Christopher Doyle - Painting With the Camera
updated: October 29, 2010
“Painting With the Camera“ – Christopher Doyle on cinematography. Berlinale Talent Campus, February 13, 2005
Neil Chaudhuri: We are all here for Christopher Doyle. At one point they used to call the movies the pictures and I think with Christopher Doyle it is especially applicable, he shoots beautiful, sexy pictures. I am sure all of you know his work with Wong Kar-wai, from DAYS OF BEING WILD, to CHUNGKING EXPRESS, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, recently 2046. But he also did HERO, and has just finished shooting with Merchant Ivory, everyone is very interested to hear how that went. And he also worked with Gus van Sant, Barry Levinson and Phillip Noyce and he is much in demand now. The big question is who is Christopher Doyle, who was he and who has he become? He has been a cowboy, he has been a well digger and one day he picked up the camera and we are all very grateful for that, and I think we will start with this question Chris, who are you?
“I AM THE BEST WHORE IN CINEMA“
Christopher Doyle: I think Bono can say it better than I can: ‘I still haven’t found what I am looking for’. People ask me what is your best film and it is always the next film, right? If you think you know what you are doing then you are in the wrong industry. If you think you know what you are doing then I think you should retire right now. That is my personal feeling. Yesterday someone said something wonderful to me, they were from Argentina I think. They said nobody has shot Buenos Aries like in HAPPY TOGETHER.
I don’t know if they were complaining or praising. But that is the point. I think the point of cinematography, of what we do, is intimacy. Is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream, it is being subjective and objective, it is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before, or celebrating something that you feel is beautiful or valid, or true or engaging in some way. I have been banned from Argentina for 10 years because I wrote a book about the making of this film, which is called HAPPY TOGETHER, a Wong Kar-wai film, and it was called “Don’t Try For Me Argentina.
In fact recently people have said it is not the same any more. People said you better go back before the Argentina mafia comes looking for you. Now. I think if you look at that film, one of the most important images, that I included in that film, actually in fact there are 2 images which are quite interesting
MAKING LOVE TO THE CAMERA
One is how to approach a film. There is a scene there, this is supposedly a gay film, one of the actors is gay, he left us about one and a half years ago, he jumped off a building and he was one of the greatest actors in Hong Kong cinema and a great friend. And he is openly gay. But the other actor who you may know, Tony Leung is not gay, supposedly not gay. And I think he found out the first day of the first shoot. And because the fucking scene was the first shot of the first day of the first shoot in Argentina and only two people know it was going to be an event. And that was the director and the other gay person and there are only four of us involved in this first shot. Tony, Lesley, Wong Kar-wai and myself And I still have no idea what really happened because by good luck I sat on an apple box just at the point where the bar of the bed covers his arse. So I have no idea and I cant tell you, even though in China everyone wants to know, did they really do it? So this really is about making love to the camera as you see. But I think it demonstrates a certain aspect of the relationship between directors, cameramen and actors. That some people, in this case Wong Kar-wai think the best thing is to throw you in there and see what happens and that is the best way to start a film. And some people I know have hesitated so long to do the love scene that we had to do it after postproduction. They were so scared
HOW ONE GETS WHAT ONE NEEDS
And I think it is just another aspect of the philosophy. How one gets what one needs. I think in the West usually it is the Oliver Stone school, you know, you throw them in there and lets see what happens to you fuckers I think in the East normally it is more organic. I think the way that films evolve are a expression of that. We find the film rather than create the film. We shoot against the wall instead of taking the wall away. We don’t do a wet down because we don’t have any water. So I think there is a very important dichotomy there. A difference of attitude, In the east of finding the film. Of responding to the progress of the film. Of responding to the progress in the relationship between the participants and the makers of the film.
THE WATERFALL IN HAPPY TOGETHER
And I think the 2nd image that is important to me is the waterfall. This is, I think, the 2nd biggest waterfall in the world and it is on the border between Argentina and Brazil and Paraguay, so it forms the border of three countries. And it is a wonderful, wonderful place. But the water travels at something like 3000 meters per second or something. If you put your hand in there you would lose your arm.
And the actor is only literally about one meter away from the water. And there is so much water coming that it is in the air. There are droplets, molecules of water in the air. So we are shooting the shot but the water is getting on the lens and the lens is getting more and more covered in water which is not very good for the lens. We had a filter and in the west I think, well we tried to use dust off, to try and keep the water off but it wasn’t working. I think in the west you would go back and send out to LA to ask for one of those things, what are they called, the rain deflector, this thing that keeps the rain off the lens.
