By Aaron Hillis
A master of impulses, images, textures and moments, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “Chungking Express”) surprised many at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where, in the past, he won Best Director for 1997’s “Happy Together” and presided over the jury in 2006) with his first English-language film. A luscious, dreamily romantic slice of road trip Americana, “My Blueberry Nights” features the acting debut of singer-songwriter Norah Jones, whose soul-searching wanderer Elizabeth may be on her way to iconic status, if only for that kiss asleep in a diner with blueberry pie on her lips, love-struck proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law) cleans her face with his. Besides being shot in this country, the film also gave the acclaimed auteur a chance to be surrounded by different personnel: Rather than working with his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“2046”) who went off with Gus Van Sant to shoot “Paranoid Park” instead Wong broke in a new lenser, Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “The City of Lost Children”), and an exquisite supporting cast: Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Chan “Cat Power” Marshall. A somewhat intimidating interview thanks to his exalted career and ever-present sunglasses, Wong was gracious enough to sit with me in New York to discuss his new collaborators, “Ashes of Time Redux” and why his latest wasn’t called “My Key Lime Nights.”
I saw “My Blueberry Nights” in Paris a few months ago, a version that was apparently longer than the one hitting U.S. theaters. What’s different about the new cut?
It’s not much shorter. When we discussed it with the Weinstein Company, I think from an American perspective, there were a lot of things that could be [left] unexplained; it’s understood already. We took out some [exposition] that was obviously self-explanatory to the American audience.
You seem to have a predilection for working with singers-turned-actors, like Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Does this have anything to do with how Norah Jones became your lead?
No, no, the thing is, the process is actually different. I didn’t create the role looking for actors to play it. Actually, the whole project happened during the summer a few years ago. I met Norah in New York, and somehow, we had an idea to make a film together. For both of us, it’s something we haven’t done before. For her, it’s to be in a film. For me, [it’s to] shoot the film in this country, in this language. So, then I created the story. Basically, for the role of Elizabeth, I took a lot of reference from her own spirit and character. She’s the first [facet] to that character.
You co-wrote this with crime novelist Lawrence Block. How did your collaboration work?
I’m a big fan of Larry, and especially his books [with his popular private eye character] Matthew Scudder. Our collaboration is more like the business in his book, because we’re very secretive. We didn’t talk much; we didn’t meet much. I explained to him about my idea and then he would just say “Okay.” A few days later, he’d come back with a draft. We’d meet in a restaurant, and then I took it home and have my comments. We’d meet again, I’d pass it to him, he’d take it home, and a few days later, he’d turn out another draft. It’s like a spy story. It’s not like a director’s and writer’s session. It’s more like he’s a contract killer and I’m the agent, something like that. [laughs] We always deal in envelopes.
Was the process of making your first English-language film on American soil that different from what you’ve been accustomed to?
The process is not that different except there are certain rules to be respected, like the union regulations. Creatively, for me, because it’s not my own language, my vocabulary and references are limited. I realized that, at the very beginning, you feel a certain stiffness, a [self-consciousness] about this process. Later on, you just think, “Well, you have to stick to what are the most essential things.” It’s like a telegraph because you’re very economical in all these words and expressions, and it also opens up yourself to… you need to collaborate with your crew, so basically, I’m sending telegraphs, and they have to fill in all the blood and flesh and details.
You say “essential things” as if everyone knows how to make a film like Wong Kar-Wai.
I’ll give you an example. When we talk about the kiss between Norah and Jude, my “essential” is that there will be a kiss at that point, because I think this is the moment that Jeremy is trying to reach over the distance between them and have physical contact with Elizabeth. I have to ask Jude, “Normally, the way you would do it in my country, the guy would touch the lips of the girl to wipe up this cream before he starts kissing,” because this is the first intention he wants to make sure she is clean and tidy. I’m not sure about Americans, what would you do? Jude said, “Well, we don’t do it this way, we just go directly into the kiss.” And most of the guys on the set [agreed]: “We would do it this way.” But all the girls said, “No, we prefer that [other] way.” So there was a debate, but we decided to stick to the original idea.
How different was your working relationship with Darius Khondji compared to Christopher Doyle? As Doyle is known for having a strong personality, did you guys clash more in comparison?
I’ve worked with Chris Doyle since my second film, almost 15 years. When we work together, we try to do something that’s not our standard old tricks. I know exactly where he’s going to place his camera, and he knows exactly where I’m going to start the scenes. So we try to do something different each time. With Darius, because this is the first time we’ve worked together, and Darius has great respect for Chris’s works, he’d always want to know, “Oh, what would Chris do [if he] shot this scene?” I’d say, “Darius, forget about Chris. You should do something on your own. I’m not going to tell you.” [laughs]
You’re premiering a re-edited version of “Ashes of Time” at Cannes. Were you previously unsatisfied with the cut that premiered in 1994? Why revisit it now?
A few years ago, we realized the master of the film was locked somewhere in pieces. So we were trying to save the film, to get material from other distributors to restore the master. But later on, when we opened this Pandora’s box, we could see a lot of possibilities [to rework it]. Basically, you have to decide: Is it only a restoration, or are you going to do something differently? This is what we plan to do next.
With “Ashes of Time Redux,” and all of your films for that matter, is it difficult to stop tinkering with it? When linearity isn’t your primary concern, how do you know when you’re ultimately satisfied?
When it’s time to let go, I don’t look back, and I start another project as soon as possible. One thing I remind myself is that I don’t want to Photoshop my past. Today, I could do a lot of things with this film, but it’s not necessarily true to the idea that I had at that point. I just want to complete that version, because when we released “Ashes of Time,” it was not in the best of conditions, so I tried to preserve that. During the process, we also discovered something we hadn’t used or hadn’t thought of at that point. I’m trying to put these things together, and I’m really curious to see how the film turns out.
Do you ever find time to watch films?
I watched, like, five films on the plane to New York. I watched “No Country for Old Men,” which is a very nice film. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was also very nice. I don’t have a specific genre, “I only like this kind of cinema.” I really enjoy watching films and as long as it’s sincere, that’s fine.
As a filmmaker who has been working long enough to see the transition firsthand, what do you think about cinema in the digital age? Is the glut of new and portable media failing cinema in any way?
Well, I think all this the digital platform gives more chances, exposure and opportunities for art and independent films. Because I’m very traditional, I still think in terms of screens and film footage, and when I work, my final destination is to put the film on the big screen. But obviously, when I look at my son, it’s a different perspective. They have all this information on the Internet, on digital [media], so I’m sure there will be a [great] future on this platform. In a way, it will change a lot about the form, something that has been defined in the last 40, 50 years [in terms of] durations and expressions. I’m quite curious to see what is going to happen. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man or too pessimistic, because if I have a chance, I would prefer to watch a film in the cinema with an audience on a big screen instead of watching it on a cell phone. It’s a very different experience, but somehow I think this form will have its own future and life.
Lastly, what makes blueberry pie so cinematic? Why not key lime pie, or a parfait?
Actually, I found that blueberry pie is not very cinematic because the color is so dark. I had to put all this [whipped] cream and melting ice cream on it. I must say, too, it’s very challenging to present flavor on screen.
[Photos: Wong Kar Wai on set; Norah Jones and Jude Law; Norah Jones and Natalie Portman; “My Blueberry Nights, Weinstein Company, 2007]
“My Blueberry Nights” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4th.