The eye of the tiger
Christopher Doyle is the Mick Jagger of cameramen, as famous for his wildman antics as for his beautiful cinematography. He talks to Donald Clarke
NOT many cinematographers have a public persona. Proper film buffs will perk up when names such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland or Gordon Willis appear on screen, but few would recognise any of these directors of photography if they turned up on their doorsteps. Christopher Doyle is an exception to this unhappy pattern of obscurity.
Famed for his prodigious boozing and his enthusiasm for the fleshpots, Doyle, a 44-year-old Australian, long resident in Hong Kong, has shot such films as Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon, Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and, now, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. He is known for knocking together improvised stilts, attaching the camera to elastic and, more importantly, for producing images of luminous beauty. It is, however, impossible to talk to him without encountering Chris the Reveller.
There is no Thai massage here, he says, glancing gloomily round the foyer of the Edinburgh Sheraton. There is one across the road though. Maybe we should go there and talk. Heh, heh, heh! Stringy in his limbs and slightly battered round the edges, Doyle is today suffering from a pretty nasty cold.
Though he once suggested he would like to become the Mick Jagger of cinematography, he now looks more like the guitarist of Mick’s famous band. One wonders if, like the Stones, Chris has now, against all his worst instincts, become part of the establishment. He is, after all, the most famous lighting cameraman in the world. Having established his name during a long partnership with Wong Kar-Wai, Doyle finds himself at the top of every director’s wish list.
“Michael Mann and David Fincher have both asked me to work with them,” he says. “But I was talking to Harris Savides, who worked with Fincher on Zodiac. He said to me: ‘He [Fincher] knows exactly what he wants. Why does he even need a cinematographer?’ What’s the point of that? I wouldn’t rule out working with Mann or Fincher if we had some kind of rapport. I don’t go on blind dates. Do you? At least you want to meet them online. Heh heh!”
Then Chris goes on to berate those cinematographers who take work on telly just to support their extravagant lifestyles. It’s all about money, apparently. But, for all his desperate attempts to seem like a cinematic tramp, Doyle must have tons of loot. Two years ago, he shot The Lady in the Water for M Night Shyamalan. Such jobs do not pay in bottle tops.
“Mmmmm!” he ponders. “Well, talk to my landlord. Why am I six months behind in my rent?” I honestly can’t imagine.
“Look, I don’t talk about such things. I don’t want to go there, because I think you live the way you deserve. The choices you make, whether anyone knows about them, you have to make for yourself. There are certain implications to the choices I have made that resonate financially. I don’t own anything, for example. Well, a few books. That’s it. Hunger is a very creative force.”
All very puzzling. One is tempted to view Doyle, for all his prodigious gifts, as an irresponsible teenager. That would, however, be unfair. He has always been assiduous in supporting younger camerapersons and makes frequent trips to Ireland to work on avant-garde installations.
A glance at the hypnotic Paranoid Park, a tale of skateboarders in Portland, Oregon, confirms that he still has a very singular eye. There is, in short, substance to the bohemian posturing. But I still can’t believe he goes hungry that often.
“Well, if I ampreaching a certain gospel, I have to live by it. I have to live the way I talk.”
Sweetness and light: cinematographer Chris Doyle on the set of Paranoid Park