What I noticed is that it looked really good. That the guy is supposed to be really lonely, he is supposed to have just broken up with the other guy, he doesn’t know what to do. And slowly he becomes this ambiguous blurred image, he is not himself any more and it just seemed like the perfect metaphor for how he was emotionally. And I think that is the kind of response we should have to our work. That is where I try to be as much as possible in what is happening. So when Bai Ling has green light and it looks good I just lie to her. If it doesn’t look good I tell her it looks good and I try to work out what we are going to do tomorrow.
SHOOTING IN DOYLE’S APARTMENT
I think I have done about 10 films that have shot within one minute or five minutes of where I live in Hong Kong. That is why I can’t leave, that is why I have to stay there. CHUNGKING EXPRESS is actually shot in my apartment. It’s true. The main apartment in CHUNGKING EXPRESS is my apartment. We flooded it once, and then I went away to shoot another film for six months and everybody would ask me, what did your neighbours say, you know, you flooded the apartment.
And I would say, oh, they didn’t mind. And then I came back after six months, and the first thing, at about 10 o’clock in the morning, somebody is knocking at the door and saying, “you owe us 200 thousand US dollars.“ And I was like: “What?“ “Yes. We live downstairs.“ I said: “Really.“ He said, “yes. You destroyed all of our computer software, we are a computer software company. You owe us 200 thousand dollars.“ So I left for another six months.
CONTINUITY OF TIME AND SPACE
So I think I will start to talk about the familiar and the dream. I think that anyone who works in theatre, or anybody writes, knows that one of the basic exercises in that form is continuity of time and space, and I think that is really basic to any artistic exercise. It happens in dance, it happens in theatre, it happens in literature. I think that is a great challenge and a great pleasure that we made a whole film, I think there are five or six shots which do not take place within that compound, and 80 percent of the film takes place in two rooms, and the rooms are really as big as this area which you can see, if you have seen the film. It is a very small space. I think that is the challenge, the beautiful challenge.
And 2 things happen. You do have this challenge. Now when I very early when I was working whit Wong Kar-wai, the great production designer, with whom I have done even more films, another 10 films, not just the Wong Kar-wai films, with a guy called William Cheung, who after FALLEN ANGELS also became an editor, I think he is the only production designer costume designer editor in the world. He does all three jobs and he is a genius at that.
FILMMAKING IS ALL ABOUT ANGLES
And he said it is all about angles. Filmmaking is all about angles. Now that is what some Japanese filmmakers also think. Because you know I have heard Japanese cinematographers say well, it is really difficult when the guy dies in a Japanese movie because how can you have a point of view shot from a dead person? If they are dead, they shouldn’t have a point of view. And they have a discussion for a week. So if he dies he has to die standing up so he can still shoot the other guy. Otherwise the camera has to be on the ground, but it can’t be on the ground because the guy is dead. And they can talk about that for a week.
Now we also had this problem on the Merchant Ivory film, because Ralph Fiennes is supposed to be blind in this film. And the assistant director says, we have got to do a point of view, a POV shot. I said, well that means I can put my camera anywhere. And he said, why? And I said: “He is blind, he doesn’t have a point of view. The second thing is. We started talking about. You are challenged every day. You are basically shooting in two rooms and I think it was a great pleasure to celebrate those two rooms. But you do have to find angles, you do have to find a composition, you do have to find a mis-en-scène.
A relationship between the actor and the space evolves and develops and suggests certain things which are not totally, you can’t really plan them out, you have to learn them as you go along. And because after you have been shooting for five days in one room you get really sick of seeing the whole room. So you look for other ways to express the space. And your relationship with the space evolves.
BLEACH BYPASS AND DAY FOR NIGHT
So, for example, the shot with the guy walking across Everyone is dead in this film, or you don’t know if they are alive. So that pushed me in a certain direction. We went into what is called a bleach bypass which basically desaturizes the colour, and we pool processed it, which also desaturized it, and basically you can’t tell if people are dead or alive because everyone’s complexion is washed out. That was the conceptual thought. And it really worked. And then it got even more interesting because we got certain, because most of the people in the Hong Kong film industry are also singers or they are doing seven films at the same time, so you always have time problems, you know, people have to go out for dinner and they are away for four hours and you have to shoot around them, all this sort of stuff happens all the time. So I said why don’t we shoot all day for night.
