Christopher Doyle Interview Part 1: Why Did Ai Weiwei Shave My Head?

Christopher Doyle Interview Part 1: Why Did Ai Weiwei Shave My Head?
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle before he had his head shaved.
(Courtesy Alexandra Wyman)

SHANGHAI — When we reach Christopher Doyle over Skype he’s working at his Kowloon Bay studio. “I don’t know if it’s a studio or a closet or a brothel or a repository of dreams – I’m not sure exactly what it is,” he cackles. “I think it’s a possibility, that’s more or less what it’s about. It’s a living organism. It just keeps on evolving. Every time I try to clean it up I just make more stuff.”

Doyle, who’s been described as the greatest living cinematographer, previously lived near the escalator in central Hong Kong, where he famously made “Chungking Express” with director Wong Kar-wai. Their partnership is legendary, the two teaming up to make seven feature films starring Chinese cinematic royalty including Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, and Leslie Cheung, who was recently made into a 1/6th scale figurine to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death.

Doyle says the doll “should be ten times bigger than human scale like Leslie is.”

Hong Kong’s Central district is itself a star in many of these films, and it’s with some reluctance that Doyle moved across the bay. Spending so much time abroad, however, he was unable to justify the steep rent, and he likes that the new studio is near the container ports. “It’s back to my roots as a sailor,” he says.

Born in Sydney in 1952, Doyle left Australia as a teenager to join the Norwegian Merchant Marines. He washed up in Hong Kong, and later moved to Taiwan where he studied Mandarin and picked up the Chinese name Du Kefeng (杜可风) – Du after the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, and Kefeng, meaning ‘like the wind’. In 1983, he picked up the camera for Edward Yang’s “That Day, On the Beach”, for which he won the best cinematography prize at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival. It was only then that he went to France to study cinematography.

Thirty years later, Doyles filmography is as untidy as his studio, and likewise still evolving. From the Hong Kong art house cinema he grew famous for, he has since worked around the globe, with directors such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Gus van Sant, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jim Jarmusch. In 2011 he made both the pink musical, Shiniji Imaoka’s “Underwater Love” (“Is the camera a cock, or an orifice?”, Doyle asks us), and a 3-D teddy-bear horror, Takashi Shimizu’s “Tormented”.

Doyle describes the experience of shooting in 3-D as “horrific”. “I think I made it too poetic. I think I’m just not horror enough. I have horror enough in my pants,” he cackles again, “I don’t need it in my life.”

Lately, Doyle has been in Beijing working on a film he cant yet talk about with his favourite new leading man, Ai Weiwei. “Ai Weiwei is the Tom Hanks of Chinese cinema,” he says. “Ai Weiwei is so fucking beautiful on film because he’s so solid, he doesn’t give a shit. He is the great male star of the future of Chinese cinema. Please quote me. He’s the George Clooney of the new wave. Once he sees [the footage] he’ll either burn everything we ever shot or he’ll embrace it.”

“Beijing was great fun,” he continues. “I’m not sure if he’s pissed, but he fucking shaved my head.” It’s true that Doyle doesn’t have his usual foppish flop of silver hair. “I’m not sure if he’s saying fuck you for fucking me up or if he’s saying it was a pleasure to work together, let me share something from my world.”

Constantly moving forward, Doyle shows us footage of his current project, which he’s showing at literary festivals in Beijing and Shanghai this week. It’s a split-screen unreliable documentary wherein Doyle presents a version of his life – “I was conceived in the back of a Holden sedan” – that’s challenged by his Chinese counterpart, Du Kefeng, speaking Mandarin. “Du Kefeng really takes the piss out of Christopher Doyle as the film goes on,” Doyle says. “Fuck yeah. Who do you think you are? That’s basically the rhythm. I’m not sure we’ve worked it out perfectly but it’s been fun trying to demystify oneself.”

Named “Away With Words” after the first feature film that he directed, Doyle says the performance will be about the relationship between words and images. Doyle is himself a prolific author. “I’ve done 14, 15 books and they’re all out of print,” he says, “and they’re all extremely expensive on eBay and I wish I’d kept hundreds of copies of them, but – ha! – I didn’t.”

That Doyle is still taking chances with experimental forms is a gust of fresh air after recent announcements from Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh that they’d sooner bow out of cinema than risk diluting their filmographies with weaker new works. “I love film to be challenged to do something that engages with a different generation who have had different visual experiences, and different life experiences of course, Doyle says. If we think we have something to say, let’s fucking get out there and talk about it.

“We should fuck up the system, we should fuck up the medium, we should be especially aggressive towards our own so called, you know, gao gao zai shang, how do you say that in English? Our so-called elevated stage, or elevated status. Fuck the elevated status. The kids out there, ‘Gangnam Style’ or whatever it’s called – of course we have to compete with it, with integrity perhaps, but not with fucking arrogance, not with gao gao zai shang, not regarding yourself as a pinnacle of intellectual astuteness and visual acumen. No, come on.

“So many people ask me very often, so, how do you engage with the digital medium. I say the kids are going to teach us. We’re the students. The people who are on Youtube or engaging 24 hours of almost every day of their lives, who are online and having visual digital experience every day, they’re the ones who are going to teach us.”

Regarding the end of his own career, he says, “I know I will die with either a camera in hand or a woman on top – what more could one ask of life ?”

Christopher Doyle speaks at Capital M in Beijing tonight at 7pm, and the Glamour Bar in Shanghai on March 10 at 5pm. Tickets 75RMB.

Check in tomorrow for part two of our interview with Christopher Doyle, when he tells us why the “Life of Pi” Oscar is an insult to cinematography.

Underwater Love A Pink Musical