The Eyes Have It

By SF Said

two-thousand-forty-six-wong-kar-wai-2.jpg2046, 2004

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the world afresh with every film

If any contemporary cinematographer is a cinephile household name, it’s Christopher Doyle. Best known for his path-breaking visuals with Wong Kar-Wai, from Days Of Being Wild (1990) to 2046 (on general release now), he’s also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, Philip Noyce and Zhang Yimou, as well as up-and-coming contenders like young Thai film-maker Pen-ek Ratanaruang. On a blurry neon morning, after the opening of the Scout Gallery’s recent exhibition of his prints, we met to talk about his work.

SF Said: Your collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai has been likened to a jazz band improvising. Is that accurate?

Christopher Doyle: Sure. I think the elements of the films we make are very similar to the elements of jazz. You start at the beginning and you try to end together; in the middle, you have your little solos. Rhythm is basic to the work, and repetition. There’s a musicality to the image; it’s always a dance, and it’s always abstract, because there’s never a script.

SFS: Jean-Marc Lalanne once wrote that Wong’s films were like the columns of an unfinished temple, but 2046 feels like a dome over the columns, linking them all together.

CD: Yeah, it’s the bridge. It’s the bridge that we had to burn. That’s why it’s basically a compilation album, with the names of some characters, references to things we’ve done before, even specific shots. It’s referential, because it’s the end of something. There’s no question about that. I think it’s specified in the film itself. So, hello Nicole Kidman? Hello scripts? I don’t know. I’m not sure what’s next; but it’s definitely the bridge that we had to burn.

SFS: Do you mean your collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai might now be over?

CD: I don’t know. Ask him… or wait and see. I feel that we will work differently in future, both on our own, and if we collaborate.

SFS: How do you make films without scripts?

CD: How do people make documentaries? It’s the same. You respond to what’s happening – it just happens, and then your responses form the narrative. You go out with an idea and find things that relate to it, but those things are not necessarily what you expected. Hopefully, if you are astute and open, what you encounter will rework your thinking and take you further than where you started. And then you say, “well, yes, but no…and this is not really working. What if…?”

SFS: So, at the beginning of 2046, did you think, “OK, we’re going to make a bridge that links all these films together?”

CD: No. I think even I personally have written about five synopses for 2046. They’re all different. That is the process. The ideas rework themselves, based on what has happened. So you could say the process is extremely organic, in one way. And in another way, it’s not what you’d call cost-effective. It’s like a highly-budgeted student film – that’s the attitude, that’s the procedure, and that’s the integrity of it. There is nobody else in the world who works like this – and understandably, by the way. To have created that space, and that working environment, and that co-operation, is remarkable. But it is not cost-effective. I don’t think the next film will be a student film.

SFS: Isabelle Huppert said that Jean-Luc Godard never gave her a script when they worked together; he just gave her photographs, tapes of music, bits of poetry. Is it similar to that?

CD: It’s exactly the same. We never talk. I mean, we talk about literature, we talk about music, we talk about, “what if this street was an opera?” Literally – I’m not kidding, those are the dialogues: “isn’t this street an opera?” Not, “I think we should shoot this on a long lens, with a certain amount of light.” It comes back to musicality. What is music? It’s a space that you inhabit as a listener. It’s not didactic. It’s not Scene One, Take Three – it is a space that you make your own, and I think that’s what the films are attempting. That’s the beauty of them. And they have done that, a few times. We have, more or less, come close to music a few times.

two-thousand-forty-six-wong-kar-wai.jpg2046, 2004

SFS: How about William Chang (production designer and editor on all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films), how does the collaboration with him work? 

CD: Same thing. Spontaneous combustion. Same with Wong Kar-Wai. We come from such different backgrounds, yet we’ve read the same books. He was reading Cortázar same time I was. We talk about Puig, and we both hate Michel Houellebecq. But we never talk about it; it just happens. When I look at a location, I might say, “well, there’s a lot of green.” That’s all, really. Then, a week or two later, I might say to William, “I want to do some tests, give me some costumes.” And he might say, “oh, by the way, I’m going to put some red in this film.” That’s a big statement, from William. That was In The Mood For Love: it was the first film we made that had red in it basically, and it has a lot of red. So, what do you call it? Complicity, or empathy, or being on the same wavelength? I don’t know, but you should go with it. And we have.

SFS: Between the cut of 2046 that screened at Cannes and the final cut, were there any reshoots?

CD: No. There was a lot of material. With every Wong Kar-Wai film, there’s a lot of material. But that’s part of the trust. I give you more than you need, and you take what you want. Isn’t it the same with love? It’s the same. This just happens to be more expensive…

SFS: Has the process changed over time, since Days Of Being Wild?

CD: No. It is what it is. I think from 2046, there will be a revaluation. There has to be, because everyone, in their own way, has moved. That’s why I said it’s the bridge that had to be burned. But the process, up until this film, has been exactly the same – I mean, painfully exactly the same.

SFS: Are there moments when you despair?

CD: Oh, yeah. That’s the problem, when you’re making a film for five years. The thing is how to keep your energy. Because there are other issues – for example, family issues. If you’re making a film for three months, you can disregard family issues; but if it’s five years, you can’t. You could save your marriage for three months, but you can’t save it for five years. I lost mine a long time ago. But also your economic energy. I’m sure – and I have no idea, I have no right to talk about it – but I would imagine that what’s going on behind the scenes about the money is incredibly complex. So again, for Wong Kar-Wai, as well as for anybody involved in the film, you have this rollercoaster of emotional, physical and economic stamina. Film is a sport event. It’s very much about stamina.

SFS: It can’t be easy to junk a load of stuff you’ve done that’s great.