And it really worked well because we had this limited space to work in and also we had this basically contained thing so it worked well. What happened, is we were processing the film in Thailand and all these young cinematographers were hearing about this and they are sneaking into our lab looking at our rushes. And then for some strange reason the lab was telling people we are doing this really interesting thing, day for night, and bleach bypass and pool processing. So I think that three months after that for the next six months I fucked up 10 films in Thailand because everyone tried to do it. But it doesn’t work every time. It is a very delicate area to work in.
The contrast range and the latitude of the film and all this kind of stuff and the quality of the colours, it changes, so if you are shooting a western in the middle of the Pyranees or you are shooting a film at the sea where the weather is changing all the time, I would not do it. Because unless you have control over, unless you have a very clear area of margin of error you are going to get into deep shit. Lots of people tried it and said, “how come it doesn’t look the same?“ Well it doesn’t look the same because it wasn’t appropriate to the space in which you were working or the style you needed for that film.
[A clip from DUMPLING is screened.]
I think it is re-appropriation of the film for me to try and find out for myself, and also as a simpler way to share with you, what I think the film is about, or perhaps to celebrate the space of the film. Most of what you saw there was not in the film, because the director thought I was drunk at the time, and I was, but, and it was really good fun. What you do is you just take the lens out of the camera. You should try it. It really works. That is what we did. But he didn’t seem to appreciate it for some reason.
But that is it. What I didn’t talk about before was this day for night thing. It became a situation that it became such fun that it became the style of the film, but we had some night scenes, that were supposed to be shot at night. But most of them we could do in the day time because way of simple procedures, because the space was limited, so you could block off certain areas or you could shoot for example that scene of the guy walking underneath. That is shot in the daytime but you just expose it, or you shoot it a certain time of day, so that the exposure allows you to print it in a certain way that looks reasonably close to night.
And also, what I think has happened, is you have created a style. I think if you have created a style of a film in the first 30 seconds, well that is the world of that film. I think that is really important. An example, okay, a stupid example, PLEASANTVILLE, well it happens to be like this. Or a Tim Burton film, you know, America doesn’t really look that bad but EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, it is saying something about something so you go with the visual conceit.
I think a lot of people don’t trust that enough. A lot of people think it should be more real or whatever. But I think if, the whole point of sitting here in a darkened room, which you are at the moment, not me, I am sitting with those hot lights, the whole point is the suspension of belief and the engagement of the experience, and I think that is very much our responsibility as cinematographers, that we have a great responsibility to be true to the film itself rather than to some preconception of what is real or what is valid.
THE INVENTION OF “NIGHT FOR DAY FOR NIGHT
So what happened with this day for night thing, is we had to shoot at night, so I invented (by the way I have copyright) night for day for night. Go tell Truffaut. I am going to make a film called night for day for night. So basically the day for night stuff looks so good so what are we going to do at night? So we have to pretend there is sunlight somewhere in order to shoot day for night. So basically we ended up putting a lot of silk, a lot of white cloth, and bouncing very big lights so it seems there is a lot of ambient light, and it worked for every one but one shot. I think we shot about six scenes like that and there is only one where you can kind of tell, and I think it was because I didn’t have enough ambient light so I made a mistake there.
The other thing is, as I said, although a lot of this didn’t make it into the film. This also is a film which is a very contained space. As you can see it is a very similar space actually, there is a lot of these kind of housing blocks in Hong Kong. Again it was a very similar situation where much of the film takes place in one or two very confined spaces, so how to explore that, how to celebrate that. As you can see, the establishing of the space itself. You know, you make certain choices about the time of day to shoot, which is very basic to cinematography, and it is basically because you cannot light such a space, it is too big. And if you did light it, it would look fake, it would look like a movie rather than supposed reality.
[Clip is screened from 2046]
2046 took five years to make by the way. I think one of the difficulties was that we couldn’t really find the film. Because we started with this dream that Wong Kar-wai has had, and many filmmakers from certain backgrounds that you dream of doing a Hollywood film, or you dream of anamorphic, or you dream of having incredible special effects, or you dream of doing a martial arts film or whatever. So some people have a Hollywood dream, or a dream that belongs to a certain aspect.
