There are cinematographers, there are great cinematographers, and then there’s Christopher Doyle. Boasting an eccentric résumé that includes stints as an oil driller in India and a cow herder in Israel, and notorious for his hard-drinking ways, the Australian-born cameraman, who was never formally trained, first made a cinematic name for himself with Edward Yang’s “That Day, on the Beach” in 1983. But it’s his long-standing collaboration with Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai that’s cemented Doyle’s reputation as a visionary, his constantly mutating yet highly distinctive style most often typified by strikingly expressionistic color and lyrical, sharply defined compositions resulting in numerous awards and a legion of devotees. Having by and large confined himself professionally to Asian shores, Doyle has, during the past decade, gradually branched out into American productions, the latest being Gus Van Sant’s aesthetically intoxicating “Paranoid Park.” Doyle recently traded e-mails with me about re-teaming with Van Sant, his disdain for artifice and the way that spaces provide inspiration.
You’ve worked with Gus Van Sant before, on his 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” What was it that made you want to collaborate with him again?
I had shunned Hollywood for many years, for all the right reasons. When Gus came along with the ultimate “conceptual film” that our “Psycho” is, I felt there was hope for art and that, in his integrity, I could actually find a space. I just had to get the colors right and get to work on time… I think I got the colors okay. So when the producers of “Paranoid Park” promised to actually get me to work on time, how could I refuse?
How did you and Van Sant develop the visual style for “Paranoid Park”?
Most of the filmmakers I work with (myself included) tend to avoid artifice. We often abhor anything that looks “lit” (“It looks like a movie” is our most negative response). “Paranoid Park” is a diary. It is subjective and episodic. I feel the only valid response to the personal nature of the main character’s experience was to allow the “kids” themselves to take us where the film should go.
What plays the largest role in your choosing a project? The director? Actors? Script?
The people. Why would you want to spend all your energies and intellect and emotion and trust most of any day for anything from the six weeks to years that some films take to make if you didn’t like who you were spending such energy and time with? S&M you can find online.
What informs your approach to a given work, and what specifically informed your approach to the look of “Paranoid Park”?
The space. The location. In this case, the climate (it rains 151 days on average in Portland) and the process itself. Most films actually do make themselves. How well they make themselves depends on our openness to, and global understanding of, all the elements that contribute to a “work.” The actors respond to a space. The production designer and the director and cinematographer have chosen or manipulated or created the space. The light defines the space, but if the light is “natural,” it may be temperamental… changing in unexpected ways… and what if the actors are new to their craft? And what if someone falls ill? The parameters have to be engaged. Film is life, too… I try to “go with the flow.”
There’s a powerful, intrinsic interplay between image and sound in “Paranoid Park.” Did you know before filming began what type of sonic design would be employed, and did you try to meld the cinematography to it?
I would hope that the cinematography engaged the sound. I would suggest that the rhythms are there… but Gus gave them resonance. I hate the concept that an idea is “unique” or “inviolate.” Like a date or a conversation, one thing triggers another, so you either end up in bed or in jail or have the best soundtrack I can remember (because Gus dares).
Your work has always struck me as deeply lyrical, and that can certainly be felt in “Paranoid Park”‘s skateboarding sequences. Why differentiate them visually from the rest of the film?
There are a large variety of sources and inspirations and debts and contributors to what is on screen and how it was filmed. In the context of this interview, I feel I should acknowledge that this film wouldn’t look and work and feel as “skaterly” as it hopefully does without the input and access and respect that skaters and skater filmmakers gave us. And it wouldn’t be as poetic as you suggest, or as coherent as we believe the film is, if the tone wasn’t right, if that integrity and respect and exuberance and pride wasn’t built into the spirit of the whole film.
How important is it for you to feel a connection with the story you’re shooting?
One connects with an idea or two. One sees in space somewhere to go. The ideas initiate the one idea that may center a piece, the one image that is really all a good film needs… or none of the above. Shakespeare writes okay how many good Shakespeare films can you name? The process is what makes a film… through the people… the people can only be no more or less than they are. So real people make good films and fake people pat each other on the awards back
Given how long you’ve lived and worked in Hong Kong, is it strange to work on American features? Does it require a process of acclimating yourself to the States, especially with a project like “Paranoid Park,” which seems very intent on placing viewers in a particular American time and place?
In my experience, the more specifically and directly and openly one addresses ones own predicament, the more universal the experience is. At heart, we are not too dissimilar, even given what is often superficial cultural disdain. Sure, I feel more at home in Asia. Yes, many American obsessions are not my own. But when our common humanity can be explored and communicated with people of “heart” with real intention to “share,” there are no boundaries. I have made many films in many languages and cultures I am not of, but I rarely feel foreign. Watch the faces and the images. The subtitles are only a tool.
[Additional photos: Christopher Doyle and director Gus Van Sant on set; skateboarders, IFC Films, 2007]
“Paranoid Park” opens in limited release March 7th.