Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Doyle, who is known for his unique style of cinematography in films such as Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046, is also an avid photographer.
He is staging an exhibition of his collage art, titled Why I Am Not A Painter, featuring 12 of his artworks created during his time away from film sets.
The Australian-born cinematographer, who has worked on Asian films since the 1980s, has also released two new books, Why I Am Not A Painter and Of The Film.
His many film awards include the “Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography” award – in tribute to his rich and influential career – which he received at the Cannes Film Festival, in France, in 2017.
STYLE talked to Doyle about his new books and exhibition, Wong, the stars he has worked with over the years and Hong Kong films.
You’ve worked with director Wong Kar-wai closely on many of his film. What was the most difficult moment working with him?
Every moment is difficult. When we were doing [things] and trying so hard, and it is – what's the word? – focused and intense. Again, it is a process.
It’s a very special process most people don't dare to engage with. And then after all that, after we've been working for a very long time, we've been trying this and this – and this, and we think we’ve got it and he would say to me, “Chris, is that all you can do?”.
That's a very important question because sometimes I’d say, “Yes, it is all I can do. I want to go home and we’ve done a good job.”
Or then sometimes you'd say, “Yah, maybe you’re right. maybe the light wasn't as good, maybe the angle or idea wasn't the best I can give …”
So, that's a very important question to everybody, “Is that what you can do?”. You should ask yourself everyday and he does ask me that everyday.
Can you tell us about your new books?
I like to write [and] I like to read. Actually, I read more often than I go to movies.
To me, words are a basic tool and part of my life. I’ve done a number of books before.
About two or three years ago, I got about 2,000 calls from people saying, “Where’s my book?”. I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about?”.
Apparently, somebody was selling my book online in China and had already sold 2,000 copies without any books existing. So, I thought perhaps, if we can't beat them, join them.
[The title} Why I Am Not A Painter comes from a poem by a great American poet, Frank O’Hara.
It’s basically talking about process: he goes to see his friend who is a painter, they talk about painting, he goes away, he writes some poems, he comes back and the painting is very different.
I think that's the way people are. If you go to dinner with someone, the conversation takes you somewhere.
I’m not a painter. But I think the process of painting is very similar to the process of filmmaking.
Of The Film includes images from the films I have made.
Yes, there are certain things that relate a bit more to the film itself and there are stories such as some humorous moments that we shared with some other filmmakers.
What should the audience expect when they come to the exhibition?
I hope they don't expect anything. They’ll be surprised about what they see.
I hope it gives them a new way, a different way or encourages them in a more positive way to look at how things can be made, and what art is.
“If I can do it, so can you” – I think that’s the message.
This is one more way for me to talk to people who may or may not see the films, or may not think the films are for them, or may not think what we are doing is that interesting. So it's just a dialogue.
Of all the films you have made, which is the most memorable one for you?
The one that’s going to be the most memorable is the next one. It has to be.
You see what is your best film? It has to be your next film otherwise you should retire or you should buy a house in the country or go to jail, or whatever.
I mean if you thought what you've done is good, that’s good.
But if you think you can do better then that's not good. That's important to me, I think, because it is such an obsessive world – because it’s such a commitment, because it is alive, it’s not just an art or commercial endeavour or a business. It has to be alive, otherwise you won’t do well.
How did you get into photography?
Somebody gave me a camera a long time ago in Taiwan.
I’d never used a camera before. It was just by accident and I was very surprised that what I saw and what the camera saw was so different. I’m still surprised.
How do photography and cinematography differ?
I used to say that photography is still photography. Still photography is what it used to be called.
To me, still means “still life”, which means dead fish on a plate, like in a painting in the 19th century or earlier. It lacks movement that cinematography has, that film has.
To me, the camera is always dancing with the actors and I love to dance and I love to move, I think that’s give and take. That's the huge difference to me.
You have worked with a lot of stars, and great actors and actresses. Who have you enjoyed working with the most?
Leslie[Cheung] of course. Tony [Leung Chiu-wai], Maggie [Cheung] and Asano Tadanobu.
I noticed that, especially with actresses, I take great pleasure in giving them confidence. You saw that with Jessie Li in Port of Call. That’s give and take.
You find it with every actor, otherwise it wouldn't work and they would just say, “No, I’ve had enough today”.
Trust has to be a matter of give and take It's a give-and-take of energy between the camera and the person in front of the camera.
I always say that there are three people – the person in front of the camera, the audience and me between – trying to share that energy.
I think that’s what cinematography is about. It’s like a portal, a medium between the energy of the actor and the anticipations, the enjoyment, the amazement of the audience.
Who gave you your Chinese name, Dou Ho-fung, and is there any special meaning behind it?
My Chinese teacher [gave it to me]. I came to Hong Kong to study Chinese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
But I tell you Christopher Doyle thinks Dou Ho-fung is too much. And Dou Ho-fung thinks Christopher Doyle is a pain in the ass – he doesn't work hard enough.
You'll see in the book there are a few dialogues between them. They are not the same person.
You’ve been in the Hong Kong film industry for more than three decades. How has the industry changed over all these years and how do you feel about the changes?
Everyone’s learned Mandarin. That's the biggest change. Everyone had to learn Mandarin. I guess that's a little bit my fault. Film is a commercial endeavour, it costs a lot of money to make a film or you can make a film with your phone.
So, films have to have a certain kind of packaging or energy that take us a certain amount of money to make. It’s marketing. That's the big change – the market moved.
But in some cases, some of us don't care. We made [two Hong Kong-set films] Hong Kong Trilogy [a story told by three generations of real Hong Kong people, which he directed] and The White Girl [a drama, which he co-directed].
Also, if we don't speak up, if we don't use our language, our own spaces, celebrate our own spaces and our own stories we would totally disappear. We don't want that to happen. I don't want that to happen. So, we will make Hong Kong films.
Any new plans coming up?
You want to see my schedule? I don’t want to see my schedule. I don't know.
Filmmaking is either [a] drought or flood. It's always like that.
At the moment, I’m very busy. Three, four months ago, I was much less busy. That’s why I finished a book.
Christopher Doyle’s ‘Why I Am Not A Painter’ exhibition is at House by Kubrick at the cinema “Movie Movie Cityplaza”, 5/F, Cityplaza, Taikoo Shing, until May 25.