1. Old Haunts
2. Mortal Beloved
3. A Confused Love Letter
4. Things to Come
-School of Rock
-Dazed and Confused
1. That Old Feeling
2. Rock and Roll All Night
-It's Impossible to Learn to
Plow by Reading Books
-Live From Shiva's
-The Newton Boys
Christopher Doyle Interview
Thom Andersen Interview
-Los Angeles Plays Itself
-Maria Full of Grace
-Josh Marston correspondence
-Super Size Me
-Coffee and Cigarettes
-The Day After Tomorrow
-The Stepford Wives
An Interview with Christopher Doyle
by Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega
Doyle: ďI want to be the Mick Jagger of
cinematography. I dance a little like MickÖfor about
five minutes maxÖand then the Keith Richards in me starts
screaming for a drink or an outÖĒ
Surrounded by washed-out and dirty rows of tiles in
a kitchen somewhere in Buenos Aires, Leslie Cheung and
Tony Leungís bodies caress the impossibility of their
love, daydreaming through the sensual notes of a tango
that the world around them has frozen, their years of
struggles and noisy verbal outburst are over, finding
each other at last. The camera stays still, mesmerized,
paying tribute to two bodies that learn to find each
other in the course of an eternal second that is bound
to tragically fade away. As the tango keeps wrapping
the intensity of their emotions, their mutual grip goes
tighter and closer, their mouths collapse into each
other. The tango ends, their dance is suddenly tinted
with the reddish palette of the Buenos Aires street
life. A canted angle announces Leungís solitude once
again, sitting in the steps of a bar, drinking and thinking
his moment of joy, his instant of love has slipped away.
No more Happy Together.
A twentysomething woman moves frantically around a shoddy
apartment somewhere in Hong Kong. She cleans up the
dust, fills the fridge with beer, sets up a fax machine.
We are in full-speed Hong Kong. Through the cracked
glass of the window, we see a bullet train cruising
by. The camera follows her, inspects her from top to
bottom, handheld and lawless, maneuvering through every
corner of the diminutive semi-private polyglot space
of the apartment. As she exits the camera pulls back,
makes a quick movement to the right, only to see another
train passing by, carrying infinite souls, any one of
which could be her. Fallen Angels swallowed by
the labyrinth mosaic of Hong Kongís cityscape.
Now, western Australia. Three little Aboriginal girls
are taken away from their mothers, victims of the white
menís racial policy. A car blocks their way, a screaming
soldier waves a paper in front of their faces. Itís
the law. Now the three kids are locked in the car, their
mothers lying on the yellowish earth, hardly able to
bear the burden of their despair. A thousand-mile Rabbit-Proof
Fence and the immensity of the Australian desert
become a dark glass cage through which the three girls
perceive the world that was theirs and is now left behind,
trapped inside a bleak vortex of tears.
Such are the eyes and soul of Christopher Doyle: chameleonic,
shifting, thick and excessive, like the multifarious
textures of the infinite spectrum of images he composes.
In his 25-year career, Doyle has worked with Edward
Yang, Wong Kar-wai, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Philip
Noyce, and Barry Levinson, to name a few. His imprint
is not necessarily distinctive but purely strategic.
Rather than impose a deadpan recipe to his stories,
he rejects the universal to capture the unbound space.
His imagery triggers emotions, commands feelings, and
then out of his high-contrast and saturated blues, drops
calmness. He enables the unknown to unfold, expose itself,
hide in the corner of a wide-angle distorted space,
and then come back, dance before our eyes like a chanting
Doyle loathes prescriptions and embraces errors. He
trusts his mistakes and makes them part of his impossible
mise-en-scŤnes. Black and white do not exist, they creep
into the story due to the unpredictable magic of film
processing or defective film stock. He opens a crack
in the image and throws himself into currents of unknown
shapes and volumes, of a reality he doesnít aspire to
control but only to learn from. He offers to us wishes,
yearnings, and fears, coloring our memories and catalyzing
On the occasion of the long-awaited American release
of Zhang Yimouís Hero and the presentation of
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruangís Last Life in the
Universe in the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival (to be
released stateside this August), Christopher Doyle visited
New York City. Whereas Hero is a nonstop feast
of audio-visual pyrotechnics, impossible choreographies
of dancing sword masters and digitally saturated compositions,
Last Life in the Universe is an edgy, acid, and
provocative black comedy that allowed Doyle complete
creative freedom and outright experimentation. On his
way to present a photo exhibit in Seattle, Christopher
Doyle shared a few words with REVERSE SHOT.
