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Interview: Cinematographer Christopher Doyle Talks ‘Life Of Pi,’ ‘Narnia,’ Dancing With Nuns And Much, Much More

Interview: Cinematographer Christopher Doyle Talks 'Life Of Pi,' 'Narnia,' Dancing With Nuns And Much, Much More

Incorrigible rogue Christopher Doyle (who would almost certainly dig that descriptor) is a famously/notoriously brilliant/terrible interviewee, depending on how wedded you are to the idea that interviews should yield even semi-coherent answers or at least stay roughly on the topic of the profession for which the interviewee is well-known. On one hand, as we discovered during our Tokyo International Film Festival interview, refreshingly few are the shits the man gives about pissing off potential employers by questioning the integrity of some of their sacred cows (his prior disses on Oscar wins for “Life of Pi“‘s cinematography and “The Departed”‘s screenplay are more fully explained below).

On the other, his quote machine tendencies can be difficult to corral, and just occasionally one gets the impression, with non-sequiturs about nuns giving him hard-ons and repeated assertions of his non-platonic adoration of womankind (well, the kind who are “tall with no tits” anyway), that Doyle is quite aware of the largely self-created myth that surrounds him and wants to maintain it.

However, the “bad boy of cinematography,” rock ‘n’ roll image he puts out is at least partially justified. Doyle, since making his name via his collaboration with Wong Kar Wai on the likes of “In the Mood for Love” and “2046” —which are frankly two of the most beautiful films ever made and by themselves would justify his spot in the pantheon— probably came closest to the mainstream with M. Night Shyamalan‘s mindnumbingly turgid “The Lady in the Water” but otherwise has mostly ploughed a resolutely indie furrow. In recent years, whether by choice as he claims or by lack of big-budget offers, his films have become even smaller —his last high-ish profile gig was probably either Jim Jarmusch‘s “The Limits of Control” or Neil Jordan‘s “Ondine,” and since then he’s been working on a lot of little known or first-time directors’ projects, many set in far flung locales, many of which will probably never see the inside of a U.S. movie theater.

One such is the film he was ostensibly in Tokyo to promote —”Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore” from prolific post-punk Filipino director Khavn. Our review is to follow, but suffice to say for now it’s a woozy, non-narrative, dialogue-free, self-consciously cool trip, which, ironically enough, in its vehement un-commerciality actually most evokes the hyper-commercial aesthetics of advertising spots or music videos. But certainly, no one can accuse Doyle of having sold out his principles: it’s a micro-budgeted indie, shot totally guerrilla style on the streets of Manila, and it’s just one of seven titles listed for Doyle this year alone.

We got to spend a giddy, enjoyable, frequently inappropriate half hour with Doyle on the 49th floor of a Tokyo skyscraper with the city laid out at our feet like a supplicant, and these are the results. We apologize in advance.

‘Ruined Heart’ plays out a lot like a music video, and in many of the films you work on, music seems to play as much of a role as dialogue or story. Is the music an important factor in getting you interested in a project?
It’s music or sex.

Only ever one or the other?

Ha! Of course not. What do you mean? It’s the same thing!

My closest friends are all either filmmakers or musicians. And so that’s why that is. It’s very rare that a filmmaker filmmaker approaches me. It’s always a friend who says “oh, let’s make a film together.”

Which is really great, because then the intimacy or the complicity, whatever you call it, is there already. So you don’t have to work on the “film” part of it, and you don’t have to have the meetings or the discussions about style and all that kind of crap. You just go for it, because you know each other in a more basic and more integral way.

I read recently you had said you wanted to be “less a cinematographer than a collaborator”

Yes, and that’s why I’ve done so many films with first time directors. I think the questions are the point. Because at my age, most people think they know all the answers and they want to tell you the answers —that’s what happens with parents and grandparents and I’m at a grandparent age now. But I think the questions are the most important thing.

And first-timers ask more of them?

