Christopher Doyle – 1997 VIFF Seminar Transcript

Christopher Doyle did a seminar in 1997 at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I recorded the audio, and soon after transcribed it. Owing to either rushed circumstances or laziness, I didn’t transcribe the questions, which brought these answers; thus, I cannot ascertain whether the original questions came from the event moderator, well-known film critic Tony Rayns, or the audience members.
In the minutes previous to the seminar, I conducted a private interview with Doyle backstage. This was featured in issue 11 of Space Age Bachelor, and can be read here:


“Against my wishes actually. When we did Fallen Angels, we were shooting on a weekend, and we were doing rather long hours.  And on Sunday morning, we ran out of film, so somebody rushed back to the office, and came back with six cans of what they thought was good film stock.  But it turned out to be film stock from a film quite some time ago, so it was about two years out of date.  So the whole thing looked totally different from the rest of the film, so we said, ‘What are we going to do?  Let’s try and duplicate the black and white, and reduce the contrast, so people won’t really notice.  So we were saving our asses, basically.’  That’s why Fallen Angels also begins with a sequence similar to Happy Together where the two characters say ‘Are we still partners?’ which means ‘Are we still in love?,’ basically.  How can we be together?  Also a subject that is dear to Wong Kar-Wai’s heart.  So at that time, we thought, just to tease the critics, maybe we should throw in some more black and white, and pretend it was intentional. So we did.  Having read the collected works of Tony Rayns, I had this stylistic, intellectual notion that all the epiphanies, all the moments of enlightenment could be in black and white, and that’s basically what happens in Fallen Angels.  Just to justify the film stock.  The same thing happened with Happy Together.  I was out of town, and I came back, and my grader, who I work in close collaboration with — I regard my grader as a very important creative partner — maybe because when you shoot a Wong Kar-Wai film you never know what you’re doing — it’s very difficult to stay on one stylistic track.  You have to be very innovative.  You have to work day to day with what you have.  Very often, especially in Buenos Aires, it is the money, because everything is five times more expensive than we budgeted for, mainly because of Madonna and Brad Pitt.  Because they got there before we did, and inflated everything for us, so many thanks to you assholes.  Thank you to the American industry for making it so easy for North Americans to make films in Argentina.  That’s why my book is called Don’t Try For Me Argentina.  Okay, so anyway, I came back and my grader is saying, ‘Chris, he wants all this black and white.’  We’d done all these tests, and there’s sections on the road, where he’s going into the Northwest part, and there’s these beautiful, beautiful lights, and it looks fantastic in color, and Wong Kar-Wai’s insisting that it be in black and white.  So we accidentally forgot to put one section in black and white, just in case he says, ‘Oh, that looks great,’ but he didn’t take it.  His usual line is that where you’re seeing the film change from black and white, when it goes to color, that’s where we are now.  In other words, everything that happenned in black and white happenned before.  So later on there are a couple of flashbacks that go into black and white just to validate it for the film school audience, just to trick all the students into doing their PhD on Wong Kar-Wai.  Actually, I don’t believe it.  Personally, I just think it’s a way of disorientating the audience to emphasize the classic Wong Kar-Wai thing about time.  But don’t believe a word I say.”


“I’m very intuitive as a person, and as a collaborator on a film, which is probably why only a number of people are willing to work with me, cause I’m a pain in the ass.  If I can’t get it, I don’t know what to do.  I don’t think I’m a technician.  Anyway, that’s why Wong Kar-Wai work together.  Because he knows what to take.  He throws 90% of it away, and then we end up with a reasonably good looking on the film … I found Argentina to be everything I left Australia for, and worse.  It’s like a third rate European country, and proud of it, and that really pissed me off.  Even Australia’s come to grips with the fact that it’s no longer a European colony.  And Argentina still prides itself on its past glory, since they’ve had one whore — some say she was a saint — one coke addict, and a failed Hollywood star.  That’s the three main people in their history.  Australia has only one bush man as their national hero, so they’re three times worse than Australia.  I found it very dull.  It’s very gritty.  It’s very difficult to get around, except by car.  So we had a lot of trouble.  Usually, if I walk around, even in Vancouver, I carry a pocket camera, and go through two or three rolls of film.  I take pictures of things that excite me, and just the pleasure of doing it.  I was in Argentina for about two months, and I didn’t take one single photograph, so I thought I was in real trouble.  Then, we went to another part of town, and first of all Nick Cave walked off a bar totally stoned off his head, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is my kind of place!’  And it was 4:00 in the morning, and we thought maybe we should consider this place.  This place was called the Three Amigo’s.  So with a Wong Kar-Wai film, there isn’t a script.  We just threw ourselves into Buenos Aires, and we’ll see what happens.  And finally as the money started to become scarcer and scarcer, we found a part of the town that suggested itself to the possible motivations of the movie.  From my work with Wong Kar-Wai, I’ve learned a great deal and a great respect for locations and space.  I think for us location scouting is the most important determinant of the visual style.  Like in Chungking Express, why we chose these two parts of town determine why these people are doing what they’re doing.  It helps very much for me to push the imagery in a certain direction.  The spaces that we chose, or suggested themselves is a better way of saying it, implied that we have to use a wide angle lens.  First of all, because there’s no space, and second of all there was enough light in most of these places to allow us to, so we went for a wider angle lense.  Of course, it was also a response to the fact that Chungking Express was just shot with a long lense.  I think we’re always trying to respond to the space around us.  So I think what we found was a reason to be in this space, and the space itself suggested what the people would be doing in this space.  One day we’d been shooting in this room for about two months, and we had no scaffolding, no way of getting outside the room, so that became a stylistic choice anyway — we only did one shot from outside the hotel.  You only see shots from the roof of the outside.  So we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’  We were running out of spaces.  We didn’t have any special equipment to put the camera somewhere special.  So we went for lunch, and had a little wine, and we came back, and we looked in the monitor — and my assistant had left the camera on the bed, and it was partly covered on the blankets, and Leslie had just stepped down from a chair, and we thought, ‘That’s it!’  It was totally by accident.  The camera was tilted upside down, and half covered, and we thought, ‘Let’s do that,’ so that whole scene was shot auto-pilot.  That was the first image, and then we thought, ‘where else can we put it,’ so I put it in the closet, and under the bed.  So we did a whole sequence, which unfortunately doesn’t appear in the film anymore.  We’re keeping it for the next one, for the sequel.  So that’s very indicative of our style.  Most of what I’ve done is a mistake, so we just work with the mistakes.”