REVERSE SHOT: You recently said
that when a filmmaker gets you, they get the complete
package. You are not only involved in the cinematography
but also in the re-writing of the story as you shoot.
Christopher Doyle: For better of worse,
they do get the complete package. Although Iíve known
Zhang Yimou for a long time, I got involved in Hero
because of the producer Billy Kong. Originally I was
supposed to shoot Crouching Tiger for him but
I couldnít since I was shooting In the Mood for Love
and it kept going on forever. Zhang Yimou and I come
from a very different culture, different filmmaking
culture too. Lots of people seem to think filmmakers
are similar and overlook this. Filmmakers might have
similar intentions but the way they work is informed
by their culture. The way the industry works in America
is because Americans are like that, same in France.
Iíve worked in China many times but it implies a different
kind of engagement. Itís more formal. In Last Life
in the Universe, because of the fact that Thai culture
has a much more loose way of approaching things, it
was an open collaboration. Itís another structure. This
comes from the size of the films, character of people
involved. For me, actually, on a very personal level
I prefer working on films like Last Life in the Universe.
I think you can see that, if you really look at it,
you can see the person behind the film and you can see
their pleasure. Thereís not much else there! Itís a
small story. Hero is a much more formal film,
itís a very structured film and the way it was executed
is much more structured as well. As a filmmaker you
have to try different areas and different places.
RS: Would you compare making
Hero to Ashes of Time? Since the latter is
also a martial arts film set in the desert, how did
your experience in the former help you to work through
the challenges of the latter?
Doyle: Yeah, I could not have made
Hero without Ashes of Time. The desert
really informs you. Iíve made five desert films. The
desert has been one of the important learning platforms.
Itís a place that has taught me a great deal about filmmaking
because you canít light the desert. You exchange, itís
temperamental, itís like some relationships. Itís vast
and beautiful and engaging. And yet there are a lot
of details in the desert. Itís all there. The desert
taught me to look more. To be more observant, more patient
and to do less. Donít intrude. Take what you have and
make it what you need. The city of Hong Kong also taught
me that. In Hong Kong the space is so limited and people
move so fast and thereís certain kind of energy and
all those things are reflected in Hong Kong-style filmmaking.
was the process of composing the mise-en-scŤne in
Hero. You have these huge spaces and also this extremely
complex choreography. In addition, thereís a wide spectrum
of colors that define the narrative structure of the
Doyle: Zhang Yimou is a cinematographer;
he has a certain visual energy. Iíve done many films
where we have avoided red and that was a very conscious
choice; up to In the Mood for Love, thereís no
red in Wong Kar-waiís films. For Chinese, red has a
very special significance. It means joy. Itís the color
for marriages, templesÖin many ways itís the most beautiful
colorÖand itís a very auspicious color, with many associations
in Chinese culture. Thatís why we have avoided in the
past. In Hero, we wanted all these cultural associations.
The point of departure is color. You have a Rashomon
kind of story. And then color. The easy one was red,
red as passion. We were not sure about the others and
that was the journey, specifically based on locations.
Sixty percent of the film is shot outdoors, and, for
example, you cannot change the color of the lake. We
knew the lake and the forest with the yellow leaves
were very important. So we searched for the locations
and from them we reworked the script, instead of imposing
a color to a particular location. I think this also
comes across in Last Life in the Universe. The
house is very much a character in the film. When we
found that house I insisted on it, because it had such
a presence that I felt the film would be three times
better. In Hero, we were choosing colors depending
on the locations. The most difficult one was the flashback,
in the Emperorís palace, when they almost assassinate
the Emperor. We basically ran out of colors and we were
not going to use pink! Green was the choice, it was
the only color we felt comfortable with. I knew Fuji
has an interesting green so we went along with it.
[Vittorio] Storaro claims green is the color of knowledge.
Itís not as simple as Storaro and other people claim.