Of course. They ask the really ridiculous questions, and then you have to resolve the answer, which is a compromise. It’s what you can do at that particular time with your resources or the space in which you’re working. So you create something you never expected to create because you never thought that way yourself.

I mean, look at me. I have certain preferences for colors, for the way I dress, for tall women with no tits, the usual stuff, and then somebody says “why don’t we have a short fat woman who’s myopic?” Or Jodorowosky says, “how can we do this with 30 crippled dwarves instead?” [Doyle recently announced his desire to work with Alejandro Jodorowosky and it does seem unlikely that they haven’t already]

So we have 30 crippled dwarves. How can we shoot them? And you think “that’s a good question.” Have you ever been asked that question before? No! So you’ve really got to think about how to answer it.

But does that also mean that long-term collaborations are more difficult as you simply get to know the other person too well?

Are you talking about my sex life again? [He cackles as I take issue with the “again” part, as it was, dear reader, Mr Doyle who brought sex up the last time, and will again, frequently throughout. I was actually just fruitlessly fishing for juice on the dissolution of his working partnership with Wong]

Or your professional life?

Of course! I have to be eclectic. Have to be. And now I am talking about my sex life too. Which is why I’ll never be good husband. I’m an okay filmmaker because I’m a bad husband. It’s true. I love everybody. In China it’s a Confucian principle —universal love— and you pursue it day by day. But it’s not good for a family life, and I’ll never be anywhere because I’m always making films. I’ll always be with what I’m doing right at that moment. And most people don’t live in the moment.

But perhaps what we do has other repercussions. Perhaps it turns into a film which means something more to other people. I guess in my own way I am committed — I’ve committed to that idea. I don’t think I can step away from that. As much as I love women, it’s not fair, because I have to keep on going with this stuff, because this stuff has a different resonance.

So amid the wanderlust, you do have a sense of legacy?

[Long pause while he thinks] I said it many times and then it happened: “I won’t be there when my Dad dies, because I’ll be making a film,” and that’s what happened. My Dad died a year a and half ago —not so bad, 90 years old is a good inning (I’m going to 103). And I went back to Australia like six times, every month or so, but I wasn’t there the day he died, because I was making a film.

So you have to assume that responsibility. I’m not saying I’m the Wounded Soldier, I’m not saying that kind of shit like I’m some Irish patriot. But it’s true, it’s a decision and it’s tough. And most people would say “no, stop making films, your Dad is dying, stay there for a year.” So why is this so important? I don’t know, but I feel a responsibility to film, which is really strange.

I mean, why are you even here if you don’t think I have something to share? Why would you waste your day? So there must be something. I have to be responsible to you and to the audience and for helping people see what we’re doing…[suddenly worried he’s being pompous he gurgles] Christ, I feel like, like, like…Nelson Mandela. [he recently called himself the Keith Richards of film, but frankly Mandela is funnier]

I’m the Nelson Mandela of film! Hahahah! What bullshit! [Doyle stands up and strides around the room puffing his chest out exaggeratedly, before plopping back down again.]

It’s just tough, because I love women, in case you didn’t hear, and what are you gonna say to them? That’s why I go with the younger ones because once they get to 30 or something they wanna have kids, and what do you do? I think you heard: I love women. Women are the ocean for me. They are everything, but then you can’t fuck them up.

This restless, roving lifestyle has presumably been further liberated by the advent of digital, which you’ve embraced. But what are the downsides?
Well, I don’t know how to use a phone, there’s that. No, we just do our stuff and we have really wonderful assistants who know what they’re doing. I think it’s fantastic, I think this is the most astonishing period of film history. And I should say: just do it. Kids! Just fucking do it.

There used to be a time where you had to do this and this and this, and you had to save up enough money to buy an 8mm camera and film and send it all to process…now you just turn on your phone and you’re on CNN if you want, or you’re making a film. I think it’s fantastic. The point is not about the materials. It’s the ideas, the energy, the collaboration. It’s how you express yourself.

