Through his lens

Renowned cin­e­matog­ra­pher Christo­pher Doyle talks about cap­tur­ing Pe­nang’s unique char­ac­ter.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Movies - By MICHAEL CHEANG en­ter­tain­ment@thes­

THE list of films Christo­pher Doyle has worked on as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher reads like a who’s who of some of Asia’s most cel­e­brated di­rec­tors. The names in­clude Wong Kar Wai (Days Of Be­ing Wild, Happy To­gether, Chungk­ing Ex­press, 2046, In The Mood For Love), Zhang Yi Mou (Hero), Peter Chan (Per­haps Love), Sylvia Chang (Awak­en­ing), Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon), and Fruit Chan (Dumplings). Oh and a cer­tain Malaysian di­rec­tor named Saw Teong Hin, whom he worked with on the re­cent You Mean The World To Me, which was filmed in Pe­nang.

One of the most sought-after cin­e­matog­ra­phers in the re­gion, Doyle has won nu­mer­ous awards for his work, par­tic­u­larly for his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Wong, which earned him the Tech­ni­cal Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val for In The Mood For Love (2000), and the Osella d’Oro for Best Cin­e­matog­ra­phy for Ashes Of Time (1994) at the Venice In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Born in Syd­ney in 1952, Doyle left Aus­tralia to be­come a sailor, and landed in Hong Kong in the 1970s. There, he rein­vented him­self as “Du Ke Feng” (“like the wind” in Chi­nese) and has worked on over 50 films in his adopted coun­try, and count­less oth­ers out­side of Hong Kong. He also di­rected Away With Words (1999) and War­saw Dark (2008) and co-di­rected Hong Kong Tril­ogy:



Pre­pos­ter­ous (2015).

At the re­cent 70th Cannes Fes­ti­val in May, Doyle was hon­oured with the Pierre Angénieux Ex­celLens in Cin­e­matog­ra­phy award, which pays trib­ute to prom­i­nent in­ter­na­tional di­rec­tors of photography. Not bad for some­one who as never had any for­mal train­ing in film-mak­ing.

So, why ex­actly is the 65-year-old Doyle so sought-after as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher?

“I think first of all, ev­ery­one knows I’m crazy!” he said with a laugh dur­ing an in­ter­view in Kuala Lumpur re­cently. “Sec­ondly, they know I have no for­mal train­ing, so any­thing can hap­pen. That scares some peo­ple away, which is good, be­cause Hol­ly­wood doesn’t ask me to do things like Fast & Furious 10 for them!

“Most cin­e­matog­ra­phers are much more solid and prag­matic and tech­ni­cal than I am, but those I work with know that I care about what I do, and I’m an emo­tional sort. My cam­era is a lover to me, ba­si­cally.”

That hasn’t stopped Hol­ly­wood from knock­ing on his door though – he has worked with the likes of M. Night Shya­malan (Lady In The Wa­ter), Gus Van Sant (Psy­cho, Para­noid Park), Philip Noyce (The Quiet Amer­i­can, Rab­bit-Proof Fence) and Jon Favreau (Made) be­fore.

He even claims that he was of­fered to work on the third and fourth Harry Pot­ter movies, but turned the job down.

“Six hun­dred thirty five days in Eng­land... are you kid­ding? I would rather spend 10 years in Pe­nang!” he pro­claimed.

Speak­ing of Pe­nang, You Mean The World To Me was filmed there, and ac­cord­ing to Doyle, the city is a unique lo­ca­tion that very much ap­pealed to his cin­e­matog­ra­pher’s sen­si­bil­i­ties.

“I know Pe­nang, I’ve been there a few times. To me the space there is ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing. The ar­chi­tec­ture and the colours in this cli­mate have a spe­cial char­ac­ter, very dif­fer­ent from any other part of the world. You see some of the colours in some parts of Spain, but the cli­mate is dif­fer­ent, and the way the peo­ple live is dif­fer­ent,” he said.

“Vis­ually, Pe­nang is a very ver­ti­cal city, and the houses are long, but a film is hor­i­zon­tal, so my chal­lenge was how do you trans­late a sense of space? How do peo­ple move in this spe­cial space, this spe­cial part of Malaysia?”

In an ear­lier in­ter­view, Saw men­tioned that Doyle would show up at the sets early and just go run­ning off on his own to recce the lo­ca­tion. Upon hear­ing this, Doyle said the rea­son he does this is be­cause, to him, the lo­ca­tion is one of the char­ac­ters in the film.

“Usu­ally when I know that I’ll be work­ing on some­thing, I al­ways try to go to the lo­ca­tion as soon as pos­si­ble, even be­fore the script is ready, some­times. That way, if I have any ideas, it can be added to the script, and it’ll be eas­ier for me to com­mu­ni­cate with the di­rec­tor later,” said Doyle, who also speaks flu­ent Man­darin and Can­tonese.

This was even more the case with You Mean The World To Me, which is based on the story of Saw’s fam­ily, and set in his own home­town of Pe­nang.

“In the di­rec­tor’s mind, be­cause it’s his city, he would know that if you’re com­ing home from school, you go this way, but it may not be very in­ter­est­ing. If I go in early, I can give sug­ges­tions like, ‘what if we go down this road’, or ‘what if he comes home from school this way?’” said Doyle.

Be­cause it was such a per­sonal film for Saw, Doyle also faced an­other chal­lenge – when to shut up and let the di­rec­tor work. “I had to step back a lit­tle, and let the di­rec­tor get into his spe­cial zone, which is the right emo­tional sit­u­a­tion to ac­tu­ally di­rect the thing. That is very ther­a­peu­tic for some­one like me, who is crazy, makes a lot of noise and runs around a lot! It’s very chal­leng­ing for me to just step back and shut up for a while!” he said with a laugh.

While he’s been told that all the films he has worked on are vastly dif­fer­ent from one an­other, he feels that is only be­cause each film is dif­fer­ent in its own right. “Of course it’s dif­fer­ent – ev­ery movie, it’s THESE peo­ple in THESE spa­ces, with THESE ideas, and with THESE lan­guages, etc,” he said. “That is the great plea­sure of film-mak­ing – all those el­e­ments, whether it’s the lan­guage of cul­tural back­ground, or the space we work in, or the story it­self, they are all so ex­cit­ing that some­thing fresh will al­ways emerge.”

“I’m for­tu­nate enough that peo­ple have come to me and it’s al­ways some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“Last year I did films in Chile, Stock­holm, Belfast... to me it’s just one long jour­ney, but it’s dif­fer­ent movies. When it’s some­thing I’m not used to, the lan­guage or the way of mak­ing films, then it’s fresh.”

Could he ever imag­ine NOT mak­ing films though? “When I’m not mak­ing films, I’m not a very happy per­son. I feel un­com­fort­able, weird ... I’m just not me when I’m not mak­ing films. I don’t like my­self when I’m not mak­ing films!”


Doyle is one of the most sought-after cin­e­matog­ra­phers in Asia.


Doyle in Pe­nang last year, shoot­ing You Mean The World To Me.

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