Itís not a theoretical exercise; itís a practical one.
To say the stuff that Storaro says to the kids is really
misinformation. Itís dangerous, it confuses people,
and makes them think that film is a theoretical exercise.
As a cinematographer youíre dealing every minute with
weather, peopleís emotions, technical problems. The
style comes from the contingencies of the film and thatís
very important to realize for younger filmmmakers.
RS: Like the black-and-white shots
in Fallen Angels. They were the result of a problemÖ
Doyle: We fucked up with the film stock.
It was old. We couldnít re-shootÖso of course it was
foggy in color. We said: ďmaybe this can represent something
so letís pick some other pieces,Ē and thatís what we
did. Because of a mistake, a certain structure came
out of the film and you can write a PhD about it if
you want. What happened was that we gave it a system,
so we made the most important parts of each scene in
black-and-white. But that was a solution to the problem,
not an original concept. We just appropriated the mistake
and made it work. Itís a more intuitive, open, or, maybe,
Asian way of working.
RS: Fallen Angels was completely
groundbreaking. Itís a film in which the closer you
get to the image the less you see. This is obviously
very different from Hero, in which everything
is supposed to be pristine and harmonicÖ
Doyle: Hong Kong and the desert are
two very different spaces. Both films are totally informed
by the location where they happen. In addition, Wong
Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou are two very different filmmakers
in their approach to the image and storytelling. Hero,
above all, is a celebration of martial arts chivalry.
RS: Is it true that Tony Leungís
apartment in Chungking Express is your actual
Doyle: I still live thereÖ itís actually
a Japanese tourist stop. Especially after the movie
came out in 1995. They would take photographs of my
house all day. Itís right in the middle of Hong Kong.
As a result of this, everybody knows where I live. Just
ask in the street. Downstairs, there are lots of bars.
They all know me because Iím always in the bar.
like to talk about Gus Van Santís Psycho remake,
on which you worked. Would you agree that contemporary
cinema is, to a great extent, defined by an appropriation
of other cinematic traditions, genres, visual styles?
Wong Kar-wai once said that current filmmakers no longer
make original works of art, they recycle what has been
Doyle: No. I think the only time I
see films is on planes. I take a lot of planes, so I
do manage to see lots of films. But to me film is not
the basis of my life, my creative energy comes from
other things, usually music, or people, or the way in
which I live. The people who decide to work with me
know that. Therefore, what you mention is their job.
Gus Van Sant knew that. Psycho is not a film
but a conceptual artwork. I donít think you need to
see the film. Itís just a concept, a very expensive
one. It cost $20 million to make and $40 million to
promote. If you went to Hollywood, and tell them letís
do some performance art, they wouldnít give you 60 million.
They did in this case. My role in Psycho was
not to know, not to remember the original film.
Same with martial arts films. Because of where I live
(Hong Kong), the people Iíve worked with, I know the
working details. In fact, I know better than Zhang Yimou
the actual physical procedure to make a martial arts
film. However, itís much more his job to try to make
his own film. That was a difficult thing for me to work
with because Zhang didnít know the procedure to shoot
a martial arts film. Now, the West is taking over, The
Matrix and all thatÖthey are borrowing this style
but theyíre structuring scenes much more systematicallyÖstoryboards,
all kinds of preparation.
However, Hero was shot like an old-style Hong-Kong
martial arts film. To be honest, you donít know what
you are going get while shooting. The martial artists
donít know either, but they make it up as they go along
and they continuously try new things. Itís choreography.
Which means the communication is quite difficult and
the logistics are quite complicated as well. Basically,
what you need to do is to try to direct the film in
a certain direction and then take what you need. Youíre
dealing with very special people. Martial artists come
from a very proud tradition and you know, they can beat
the shit out of youÖ
RS: So in Hero, Zhang, the
choreographer, and the martial artists planned a scene
and then you adapted to what they were doingÖ
Doyle: Zhang Yimou tried but itís much
less planned than other forms of cinema. The wind is
too strong so someone cannot fly, or, on the lake, itís
very difficult to get people in the air, you need wiresÖitís
a very slow procedure. Sometimes, you get two or three
shots in a day. It takes a lot of concentration and
collaboration. Even if you have a plan, then you have
actors that are tired, or we are in a very high altitude,
most of film is at 3000 thousand feet, physically itís
quite difficult to do. So itís not a Tarantino kind
of exercise, itís much more organic. Zhangís main reason
to make a martial arts film is political. If you make
a genre piece, you have much more scope than if you
make a film about people taking ecstasy in Beijing.
