Stupid Questions

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Cinematographer Christopher Doyle presented back-to-back sessions at this year’s Big Screen Symposium: Three Elements Make A Film and I Didn’t Plan to Come Here (And I Ain’t Leaving).

The title of the second session comes from a Willie Nelson song about being drunk in a bar, subject matter Doyle is famously familiar with. Our conversation started before the first of his two BSS sessions and finished, four hours later, in a bar.

Just as he was leaving Hong Kong to travel to Auckland for the BSS, the territory named its submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar: Philip Yung’s Port of Call, for which Doyle won the Cinematography gong at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.

Doyle was also nominated for the film at this year’s Asian Film Awards, missing out to Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin for Hou Hsiang-Hsien’s The Assassin, which has been busy vacuuming up gongs at many Asian festivals and awards events following its award-winning Cannes premiere last year.

Doyle himself has a win at Cannes, the technical award for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love in 2000, which he shared with Lee and designer and editor William Chang Suk Ping.

In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love

After leaving his native Australia at age 18 Doyle travelled, mostly in Asia, before ending up in Hong Kong. During a career in film that didn’t begin until he was 32 but has now lasted half his life, Doyle has racked up a lot of awards and worked with a lot of directors. He enjoys working with young teams because they don’t know what they’re doing and still have the naïveté to experiment and try to do things in ways that challenge Doyle.

“They ask stupid questions,” Doyle said, “and stupid questions are the most important. Can we do it like this? Why not?

“When we get older and have experience we think we know how to do everything and stop trying.”

Introducing Doyle in Auckland, Vincent Ward said, “Talent hits a target others can’t hit. Genius hits a target others can’t see.”

“I used to think I was the Mick Jagger of cinematography,” Doyle said, “but it turns out I’m the Keith Richards.”

The hard-working, hard-living image has served Doyle well. He’s happy to play the rock star, to offer outrageous and un-PC opinions. He’s learned several languages, claiming, “The only place to learn a language is in bed, because after the oohs and aahs you have to be able to say how was it for you.”

He’s equally keen to promote humility and respect as the cornerstones of his successful working relationships.

Ward described him as an anomaly, conceived in the back of a Holden at Bondi beach, more drunk than alive and a vessel for his work. “No!” Doyle interrupted. “I’m a vessel for a beer.”

Throughout both his BSS presentations Doyle circled around the issues of trust, humility and complicity, the importance of relationships, offering a lot of clips, interrupting himself, Ward and others to explore tangential ideas but returning time and again to the importance of trust.

“That’s the point of doing this,” he said. “To condense the two years of pre-production and the six months of shooting and months in post and 90 minutes on screen into the relationships that allowed good work to happen.

“It’s nothing to do with technique or the material you’re using. That’s the easy part, you can learn that stuff in weeks.”

He also said, “Not everything I tell you today is true.”

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