Many people ask me: don’t you feel quote unquote intimidated by all these people out there doing all this? I say no, it makes me better. Because if I’m actually asking people to pay me for what I’m doing, it has to be better than anything else you ever seen. Or at least more true. Or at least more personal. So actually, I think that everything that’s happening online with the kids is actually a stimulus to me.

Now the reverse thing is that I can say to the kids: if I can do it, anyone can do it. And this is a great privilege. Because I have a certain, what’s the word, rapport with the kids. I know a lot of kids think a lot of me and I’m very proud of that. It means I can say to the kids, just do it, but do it in your own way. And that’s the privilege that I have at the moment.

So you’re pro the democratization of the medium that new technology and media has enabled?

Yes, of course. It’s a personalization, and that’s fantastic, because then you’re not going to pretend to be Spielberg or Chris Doyle, you’re going to be who you are and that will have a voice of its own that will resonate.

And yet you’ve been outspoken about digital’s contribution to a kind of erosion of the cinematographic arts… or at least how they’re awarded?

[Doyle is about to answer then stops, and looks suddenly impressed] Wooo! That was…you didn’t even say Scorsese!

I was trying to be subtle. I didn’t even say “Life of Pi”

… Or “Life of Pi!” [we’re referring to this minor controversy Doyle caused previously]

I thought I was being pretty smooth.

Ha ha! Very good. Look, if 300 people make a film, then you give 300 people an award, that’s all I’m saying. There’s no denigration of anybody. I’m sure [Claudio Miranda, Oscar winning DP of “Life of Pi”] is a wonderful person —I’ve never met him. But it’s probably at least 300 people, maybe 3000 people, who made that film. So I think it’s insulting to cinematography to not acknowledge that the world has changed.

You should give a collaboration award, because it’s not about cinematography. It’s about the process that a large number of people engaged in to achieve this image. If you gave an award for Best Image and then you had 300 people on stage, that I can appreciate. But you see just one wanker up there.

So what do you see as being the next phase of evolution for Cinematography?

That’s like saying “so are you still going to your local bank or do you trust the world bank?” [honestly had no idea why my question was like saying that, but Doyle’s on a new roll] It’s the one percent and the 99 percent. We’re the 99 percent: the people like me and [‘Ruined Heart’ director] Khavn and [producer] Stefan are gonna make the films as we can make them, and the 1 percent will go off into their gravity-less world. Where it’s fantastic, they’ve got like the Hubble telescope and you’ve got us here on Earth.

Are you referring also to the movie “Gravity”?[which also won Best Cinematography for a substantially reworked image]

Well yes, that was the joke I was trying to make. But their gravity is money. Which is fine, just go ahead, but I don’t feel much a part of that because of all the other bullshit that comes with it. It’s a political movement basically, coming with all the complications, all the bureaucracy and all the accountants.

It’s like the guy who did “Narnia 2.” I just happened to be in Poland, doing a small film that I wrote and directed in Warsaw, and there’s a party for ‘Narnia 2,’ like, the opening, I don’t know what. And the guy comes up to me and says, “Chris, I’m going through hell.” And I say why, and he says “278 million dollars budget. It’s not a film, I’m dealing with accountants the whole time, it’s all about the money. After this,” he says, “I’m not gonna do anything over 30 million dollars!” [Doyle laughs uproariously] Like that was nothing!

But we’re gonna struggle in the trenches, because ultimately I think how many bloody remakes of things can you watch? That’s going to shift, the demographic will shift, and then those poor fuckers will have to come back to us. It’s happened always: it happened in the ’60s in American film, you have “Easy Rider.” It happened with the New Wave.

You sell your popcorn and your shit, and then they’ll see everyone’s online watching these really great films watching made by young people in Indonesia or Burma, and fuck your special effects. And then the money people will say “oh shit, too much is happening online” and of course they have to chase the money, but by that stage the money will be us.

So you’re a revolutionary? An anarchist?

