An Interview with Christopher Doyle

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Christopher Doyle is perhaps best known for his work as cinematographer on the films of Wong Kar-wai — Doyle worked on every film the iconic director made from Days of Being Wild to 2046, including the classic In the Mood For Love. He’s also collaborated with countless other directors, directed several films of his own, and become a mainstay in the world of international cinema.

Both Doyle’s biography and work style make him a bit of a character in the film world — he held a range of oddball jobs before picking up a camera, including cow herder, practitioner of Chinese medicine, and a stint on a cargo ship. But when he ended up behind the lens, at the age of 32, it was magic: Doyle’s freedom for improvisation, sense of movement, and ability to think on his feet make his work recognizable in a world where cinematographers often blend into the background.

His latest project with producer Jenny Suen, Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, is a three-part series telling the stories of three generations of people in Hong Kong. Preschooled features the voices of Hong Kong’s schoolchildren; Preoccupied takes on young adults during the anti-government protests of the Umbrella Movement; and Preposterous is set aboard a tram filled with seniors on their way to a speed dating event. The three parts are very different, but combine to create an impression of the chaos and pattern of life in Hong Kong.

I spoke with Doyle and Suen over Skype shortly before Christmas.

How did you come up with the concept for the series?

Christopher Doyle: I’ll give you a little bit of background. It’s strange, because I’ve shot eighty films, and every time I’ve directed, I’ve always just done it.

Jenny Suen: We didn’t pitch it.

CD: It just happened. This time it happened because the Hong Kong Film International Festival wanted to do something that was a reflection of Hong Kong kids. We had the idea in 2014. When you’re 14 years old, you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you’re 20. When I was twelve, I thought I’d be dead by the time I was 20. We understood the theme of the film to be youth in Hong Kong, and it just evolved from that. Then Jenny did all the work.

Can you talk a little bit about your style, and how it works within this film?

CD: I’d done many different kinds of films, and one of the films I’d directed previously was in Polish. I don’t speak Polish so there was almost no dialogue. This attracts me because visually I can express whatever — what is the poetry of the image?

So in this film also there’s no dialogue. I didn’t think I had the right to speak for the kids — we were giving them their own voice and letting it take us somewhere. It’s not a documentary, it’s whatever it is.

JS: There’s no script, we didn’t ask any questions. We didn’t cast actors. We talked to them about their everyday lives, what they want to be when they grew up, what they do after school. From our simple dialogue, we got stories that inspired us to have them act out certain things on screen. The voiceovers you hear in the film are all the kids talking about themselves.

How did you decide to do parts two and three?

CD: We thought the first part of the film was a great pleasure. It’s complex, it took a lot of interviewing, but the actual process of the film flowed very smoothly — partly because the kids were pushing us in a very specific direction.

So then we thought, well, we started with the kids, why don’t we keep going? So the next thing is the next generation. And just as we were preparing for this, suddenly the next generation took over central Hong Kong. At least a part of what’s relevant to these kids at this point in their lives is what happened in the last three months in Hong Kong.

What happened in those three months?

JS: Students were boycotting classes because they were protesting an anti-democratic bill that was going through the legislature, and they were camping outside the legislature.

CD: They took over four or five city blocks.

JS: It started when the police started firing tear gas into the crowd. At the height of the movement a quarter million people came out for the political rallies. At the height of the protest camp, there were 2500 tents. It’s as if, for two months, you couldn’t drive down Broadway, 5th Avenue, and Park Avenue. That’s how incredible it was. They really occupied the city.

CD: What we found in the process was the sense of community — it was so unexpected. Hong Kong is a very materialistic place, and there is very little room. Most people live with their parents, and young married couples could never afford an apartment. The calm and the sense of community, the experience of having a whole city with no traffic, it was astonishing. Kids were studying. And they were recycling everything.

JS: And there was a charging station for your cellphone.

CD: There were turbines, and bicycles creating electricity.

JS: And a farm.

CD: It pushed us to celebrate this aspect of community. It was very uplifting for everyone involved. Just editing it the last couple of days, the poetry and complicity that came from what we shared has made this part very solid.

JS: When the movement began we realized that the questions the kids were asking — what is this city? And what is its relation to mainland China? And all these questions of identity were really the same questions we were asking in making the film.

What does Hong Kong in 2014 mean to you?

CD: You know Neil Jordan, the Irish director? I made a film with him in southern Ireland a couple years ago, and he asked me, “Chris, how come all your films are different?” That really shocked me because I thought they were all the same. All the films I did with Wong Kar-wai were the same — the story just got simpler and simpler and more and more precise. It just evolved into what most people regard as the best one, which is In the Mood for Love.

But Hong Kong is where I started making films. People ask me why all my films look different — they look different because they’re done with different people in different communities. But the ones that have really centered me and pushed me along, and the ones that most people know best, are Hong Kong films.

