Cinematographer Christopher Doyle: ‘I’m Not James Cameron! I’m Not David Fincher!’

"This is what has to be the art of filmmaking," the cinematographer of "In the Mood for Love" tells IndieWire. "It is to articulate an idea, and to remove oneself enough that you see what the idea is really about."
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle
Christopher Doyle on the set of "Love After Love"
courtesy of MUBI

This past March, the cinematographer Christopher Doyle was under COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai, waiting to return to Hong Kong. “They take us floor by floor, apartment by apartment, name by name to the school around the corner for testing… then they march us back,” he wrote in an email. While waiting to return to Hong Kong, he was finalizing a book of poetry and collages. He had recently finished a feature in the south of China; before that he shot “Love After Love” for director Ann Hui.

Based on an Eileen Cheng short story, “Love After Love” (currently streaming on MUBI) charts the decline of wealthy playboy George Chiao (Eddie Peng), coupled with the corruption of Ge Weilong (Sandra Ma), who will ultimately become his wife. Set in Shanghai largely before World War II, it is a hypnotic, feverish look at a privileged world disappearing faster than anyone realizes.

With over 120 films to his credit, Doyle is one of the most distinctive and influential cinematographers in the world. He’s worked with established directors including Wong Kar Wai, Phillip Noyce, Zhang Yimou, and Joe Odagiri. He’s also the subject of the documentary “Like the Wind,” directed by Ted McDonnell and available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime Video. Via Skype, Doyle spoke to IndieWire about his latest films, the meaning behind the title of “Like the Wind,” and why the art of filmmaking is “to articulate an idea, and to remove oneself enough that you see what the idea is really about.”

IndieWire: Let’s start with “Love After Love.”

Christopher Doyle: I hate the English name. Do you know about Eileen Cheng? She was a prolific, celebrated writer in the ’50s and ’60s. I think I’ve done three adaptations of her work, including “Red Rose, White Rose.”

Love After Love was directed by Ann Hui, who’s totally obsessed with Eileen Cheng. I think she’s done three or four films from her books. Something in the themes of the books is relevant to her.

The film opens with a shot of a stick of incense. That’s the name of the original work, it was actually a short story [“Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”]. A stick of incense, which is virginity, which is the loss of innocence, which is this young woman being — incensed perhaps is the best word. This young woman being consumed by what she thinks is the flame of love.”Love After Love” is a bit weak [as a title]. If it was me I would call it “Lust After Lust.” I don’t know, I’m just a cameraman.

Where did you shoot it?

In the nineteenth century there were several concessions, a result of what the Chinese call the Unfair Treaties. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dalian. One was Shamian, called Amoy at the time. It’s this island just off the coast of China that’s been stuck in time. It looks exactly like what Hong Kong would have looked like in the 1950s: the beautiful colonial architecture, the stonework, the climate. But every day there’s like 200,000 tourists. It’s a fucking nightmare. I’ve never been anywhere where there’s so many people in the streets every day.

We had this compound which is basically the main set of the film. It may have been my fastest shoot ever. We shot six to eight hours a day.

“Love After Love”courtesy of MUBI

What’s unusual about “Love After Love” is that its characters agree to their corruption, they choose pleasure knowing they will suffer later. The story takes place in a hothouse atmosphere — indolent, decadent. How did you build that world?

First of all I have the great privilege that almost everyone I work with is first my friend. Stan Lai, Gus Van Sant, Ann, we just knew each other. There’s a reciprocity, there’s a give and take that’s not about filmmaking, it’s about personality, it’s about intent, it’s about mutual respect. It’s about “How am I going to give this idea the form it deserves?”

Since almost everyone I work with has been a friend first, there’s not this need for a hierarchy. It’s an extremely congenial and creative atmosphere in which to work. It’s about, “How are we going to do this?” It’s a give and take. It’s a very celebratory working environment. Which I don’t think James Cameron has any idea about.

That doesn’t explain how you get things done. There’s a scene where George is going through a courtyard to Ni’er’s room. He steps from darkness into a pool of light to enter the servants’ quarters. It’s something you had to light beforehand, you don’t just grab it. And Ann Hui has to agree this is the way you’re going to do the scene.

I think what happens in my process is that the space tells us the story. In my little experience, the space is always the environment for the narrative. This courtyard had certain limitations and structural possibilities and then from that, you have Eileen Cheng’s work to refer to. So why does the maid live in a shack downstairs? Because that’s where they put them. The shack existed downstairs.

It’s not about construction, it’s not about a three-act script. It’s not. It’s about the possibility of this story taking place in this space. If we choose the space correctly, if we have the actors suggest certain possibilities, then hopefully something resonant — I won’t say creative, I will say resonant — hopefully it’s a different film than could be made anywhere else.

You know why “In the Mood for Love” looks the way it does? Because we shot it in the spaces we shot it in. This is a very important message to give to younger filmmakers. Take what you have and make it bigger. Take what you have and go enter that space.

Of course we had some art direction [by Hai Zhao], of course we had Emi Wada’s costumes, of course we had certain parameters of the working environment. But personally I believe the way in which I and many of the people I work with make films is a response to an idea given the place and the space and the personalities it develops. It’s not about adding stuff, it’s actually about taking stuff away.

By the way, I think this is the last film that Emi Wada did the costumes for. We did “Hero” together. I did a film in Japan with her, “They Say Nothing Stays the Same.” I’ve done three or four films with her. There’s an astonishing attention to detail in her work. Emi Wada taught me patience.