And I think for a lot of people that grew up in Hong Kong in a certain period of cinema history, anamorphic has been the dream. And we tried so many times. But all the big martial arts films in Hong Kong had taken all the equipment so it was only the seventh film that we actually got around to doing a film in anamorphic. But it was actually to me contradictory to the spaces within which we were working. So it took us a long, long time to find the style of the film. And I think that was kind of a lesson also. That you shouldn’t fight too hard for something that maybe
TRAVELLING AROUND A CAR IN 2046
So it is almost impossible to shoot a film in black and white nowadays. First of all, no one will purchase the film, and secondly, if you want to release the film in a mainstream theatrical environment, most theatres refuse to project anything that is not a colour positive print. So what do you do? I think you try to go beyond those limitations and you look for in this case a certain nostalgia or a certain aspect of the ideas of the film. This film is 2046, which as a lot of people may know has a lot of references to the films we have made before and is basically to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. So we were looking for a way to express this relationship first of all, and secondly, that perhaps he is really thinking of her.
The problem was that we didn’t have the equipment to actually go all around the car. We tried many ways to do it. It was supposed to be a full 360 degrees turn and you go from one woman to the next. But because we couldn’t do what we really wanted to do we ended up doing it this way, which basically is three cuts.
But the point of the three cuts is to remind you that these are basically the same shots and I think that is a very important thing from working with Wong Kar-wai that all art aspires to music and music is about time, it is about ideas in time, or ideas expressed in time, it is about the space between the notes, it is about rhythm, it is about repetition, it is about changing octave, about changing speed midway through an idea in order to give the idea a different resonance and it is about jazz, which is you start together and you try to end together and in the middle you do everything you can to have some kind of rapport.
REPETITIONS IN 2046
It is like you start and you have the theme and you go into your solos and I think that’s the kind of attitude we have towards the film before making it. That there is this space for other elements of the film, that there is a celebration for, for example, actorly moments. You know there are certain moments when, yeah, why not just show the clouds going by for five minutes? It might not enhance the narrative but it certainly gives a certain poetry, or a certain musicality to the film.
I think it is most evident in 2046 where repetition is used so often. Sometimes it is referenced like Tarantino does to other films and if you know the films it adds something to your experience. But usually it is just for to give that particular idea more impact, or to give it more poetry, or to give it a little more space to breathe so you can reflect on it, so it is a musical experience I think.
YOU HAVE TO LET GO SOME TIME
Neil Chaudhuri: You said 2046 was a film you and Wong Kar-wai wanted to do for years. Did it work in the way you wanted?
Christopher Doyle: Well, the point of making a film is you tell me if it works! It is very much like your kids are 16 years old and they are dating. You know, are you going to let her stay over night with her boyfriend? Well, you have to let go some time. I mean why do we dare to bring a film to Berlin and ask people to pay to see it. The point is that we feel we have something to celebrate but now it is yours. Otherwise I should just jerk off at home. The point is, to put a film into the cinema, you have to have the confidence to say this is what I want to share with you, but how you respond to it is why I dare to give it to you, because you take it, it is your film, it is not my film anymore.
DOYLE’S FEELING ABOUT A FILM
Now, how I feel about it is another thing. And an Academy Award can’t tell me how I feel about it. And your wonderful response or the box office can’t tell me how I feel about it. I think that is the most important thing. And I think it is very dangerous to get confused about these things.
I mean it is wonderful when people say I love your work. So can you tell me the first line of the second film I did with Wong Kar-wai please. You know, if you love my work why don’t you remember every single bit of it? I have musician friends who say that, so sing me the first verse of my most famous song. And most people can’t do it. I am not criticising your praise but I don’t think I should take it too seriously because then I would be totally full of myself.
THE GREAT PLEASURE OF MAKING MISTAKES
So I think that is important. You have to know. When I see some films, like for example, when I saw FALLEN ANGELS, all of that was shot on a 5.6mm lens. Basically you can see everything in the room. So that dictates a certain style. And the film evolves that way and that is a certain relationship with the actors. The first shot on the first day was a close up of the leading actress. And she is mixed, she is half Portuguese and half Chinese. So she has a western nose, a longer nose than most Chinese. And she turned to the camera and it was vroooom. I said maybe wee should take the monitor outside so that she doesn’t see the shot. Don’t show her the shot.
And we shot the whole film like this except one shot. And every time I see the film there is this one shot we shot with a 18mm lens. Which most people would regard as a wide-angle lens, but to us it was like a telephoto lens. And it really jumps out. And I think that is the way you should respond. I really feel ashamed of that shot. And 99.9999 percent of people would not see it unless I tell you. And I think that is how you should regard your art. That is the great pleasure of making mistakes.
Sometimes I go, in the middle of the night, why didn’t I wait one more second. Or why didn’t I frame up a little bit. And that is good. You should really feel like that. I mean, you are not going to call up the producer in the middle of the night and say I really want to do one more second of the shot where she runs down the street. But you should feel that way, and that is the pleasure.
