A chat with a Master

Amanda Yeoh corners renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle after a three-hour master class at Roughcut to chat about movies, colour and working with Wong Kar Wai.

In the Mood for Love.

Chungking Express.

At Roughcut, when Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle played us the clip he shot of the Iguazu Falls, it was overwhelming to see how sublime the world’s second largest waterfalls were. From an aerial view, the Iguazu Falls appeared as textured blue fuzz, with water gushing into the depths of the ravine as a soft blue mist began to muffle the screen.

As effortless as the shot may seem to be, Doyle had to get the helicopter he was shooting from to tilt sideways as it encircled the waterfalls from a height in the air. “The extent I go to for my art…” Doyle muses.

Christopher Doyle.

The clip was featured in the film Happy Together which Doyle shot in Argentina with a friend of his, Wong Kar Wai. Happy Together contended for the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and Wong Kar Wai, himself an acclaimed director from Hong Kong, went on to win the award for Best Director. To date, the pair has made six other feature films together, including 2046, In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express.

Roughcut was a film symposium held at Penangpac in late June as a prelude to Tropfest South East Asia, a regional version of the largest short film festival in the world based in Australia. “We want to extend our relationship to potential filmmakers to give them, dare I say, a TEDx experience, where incredibly gifted people come in to share their stories,” says Tropfest managing director Michael Laverty.

It saw the illustrious cinematographer speak about many other experiences he’s had in filmmaking: from shooting his favourite scene in Infernal Affairs to embodying the personas of both Christopher Doyle and Dù Kěfēng, whom he is known as in Chinese. Film educator Herman van Eyken as well as filmmakers Sheron Dayoc, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Azharr Rudin also attended the event.

After his three-hour master class, I caught up with Doyle to speak about the luscious colours in his films, the sense of space he’s got as a cinematographer and the freedom of being part of a culture he isn’t fully part of.

So how do you like Penang so far?

It was still dark when I arrived so I haven’t seen enough. I want to see more. Are you based here?

Yes I am. You on the other hand, have lived in Hong Kong for quite some time and that’s where you’ve made many of your films. It seems like you’ve got an affinity for Chinese culture.

I was a merchant marine on cargo ships. I lived in many parts of the world and then I decided to study Chinese. So I kind of grew up in a Chinese environment in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was kind of a delayed adolescence. But that was where I started doing something I was comfortable with. What most people usually do when they’re in high school, I did when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, including learning Chinese and making movies. It still gives me a lot of energy and a great deal of pleasure, which I think is what’s pushing me towards better things.

The great thing is that I’m part enough of this culture, yet I come from outside of it. I’m subjective enough when I work because I care about the people I love and the things that I deal with every day. But I can move more easily than somebody who, for example, totally grew up in a small village in China. This is a great freedom for an artist because you can look at things more objectively. At some point, you have to be able to step back and ask yourself how you can make your work better.

Fallen Angels.

Happy Together.

One thing I’ve noticed is that you use colours to a great extent in your films, and this is what’s predominantly given them the distinct aesthetic that they’re known for. Chungking Express, which has gained a cult following, has very saturated colours for example.

I think my films are the way they are because they come from where we made them, especially with the earlier films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. These are the colours that we see in our life. There is neon everywhere. There’s mixed lighting... so all we’re really doing is responding to what we see, instead of trying to tone it down. But then when you come to a film like In the Mood for Love – as an artist, you try to use colour, composition or light to express something deeper that you can’t really explain. So you try to develop your own vocabulary with colours. That journey goes on forever and it never ends.

Are you yourself synaesthetic?

Not as much as I’d like to be.

I ask because you’ve dabbled with the concept of synaesthesia in Away with Words, your first feature film, which you directed in 1999 when you were 32. In the film, the Japanese protagonist can taste colours, unlike some other synaesthetes who can see colours in words instead.

I think synaesthesia is in all of us in a certain way. It’s just that some people have allowed it to come through and accepted it, whereas most of us have blocked it because we might find it overwhelming. Actually, if you trust it enough, you can go quite far with it. It’s not going to get you a job, but it can be quite useful.

What was it like making Perhaps Love? It happens to be a personal favourite.

First of all, Zhou Xun is one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever worked with. She’s a great person. I knew her when she was just starting out. She had a small part in Temptress Moon, where she played a dancer that Leslie (Cheung) seduces. It’s a great pleasure to see someone you know become a great actress.

Locations can really push you in certain directions. I’d never shot Beijing in the winter before that, and the environment changes in winter, so that makes you look at things differently. There was a wonder to it. I never really understood snow because I grew up in Australia and I never saw snow. Of course, now I see it more often because I travel a lot. I think your response is fresher when you see things for the first time, unlike somebody who’s lived in Beijing all their lives.

Perhaps Love.

There’s a scene in the film where Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Xun are embracing and at one point Takeshi Kaneshiro begins to tear up. But as you mentioned in your talk, you never know the actor is going to cry. How do you decide on the composition of a scene when so many things can change unexpectedly?

What I do is I try to make the whole space work, by looking at the space as a whole and trying to understand what it wants to imply, which you can do by communicating with the director and the actors. Talking about it is really important. Composition comes from the intent of what you want to say. So once you’ve grasped that, what may change unexpectedly won’t really matter because you already have that sense of space. Then it becomes quite easy to make choices. You don’t have to make notes about it. You just have to know that, for instance, it might rain at this time of the year.

The second thing is that what you choose to frame should also include what’s outside the frame. Doing that makes you want to explore the work more. It’s quite difficult to do, but it comes with experience.

It’s one thing for you to be able to grasp the intent of the scene. Engaging with the actors to bring out that intent is something else altogether. How do you manage that?

Well, being the closest person to the actor, you can give them the encouragement to do what they want to do. It’s exactly like social dancing – the cinematographer is the actor’s dance partner. The only difference is that you change roles quite easily, sometimes the actor leads and sometimes you lead. It’s a give and take. If the actor comes towards me, I’ll retreat, or vice versa. So the camera has to be part of your body. If it’s handheld, that’s extremely easy to do. If it’s not, then other equipment like tracks or zoom lenses can help to get the rhythm going.

What kind of relationship do you have with Wong Kar Wai?

It’s one of those great relationships where you can finish each other’s sentences. When you know the other person well enough, they can expect you to fill in the spaces that they can’t do on their own. And it’s reciprocal; it’s yin yang. Even with Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, the important thing is that we were friends first, because the films you make are never as important as the friendships that you have.

Amanda Yeoh is a student, a writer and, of all things, a minimalist.

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