Well, in this shot you can’t see art design, you can’t see costumes, you see light and dark. And you sculpted that light and dark. It’s not just space that you found, you had to light it, you had to make decisions about how he’s going to stand in this pool of light here and he’s going to enter this space here. It’s not just taking what’s there, you’re making decisions about it.

This is the challenge with people who come from literature. It’s a huge challenge as a cinematographer. I’ve gone through this many different ways with many different people. Yes, I understand, it should be blue. But how the fuck do we make it viable, visceral. I work with many people who come from words, literature, concepts, even advertising. On paper the idea is very profound, but how the fuck to make it viable?

You have a two-shot of Weilong and Charlie sitting on a tree trunk where you start wide and gradually push in.

My favorite shot.

I’m trying to find out how you work, how that shot came about. Who decided how to frame it, when to push in?

Well, I saw the tree. They’re talking so much, what the fuck can you do. We’re on an island, in a compound, the only place that didn’t have 20,000 people walking around. You have to work with what you have. Why don’t we do it here?

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle on the set of Love After Love
Behind the scenes of “Love After Love”courtesy of MUBI

Let’s talk about “Like the Wind,” the documentary Ted McDonnell made about you.

“Like the wind,” that’s my Chinese name. I don’t think any of this would have been possible, including this conversation, except for my teacher giving me my Chinese name, Du Ke Feng.

I was traveling, and I realized language — which you and I both love — is so imperative to who you are. The way you speak defines how you think. I spoke Australian English moderately well. What the bloody hell, how are you going to expand your space? There’s English, there’s Spanish, there’s Arabic. And there’s Chinese. Those are the languages of the world.

So I went to Hong Kong, because at that time it was impossible to go to China. I went to the Chinese University in Hong Kong to study Chinese. And this astonishing, beautiful teacher gave me this name, Du Ke Feng.

What does “like the wind” mean to you?

It means a person of integrity should be like the wind. Which means coming and going, which means like a tempest, a storm. Or the doldrums sometimes. If I wasn’t like the wind I wouldn’t be like I am now. What a bloody beautiful gift. It’s a very beautiful name in Chinese. Plus if you actually believe in superstition, the numbers really add up.

So this person you’re talking to now doesn’t exist. This person Du Ke Feng doesn’t have parents. He doesn’t have a mother or a father. He’s a concept. He’s a concept in the minds of Chinese people. He’s actually a concept in my mind also. This is what I find important, this distancing oneself in order to be something more than one would have been otherwise.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung in “Happy Together”Kino International/courtesy Everett Collection

You’re finishing a book, “The Black in Lacquer.”

The title is from Alan Watts. [Holds up proofs to the camera] This is a collage of Leslie [Cheung], the love of my life. I love the texture of words. I love to write. For me, when I write, I write in English for structure, But when we translated it into Chinese, I could finally see what I’m trying to talk about. The English is so-so, but the Chinese is great, because it’s articulate.

It’s a way to step outside yourself.

This is what we have to do as artists. Go back to the original conversation we’re supposed to have. You have a text, you are the director. Our responsibility is to find the space, bang, and remove ourselves. This is what has to be the art of filmmaking. It is to articulate an idea, and to remove oneself enough that you see what the idea is really about. To me it’s a dance, it’s always a dance. If you get the space right, have the characters cognizant of what they want to do, bang, let them move. I’m not James Cameron!

That will be the title of this piece.

You have to put Fincher in there also. I’m not James Cameron and I’m not David Fincher. In fact I’m not even called David.

I don’t want my movies, my films to look good. If you say, “It looks great,” then we fucked up. Of course I wish to give the space in which the film takes place resonance. As you say, okay, he comes upstairs and the light is blue, I understand. There is a certain rhetoric that we should be loyal to.

But it’s a film. We have a responsibility. I don’t want to make “Fast and Furious 75.” I don’t want guns in my world. I want people. We absolutely need to have people. We have to celebrate emotion. We have to love the face that fills a frame. No fucking guns and James Bond shit. I want to see somebody I care for telling me something that they care about. See somebody telling me something they care about and sharing with me. The rest is shit. I want to see you, I want to love you, I want to be with you.

Tell us about the movie you just finished.

It was the worst space I’ve ever worked in in my life. Leeches. How can you have leeches in grass? First time director, Yan Zhi Xiong 颜志雄. I have no idea why, but there we are. We’re shooting in the south, really, really, really remote. It’s a China no one’s seen before.

Why would you make a film 3,500 meters above sea level? You travel over dirt roads for three-and-a-half hours. Sometimes you have to wait for an hour or two and actually walk another kilometer or two to get to the location. Why would we make a film in this kind of space? Maybe we care.

If you don’t have this intent, if you don’t have this naive perception of what film or art can celebrate — I think it was Daniel Day-Lewis who said if you want to be an artist, don’t do it. If you need to be an artist, you have no choice.

The Chinese title is “Tian Qi and Shi Sheng,” it’s the name of the two characters. It’s a reworking of Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress.” We’ve done better, I promise you.

Basically it’s character-driven. It’s the story of these two rascals. One is very avaricious, one is a little bit more, what’s the word, tenacious or true to self. Their country has been demolished, they’re fleeing, trying to work out how to get back to where they are home.

I really believe almost all the films I’ve made are the same theme, how people respond to their space. Whether it’s Leslie and Tony [Leung Chiu-wai] in Argentina [in “Happy Together”] or Maggie [Cheung] in ’60s Hong Kong [in “In the Mood for Love”], or our characters in “Paranoid Park” or in “Rabbit Proof Fence.” I really believe that what we do is about people in space and how they respond to it.

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