Me? I’m a Catholic! [The dictionary definition of that word] means universal. I just came from Belfast [Doyle has just wrapped on Mark Cousins‘ next film “I am Belfast”] and well, there…

There, it doesn’t really have that meaning.
No. Honestly, the Protestants and the Catholics all believe in the same God!

Ah yes, but they can argue about the Virgin Mary, and whether she was…

Of course she was a virgin! She didn’t exist!

You’re a really shit Catholic, can I just say.

Haha! No virgins exist in my world. I’ve never known a virgin to exist.

Not after you’ve met them, presumably.
[Laughs, pounds table, is weirdly flattered] No, you know, I grew up with priests and I think real Catholics are great people. I lived and worked in a convent, believe it or not, for three years in India and the Mother Superior was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known —all the rest of the nuns were total bullshit. But every Christmas, I had such a hard on when they’d dance with me. 36 nuns and I was the only guy.

Did this really happen? Is this an actual true story?

Yes! You wouldn’t believe how hard I was! And how much they enjoyed it. They couldn’t wait for Christmas.

Ok, I should really ask you about the film…

Aw, why? We were having such a good time? But yes, I’ve done like 15 films this year and they were all like 3 or 4 days, and I think this is the future. You have a focus, you collect a group of people, you get support and you just go for it.

And this film was also about the energy of another space. I’ve worked in Manila twice before and always to me the space is a challenge, the interpretation of the space is very important.

You do seem to enjoy cities.

Oh yes, cities are super important to me. And then of course it’s a rock ‘n’ roll film. I think it’s about energy and about a space that I was invited to engage with, with people I love. What more could I ask for?

It doesn’t have anything like a traditional narrative. Is non-narrative a direction you’re drawn to as a DP?

Yes, it’s a celebration, it’s music, it’s energy. You know, it’s called moving pictures in English (in Chinese it’s called electric shadows). So all this Merchant Ivory bullshit —by the way I love them, I worked with them!— and all this… like, in China everything’s a novel translated into cinema.

That’s translating another genre, another tradition, which is theatergoing, which is reading. You translate it into a space with a plot. Now, the real stuff, since Eisenstein, since Melies, since Lumiere, has been about the celebration of the image. That’s what cinema is, moving pictures.

So it’s less a storytelling medium to you?

It has to be. It has to be a visual experience. I mean, what is a documentary about? What is “Koyanisqaatsi?” Why do people watch these wonderful underwater films —it’s to immerse yourself in the experience. Paintings don’t tell stories, —well, some do. Delacroix, Rivera, Frida, contain narratives, but you don’t ask a Rothko, “Hello Mr Rothko painting, what are you trying to tell me?” You just get lost in the burgundy color and you think about having a glass of wine. That’s what I think about when I see a Rothko.

So that’s what film should be: you watch this and you go home and you want to eat an egg. Or you want fuck a whore. Or you want to kill your neighbor. That’s what it should be about. Or you want to look like Asano [the Japanese star of ‘Ruined Heart’]. Why do people watch fashion shows? People just go to enjoy the spectacle, to watch the tall girls walk so stupidly and hope that something happens. Why can’t films be like that?

To me the story is… who gives a shit? How many Shakespearean films work?

Very few. But a lot of story-based films work.

But how many Shakespearean films have been made? Probably thousands, and only maybe three or four really work. Yet the story is pretty good, but the film doesn’t work.

But that doesn’t mean we should jettison narrative…

No, that means we should have documentaries, anime, and visual films. You should have a choice. Ten years ago, nobody would watch documentaries, and now it’s one of the most vital forces in cinema.

And you feel comfortable working in all those different areas?

Yes, because it’s different women in different…

[I’m a little afraid where this might go so I supply] Skirts?

It’s all about different skirts. You’ve got the Wonderbra, you’ve got the miniskirt, you’ve got…

… all the great developments in human endeavor.

What more do you want in life? I’ve done five Wonderbra commercials. I have so much to tell you. I think we should do another interview just about them… [Believe it or not, the tone of the what was left of our conversation actually went downhill from there].

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