COLLECTING VISUAL EXPERIENCES
Actually the Hong Kong society of cinematographers wanted to sue Wong Kar-wai. And I said: “Why? And they said, “Well, in every film you shoot he only uses five percent of what you shot. So it is a waste of your energy, it is a waste of your time, he should pay you more and we are going to sue him. I said, okay. But the good thing is you haven’t seen that other 95 percent of the film. So first of all for Wong Kar-wai it is good because he can make millions on DVDs now.
And for me it is great because you haven’t seen it but I have experienced it, so it has become part of my visual vocabulary. So I can refine it in some way. I have assimilated the experience, or I have responded to the light in a certain way, or I have made a certain composition or I have done a certain interesting movement that may or may not have worked that well but has become part of my personal experience. And that is the great pleasure of cinematography. Basically you are working every minute of every day. I noticed this guy over there.
His shirt looks light blue to me in this light but it probably isn’t. So when the light goes on I will just check what colour his shirt was. So I had this visual experience that nobody else in this room has because I am sitting here and looking at this. And I see these things around your neck. And I am just thinking, what if the guy behind you pulls it really hard. And so you are having this thing all the time. It is wonderful. You notice this line on the floor and it is distracting you because it is a little too bright for the space behind it and the orange light.. you are having this wonderful life because every minute of every day, you know, it is cheaper than porn you know.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LOCATION
I think the most important thing, and a lot of clips are about this, is that it is the thing about location. I think what I learnt most from Wong Kar-wai is, since you don’t have a script, since you are going to change the actors anyway, since you don’t know when you are shooting, since you are not sure exactly how the story will evolve, you have to have something that works and it has to be location. So the space is basic. It is the most basic thing to how the film works. Because space implies a certain character, the space suggests a certain reaction or relationship between the people who engage in this space. The space suggests certain stylistic choices or the way in which it is shot. Or the angles.
So the space basically is, it is the basic platform from which the film is built. And I think that has really informed everything I have done since. So nowadays I go very early to look at the location, even before I am really formally involved in the film. For the next film I am doing in Thailand, which we start next week, I went about six months ago, even before the script was finished, just looking for a space. I saw this space in Macau. It was just, the original script implied that the actors were living in an apartment block, up and down stairs.
But we found this space that was horizontal, there was kind of a shared space and another space over there. And just the colour and the sense of space suggested to me so such a way in which to go in the film. They refused to give us the space. But they can’t control the space around the space. So we are just going to imitate that space in Thailand and shoot the exterior in Macau.
[A clip is screened.]
This is a film that I mis-directed. It is called A WAY WITH WORDS. This is also a celebration of the space, Okinawa just seemed, I wrote the script, I mis-directed the film, I shot the film, I shouldn’t have edited the film. Anyhow, you learn from your mistakes. Again, this space just suggested a story and in the story the younger kid is Asano when he was a kid, and we worked with non-actors, it was a fantastic experience.
I think the best bit of the film was actually that part that was using that space, or the space suggested something to me. The characters were kind of there in the back of my mind but in the way the actors responded sort of formed the story that we had developed from them. And it wasn’t totally scripted, it was like shooting a documentary, and I think it was probably the best part of the film because it is more direct and more engaging.
GIVE AS MUCH OF OURSELVES TO THE FILM
The other thing I wanted to talk about was “doing it yourself“. When the guy walks down the corridor of sand I didn’t want to waste so much time on screen, I wanted to get him coming to the sea and looking out at the sea, but I wanted to do it faster than we could. So instead of dissolving, or cutting earlier, I just turned off the camera from time to time. So basically he kind of jumps down to the sea. And I think that is really important, and I am sure a lot of us here are not working with multi million dollar budgets, so I think that is a really basic thing, to the integrity of the film.
That our job is to give as much of ourselves to the film. And I think what happens, a lot of people are afraid of the digital domain. Or the relationship with the lab is extremely important to me because of the way I approach the film, because the processing is important, and the film stock and also the eye of the person who is helping me to check the film. I think all those things are really important so you have to have the best possible team. But also, I think you have to have as much control as possible over what is going into the film, because you cannot fix it in post. So the more you put into it the more you will get out of it is a basic point of departure and I think you should really trust that. So I put as much as possible in there so that they can’t fuck it up later basically.
[A clip from 2046 is screened.]
