Cinematographer Christopher Doyle Reflects On His 40-Year Career And What’s Next For Him
On the final day of filming of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, cinematographer Christopher Doyle was nowhere to be found. After four months shooting the 1994 action-drama in northern China, Wong’s longtime collaborator got so drunk the night before that the crew almost shot the climactic scene without him. In it, Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was to leave a fictional city and set a building on fire as his farewell. “At two o’clock in the morning, my line producer called me up and said, ‘Big problem: Chris is lying in his bathtub’,” Wong recalled in a 2008 interview at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. “He was key camera, and he just fell asleep.” Wong started trying to shoot the scene, but then Doyle woke up. “He said, ‘I’m totally sorry. I know what shot you want’,” Wong continued. As the story goes, Doyle stripped naked, covered himself in water, grabbed the camera, ran onto the fiery set, and got the shot in one take. “He came back to me and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry but this is what I want to do.’”
It’s an oft-cited anecdote that exemplifies the dichotomy central to Doyle lore, in which feats of creative brilliance are pulled off amid haphazard circumstances often of his own creation. Within an irreverent demeanour and chaotic working style lies a talent for distilling emotion into moving images; a distinctive, seductive visual language that has arguably forever shaped the way that Hong Kong is imagined by outsiders. “I think that people who would have the temerity to work with me know they’re in for a ride, and I’m proud of that. I’m not even a cinematographer; hopefully I’m a collaborator,” Doyle said in 2014.
For nearly four decades, the charismatic cinematographer has captured Hong Kong in its most dreamy, avant-garde and romantic senses in seminal films such as Fallen Angels in 1995 and In the Mood for Love in 2000, mesmerising local and global audiences alike. Doyle’s fervour for filmmaking has brought him not only great fame and recognition (his more than 50 awards include a special recognition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017), but also notoriety for his erratic personal behaviour, including often alcohol-induced episodes of eccentricity that have become fodder for tabloids. Yet beyond the on-set stories of Doyle consuming multiple bottles of beer before breakfast, or nearly falling out of a helicopter while trying to capture a shot, is a film enthusiast whose life story the world seems to have largely missed.
Telling his own story
Four years ago, Australian photojournalist Ted McDonnell and producers Nelson Khoury and Nelson Yap decided that it was time for Doyle to tell his own story in a documentary. “He’s been badly portrayed in the media,” McDonnell says. “Yes, he’s loud and can be obnoxious and arrogant, but the man is a frigging genius, and he needs to be recognised for that.” Made over three years, beginning in April 2018, and set to premiere next month at the Sydney Film Festival, Like the Wind offers rare insight into the life of the legendary Australia-born cinematographer, director and photographer, who narrates the story of his career’s rise in Hong Kong, the city he has called home for more than 40 years.
It may surprise some to learn that Doyle’s childhood in suburban Sydney had very little to do with making films or even taking pictures. As he recalls in Like the Wind, his family had an “antagonism, or rejection of the image”, leaving him with very few memories of going to the movies and family photos from childhood. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this is where his somewhat implausible and serendipitous path to becoming a filmmaker began. When Doyle spoke to Tatler this spring, he set the scene by discussing how documenting family life was never a priority in the Doyle household.
“When we’re looking around for [childhood] photos, there’s nothing, because we just had no interest in taking photographs,” Doyle says. Back then, rolls of film typically came in 24 or 36 images. “We had a camera. It takes about three years for batteries to rust, but ours would rust in the camera before we finished the roll of film. Even now, for this documentary, my sisters didn’t want to go on camera. It’s nothing against me; it’s just not the medium with which we grew up.” Even though he is now a seasoned filmmaker, Doyle rarely sits in the cinema himself for more than 20 minutes, even for his own films. “I haven’t seen the documentary,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to know about this guy.”
Doyle (middle) and his cousins dressing up for Australia day in the early Sixties (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Doyle)
Doyle and his father at the mission school featured in "Rabbit-Proof Fence", the film for which he won best cinematography at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2002 (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Doyle)
Doyle shooting Cui Jian’s 2013 Chinese music film Blue Sky Bones in the Three Gorges, China (Photo: Courtesy of Song Xiaohui)
Doyle and his sisters in their school uniforms in the early Sixties (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Doyle)
Doyle (middle row, far right), aged roughly 15, and his high school rugby team (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Doyle)
Curiously, Doyle says he prefers books to photography or cinema. “Reading gives you an imaginary space, whereas film basically tells you what to see,” he says. “Sydney in the Sixties was a period of anarchy. And that rebellious spirit is still with me—all that rejection of mediocrity and what was supposed to be normal about stereotypical boys. It was so boring. I hated it. I wanted to get away. I read a lot of crazy stuff that was a bit on the edge.” His yearning for escape from a provincial environment provided the motivation for the 19-year-old Doyle to become a sailor on cargo ships, an endeavour that would quickly bring him to Asia and ultimately be his first connection to filmmaking.
