“As I watch your films, I feel the way the characters are feeling,” New York Press film critic Armond White told director Wong-Kar Wai as he introduced a discussion at the Apple Store Soho last weekend. “It comes across in the way the movie looks and it comes across especially through how you use music to underscore the images.” The talk, presented by indieWIRE, featured “Ashes of Time Redux” director Wong-Kar Wai and longtime cinematographer Chris Doyle discussing the way they utilize music, not just in “Ashes” (which was given new music in its “Redux”), but in their many collaborations over the years.
From reinterpreting The Mama and the Papa‘s “California Dreamin'” in “Chungking Express” to the re-orchestration of Massive Attack‘s “Karma Coma” in “Fallen Angels,” one of Kar-Wai’s defining qualities as a “postmodern auteur” is his inclination to reformulate moments in popular culture. But music has also played a central role in Wong’s relationship with his cinematographer.
Doyle has worked as a cinematographer on many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, from “Express” and “Angels” to “In The Mood For Love” and “2046.” But it’s evident when seeing them together that they are an unlikely cinematic duo. Wong, under his trademark dark glasses, comes across as quite reserved and calm, while the animated and flamboyant Doyle will interrupt at any moment in the conversation if an often entirely unrelated thought has popped into his head. Digging deeper, it’s clear that music has played an integral role in binding this unlikely artistic relationship.
“Chris will be giving the freehand to capture the shot and get the rythym,” said Wong. “So I need to give him a sense of the rythym I am looking for. I realize that the best way to communicate with Chris is not by words but by music.”
Both men spoke passionately about it, both in relation to their films and to their personal philosphies. For example, when White asked how they privately listen to music, Kar-Wai explained how he considers himself “an accidental listener.”
“I collect CDs,” he said. “But most of the time I get the music when I’m travelling. Because there is music around us all the time. You can listen to a piece of a music in the restaurant, and then in the bar, and then in the taxi. So sometimes I just notice, and I will ask people what they are playing. For me, music has different meanings. What works for me is that music has to be visual and inspire image… When we are living in a world like this when music is very popular, we can hear it everywhere and it becomes a reference of time.”
Doyle joked that his reasoning for still being a “CD person” was a different kind of accident. “Where I live they steal iPods out of my bags all the time or I lose them,” he said. But he also felt that these new technological trends spoke to larger issues. “I think we are in a transitional period,” he said. “And the interface is very basic to the progression of music’s relationship to film and how film relates to music or how we relate to technology. That’s very basic to the present discussion of where film goes from here.”
Doyle also emphasized that music plays an important role with actors. “The relationship between the actor and the camera is a dance,” he said. “I think that’s pretty evident in many of the films we have made together. I’ve noticed that it frees the actors to a space they’ve never entered before. But like all dance, dance has a musicality to it. Its either a response to music or its incorporated by music. So the interaction between the way our films are made and their musicality is extremely basic, informed, and it evolves as the films goes on.”
“When we are working with an actor or actress that is also a singer or musician,” added Wong Kar-Wai. “I find it is extremely efficient and for them they get it right away. I still remember the first night I shot with Norah Jones on ‘My Blueberry Nights.’ When I played the music of Cat Power she got it right away. She knew the rhythm. For her, it was her first film and first day on a set. She needed to have a rhythm, and that gave her a sense of [it].”
With “Ashes of Times Redux,” Kar-Wai wasn’t working with any actors, but with his own 1994 film. This included an overhaul of its music. “Frankie Chen is the composer of ‘Ashes of Time’ and he is the composer I’ve worked with on two of my films,” he said. “The way we worked on [‘Ashes’] is that we just wanted to do something different from standard martial arts film.”
But at the time of the original shoot, they couldn’t afford to record the score with an orchestra. “By the time we worked on the redux,” Kar-Wai said. “We invited a group of musicians from Beijing. I invited them to work with Frankie to do a recording. New variations, new recordings of the original score. And I also invited Yo-Yo Ma… I think what we really amazed me is that these two versions, even though there’s a difference of 14 years, could somehow work perfectly.”
“Ashes of Time Redux” is being released this Friday, October 10 through Sony Pictures Classics.