CREATING VISUALS – COPYING VISUALS
So this is 2046. and this is something also done in camera. It is very simple. You just get the actor to move slowly and the people behind to run faster. It is a very simple technique. We started it in CHUNGKING EXPRESS, and by the time CHUNGKING EXPRESS had been around for about 6 months, everybody in Asia was copying our style. And it became kind of boring. So this was one of the first times we used it.
And it is a very simple technique. And I think what happened was, there is nothing original under the sun. We just happened upon this idea and it worked for certain kinds of emotions. For example, she is lonely, she is waiting for somebody, so it is the idea of time going by, if you want to explain it, or analyse it, or, they don’t know what to say to each other so the time passes. You know, it is a visual expression or a visual concentration of an idea, which I think cinematography is about. It’s an idea put into images and if it works then it is coherent. The point is, that so many people were imitating this style that it became kind of boring to do it ourselves. So we kind of said, when we were doing HAPPY TOGETHER, no we won’t do it at all. We will never do this again.
And then one day we said, this would look really good if we undercrank the camera. And it was good because it was appropriate to the scene. It was appropriate to the shot. So I think that was the great lesson, that don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, I think is the English expression. I think that is really important. That you do come to realise that the essence of the image is what it is all about and how you are finding that is what it is about. It is not technical. These things are quite simple.
MOST OF US ONLY HAVE ONE OR TWO STORIES TO TELL
And I think that is what happens as you progress as a filmmaker, or as any artist. That basically it is like Giacometti is taking a block of metal and he ends up with a figure this big and very tall. So what happened to the rest? Well, the traditional way to explain it is he found the essence of the stone or the metal. It was there. The sculpture was in the rock waiting to get out. That is the art school jargon.
And I think it is true. I think for example, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is what it is because it is basically about the same concerns as the other films. It is about time, it is about the possibility of love, it is about people in space together, it is about these themes which are in every Wong Kar-wai film but it is probably the purest expression of it because the style, the space, the story itself, and the intention and our abilities were more pure. That basically we learned to tell our story. I think most of us only have one or two stories to tell. I notice I repeat myself quite often. I am sorry if you have heard this before. That I do say film is about music. That I have said that more than once in my life. But I think it really is the progression of art, that you are simplifying things, that you are purifying things.
YOU PAY ME AND I GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANT
Neil Chaudhuri: Did you want to say something about collaboration?
Christopher Doyle: Wong Kar-wai says to me, Chris is that all you can do? Which is an interesting thing to hear because sometimes it is all I can do. You know, we have limitations some time, but I think the intention is give me more. And I think that is the great pleasure. I think I deserve to be a cinematographer because I am the best whore in cinema. So you pay me and I give you what you want. That is my job. I am a whore. And even Michael Ballhaus admitted it one day. It was a great moment in German cinema when MB said all cinematographers are whores, and he said it in front of his students, that was even stranger.
But it is true. Why I feel good about what I am doing, and why what I am doing is okay, is not because I am a great mind or you know, it is just that I like to sweat, I like to hold a camera, I like to dance with the actors and people pay me to do it. And then I like to give a lot of ideas, and then if I am working with a good director he will say, “yes, yes, no, no don’t go there“, and so I need a director behind me because you need the engagement, you need to be in there. I think that some people can find it in themselves. Some people can have these incredible ideas and also have the distance to censor themselves. Or to take the best of their ideas and only use those. But someone like me needs to throw out as many ideas as possible and then have you chose the ones you need. And that is the Wong Kar-wai relationship. And we do that kind of as we go along.
With the Thai director Peneq, it is a similar relationship but he does it before we do it, because he wants to save film. So I am about to do something and he says, “no no no“. But it is the same relationship. He says: “Chris don’t do it because my editor will fuck it up.“ The problem is the editor is his girlfriend. And they broke up three years ago. So I think it is about getting back at his girlfriend. I think there is something else there.
But basically I think he is right also. In other words, if I have the confidence, or if he has the confidence as director to say, yes we have translated the idea into images, that the content is there, that the emotion is there, that the acting has conveyed all we need, let’s move on. I think it is just a personality thing but the procedure and my relationship with these two different filmmakers is very similar and it is basically about give what you can but choose what you need.
[Clips are screened.]
This is from RABBIT PROOF FENCE, directed by Phillip Noyce. Also bits and pieces from ASHES OF TIME and from HERO.
THE PURITY OF AN IMAGE
I think the point of this little section is, it is all done in camera again. I think the point to me is, what we are trying to talk about here is, the purity of an image. And simplifying things. I think that what happens is. I couldn’t have done HERO if I hadn’t done ASHES OF TIME. I couldn’t have done HERO if I hadn’t done RABBIT PROOF FENCE. Etc etc. I think what you have done before, or how you have lived or what you have studied or the context of cinema itself, everything comes from what came before I think is one basic principle that you can’t escape. So social issues inform the way in which you live, politics informs the way you work or don’t work etc and it is the same for film.