Hong Kong created me. The energy and space and the intimacy of people’s relationships, and the intensity of it, and the colors. That’s what pushed me toward what I’m doing now. Hong Kong created my life, and created the rhythm and the dance of the films we do. It’s what is so exciting about the first part of the film: we don’t know five-year-old kids who think things in real life, so it’s enlightening. And through our experience of filming it, we got to share an extremely important moment of Hong Kong history. There will be so many kids born in nine months. 

It wasn’t something you could have planned for. You just let the city be what it is.

CD: Hong Kong is the dynamic of our films. I’ve done at least ten films within ten blocks of where we’re sitting now. It never stops energizing me. There’s always a detail that pushes you further into the poetry of space, or the eclectic nature of how people engage, or the energy of the city.

JS: For example there’s this old man who we saw all the time. He makes these piles of cardboard. At first we thought he was some kind of crazy artist, because the piles were quite sculptural. But then we interviewed him and we found out that he was just taking it to the recycling station and getting a couple of bucks.

CD: And he’s become our best actor.

JS: He actually has. He’s the most reliable, and a bit crazy.

CD: He never remembers us.

JS: We’ve spent so much time here but it doesn’t cease to put us in awe. We thought he was an artist and he was just a cardboard man.

CD: You know the famous line from Rauschenberg, the artist: “If I walked completely around the block and didn't find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction.” You walk around a block and something visually unexpected hits you and it carries you on.

JS: Hong Kong gave us so much and the only thing for us to do is give them back.

You described your process a bit like jazz music. It made me want to ask — what are some of your non-film influences?

CD: (Holds up a glass of beer.) This. And women. And the sea, because I grew up by the sea. I used to be a merchant marine, and all the cities I love are cities by the sea. Amsterdam, Hong Kong, New York. The only exception is Berlin. The depth of the sea and its sense of possibility. And dance. When I first started in Taiwan, we’d drive around and just film. We were always moving. We’d come up with subjects like the wind, or the mountains. We wouldn’t have a narrative, we’d just let people tell their own stories and have the visuals take you on a journey through whatever subject we were working with.

From there, I started doing a lot of stuff with dance. It’s always a dance between the person in front of the camera, and the camera itself. The engagement is like a dance. 90% of the films I’ve shot are handheld. It seems more intimate.

It also seems less invasive.

CD: We were in an argument about that subject last night. We were in a bar and some guy was saying something about the objectivity of the camera, and all this kind of crap. I usually say there’s the person in front of the camera communicating to the audience, and the bridge between them is the camera. The process is not about the lens, it’s about creating complicity. People in front of a camera need an incredible amount of love. They really need to be taken care of, and if you don’t give them that sense of security and if they don’t trust you, it won’t work. The engagement is much more important than the technical stuff. As you’ll see with this film, they just evolve naturally from the engagement you’re having with the subject. There are no tricks.

You aren’t trying to be objective or detached.

CD: This is why I’ve made so many films. I like to move, and I like to think on my feet. I made my first film when I was 32 years old. I didn’t even like photography. But somehow I fell into this engagement that is so appropriate to my own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. That’s why it works. Because I’m not trying to be an artist or a great filmmaker, I’m just getting on with it.

We saw that with the kids — we were there with them in the center of Hong Kong and suddenly the sun came out. We said, “Why don’t you respond to the sunlight?” I didn’t plan it. But the great thing is that reciprocity that the process allows us. it’s there, the stuff is given to us with whoever we’ve decided to go with. They’re not faking it or acting it. They’re just sharing. Our job is to be the conduit.

How did you decide on the scenarios that featured the kids?

JS: We didn’t have a plan. We know the characters and where we’ll shoot and it happens from there.

CD: We did a thing with Jessica Chastain last year. We had two or three hours, and we didn’t have a plan. She got frustrated because she was used to people telling her exactly what to do. I said no, it’s fine, just walk around, it looks great. So maybe we’ve been spoiled — there’s a certain lack of pretense in Asian actors. Some of the greatest actors I’ve worked with are great people first of all. They’re humble and easy to get along with, and they just do it. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by that, that we think filmmaking should always be like that, a give and take between what’s possible and what’s doable.

In the style of these things, the interviews in the film are a tangent to what’s happening, it’s not an explanation.

JS: And it’s not a narration.

CD: It has this abstract and poetic nature to it. It’s not an explanation — it’s not ”I go to school at eight o’clock and I always say hello to the bus driver because he gives me a candy after school” — no, you just let them go in and take the bus and see what happens. It’s parallel storytelling.

You use a lot of empty space and slow shots — there’s a lot of room for things to happen in Preschooled. 

CD: We work with a lot of younger people, and I have to tell the kids — it’s usually a younger person editing — to slow down. They just cut out of habit because they’re used to doing commercials and music videos. Once you let the image take you somewhere, there’s more space for your own engagement. That’s basic to our style.

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