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"...That's How The Light Gets In": An Interview With Cinematographer Christopher Doyle

by dave heaton

Christopher Doyle would be one of the most beloved cinematographers working today on the basis of his work with Wong Kar-Wai alone. Doyle was involved in 7 of WKW's 8 films, including Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and the yet-to-be-released, long-in-the-making 2046. Those films are loose and colorful, loaded with atmosphere that is unforgettable. Australian-born, he got his start in cinematography on Edward Yang's 1983 film That Day on the Beach and went on to collaborate with some of the most acclaimed Asian directors, including Chen Kaige (on Temptress Moon) and Zhang Yimou (on Hero). His American filmwork began with Gus Van Sant's Psycho experiment and continued with Liberty Heights and Made. And he was part of both of Phillip Noyce's 2002 films, Rabbbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American. When you think back to all of these films, a picture emerges of a man with a unique eye, who's able to bring places and people to you in vivid ways. The same impression likely came to visitors to the Scout Gallery's recent exhibit of Doyle's photography, titled "There Is a Crack in Everything." The London gallery displayed 37 of Doyle's photos from October 17 - November 22 of this year, and are continuing to sell prints from the show. All taken on the set during the shooting of various films he's photographed, the pictures carry the look and feeling of the films over into a different medium. As still images, they hit you in different ways than watching a full-length motion picture while exuding the same qualities that have made his filmwork so alluring. Over much of his career as a cinematographer, Doyle has kept a separate record of his work through these photographs, and through collages and diaries (he's held many exhibits of his work, and released books relating to them - an Internet search will also reveal treasures like a slide show of his photos from Rabbit Proof Fence). These works reflect Doyle's amazing eye, visual style, creativity and wit; the latter is also clearly reflected in his answers in the interview below, conducted over email recently.

Have you taken photographs on the set of every film you've worked on?

Mostly snips and snaps THEN REALLY GETTING MORE EARNEST in argentina on the set of Happy together. The point being there is so much going on that doesn't appear on a movie screen that a " snap " of it might demystify the process a little, make it mundane enough that you get to feel the sweat and boredom and complicity that getting a film made involves.

Are the photos in the Scout Gallery exhibit linked together thematically for you? How did you go about choosing these particular photos?

I think the use of colored backgrounds that the Scout team came up with is brilliant; I was unfortunately conspicuous in my absence from this process. I have been hostage to the filming of our new WKW film so the Scout team actually had to basically thematise my work themselves.

I just point and snap …but I guess unconsciously it is more often colour that informs my eye than content. So the themes are too abstract for me to perceive or even bother with ..that's why I move so often to collage; to try to express the energy of film, the multiplicity of attitudes and the complexity of what we are trying to simplify.

Generally speaking, what are the circumstances behind the photos in the exhibit? The selections I've seen bear the look of the film that was being made, to such an extent that it's hard to tell if they were taken during the actual filming, if they're extemporaneous shots of the actors on the set, or if they were staged during breaks in the filming.

99% of what you see is a snap taken during the preparation of a shot on set or a what I would call the " reflective " moments when we are actually trying to work out what the hell we should do ... Occasionally I have been a little more distant from my cine-camera..but the point of all and the attitude is always: "I am here an this is what I see an want to share" no more no less ..the real point is: Is my eye informed or not ? That's what I am really working on: informing my own eye. Sharing it with others makes the process a little less pretentious and anal when you see the images for no less than what they are...

What does the title "There Is a Crack in Everything" mean to you in relation to these photographs? I assume it comes from the line in the Leonard Cohen song?

Yes , sorry Leonard ..there is so much in your work that resonates for me. "There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in" me means accidents are providence ...that so called mistakes should be appropriated ...that nobody, no work is perfect and that may be why and where the light gets in; to illuminate in all meanings of the work. To expose again in all meanings of the word. And to validate the haphazardness of creation and the need to keep alert to ay crack wrinkle or warp.

It's hard for me to think of your films without thinking about colors, as the colors are so vivid in all of them. When you're starting on a film, do you and the director immediately relate it to a certain color scheme, or is that something which comes naturally as the film progresses?

Mostly music informs the work and the fact that we have no control or choice or time to change much about the spaces we work in: so to a certain extent what you get is what you see .. but then of course "what we see" is informed (as it is for anyone) by what we want to see...

Cinematographers will sometimes describe how they prepared for a particular film by looking at certain paintings, photographs, or other films for inspiration. That "research" method seems at odds with the style that you became known for with the Wong Kar-Wai films, which feels loose and impromptu. What is your preparation for a film like?

Music , literature and what we don't want to do seem to inform the films more than other films . Sure an old Godard idea informed conversations about where to go IN the Mood For Love .. and then we forgot them. Sure WKW will ask if I have seen Panic Room (and I have, but forget ) and we admire how their camera informs content ...then do it our low tech way. Names like Antonioni and Yuan HE Ping's (matrix) are mentioned about a third as often as Bjork or Manuel (puig ) or the latest Peter Gabriel music video or what Sting or Nick Knight is doing to the internet …none of it is more than a way of hyping each other up to the total questioning that every day and every image must be.

Are you finished filming 2046? How was that experience?

long and personal … wait and see

After working with Wong Kar-Wai on so many films, do you ever fear that you'll fall back too much on habits you've picked up on the other films? Is it hard to keep things fresh each time?

Matrix Imploded (or whatever it's called)
Or what we do?
We do what we do as we do.

Was Away With Words a worthwhile enough experience that you'd like to direct another film? Do you have any plans to do so?

AWW was just another cap to wear. Nothing more or less than a slightly more personal film ( than those I cohabit with others ). To direct for me is nothing more than putting my hand where my mouth was: I say to younger aspirants " just do it" so I figure from time to time I should take my own advice . I have written a number of scripts and have interest to make them some day: as long as they are cheap enough that no one loses any money and as long as they are shot fast enough that we don't dote off mid shot .. then we can go ahead

My problem is I am a better whore than punter: I want to shoot with others so much I don't know when I 'll get around to shooting for myself.

The first American film you worked on was Psycho, definitely not your typical Hollywood film. Did you find the practice of remaking a film piece by piece intellectually stimulating? What did you learn from the experience?

Our Psycho is not a film. Psycho is a " fuck the system" idea. Psycho is like a benevolent fund for art reprieved; Universal Studios should get some kind of Hasty Pudding prize for being sucked in and a Museum of Modern Art tax rebate for putting all that money into a conceptual art work.

I love the look you gave to Made. With a film like that, which is a fairly straightforward comedy, is it more difficult to find a unique visual approach? The conventional logic would dictate that moviegoers aren't going to care as much about how it looks, that they just want to laugh.

The pirated dvd of Elf hasn't reached shanghai yet so I have no idea Jon (Favreau) appreciated what I tried (or not) ... I did Made for Vince (Vaughn) … making it visual was a major challenge (I failed).

One last question: is there a film you've seen recently where you were particularly impressed by the cinematography? If so, what about it impressed you?

I see films on planes or dvd . I spend my limited free time in books, whores, bars and interviews like this.

Cd shanghai november 22 2003

Issue 18, December 2003

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Note: The photo below was taken on the set of "In the Mood for Love." Copyright Christopher Doyle. Courtesy of Scout Gallery.