“More cameramen have died in helicopters than have in cars.  It’s a cameraman’s nightmare to go up in a helicopter, especially on a Wong Kar-Wai movie.  This is the second time he’s tried to get rid of me.  The first time was in Days of Being Wild.  We were in the Philippines.  We used a retired Philippine helicopter, so I let my assistant do that one.  And they almost did crash.  There was a shot somewhere in Days of Being Wild of a train crossing a very high suspension bridge, and they were really in deep trouble.  This time — I refused to shoot in Argentina anymore, so we went to the Brazilian side of the Falls.  The Falls divides Brazil and Argentina.  The official border runs right through the Falls.  When Tony is standing in those sequences below the falls, he is actually on the Brazilian side.  Supposedly, this was supposed to be the place where we see the two figures in the lamp.  So the two figures in the lamp were supposed to be a metaphor for these two characters being together, so we thought we’d found this place, so we did that shot below the Falls.  And then we went back and stayed in a hotel on the Argentine side, and then I went for a walk, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s not the right place.’  Because the lamp is an Argentinian lamp.  It is an image of the scene painted on the lamp on the Argentinian side.  If you film a typical Hong Kong film, they don’t have official helicopter mounts.  They just put a scaffold over the top of the helicopter, and then bolt it down on each side.  So there’s four pieces of pipe held by u-bolts … Wong Kar-Wai insisted we only see water … ”


“It means they were playing football in late afternoon against the light.  What else can I say?  The sun was there, and that’s where we shot it.  It reminds me — this is not an insult by the way — of this time Robbie Mueller was doing a take-by-take analysis of Paris, Texas.  It took him five days of continuous three sessions to finish the film, because he kept getting questions like this.  There was a scene in Paris, Texas where did they did a pick-up shot of a gas station because it was well-illuminated, and in the background there’s a white ice box, and on three different questions, people in the audience asked ‘why is the ice box white?’  And the ice box is white, cause it was white when they got there, and they didn’t have to time to paint it, and they needed the shot.  And I think that’s what filmmaking is usually about.  It’s about getting the shot.  Wong Kar-Wai has said to me on occasions, ‘Chris we need the shot.  The actor is leaving tonight.  If we don’t shoot the shot now, we won’t get the shot.  I don’t give a shit about the light.  If we don’t have the actor, we don’t have the shot.’  And I think that’s very valid.  In many cases, what you do is a compromise.  It’s always a compromise, and it’s often compromising …  This film is bright compared to my other films.  My grader in Hong Kong — we did a test once for Kodak, and we were testing all the labs in Hong Kong actually.  And as soon as my stock came on the screen everybody knew which it lab it was and who did it, because my grader habitually grades everything I do darker than everything else in Hong Kong, because he’s so used to working with me … We don’t have a meeting about it.  With the people I collaborate with, it’s never more than a few phrases.  Except in Japan, where it’s usually a six hour meeting.  So Japanese style is a little bit different than Hong Kong style.”


“It’s anarchy.  That’s why we get into so much trouble everywhere else in the world.  Because the Hong Kong character is to just do it, especially if you’re allowed to do it.  I’ve shot at the airport, at the Chungking Mansions, at the escalator outside my house which is shown in Chungking Express — I’ve shot at all those places scores of times never with permission.  In fact, it’s illegal to shoot at a lot of these places nowadays.  But they say, ‘Hi Chris, you’re back again.’  That’s the Hong Kong attitude which really brushes up against the Western attitude, which is you need two weeks for the permit to shoot at this place.  And we say, ‘Fuck the permit,we’re going to shoot now.’  And that’s what happened in Buenos Aires with the metro.  And this is because the people I work with are quite responsible for destroying the traditional filmmaking structure, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  I think we’re really into a very loose, and what some people would imagine a disorganized way of filmmaking.  In Korea, I was very surprised how strong and inflexible they’re sound/studio system is, so that was quite different for me.  Fortunately, as I usually need, I had great support from the director, so they warned him what a pain-in-the-ass I was.  They warned the people I was working with to be ready for something different.  It was still quite difficult for them.  And of course there was a small language difficulty, which wasn’t so bad, because when you work in most places in the world, most gaffers know where to put a light … In my mind, that’s my responsibility.  I regard myself as responsible to the production also.  We should move the film ahead.  We should have our ‘artistic integrity.’  We also should consider the bottom line — the cost.”


