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DP Christopher Doyle Q&A

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Christopher Doyle has been hailed as one of the world’s most innovative and exciting cinematographers. Though born in Australia, he’s long been based in Hong Kong and considers himself an Asian filmmaker, if not indeed Asian.Doyle earned kudos three years ago for his visually striking cinematography on Hero, directed by Yimou Zhang. His latest collaboration with Chinese director Wong Kar-wai, with whom he’s done eight films, is 2046. Both the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics recently voted Doyle the best cinematographer of the year for this work.Though wholeheartedly dedicated to Asian cinema—he recently did Invisible Waves, a Thai film—Doyle has been moving up the food chain, working on some big-budget UK and US movies. He was cinematographer on The White Countess, the final Ismail Merchant-James Ivory production (Merchant died last May). And he recently completed lensing for another supernatural opus directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Lady in the Water. Doyle spoke to Below the Line writer Jack Egan.Below the Line: It took a long time—six years—to do 2046.Christopher Doyle: Yes, we started at the very end of the 1990s, and initially it was going to be a kind of new-millennium movie.BTL: What does 2046 stand for?Doyle: It’s a date in the future—50 years after the handover by the British of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. The contract between the British and the Chinese governments was that nothing much was supposed to change in the way Hong Kong was governed until then. We know everything’s already changed. So 2046 is about change or the impossibility of improvement. In other words, we are who we are. It’s a very important metaphor about the history of these two powers.But like all Wong Kar-wai films, it took off on its own. So in my mind it became a metaphor for “do we change?” Unperceived, unrealized possibilities, all about time, all about expiration dates, the need for love and the impossibility for love. And that’s how it evolved. Because we had previously done In the Mood for Love, and everyone expected a sequel, I believe that Wong Kar-wai was torn between those two things. And that’s why it took so long.BTL: For how many of those six years were you involved?Doyle: All the way. Until the last two months. At that point I had to go do Lady in the Water. That forced a conclusion because I had other contractual obligations.BTL: Was it hard shooting over such a long stretch?Doyle: The real challenge is keeping up the energy and continuity. That’s what all below-the-line people have to maintain when they’re on a long project. We all have to pay our bills. And we have family and obligations. And suddenly you’re off. I went away and unexpectedly it turned out to be for over five years. It’s like the people on The Matrix, some of whom I’ve spoken to. They went to Australia expecting to be there six weeks and then they were there for over a year.BTL: As a cinematographer, trying to maintain a consistency over such a long period of time must be a real challenge.Doyle: I have assembled a great team of people I work with all the way through the lab work, and they are a large part of keeping the vision consistent. I’ve done three or four films where I’ve been credited only as a visual consultant. What that means is sharing my expertise with the other people who happen to be involved in the movie. That’s usually my assistants. We are evolving into a space where an American lab, Technicolor, will allow someone who I suggest to participate in something we’re doing. I see that as a great step forward. I know I have something to share, but also have to move on. You don’t let ego and economics get in the way. And luckily there are some people willing to support the integrity of my vision, as well as the crazy lifestyle I live. I was totally shocked to do Lady in the Water with producer Sam Mercer and Night Shyamalan, who are very different than I am. But they let me have the space I needed and I think we made a great film.BTL: What were you trying to achieve in the look of 2046. It takes place in changing time frames—past, present and future, and there’s an element of science fiction. It’s mainly about the people—lots of dialogue—and very focused.Doyle: It’s always about the people. The intimacy between the camera and the actor is better than good sex. I believe there are only three people in cinema, one is the person in front of the camera, the second is the cameraman and the third is the audience. And we just happen to be separated by two lenses—one is on the camera and the other is in the projection booth—though these days it’s the DVD experience for many. I have to maintain that purity, that integrity.BTL: What surprised me is how restrained the imagery is in 2046. Very little visual flash or pyrotechnics.Doyle: That is admittedly unusual for me, since I’ve earned a reputation for lots of camera movement. But I don’t go out to do a film with a look or style in mind. The style comes out of the situation. There’s a need to encompass all the parameters, which includes budget, which means the time involved, and the environment and even climate you’re in. You apply your experience and craft. I know we don’t have the money to have seven cameras. We don’t have the time to light—we have to get it done with practical lighting. So the question becomes, who is going to do the focus pulling? That’s the process. Then the film makes itself. It’s a very Asian thing.What happens to me as a so-called visualist, I have to fix the parameters, the film stock, the lighting, and how to process the film. That’s all you have with Wong Kar-Wai. You don’t have a script. You never know when you’re going to finish or when the call is. The structure comes from location first, a way of making it that’s personal. Then you have technical processes afterward. I am of an older school of film. You can’t ask a colorist to make your film for you. You can’t fix it in post. But you can articulate it in post. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to have 80 percent there and have someone you trust at the other end of the system.BTL: The White Countess was a big period piece. It seemed a very different kind of film. How did you get on that project?Doyle: People. The most charming person in the world was the late Ismail Merchant. Everyone in London said that to curry favor has a new meaning when you work with him. I thought I should do the film because these are wonderful people. It’s like Night’s film. I’m basically a big fish in my small pond. So what is the relationship between the master and the commander? The two western films I did with two persons who don’t have an Asian sensibility—even though in the case of White Countess we were working in Asia, and in the case of Night, who is Asian basically. What is the balance, what is the Asian-ness in me? In both cases it was quite a personal journey, not so much a film journey.

Written by Jack Egan

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