It is an evolution of what came before. But as a person, as a so called artist or as a filmmaker what that means is what I tried to say about IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, I think that you do work towards a simplification of things, if you are true to what you are doing you do end up being more pure or more direct in how you go about in getting what you think you need. Or how you respond to a space becomes more direct. Or you trust yourself more. Or however you want to explain it. But it is the same thing. And what that means is, you can’t light the desert. Don’t even try. You can’t light the sea. So just wait for the right time of day. Why do you need twenty lights on a glass of water to make a commercial?
You are jerking off. You are trying to justify how much money you are getting to do it. In other words you are performing. Now what you should do is you realise, you make other choices. You say, well if we wait till 6 o’clock in the evening and we have prepared well then we can shoot this scene in five minutes. And that is the direction you go in. and it is probably more beautiful anyway. Or you could say, as some people do, give me fifty 20ks, give me two helicopters, give me this, this, and this, and it will cost you 20 million dollars. So you choose. I think most of us have to choose the other way.
SHOOTING THE DESERT
And I think that is actually quite liberating. Shooting the desert, I think I have done five desert films now and I am doing another one in May, and it is incredibly informative, it really teaches you to look closer and to respond more appropriately and to make choices. This is kind of what we have been talking about all through the day, it is basically the way you work pushes you in a certain direction, or the intention of the ideas suggest something or perhaps the colours pushed you in certain directions. I think you should go with that as opposed to try and change it. I don’t think even Antonioni could make Red Desert now. Well you could do it digitally I guess. But I think I would prefer to make Yellow Desert because that is the way it looks.
HERO – A FILM BASED ON COLOUR
And that is what happened on HERO. We knew we wanted to make a film about colour which is a great pleasure, and we will talk about that tomorrow with Emi Wada. But what a wonderful idea to make a film which is based on colour. And it is the same thing that happened. So what are the colours going to be? We knew there would be red, because it is a Chinese film so there had to be some red, and there is a passionate sequence so it is kind of appropriate that there is some red, and we knew that we kind of like blue, just because we liked blue. And we knew there should be some white as a contrast to the red but where are they going to go?
The story is written, but which part is red, which part is blue was determined as much by the locations as by any preconceived idea. So what happened, we went to look at the locations and a certain location looks very green, so why don’t we put the green sequence here? And a certain location, because it is very high altitude is very blue, like the lake which is this incredible blue. And then the flowers and the trees are this yellow colour which we said was really red because the costumes are red. So that did inform the way in which the film was shot. It was partly an idea and partly the reality of how to achieve that idea that kind of balanced each other out.
And the second thing, which we started to talk about earlier also: I think that we were brave enough to make blue books. A whole room full of blue books. When I first saw the set I said how are people going to believe this. Wood is not usually blue. And yet somehow, because the context of the film you do accept. Of course it is not real but it is the reality of this particular persons story in this particular context. I think those are things you have to trust and I think you have to be brave enough to go there. I think it is quite surprising. Because you do suspend belief, you do trust the power of the image or the simplicity of a colour, or the fact that you can’t light the desert.
WHAT MEANS A “HOT“ LOOK?
One of my favourite situations as a cinematographer is that people say I want this film to look really hot. And then I say, well what do you want it to smell like? I mean, what do you do? Everyone sweating? How do you shoot fear? What is the colour of night? They are really impossible questions but they are the great questions to ask yourself every day if you are involved in visual.. you know how do you visualise an idea? I think that is the great challenge of what we do, and there is no answer.
I think it is like life. As you get older you realise that there are no answers to the questions that kids are asking but it is a great pleasure to hear the questions. I mean they may be really stupid but to ask the question is the point. I think that is the great challenge that you never cease to have as a filmmaker, that you can’t answer what is the colour of night. How does sadness taste? Unless we are autistic you don’t know. But some people do know, or some people dare to ask and therefore to look.
[A clip is screened.]
Neil Chaudhuri: These sequences revealing about your relationship with your actors. You like filming Gong Li, don’t you?
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CAMERA AND THE ACTOR
Christopher Doyle: How many Chinese people are in the audience? Because I am going to say something a bit indiscreet. Gong Li has wonderful breasts. But the first time I shot her I didn’t realise. I think the first time I shot her was about ten years ago. And she wasn’t as full bodied as she is now, she had a very boyish frame. And I couldn’t understand why the frame looked so awkward and I realised her tits were falling out of the frame, basically. So it felt like she was sitting on a table all the time.