CD: How can you be subjective enough to do something very personal but objective enough for it to communicate? That’s what it’s about. There is always this dichotomy: between engagement and remove, between being inside and yet outside. I prefer to be totally subjective, and let someone else be objective. That’s why I’m a cameraman, as opposed to a director. I mean, I’m OK as a director, but I think I’m best when I’m very subjective. Wong Kar-Wai is the opposite: he’s extremely objective, extremely removed. That’s why he wears his sunglasses.

SFS: Does he ever take them off?

CD: I’ve seen his eyes. But I think that is the metaphor: it’s about objectivity. I really like to be in there, doing it; I’d rather just spew it out, and then somebody else says, “yes, this is good. No, this is not good.” And that’s what happens with our films: I can just go for it. But then, in some other film-making situations, I just go for it, and they have no idea what I’m doing. So then I have to tell them, or I have to limit my excesses, or I have to suggest things, like, “look, this is a possibility, but maybe you shouldn’t use it.”

SFS: Which film-making situations?

CD: This Merchant-Ivory film I’m doing.

SFS: You’re doing a Merchant-Ivory film? That’s weird!

CD: It’s extremely weird. I made a mistake. They don’t see what I’m doing. They have no fucking idea.

SFS: I can’t imagine they would – it’s such a different idea of film-making.

CD: This is the most painful film I’ve ever made. It really is extremely painful, because – why make films if you don’t care?  

SFS: I love the films you made with Philip Noyce, though – Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

last-life-in-the-universe-wong-kar-wai.jpgLast Life in the Universe, 2003

CD: Well, Phil cares. Phil’s a total megalomaniac, and I wouldn’t live with him – but he cares. Therefore, you don’t have this Merchant-Ivory sort of nonchalance and disregard; you have real commitment. Now, whether commitment is where you want to go, and whether it’s excessive or not – that’s another question. But so is Oliver Stone, and Tarantino. It’s a Western trait, I think.

SFS: What do you think of Western film-making today?

CD: Western film-making is dead. There’s 10 films I’ve shot that they’re remaking now. They’ve run out of ideas. So how come we have ideas in the East? Because we’re living. Because our society is a society – it’s a group of people working out their differences, working out their similarities, working out their complexities, and responding to them: verbally, physically, economically and visually. Every day, you’re rubbing shoulders with people. You have to depend on other people to get anything done; so therefore you have stories. That’s it. But if you’re all sitting in fucking cars on a highway, you don’t need any contact with people. So of course you don’t have any stories! It’s really obvious – L.A. is a metaphor for Western film-making.

SFS: How about cinematographers – whose work do you like?  

CD: I don’t watch many films, actually. I like Anthony Dod Mantle as a friend. But not because of his films; just because we happened to meet and we liked each other and we had a similar attitude to life.

SFS: How about Raoul Coutard and the stuff he did with Godard in the 1960s?

CD: Well, the problem with Coutard is he became a – what’s the word, a ponce? Yeah. A ponce. And I never want to be that. That’s why I’ve got to keep working, instead of just talking about it. I think Godard kept on reinventing himself. But you can’t be a ponce, I’m sorry, I don’t care how good you were back then; this is now. Where do you go? That’s the question: where do you go from there? And I’ve noticed from my own personal journey: number one, don’t take yourself so seriously; number two, always work with young people.

SFS: Like Last Life In The Universe, which you made with young Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang?

CD: Right after this, I’m going next week to do the next Thai film. Same director, same actor. The writer is 28, he’s the hottest young writer in Thailand, and Pen-ek is – I mean, we’re very different people. I’m twice as old as anybody else on the film. But the collaboration is so intense. It’s not film-making; it’s love. And I’m going to give up a lot of other films to do this one, which is a Thai film with no budget, you know, but a small group of people who really love each other.

SFS: How about Psycho 98, which you made with Gus Van Sant?  

CD: Psycho is a $20m art project. Gus is one of the greatest directors in film, there’s no question whatsoever; you could see the integrity of it. I think basically Psycho says “Fuck Hollywood.” You didn’t even have to see the film, the idea was so potent. Which is, “what is classicism, what is purity, what is narrative?” The big question I had to address was, “what is black & white and colour?”

SFS: I thought it made a huge difference.

CD: Well, there you are – it’s an art project which says, “what is black & white and colour?”

SFS: Van Sant’s amazing, the way he suddenly got into this Béla Tarr phase, and brought it into Gerry and Elephant.

CD: If Elephant wasn’t shot like that, it would be really boring. But because it’s filmed in this way, it has a musicality – repetition, coherence, rhythm. If it didn’t have those elements, if Merchant-Ivory shot it, you’d leave in 10 minutes. Or Run Lola Run – it’s a very specific example, it’s so Germanic – but it appeals to people because it has something most films don’t have, which is what music has: structure. Run Lola Run is like Wagner. Elephant is like John Cage. And the Wong Kar-Wai films are Brazilian music.

SFS: Music again.

CD: It’s all about music. It’s about ideas translated into light. It’s words as colours. Movies means moving images, and don’t forget the image part. We’ve got this whole industry that’s proliferating the idea of the word as the basis for film-making – the word, the text. No, no, no. Why does a film have to explain things to you? You don’t expect explanations from a bus! Or a glass of beer! Why should we expect explanations? The Western system of narrative pretends that there are answers. But there are no answers. And that’s why I try to remind people that it’s about the image. Not, does he grow as a character? Not three acts. What fucking three acts? No. Shakespeare perfected that 400 years ago. Don’t you think we should move on?

SF Said writes regularly on film for The Daily Telegraph and Sight and Sound, among others. He co-edits the film pages of Plan B and, with Varjak Paw, is also an award-winning novelist for children. He is currently working on its greatly awaited sequel.