Arriving at our interview late, disheveled, and visibly hungover, cinematographer Christopher Doyle immediately orders a beer: “It’s a bar,” he croaks. It’s actually an otherwise empty hotel bar on a Sunday morning, but Doyle, in town for the Tribeca Film Festival, intends to continue where he left off a few hours earlier—at a “Harlem speakeasy,” as he puts it, with an entourage that included the Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (Springtime in a Small Town). An Australian-born former sailor (with the Norwegian merchant marine), snake oil peddler (in Thailand), and theater troupe founder (in Taiwan), Doyle is best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, with whom he essentially invented the dominant vernacular of pan-Asian pop. Notwithstanding the occasional Hollywood flirtation (Levinson, Van Sant), his clip reel is a remarkable survey of east Asian auteurs (Stanley Kwan, Edward Yang, Chen Kaige). The plan this morning is to discuss Doyle’s two August movies—the languid minor-key ballad Last Life in the Universe, by Thai director (and Pratt alum) Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who’s sitting in with us, and Zhang Yimou’s prismatic, intensely pictorial martial-arts reverie Hero—but the interviewee is having a hard time concentrating. Herewith, the more lucid highlights:
Do you watch movies that you’ve shot?
Doyle: I think what happens to someone like me . . . [A pickup truck festooned with American flags drives by outside.] There goes America! “Goodbye, America! Have a nice day!” Quote from The Mosquito Coast. . . . Anyway, it goes back to that incredible, intense rush—the first image, first day of shooting. Then I fall asleep.
You fall into a trance?
Doyle: Yeah, it helps [laugh]. It might take three to five days to find the rhythm.
Ratanaruang: It took us 10 days.
Doyle: It took three weeks! You get to a point of trust. And if you don’t, people get fired . . . [Truck drives by again.] “Hello goodbye America!” . . . Even if it’s a superstar asshole firing the cinematographer because he doesn’t like how he looks. . . . Going back to your question, you have to keep that wonder, at all costs. Tarantino keeps that by just watching films. That’s part of the experience, how you find that wonder.
How do you find it?
Doyle: Working with different people. And it’s easy with Wong Kar-wai because you never know what you’re doing. . . . And there’s a physical aspect of filmmaking. Like on Hero . . . you’re sitting in 50 centigrade heat waiting because you cannot shoot in the middle of the day. So you drink a lot of water. There’s an aspect of sport, mountaineering, that balance between psychological and physical stamina. And look at most directors . . . [points at Ratanaruang] he smokes. Most directors are in terrible physical shape.
Ratanaruang: I can keep doing this because I’m not going to make that many films.
Doyle: He’s a lazy bastard!
Ratanaruang: I’m very lazy, and I don’t have that many films in me. About eight, maybe.
Doyle: It’s like fucking—how much sperm do you have in you?
Ratanaruang: I have enough sperm for 50 films.
Doyle: Even Wong Kar-wai—basically, we’re just remaking the same film. You’re looking for what you really want to say. You probably only say one decent line in your life, and it’ll be on your gravestone.
Chris, you’d never worked on a Thai production before. What was the atmosphere like on set?
Ratanaruang: Like a joke. I mean, it’s serious, but it’s a joke. You fool around and at the end you have a film.
Doyle: I was falling off my motorbike all the time. But the joke is essential to keep a certain atmosphere, to do the real work. Often you get into this psychodrama that’s totally counterproductive. It’s about engagement. I’ve thrown myself into a number of films where I’m the only non-Korean or non-Thai person, and those are the checks and balances that I need. You dare to trust me, I better trust you. And you have to work with young people. I don’t want to get all fuddy-duddy, teaching at NYU or the Christopher Doyle Institute.
How important is the content of the film for you?
Doyle: What do you mean? I’ve done eight films that I don’t know the story of. Tell me what In the Mood for Love is about . . . [An ashen Tian Zhuangzhuang walks into the bar.] Good morning, Professor Tian!