Doyle, Christopher (Three…Extremes)


Australian Christopher Doyle is a living legend – and not just because of his witty repertoire and renowned drinking abilities. The greatest living cinematographer, Doyle continues to make high profile films all over the world. He is perhaps best known for lensing some of the biggest Asian titles of the past decade including Hero, Infernal Affairs, The Last Life in the Universe, and the films of Wong Kar-wai. One of his more recent projects is Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings” – the most infamous segment in the horror anthology film, Three…Extremes. I recently got the chance to speak with Doyle about what it was like to create a truly disturbing film like “Dumplings”, and the rest of his amazing career.

Andrew Kasch: Most cinematographers carry a distinct style, but no two of your films look alike. Is this something you’re conscious of when tackling a new project?

Christopher Doyle: What’s the point of toeing a line? Whose line is it anyway? If convention is what you are about you are better off in real estate or accounting. That said I feel the look of our films comes not from some “stylistic” preconception or artistic arrogance or snobbery. I feel each film forms itself through those involved, through budgetary restrictions (or lack thereof in the case of Hollywood indulgences), the space in which the film occurs, the amount of time we have to complete the film, etc… all those parameters are relevant and impact the way we work. That’s why each film can be different: the parameters are different. I am more or less the same.

AK: You seem to get around more than anyone else in the business. Is it ever a shock to alternate between so many different film industries? Do you ever find any time to rest?

CD: If I stopped, we’d all see that I’m brain dead. In life and love and hopefully the films we want to share it’s the questions that matter… there are no answers. If you live and work with young people, or people of different taste and culture, the questions will keep coming. Addressing them keeps you on your toes and vibrant. Being an outsider on the inside makes the films more intimate and hopefully more poignantly naïve all in one.

AK: Out of all the shorts in Three…Extremes, “Dumplings” seems to be the most notorious. One woman even fainted at a recent screening. Was the confrontational nature part of what attracted you to the project?

CD: The confrontational nature is me and Bai Ling and Fruit [Chan]! We are so different and our approach was differently “radical.” I personally have great issues with the ethical questions the film does or doesn’t address. I guess that kept my blood hot (not congealing). If someone faints or leaves the cinema perturbed or even steaming, it means the issues remain relevant.

AK: Was the film originally produced as a stand-alone feature or did you know going in that it would be reworked for Three…Extremes?

CD: This is an experiment in what we call “Pan Asian cinema” – A step towards amalgamating our cultural legacies and differences and our budgetary restraints. The experience of the first Three series taught us that we still have a way to go, that certain ideas and image conventions travel well and others are not so relevant to a society of which they are not the source…so in Hong Kong we reedited and re-released a longer version of Three: Coming Home (the Hong Kong segment of the original Three series) as a one up feature in its own right. It won lots of awards and suggested a similar cultural and marketing strategy for Three…Extremes so we went into “Dumplings” with both the “compendium” (three different films from different countries) ideas and plans and cut in mind and the longer “feature length” version already prepared.

AK: What are your thoughts on both versions?

CD: They are both our children. One shouldn’t judge, just accept.

AK: Is there a country you most enjoy working in?

CD: All. The next. Although I do feel a bit displaced sometimes in The West: I look White and I seem to speak the language, but I realize more and more my culture is polyglot and my sentiments more Asian than most expect.

AK: How do you feel about the digital movement? How about the industry’s inclination towards 3-D?

CD: I feel that it’s those who live in that world who will teach us what it is really about. There is no point to impose “old world” film based aesthetics or conventions or even lighting styles on a new medium. Most young people I know are online most of the day, watching animation and digital screens (phones, karaoke, games) the rest of their waking hours…they know more about what a digital image can be that film people do. They have the aesthetic…give them the tools and the confidence and they will show us the way…

AK: Can you talk about your work on Van Sant’s remake of Psycho? The film received a bum wrap from purists who claimed it was a blasphemous cash-in on Hitchcock. But I’ve always felt that it was more like a visual experiment done at Hollywood’s expense.

CD: Exactly. I believe that Psycho is the greatest slap in the Hollywood establishment face. The most expensive conceptual artwork ever aspired to. Hollywood remakes everything that works elsewhere (because nothing works their way). Gus dared to show them the excellence of a masterwork doesn’t need so called “creative” tampering. Gus dared to trust us to find what is black and white in colour, and Gus dared to use less than 20 seconds of imagery to make a feature film unmistakably his/our own.

AK: On a different note, I loved your performance as the bad guy in Andromedia. How did it feel to step before the camera for Takashi Miike? Would you consider doing it again?

CD: Anything for Miike. When we are together we drink beer and tomato juice… or should I say beer and blood? Indulgence is what we are both about. We will again indulge.

AK: What can you tell us about Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water?

CD: Nothing officially. Most of the actors haven’t even seen a full script and we shred each days “sides” (notes on what we are shooting that day) every night. Night sees it as a “bedtime” story…but his bed seems to be in a very scary attic and “story” is actually the name of the main character. So it has its metaphysical aspects and it is a metaphor for… Hope, I guess. It’s a much more rigorous shoot than I am used to. And it is big in the “Super size me” sense of the term. For me it is a chance to see if I can be a commander to my master… but I wonder what the hell I am to the rest of the team.

AK: Are there any filmmakers you’d like to work with in the future? Do you have any interest in returning to the director’s chair yourself?

CD: I usually say I am the best whore in cinema: you pay me and I give you what you want. That’s the most part of a cinematographer’s role…and I take great pride in working for great minds and talents to give their work a more personal or visual or tactile form. That said, I do have a few words that only I could say (in case you didn’t notice), so yes, out of obligation to my own “just do it” slogan I usually throw at “The Kids” (younger aspiring filmmakers) I have to just do it from time to time. I am directing the Chinatown part of the Paris Je taime? feature (at the beginning of November) and I have two films I have written to direct next year (don’t tell my mother!).

AK: To date, which film are you most happy with?

CD: The next film.

AK: What’s up next for you?

CD: Interminable excess…love…happy hour…interviews like this…talks to “the kids” all over the world (they give me more than I give them)…more love…Thai, Spanish and Japanese language lessons…more books…more images…and drinking anyone under the table who believes a single word of what I just said.

Special thanks to Christopher Doyle for taking time out of his EXTREMELY busy schedule to talk with us, and extra special thanks to John Squires and Lions Gate Films for making this interview possible. Three…Extremes hits theaters in a limited capacity on October 28th, 2005, so be sure to seek it out!

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