Incorrigible rogue Christopher Doyle (who would almost certainly dig that descriptor) is a famously/notoriously brilliant/terrible interviewee, depending on how wedded you are to the idea that interviews should yield even semi-coherent answers or at least stay roughly on the topic of the profession for which the interviewee is well-known. On one hand, as we discovered during our Tokyo International Film Festival interview, refreshingly few are the shits the man gives about pissing off potential employers by questioning the integrity of some of their sacred cows (his prior disses on Oscar wins for "Life of Pi"'s cinematography and "The Departed"'s screenplay are more fully explained below).
On the other, his quote machine tendencies can be difficult to corral, and just occasionally one gets the impression, with non-sequiturs about nuns giving him hard-ons and repeated assertions of his non-platonic adoration of womankind (well, the kind who are "tall with no tits" anyway), that Doyle is quite aware of the largely self-created myth that surrounds him and wants to maintain it.
However, the "bad boy of cinematography," rock 'n' roll image he puts out is at least partially justified. Doyle, since making his name via his collaboration with Wong Kar Wai on the likes of "In the Mood for Love" and "2046" —which are frankly two of the most beautiful films ever made and by themselves would justify his spot in the pantheon— probably came closest to the mainstream with M. Night Shyamalan's mindnumbingly turgid "The Lady in the Water" but otherwise has mostly ploughed a resolutely indie furrow. In recent years, whether by choice as he claims or by lack of big-budget offers, his films have become even smaller —his last high-ish profile gig was probably either Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" or Neil Jordan's "Ondine," and since then he's been working on a lot of little known or first-time directors' projects, many set in far flung locales, many of which will probably never see the inside of a U.S. movie theater.
One such is the film he was ostensibly in Tokyo to promote —"Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore" from prolific post-punk Filipino director Khavn. Our review is to follow, but suffice to say for now it's a woozy, non-narrative, dialogue-free, self-consciously cool trip, which, ironically enough, in its vehement un-commerciality actually most evokes the hyper-commercial aesthetics of advertising spots or music videos. But certainly, no one can accuse Doyle of having sold out his principles: it's a micro-budgeted indie, shot totally guerrilla style on the streets of Manila, and it's just one of seven titles listed for Doyle this year alone.
We got to spend a giddy, enjoyable, frequently inappropriate half hour with Doyle on the 49th floor of a Tokyo skyscraper with the city laid out at our feet like a supplicant, and these are the results. We apologize in advance.
'Ruined Heart' plays out a lot like a music video, and in many of the films you work on, music seems to play as much of a role as dialogue or story. Is the music an important factor in getting you interested in a project?
It's music or sex.
Only ever one or the other?
Ha! Of course not. What do you mean? It's the same thing!
My closest friends are all either filmmakers or musicians. And so that's why that is. It's very rare that a filmmaker filmmaker approaches me. It's always a friend who says "oh, let's make a film together."
Which is really great, because then the intimacy or the complicity, whatever you call it, is there already. So you don't have to work on the "film" part of it, and you don't have to have the meetings or the discussions about style and all that kind of crap. You just go for it, because you know each other in a more basic and more integral way.
I read recently you had said you wanted to be "less a cinematographer than a collaborator"
Yes, and that's why I've done so many films with first time directors. I think the questions are the point. Because at my age, most people think they know all the answers and they want to tell you the answers —that's what happens with parents and grandparents and I'm at a grandparent age now. But I think the questions are the most important thing.
And first-timers ask more of them?
Of course. They ask the really ridiculous questions, and then you have to resolve the answer, which is a compromise. It's what you can do at that particular time with your resources or the space in which you're working. So you create something you never expected to create because you never thought that way yourself.
I mean, look at me. I have certain preferences for colors, for the way I dress, for tall women with no tits, the usual stuff, and then somebody says "why don't we have a short fat woman who's myopic?" Or Jodorowosky says, "how can we do this with 30 crippled dwarves instead?" [Doyle recently announced his desire to work with Alejandro Jodorowosky and it does seem unlikely that they haven't already]
So we have 30 crippled dwarves. How can we shoot them? And you think "that's a good question." Have you ever been asked that question before? No! So you've really got to think about how to answer it.
But does that also mean that long-term collaborations are more difficult as you simply get to know the other person too well?
Are you talking about my sex life again? [He cackles as I take issue with the "again" part, as it was, dear reader, Mr Doyle who brought sex up the last time, and will again, frequently throughout. I was actually just fruitlessly fishing for juice on the dissolution of his working partnership with Wong]
Or your professional life?
Of course! I have to be eclectic. Have to be. And now I am talking about my sex life too. Which is why I'll never be good husband. I'm an okay filmmaker because I'm a bad husband. It's true. I love everybody. In China it's a Confucian principle —universal love— and you pursue it day by day. But it's not good for a family life, and I'll never be anywhere because I'm always making films. I'll always be with what I'm doing right at that moment. And most people don't live in the moment.
But perhaps what we do has other repercussions. Perhaps it turns into a film which means something more to other people. I guess in my own way I am committed — I've committed to that idea. I don't think I can step away from that. As much as I love women, it's not fair, because I have to keep on going with this stuff, because this stuff has a different resonance.