In Taiwan, he met an ethnomusicologist, a scholar of ancient music, who gave Doyle a camera to help document Hakka folk music. “We travelled all over southern Taiwan with its beautiful green grass, rice fields, blue skies and white flowers. That was recorded on film,” Doyle says. “But there was not enough light in the traditional huts [that Hakka musicians lived in]. Our eyes adjust to it, but the camera doesn’t. Back then, I didn’t understand why I saw something, but the camera didn’t record it. That’s when I started the journey to [exploring] the difference between what you think you see and what is actually there, and how to share it with the audience.” This would later have an influence on his films. For instance, in the iconic In the Mood for Love, widely regarded as his and Wong’s opus, ordinary dark alleyways and cramped tenement building units, in Doyle’s rendering, become an intimate, neon light-hued space for a tango dance between characters engaging in an unconsummated affair.
Hong Kong love affair
Doyle first came to Hong Kong in 1971, when he was 19 and at sea. It would take him another four years of voyaging to finally decide to settle down in the city. Hong Kong, where English is widely spoken, was a reasonable choice, and it opened his eyes to wider Asian culture. He studied Mandarin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where his teacher named him “Du Kefeng”, meaning “like the wind” and giving rise to the documentary’s title. With language opening doors in society few other westerners enter, Doyle also grew to love the city.
Shooting his 1999 film Away With Words in the Mojave desert (Photo: Rowena Li)
Doyle on set (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Doyle)
A poster for "In the Mood for Love" (Photo: Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Images/Argus Illustrated)
Doyle framing a child actor on the set of 2016’s "The White Girl"
Doyle and Jenny Sun, Hong Kong writer, producer and director of "The White Girl" (Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
“As a sailor, I love cities like Amsterdam and New York. But Hong Kong has given me so much,” Doyle says, wiping away tears as he speaks. “Films are about feng shui, which is like how you go into a restaurant and you sit in a certain spot because that feels good to you. I feel so comfortable making films in Hong Kong, because there are so many interesting spaces with special atmosphere, quality, light, colours or textures. Some things are falling down; some are new; some are colourful, and others are lyrical and greyer and whiter. To me, the script is the point of departure; the real process is placing people in the right space for what is happening, so that what happens goes further than what is written.”
Doyle produced his first feature in his late 20s, when, as he now recalls casually, “the school was very expensive, so I left Hong Kong and went to Taiwan because I ran out of money”. There, Doyle met experimental director Edward Yang and actress Sylvia Chang. “We were all part of the new wave of young people trying to find their voices,” Doyle says. Choreographer Lin Hwai-min was creating an international standard of modern dance; Yang and Chang were trying to make their own films. “We helped each other. I was making personal films and hanging out with ‘the gang’.” Yang and Chang were looking for a cameraman to shoot That Day, On the Beach. The 1983 film uses a non-linear narrative, which portrays the reunion of two old friends after 13 years.
“Edward, intransigent as he was, wanted to make real waves so he really freaked the establishment out by inviting me, who had never made a feature film, used lights on a film before, had no idea of ‘the system’ and was a ‘foreigner’, when the government was trying to support Taiwanese artists,” Doyle says. He reveals in Like the Wind, “We made the film and then I got the best cinematography award [from the Asia-Pacific Film Festival], so I have had a great distrust for prizes ever since then.”
As it happened, Doyle showed a preternatural instinct for lighting, and he was lauded for the sensitivity with which his camera spotlit a character’s emotion poetically. His experimental style and unconventional approach defied mainstream filmmaking at the time and contributed to the Taiwanese New Wave, which Yang pioneered, and fed into his own canon in Hong Kong’s film industry, as seen in his collaborations with Wong, such as Chungking Express in 1994 and Fallen Angels.
