Cinematographer Christopher Doyle on Chinese Cinema and the Psycho remake

Christopher Doyle (1952-) is an Australian born cinematographer who left Australia as a teenager and after working odd jobs throughout the world became a student of Chinese culture and a photographer. Cinematography followed and he made his first movie in Taiwan in the early 80s. Since then he has worked on over 50 movies in China, the United States and Australia. Titles include several films by director Wong Kar-Wai, Jet Li’s Hero (2002), as well as a couple of films with Gus Van Sant, including the remake of Psycho (1998). Multi-award-winning, he was honoured at Cannes, Doyle now adds direction to his resume. Unprepared for his laid back style I asked him about Chinese cinema and he briefly speaks about his career…

Doyle behind the camera

The Western world is pretty ignorant when it comes to the Chinese film industry and its history. Are we missing much?…

Well, right now you are missing about five hundred films a year. You are missing a country finding itself in seeing its people, its ideas, its newly found confidence expressed.

What is big business in China at the moment? Do the martial arts still reign supreme?

The Communist Party have always regarded film as a political tool. What the people see on the screen should reflect Party values. It’s safer to circle round censorship my placing more sensitive issues in another era, or using martial arts values as a metaphor for contemporary

concerns. So yes martial art and period films talk about things that matter whereas if you

asked the same questions, discussed the same problems in a film set in the present day you would most likely be censored, in fact the film would never get made.

In the Mood for Love (2000) trailer

Did Marvel gain a foothold? There are still limits on the amount of Western Films allowed in China aren’t there?

I have no idea, sorry. I am not really in the film industry (although as you know I do make films).

Scene from 2046 (2004)

Do independent Chinese films get distributed there and have the opportunity to become sleepers? Is there a big independent Chinese industry?

There used to be a way to make films of quality with money from (most often) France or Japan. But in the last year or two the rules have become more and more draconian. It goes back to the concept that film is a propaganda tool. Nothing is independent of the state.

China has its own festivals and awards. You’ve won a few Golden Horse Awards. It sounds a bigger deal than the Academy Awards…

No award is a big deal for anyone but the money people. Every beer I have ever drunk touts the awards it received (= bought) from Antwerp or wherever so many years ago.

The Bombing (2018) trailer

I saw a stymied Chinese-made WW2 epic entitled The Bombing (aka Air Strike aka Unbreakable Spirit) starring Bruce Willis the other day. More Hollywood films are being produced to cater for the Chinese market as well these days which is exciting… Is the opposite happening much in China? Or will that never be the case?

Yes there are many films now that insert a Chinese actor in some fake “hero” role. As I understand that version of the film is only seen in China. Then more and more Chinese films are including “name“ Western actors .. but … look at Great Wall … they are also just window dressing. Hopefully as we get to know each other better, and because it is happening in the real world, a more valid give and take between the two cultures and our interests will make for better films in the days to come.  

There is obviously a local taste for Hollywood big name stars. A lot must sneak in unofficially on DVD etc. Is there a Hollywood black market?

I can’t find pirated DVD’s anymore. The great Chinese fire-wall doesn’t stop anyone here from accessing anything they want. Be it Porn or Hollywood everyone finds a way.

Actress Gong Li

Are we missing the movies which have an anti-Western slant? You probably know the Russians are often the bad guys in Hollywood films…

As far as I know its more “how brave and virtuous and selfless we Chinese are“ is more the

theme these days.

I fell in love with Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) in my 20s. You worked with her on Temptress Moon (1996). Is she a natural to photograph? She’s still beautiful..

Any great actor (actress) is full of “QI “ (energy) that’s what we do: we share it with the audience . Great actors don’t need to do anything. I just give them the light they deserve and we all sit back and just want to look at them doing nothing just sharing their “ QI “

Temptress Moon was reportedly banned in mainland China like Farewell My Concubine (1993) before that. Does this still happen often these days or do people work within the parameters? And have those parameters changed for the better?

No it’s getting worse.

You did the remake of Psycho (1998) with Gus Van Sant which was unfairly dismissed as unnecessary…  It was dangerous to remake a bona fide classic. But as an exercise it must have been fun?

Our Psycho is not a film: it’s a 20 million dollar art project. It’s a research into the essence of film art; what makes a work work? What is the scaffolding of genius?  I believe Gus wanted to return all that Hitchcock has given him and us. Biggest challenge was to make all the metaphors in colour

Psycho (1998) remake trailer

Was Hitchcock an inspiration for you growing up in New South Wales?

Where I grew up (on Sydney’s Southern beaches) the movie house was a place to get away

to… I have no idea what was showing on the screen. We were all too busy enjoying a place with a girl in the dark away from mum and dad.

And your favourite cinematographers? Gregg Toland? James Wong Howe? Who rates?

They all rate. I never watch films …  really … I have no real connection to what others do or are about. I prefer to read or drink or hang out … I don’t believe one can learn art from art.

You can only aspire to make an art of the way you live.

Paranoid Park had some interesting shots, it’s a very fluid movie. Any plans to work with Van Sant again?

Any time.

What was the most challenging film you’ve worked on so far?

The next one.

You have also worked in Australia with Phil Noyce on Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Quiet American (2002). Any plans to call Australia home again?

I was born in OZ and am informed by certain OZ values (plus some weird Catholic ones)

That OZ-ness is still there in many of my attitudes and the way I do things . But I have lived

fifty years away from all, and I don’t feel I know much about the place of my birth anymore. It would be presumptuous of me to try to tell modern day Australians what their stories are.

Hong Kong Trilogy (2015) trailer directed by Doyle

We haven’t really touched on your directing career… This certainly is the tip of the iceberg. How do you find directing movies yourself?

I have made enough films in many very different cultures and under various enough

conditions to find that to write or film or direct or even someday make the music for a film

Is just “ANOTHER HAT”.

How was it to be honoured at Cannes for your distinguished work?

I received my first “lifetime achievement“ award when I was fifty or so … I quoted Willie Nelson : “I didn’t come here and I ain’t leaving “. I am so so grateful to have fallen into this bar of great intent. c

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