So that’s what I say. It is like a dance, it is an exchange of energy, if you know the Chinese expression, Chi, which means this coming and going of energy. I mean tantra sex is about the same thing, the exchange of energy, or Kandalini in yoga. In Chinese fortune telling, a real master can see where your energy flow is, and of course if you are a good person, or you are in good health, your energy should go straight through, up, but some people go this way, and that way. And these people see it and I believe them. And I think what happens with the relationship between the camera and the actor, which means the relationship between the audience and the actor is that it is an exchange of energy.
It is a flow. And as a camera person you are in this incredibly privileged position because you are the conductor of the flow. So you have, basically it is subject, which is usually an actor, but it could be an animal, or it could be a space, could be a cloud, so subject, lens held by a cameraman, another lens, audience. It’s basically three people. That is a film. And two lenses. And so the point is, is to make that as direct as possible. Now there are many ways to get there? I think one of them is care. Because you are the closest person usually to the actor and they have to trust you. So how do you create that trust?
There are a number of ways to do it. First of all, is by talking to them perhaps. Or being friends with them. Or at least showing that you care. The great pleasure of working with an actress is to decide when you are going to put the soft filter on. It is so much fun. So if she looks a little bit uncomfortable or you know she didn’t sleep well last night or she has her period put on the soft lens. Make her see you putting on the soft lens. And she thinks, oh Chris cares. So let her know you are taking care of her.
A DANCE WITH THE ACTORS
But if she is getting older, don’t let her know that you think she looks like shit. That is my advice. Be discreet. And that is it. What you do is you have to create this engagement. The second thing is, you have this engagement, this dance where you are coming in, the camera has two functions. It is a dance with the actor. An engagement with the actor, which is a subjective experience. In this particular scene, the point of the subjective experience is to become closer in order to notice or to suggest that she is a bit lost. Or that she is a bit puzzled. So lets go in there and show, and let her give that to us. And yet you pull back and become objective enough to explain the space.
So it is not all in close up, it is this mixture of objectivity and subjectivity. It is this mixture of engagement and information that is going on. And I think that is what has happened with modern filmmaking. That we have gone out of this period when, even now some cinematographers say, “well, the best camera work is unseen“. Yeah. That is what they used to say about children until rock and roll. Children should be seen and not heard. The Beatles changed that.
I think that is what is happening with cinematography too. That there is an engagement, there is a need to celebrate the expression of ideas through imagery and I don’t think it has to be as discreet as it used to be because people have so much visual experience, people are on line, I mean most of the people I know are on line three or four hours every day. They have cameras in their telephones, and they are going into karaoke every night. Even the buses in Hong Kong have TVs on them. So you have this incredible exposure to visuals, so our job is to celebrate the essence of a visual experience.
To purify it, to simplify it. To give it its perfect form. And that is a great challenge because there is so much stuff going on, so much visual information going on. So that means that it can have character. The visual experience can be a personal experience and it can be expressed in a personal way. In other words, you can openly talk to the audience, and I think that is quite a change, an evolution of the relationship between the cinematographer or any of the filmmaking partners and the visual experience. It is a much more direct celebration of how ideas are conveyed and in what manner.
IT IS A BAD FILM SO AT LEAST MAKE IT LOOK GOOD
And I think that happened to me quite early, in about the third or fourth film that I was making. And two things happened. It was a film with eight women, it is not a very well known film, it was a Hong Kong comedy, and I don’t think you can find it now. And it was eight quite well known stars in Hong Kong. All women, but they are all bimbos in the story. It was just a comedy.
And the director wasn’t that competent in conveying character and the story was so-so. So I thing two things happened to me. I realised, well, it is a bad film so at least make it look good. So what are you going to do. If you stay wit the old school, which says the cinematography should be subservient, should serve the story. Well if the story is shit that means the cinematography should be shit? Well, that means that I am shit? That means no more films to do because no one wants to work with you because you are a piece of shit. So, I mean it makes more sense to go in the other way and say, well, at least elevate one aspect of the film and make it at least look good.
And secondly, yes, celebrate women because you have got eight of them, you might as well learn something from them. And you might as well share the pleasure of their different characters. And so you look into that in a way, and you try to find a way of expressing that engagement, or engaging in a different way, or finding a visual, something in the light, or in the colour or something that gives them that space.