Doyle on the set of "The White Countess" in 2005 (Photo: Argus Illustrated)
(From left) Tony Leung, Carina Lau, Wong Kar-wai, Charlie Young, guest and Doyle at the 61st Cannes International Film Festival in May 2008 (Photo: oni Anne Barson Archive/Getty Images)
A still from "Fallen Angels", which was released in 1995 (Photo: Argus Illustrated)
Doyle on the set of Hong Kong Trilogy with feng shui master and actress Thierry Chow
Ted McDonnell on the set of "Like the Wind" (Photo: Kenny Catona)
The Doyle touch
This success outside the sphere of western filmmaking imbued Doyle with a fierce creative independence as well as scepticism towards the Hollywood system, where productions are often controlled by lawyers, insurance companies or directors with specific visual demands. “Chungking Express was shot in my Lan Kwai Fong apartment,” he says, recalling how his decision to turn his home into a set, made on a whim, left him sleeping on set for two months. “There’s a bit more freedom [in Hong Kong]. When working with elements we couldn’t control, like the changeable weather, we have to adapt.”
One of the greatest influences on Doyle’s relationship with Hong Kong is, of course, Wong Kar-wai. Doyle was introduced to Wong by art director and costume designer William Chang Suk-ping, with whom Doyle famously collaborated for In the Mood for Love. Aside from the memorable cheongsams worn by Maggie Cheung, the film inspired a new wave of arthouse aestheticism in a local industry that had previously been dominated by gangster and kung fu movies, and it changed the way western cinema stereotyped Hong Kong as an oriental port of triads and sex workers. Doyle’s lens looks into the crevasses of the city and inhabits the lives, secrets and repressed emotions of Hong Kong wives, office workers and immigrants.
After Doyle had worked on six or seven films with Chang, Chang suggested that he should work with Wong. “I respect the energy, integrity and determination that people have here,” Doyle says. “The most important thing Wong Kar-wai said to me was, ‘Is that all you can do, Chris?’ It has stayed with me forever.” Working for 20 or 30 hours straight is common with Wong. “I have my limits. I’m not [multi-Academy Award-winning British cinematographer] Roger Deakins or these other greats. I didn’t go to film school and I don’t understand the technical stuff very well. I’m exhausted and have run out of ideas,” Doyle says. “Or have I? Is this the best I can do? Let’s try something else, right? It’s a very good question that you should always ask yourself. It takes a lot of mental energy, but you have to be there every time, because in film, if you make a mistake or lose the energy, it’s on film forever.”
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Photo: Ted McDonnell
Keeping it going
Doyle has now made more than 100 films, more than 50 of which are Chinese-language. “People sometimes use Hong Kong as a James Bond kind of backdrop. That’s a totally different attitude,” Doyle says. “I’m part of Hong Kong. I know how people feel. It’s not academic. It’s personal.”
Still, he says being a “gweilo”, the Cantonese term for foreigner, is an essential aspect of his work. “I wasn’t brought up here, so I don’t have the cultural baggage,” he says. Looking out of the window of his apartment on Hollywood Road, he continues, “I still get lost. Perhaps I’m doing it unconsciously on purpose to keep myself pure, so that each time I address a certain subject or celebrate a certain environment or group of people, there is a fresh experience. Most of us really only have one story. If you look at all the films I made with Wong Kar-wai, they are basically variations on the same idea or theme. But I use different styles for different situations. Just in this area, we shot two films in PMQ [a former police married quarters, now an arts hub]; down the road is where we shot Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous [a documentary-fiction hybrid film featuring three generations of Hongkongers]; over there is Chungking Express.”
I’m very proud of the many films I made, but I cannot be self-satisfied. I usually say the next film is my best one— Christopher Doyle
Now 69, Doyle gleans excitement from working with young, first-time directors, whose experience and perspectives differ from his own and bring him a sense of humility. “They have a great energy and really need to express a way of seeing the world. That’s very exciting. It keeps me awake and on my toes. I’m very proud of the many films I made, but I cannot be self-satisfied. I usually say the next film is my best one.”
In May 2021, Doyle left Hong Kong to work on a new classic epic in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in southwestern China. Early next year, he hopes to return to Melbourne to work on his directorial debut Immunodeficiency, a film about a kidnapped bee professor starring Tilda Swinton and Joe Odagiri. “Bees are the perfect metaphor for change, loss and the [harm] we’re doing to the environment,” Doyle says. It will be the first Australian film Doyle has shot since the 2002 drama Rabbit-Proof Fence and he is looking forward to the challenges of returning to his home country to work with other filmmakers. “I haven’t lived in Australia for 50 years. I know Hong Kong, but I don’t know Australia. I’m curious about what aspects of me are still relevant. The only way to break through, expand one’s own experience and, hopefully, grow as a filmmaker is to collaborate with different people on different projects.”
Doyle may say he’s “always going somewhere”, but this city’s lights will always guide him home. “I’m not leaving Hong Kong.”