Itís much easier to get things across. Thereís still
censorship, and script supervision in China.
ultimate message of Hero seems to defend a kind
of internal imperialism. It has been widely criticized
as racist. Whatís at stake in this film?
Doyle: Thereís a really strong reaction
for people who know Chinese history, especially in some
areas in China and Taiwan. Itís a little bit revisionist
for some people in terms of the white-washing of this
historical character. There are many films about this
period, like Emperor and the Assassin, so the
jury is still out. Thereís a debate about what this
emperor really did. He was the first emperor of China;
he did unite the country. How did he do it? He was an
extremely ruthless man. Zhangís intentions and personal
relationship with the politics of his country are much
more complex than that. I donít know and I donít think
I have the right to talk about it. I donít choose films
based on the script but based on the person. If it was
too disgusting, Iíd stay away from it.
RS: After seeing To Live and
Red Sorghum, which are very critical films, itís
surprising that HeroÖ
Christopher Doyle: Youíre saying he
sold out, right? I canít judge, but many people say
thatÖI canít judge. By the way, Zhang is a very rich
manÖI have very rich friends in China and Iím not really
sureÖIíve seen the way society is evolving nowÖitís
going in a direction I donít personally likeÖbut look
what they come fromÖlook at the shit theyíve been throughÖAt
a personal level, I can reject certain aspects the way
China is changing. But I donít think I have any right
to criticize them because theyíve gone through a hell
I donít truly know, I donít have any right, or precision,
to be critical. Zhang has to evolve the way he wants,
thatís his choice.
RS: In Hero, calligraphy
is represented as an artistic process, having an organic
relationship with the individual psyche and also his
abilities as martial artist. In the end, this same calligraphy
is used in order to offer the unity of China, ďOur Land,Ē
as an ideal and to endorse the Emperorís slaughtering
Doyle: In Chinese itís slightly different.
The ideogram Tony Leung writes, on the one hand, means
ďUnder HeavenĒ; it means there is a god. It also means
ďUnder the Emperor.Ē Of course, it still has this implication
that this is our place, also that itís a gift, given
to us by Heaven, itís a unified place but itís a gift.
Itís not quite as heavy as ďour land.Ē You have to take
into account that China means ďCentral Country.Ē Chinese
people have a very centralist worldview.
RS: In the trailer of Hero,
the film is introduced as ďQuentin Tarantino presentsÖĒ
Doyle: Oh really?
RS: According to what Iíve heard,
Miramax was hesitant to release the film and Tarantino
volunteered to make it happen. Though his intentions
might be good, Hero is being sold to audiences
as a Tarantino product with Jet Li created by the producer
of Crouching Tiger.
Doyle: To me it implies that they want
to trick everybody into seeing a martial arts film and
make all the money in the first weekend and then they
donít give a shit. Hero is not a martial arts
film as Crouching Tiger is. If you go to the
film, expecting back-to-back action, youíre going be
disappointed. Crouching Tiger, because of who
Ang Lee is, has a more American background. This doesnít
have a user-friendly American narrative structure. Itís
much more literary. I think itís the wrong angle to
promote the film.
RS: How would you compare the work
of Zhang and Wong Kar-wai to that of Tarantino, who
is a great appropriator, combining different film styles
Doyle: Heís like that in person tooÖHe
never stops talking. Quentin is quite fun in a barÖ.
I think that, in a positive way, he references enough
stuff so people go to see the other films. Tarantino
promotes a certain vision of cinema that is different.
However, I do think his intentions are good. Personally
and most of the people Iíve worked with, we come from
a different place. Whatever youíre appropriating, youíre
absorbing it, itís filtered through your unconscious
and it comes back as something else. Wong and I reference
multiple things, but weíre not repeating them. The opposite,
we usually avoid repetition. Itís impossible not to
repeat other things. Nothing is original, but it can
be very personal and the angle, the intention can be