10 things about: Christopher Doyle, cinematographer extraordinaire

Picture by K.E.Ooi
Picture by K.E.Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Dec 7 – Larger than life is an apt description of award-winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

With more than 60 films tucked firmly under his belt and numerous awards to his name, this 62-year-old who was born in Sydney, Australia but spent most of his adult life in Taiwan and Hong Kong is a hoot to interview.

He first gained recognition as a cinematographer when he worked on Edward Yang’s debut feature film That Day, On The Beach back in 1983, which won him the Best Cinematography Award in the 1983 Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

The rest, as they say, is history. Doyle is most famous for his work with Wong Kar Wai on films like Days of Being Wild, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love.

Doyle speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese and even has a Chinese name, Du Ke Feng (Mandarin) or Dou Ho Fung (Cantonese) which means “like the wind".
His upcoming project is on director Saw Teong Hin’s first semi-autobiographical Hokkien film Hai Ki Xin Lor (You Mean The World To Me) which will be shot entirely in Penang.

With a glass of wine in one hand and a lopsided grin on his face, Doyle shares his thoughts on the upcoming project along with random insights on life.

In his own words:

Whatever film I take on, it’s not about the script, it’s not about… certainly not about the money, it’s not about my so-called career. It’s always about the people. And I’ve been lucky that many, many, many of the films I’ve made, almost all of the films I’ve made, the people I make them with, they are friends first. First, they are friends and then they happened to be film-makers and therefore, what you want to share with your friends is what you know how to do. So, if you know how to cook, you want to cook for them, if you like to dance, then you dance with them. If you like to make films, then you make a film with them. I think this is a very similar situation. That the friendship and communication and the way of sharing. I mean you’re going to share a lot of time together... if you don’t like the person, why do it? Right?

We know many, many, many people working jobs they don’t like just to get by. I think I’m very, very privileged that I work with people I love. And we do something, sometimes it’s super great and sometimes, it’s difficult to do. The good thing is we share these good and bad times together. I think that’s how you should live.

To me, this film is another part of that journey. Now, of course, I love language also. This thing about what language we speak and how we communicate with others and how special it is shared. I think it’s important. To me, language is even more basic than film. It is. How come dogs speak Hokkien? (laughs) How come dogs speak Japanese? So I mean, language is basic to how we get on with each other. Animals know how to speak every language in the world, we should learn to speak every language we can. I speak four, five or six languages. But I feel more comfortable in Mandarin.

The journey I took, where I am now, it’s always been with Chinese people. It was the Chinese people who took me into film. So I think Du Ke Feng is very important, it is me. But I was born in Australia, I am also Christopher Doyle. So, that’s a great pleasure, so I can step back from myself. That’s what you have to learn to do. You have to do it through… either through your philosophy, to step back through your religion, your humility or you have to do it through… art, you have to do it because, like this film, you have to be subjective, you have to be from Penang but you have to be saying something other people know. Or they didn’t know they knew but it feels familiar.

So to me, art is familiar. It’s like Du Ke Feng and Christopher Doyle, something very close, very personal but then, you have to step back and say, hmm, will other people share my idea? Will other people understand what I’m trying to say? That’s what we have to do. It’s the same, you know, you can fall in love with someone but if they don’t understand how much, or how little you love them, then it’s going to be a mess (laughs).

We should be very, very involved and subjective and true and intense. But then you have to step back and say, what does this mean to other people? I think that’s the great pleasure that I have because I am basically two people (laughs) and I can be anyone I want.

That’s it. That’s life. It’s very simple. Be true and then step back and say ok, this is who I am. What does it mean to others, how to share with others? Then you’re fine, even if you’re poor, even if you can’t cook, then you don’t cook for other people, even if you have language difficulty, then you don’t speak so much. That’s how you do it, you just spend time with people you care about.

That’s why when we make a film, we can be together for many, many months. I make a film with Wong Kar Wai, it’s many years. If you don’t love each other, why would you spend so much time with somebody you don’t love? And we know, as in the danger of marriage, make sure you love the person and you have the same intentions. Don’t just do it because of your family. Because we know, then you live an unhappy life. So you really must trust yourself and be with people you trust. That’s super important.

This is my first really Penang film. I’ve shot here many times for other films. This is the real Penang film. I took this film because of the Tropfest people, Singapore friends, I’ve done some films in Singapore recently so you know, again, it’s through friends. This is really the first time we (Saw Teong Hin and Doyle) are getting to know each other and there’s a pleasure in that. For some reason, he trusts me and we just follow that. It’s very simple. It’s not really about film-making. It’s about somebody has an idea, they want to share. My job is to help them share it. Maybe 10 years from now, we make a masterpiece. Maybe this is the beginning. Or maybe this is the masterpiece. And then 10 years from now, we make terrible films, (laughs) you never know.

I think it’s very important to start to shooting the film as soon as possible before development comes in. I think we have to celebrate the place because real estate people won’t celebrate with us, the government… they don’t know what they are doing sometimes, you know, the people who care don’t always have the money to do it. I think that’s the great thing about film. It can show something. It can make people aware. It’s so much more… pursuasive than talk. An image says much more than a meeting does. An image says that stories can be much more true than all the books. That’s it. All these, they work much better than politics, or laws or that kind of stuff. Anywhere in the world, they are outside of politics. Of course it’s political. Everything is political. Our politics is we want to say this place is important and you know, hey, don’t lose it. That’s it. There’s all there is.

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