“Chen Kaige is very different from Wong Kar-Wai, because of his personality, because of his occupation and heritage, and also because of where he grew up and lives, plus the social and political climate of China, and his structural background.  He’s very meticulous.  The first time he gave me a script for Temptress Moon, it was about 500 pages.  It included directions for everything.  So I tried reading that for about three hours, and I got really frustrated, so I asked the assistant director to underline all the important parts … I think what happens to me personally –  I don’t have any technical training.  I couldn’t do anything based on the images, artwork.  I think whatever ability I have to create a visual space — I think I’m sampling other people’s stuff to be honest with you.  I have this ability to look at other people’s stuff, and just assimilate it.  It’s the same for my own stuff.  That’s what happens with a Wong Kar-Wai film.  We break the record every year for film used in a Hong Kong film, and yet he discards 95% of it.  And I don’t care, because if the image doesn’t hit the screen, it’s still there.  I had the visual, and the emotional, and the technical experience of having made that image, and I think that comes back on the screen … Most of these spaces don’t really exist.  You have to piece them together from other parts of China.”


“This is a steady cam shot.  I’d say 50% of the film is shot on steady cam, and the other 40 something per cent is hand held.  My greatest pride in this film, and which is the reason I think he asked me to film it, is that he wanted to move on from this fifth generation style, which is this classic composition — you know, very steady camera, and it’s very exquisite to look at, which is why the fifth generation is so famous, because the camera rarily moves.  And he thought this time he wanted the camera to move.  I think he didn’t think we could do it.”


“There’s no black and white processing in Hong Kong … We didn’t know when we shot it that it would be in black and white.  Most of what happens in Wong Kar-Wai movies happens in post-production.  The real film is in the editing.  Wong Kar-Wai has said at many times that the film is in the future, which means that the film is making itself.  We don’t know what the film is until we see what we have … it was very uneven processing.  It’s very grainy in some shots, less grainy in others, sometimes it’s really washed out.  We had a lot of technical difficulties.  Why would I do another film if I was satisfied?”


“On Happy Together, we shot 500,000 feet of film.”

A possible CD-Rom for Happy Together – “8 hours including all the extra footage – the purchaser will be able to edit his or her own version.”


“Their space and visual experience and the way that they view things is so different, so I was greatly honored to be a part of this.  The most difficult thing is how to move on, how to have a different style, how to have another voice, and to me that’s what this film was about.  And I think that most of the audience they wanted to talk to are young, and they’re part of what I’d call the post-MTV Generation.  They’ve grown up with all these crazy things happening in new music videos.  So I was free to do what I liked.  Originally, it was conceived as four very different visual experiences — one of which was totally shot on video, and then filmed off the TV screen.  I always recommend this to film school students — my one concession — why not?  Who cares about image quality these days anyway?  It’s content and energy.  We’ve done this before in Fallen Angels, where we use video.”


“We were shooting way out near Mongolia in the Gobi Desert right at the end of the Great Wall.  And by the way, we blew up part of the Great Wall.  It was great fun.  We really blew up part of the Great Wall.  It’s in the middle of the desert, so know one really notices.  We burnt down a fortress.  We exploded mountains.  If you’ve ever seen Ashes of Time, it’s an ecological disaster movie.  It’s not an action movie.  You couldn’t do that anywhere else in the world.  It’s a great pleasure to see those moments that are what I’d call cinematic, that moment when the visual image is such a close match to what is supposed to be going on, especially for the emotional state.”


“I think we see that in Happy Together when the water is falling on the camera.  My assistant is wiping the lense off, because we didn’t have any of those windshield wiper things, which are made for cameras.  And one second later, it was all covered up.  But it looks good.  I really liked that shot.  And again, by accident you get a visual equivalent of emotion, and he becomes all blurred.  And basically you have no choice.  It was a choice to go with the accident.  I think that’s what a lot of my job is — is to decide whether or not this works, or whether this is applicable, and I’m lucky to have directors who give me that space.  Actually, I was conceived quite soon after my parents got married, so I am obviously an accident.”


“I usually say that the three of us — that means the art director, William Chang, Wong Kar-Wai, and myself — are a menage-a-trois.  It’s a very comfortable and incestuous relationship.  Over the years, there’s developed a great deal of complicity and trust.  We’re stuck with each other basically.  Our visual taste is so similar now.


“The way we shoot is usually so interactive.  It’s like a dance between the actor and the camera.  So I have to be fluid enough and flexible enough to go where the dance takes me.”




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