like that. And the other thing, in Hong Kong, there is such little space. That’s why for example Fallen Angels is so wide angle, because there’s nowhere else to put your camera. There’s no other way to get the image, except a very wide angle lense. Or as I said about Happy Together, it was important for us to move on, and the easiest way to move on is to totally change your space. I think most people do that in their lives. When they get tired of something, they just move on. Or when they get tired of someone, they just leave. So for us to go to the other side of the world was a very conscious choice for us to move out of what has become a very stereotyped, imitative style. In Asian films, a lot of people are imitating our style. So it’s time for us to move on, so that’s what we tried to do. I think we did okay. We moved on in a certain way. I don’t think we could go back to Chungking Express or anything like that.
SAB – The end scene in Happy Together is such a rush. I was away for about ten months, and when I came back to Vancouver for the first time, that’s exactly how I felt. Someone thought the end scene was so fast, because Hong Kong is so fast, but I thought it was imitating the sort of rush you get after coming home after being away for a long time.
Doyle – Yeah, yeah. I think it’s also the rush of his realization that someone has something he has been looking for, and he hasn’t found yet, or maybe because he met this person, maybe because he’s come back he’ll find it. I think it’s a very optimistic ending. But I think we’d better end it. Tony’ll (Tony Rayns, who is hosting the Dragons & Tigers part of the VIFF) be getting worried.