Against the Mass Production of Cinema: an Interview with Cinematographer Christopher Doyle

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MM: Some people shoot in a way where they try to get the images as malleable as possible, so they can be shaped any number of ways later on. The intent of a cinematographer—is that important for you to get on set? Do you try to get the images close to the final product in camera as you can?

CD: Otherwise, why would I be there? Why the fuck would you pay me instead of cheating some kid straight out of film school out of his parent’s allowance? You have to say, “This is how it looks.” If you want to change it later, if that happens to be a corporate question, then I step back; then it’s not my work. But if you’re not decisive and if you are not confident, then people will lose direction. I see it all the time. If the director doesn’t know what he is doing, the actors get really confused. If I don’t know what I am doing, or I pretend I know what I’m doing, then the crew doesn’t know how to proceed. If I make a mistake I’ll say, “So sorry, I was wrong about that track; let’s put it this way,” but as long as they feel like I seem to know what I am doing, as long as they have confidence in me, as long as the actors know I love them, then you have engagement. Something that is more than a commercial. It has been a question: “Do we make it look how we want it to look and risk being fired? Or do we make it look like anybody can make it look, and work again next year?” No, we make it look how we want it to look. You have to make that affirmation of faith. You have to be true to yourself. Otherwise, its just a job. Why would we dare to have people look at our work if it’s just another Big Mac?

MM: In your opinion, what does a director need to do to facilitate a good working relationship with the DP?

CD: Drink together.

MM: When you are working with young filmmakers, are there misconceptions or mistakes that you see often?

CD: People show me a commercial and show me a reference to In the Mood for Love, but I can’t do that anymore [laughs]. I’ve done it. Why would I want to imitate my own stuff? Why the fuck would you imitate someone instead of becoming your own? Because if you’re just another cog in a wheel, they’re going to change the wheel. That’s not just a cinematography thing, that’s a life thing. If you are not who you are, then you’re disposable. If you’re just doing stuff to keep a client happy, then of course then the client is just going to choose who they want or who sucks their dick longest. And if you think it’s just a business, or just a career, well, go ahead. But be realistic. Even IKEA or Volkswagon lay off people. You can be laid off, ’cause you are dispensable. So why don’t you become indispensable by being special, by being somebody who has their own vision?

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love (2000). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love (2000). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Young filmmakers are going to ask the stupid questions. Older people, people my age, think they know the answers, and that’s the danger of getting older, or getting professional or getting renowned or being famous. You think you know everything. So I work a lot a lot with young directors, and it’s stimulating because they ask the stupid questions that we have no answer to. We try to address the questions, and that’s what matters. Try to answer the questions, as stupid as they may be, and I think that’s really, really invigorating. And sometimes the questions are so stupid that they’re really interesting. [laughs] Like, “Are you serious?” And then, of course, our responsibility is to respond to that.

People used to say, “Oh, the script’s the thing.” I don’t believe that. ‘Cause, you know, how many bad Shakespearean films have been made? If the script was the thing, then every Shakespeare film would be a masterpiece, but they’re not. So the script is not the thing. It’s the relationship with the people that’s the thing. It’s the engagement, it’s the trust, and it’s the give-and-take. Sometimes it’s a bit rocky. It’s like a marriage. And sometimes it doesn’t work quite so well, so you have to be humble and take a step back. But you have to be committed and engaged. That give-and-take is the great pleasure. That’s what keep you alive, and what keeps me relatively young.

MM: Talking about cinematography as a career—

CD: It’s not a career, it’s a life.

This wall over there is totally distracting me. I’m more interested in this wall than our conversations. I mean, I will remember that light [on the wall]—I won’t copy it, but I’ll remember and it will appear in some other form in another film I make somewhere down the line.

[Cinematography] is a great honor because we are engaged. To this energy which is circling around us all the time It informs you and you become part of it. So it’s all cyclical. And it comes out in your work, and it inspires, and it makes the way in which I live very fulfilling and complete. It’s there all the time.

To me, to be on the set and to be sitting here is the same thing. There’s no difference. To be on set, to me, is just like waking up having a beer and going with your friends. That’s what the kids don’t know. Most people, the film schools have taught them, and the banks have taught them, that once you graduate from film school, then you’re Christopher Doyle. [laughs] Christopher Doyle has never been to film school. And it’s taken me all this time and I’m still not “there.” It’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle.

MM: What do you think about people increasingly watching your work, that was intended for theaters, on mobile devices and small screens?

CD: There are more places on which to share cinema. I think we evolve very quickly. I don’t know, I’m an optimist at heart—a pessimist by default, but an optimist at heart. If our stuff is more relevant or our stuff engages in a special way, then [audiences] look for it. It’s supply and demand. Why would you buy a diamond when you can buy a piece of charcoal? [laughs] It’s the same source. All the phones in the world are actually a great stimulus to my cinematography. We have to do something special. To me, the greatest films over the last few years were made by people who were originally visual artists: Derek Jarman, Steve McQueen, Julian Schnabel. So there’s something very important happening. People are valuing the visual aspect, and realize that there is art in what we do.

I think everyone’s trying to renegotiate that space, which is exciting. Netflix and all those people are doing it, but they’re just replicating the old system. And if you look at my film, yeah, its not perfect, but we’re trying, and if we don’t try, who will? If I can do it, then anybody can do it. That’s why the kids come [to Camerimage], and that’s why I come here. To let them know: “Yes, I’m fucked up but I’m doing it. If I can do it, anybody can.” MM

Featured image photographed by Jacek Szabela.

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