May 9, 2014 6:58 pm

Interview: Christopher Doyle

A poet behind the camera, cinematographer Christopher Doyle is known for his fast living and straight talking. Two of his works will be on view at Art Basel Hong Kong
Christopher Doyle©Getty

A poet behind the camera, cinematographer Christopher Doyle is known for his fast living and straight talking. Born in Australia but based in Hong Kong, he is best known for films such as In the Mood for Love (2000). Last year he made a sci-fi movie in China with Ai Weiwei. In the film sector of Art Basel Hong Kong, Rossi & Rossi will show two works by Doyle, Roof Sticks and Tilda (both 2013).

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Your film Tilda, which captures the actress Tilda Swinton in close-up on a boat in Shanghai, is shot as if it were a love letter to her face. Can you tell us about the background?

I’ve known Tilda since she was 19 years old. She is the great love of my life but the pleasure of being a cinematographer is that you can love gratuitously without any harm done. We didn’t script it. We shot it in an afternoon.

You have a way of shooting actors as if they are unaware of the camera. How do you do that?

I’m the person closest to the actor. Their security blanket. Their love. I’m there to give them all the confidence they need and let them know that we’re in this together.

Do you see a difference between films you make for the art world and those for cinema?

You want to talk about Art Frazzle [sic] Hong Kong? Rossi & Rossi were intimidated into doing it! I said: “Hey you f***ers, I do this [stuff] every minute of every day. Just slow it down and take a closer look!” I’ve always thought that so-called installation art was just [like] my films slowed down.

Would you say that your home is in Hong Kong?

My stuff is here. But home is wherever I happen to be. Last week it was Beijing. Next week it is Malaysia. I stay in serviced apartments and hotels. I love hotels. I have this fantasy the maid will break in . . .

You have made films in the US, such as the remake of Psycho in 1998, but you tend to keep Hollywood at a distance. Why?

Because they don’t have anything to say. They keep on repeating themselves. I was offered a Harry Potter gig many times. They said: “It’s a really good gig. [It’s] 695 days in Pinewood studios.” I said: “I don’t want to spend 36 hours with British film people. You colonised me. You f***ed me over. I was your convict, I’m free now!”

What led you to branch out into photography and collage as well as film?

When you are making films, you are spending 23 hours a day with a group of people. When you go home you need to re-energise, to retrieve your serenity. To me the process of making [photography and collage] is therapy because it’s more personal. It’s one-on-one instead of one-on-300.

Were you interested in film and photography as a young man?

Are you joking? In my family the film would rust in the camera. The batteries would corrode. Besides, in Australia, you don’t go to the movies to watch a film, you go to get laid. But I read a lot.

What did you read?

Anything DH Lawrence wrote. Also [Vladimir] Nabokov and [Gabriel García] Márquez. I used to go on retreat and the priests would steal my books. I must have lost five copies of Sons and Lovers that way.

Do you think your Catholic upbringing influences you?

Yes, it informs my rhetoric. The way I approach things has a certain sincerity, which comes from hope – a belief, that there is good in people. As opposed to being Lars von Trier!

What was it like working with Ai Weiwei?

Ai Weiwei is the Orson Welles of cinematography. He fills the frame. His presence moves the camera, not me. There’s no need to light [him] because he glows. He seems to be born as he is, with no regrets. He’s ageless. Monumental.

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