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CHRIS DOYLE INTERVIEW

by Vadim Rizov

Chris Doyle was born in 1952, left home (Australia) early, and never looked back. His bio is the stuff of nomadic legend—“working as a well digger in India, a Norwegian merchant marine, a cow herder on an Israeli kibbutz, and a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand,” as the allmovie.com bio straight-facedly announces. He arrived in Taiwan in the late 1970s, shooting the legendary Edward Yang’s (Yi Yi) first film, That Day On The Beach, in 1981. Since then, he’s worked all over Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and China (in addition to a brief American stint working on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake and Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights), becoming best known for his dreamy work with Wong Kar-Wai, whose notoriously sloppy and last-minute working methods are a perfect match for Doyle’s preferred shooting style—operating drunk, producing moments of great impressionistic duty accidentally. Indeed, a quick Google search for “Chris Doyle drunk” turns up this definitive quote: “I think I work better when I walk out of the bar and onto the set… I mean, there have been moments when I saw the beginning of the shot and I saw the end of the shot, and I have no idea what happened in between.”

Given all this, any prospective interviewer has to be at least a little nervous about inadvertently pissing off Doyle—even via e-mail—but he turned out to be plenty affable. His answers, however, need a little context. The subject was Hero, Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts epic finally enjoying its long-delayed American release this Friday after being released in China two years ago. The film, among other things, is a glorification of military power in the interest of the common good, and an absolutely gorgeous study in blurriness, monochromatic cinematography, and all the other things that have made Doyle’s reputation. He’s referred to it as “missionary position” work and, publicists be damned, he’s not afraid to denigrate it.

*****

VR: Your first time working with Zhang—thoughts?

CD: It was more about producer Bill Kong... I felt I owed him for pulling out of Crouching Tiger at the last minute... maybe I owe him more now for having done what we did to Hero!!! Of course an old camera hand with an old camera hand is a challenge and a pleasure who else would come up with the idea of a film structured in colours... but at the end of the day one of us is more conservative than the other... one more centered... it’s not my best film .

VR: Seems much more like your past work (in editing as well as mise-en-scene) than Zhang’s. At what point were you brought in, and how much input did you have before and after shooting?

CD: The real process is location scouting. That’s where the colours found their physical being. Once we know what looked like it looked we knew more or less where to go. As you can tell from the shoddy editing I wasn’t there.

VR: Only your second time, as far as I know, working on a martial arts film. How closely do you have to work with the choreographers? How different was this from doing Ashes Of Time [Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous, nearly incoherent 1994 take on the martial arts genre]?

CD: I think you misread the credits for Infernal Affairs [VR note: indeed my mistake; the HK action blockbuster on which Doyle worked is scheduled to be released later this year, also by Miramax]… but the comparison to Ashes Of Time is relevant... both are desert films; you can’t light the desert... but whereas in Ashes we took only what we wanted from the myriad and conventional forms the martial arts director presented us, on Hero we are all stuck with all the good and not so good ideas.

VR: Were the monochromatic color schemes for each sequence chosen mainly for aesthetic effect, or is there a metaphorical framework there?

CD: As far as I am concerned the colours are not more or less than what they are. I disagree with the Storaro/ Goethe / House and Garden conventions... we celebrated the colours that please OUR EYES... NOT OUR MIND [VR note: The Internet doesn’t necessarily agree with Doyle here. The IMDB, for examples, states that red signifies imagination, blue perceived reality, white truth, and green enlightenment and peace.]

VR: Some people are uneasy with what they see as the film’s ideological glorification of the current Chinese government. Any thoughts on that?

CD: Too many thoughts, but I am not the Director and I will not become the Minister of Culture around the Beijing Olympics year.

VR: Per your usual working methods, how much of the footage was drunken accident? How high was the crap:gold ratio?

CD: I see you got the point. What’s your verdict? Mine is 90 to one [VR: My verdict? What’s there is pretty much all gold, aside from… well, he says it best next.]

VR: Did you supervise the computer-F/X closely, or just let that go?

CD: It seems obvious that someone just let it go [VR: Indeed, the shoddy F/X render some sequences far cooler in conception than execution]… the green of the palace sequences was remasters by some dear Australian / French friends... that is basically the only part of the post that I had any real input in.

VR: No one over here seems to know, so I’m just asking because you've worked with him: Will Edward Yang ever make another film? The last I heard, he had liver trouble.

CD: How can Edward have liver trouble if I don’t? If he can survive the piano he should survive everything.

*****

Chris Doyle in a nutshell: Sharp, witty, and occasionally totally incoherent. No one seems to know what the piano reference means. Oh, and:

CD: ps in a good mood as you can read.

Well, thank goodness for that.

 


Mike Doughty



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