Penang a special place to film, says cinematographer Christopher Doyle

by - 15:09

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: Preschooled Preoccupied 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 has 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.”

christopher doyle

Doyle is one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Asia. Photo: The Star/Darran Tan

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!”

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