Published: March 4 2005 Copyright The Financial Times
Chris Doyle can’t do lunch, and not just because he is in the final, frantic days of filming on location in Shanghai. Both lunch and, for that matter, dinner are out of the question, at least in the way that most people understand such meals – for the simple reason that Doyle rarely eats.
”Everyone knows that,” he giggles. “My breakfast is beer. And lunch and dinner, well… “ So “lunch with the FT” is at late-ish dinner time, and consists of a single bottle of red wine, which he insists contains all the nutrition he needs. He certainly gets his energy from somewhere. At 52, Doyle still bounces and jabbers like a hyperactive, profane little boy.
Doyle’s eating habits are perhaps the least of his eccentricities. A scrappy surfer from Sydney’s southern beaches who joined the merchant navy in his late teens and ended up in Taiwan, via Israel and India, Doyle picked up a camera for the first time in his twenties to help a friend in Taipei make a film.
He is now one of the world’s best-known cinematographers, and certainly the most famous cinematographer in China. Not only that – and here’s where you need to adjust your set – he insists he is probably the best-known Chinese cinematographer, both in China and overseas. Two of his acclaimed recent films, both distinguished as much by the cinematographer’s canvas as the director’s story, were Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
”My usual line is that I am a Chinese with a skin disease, which the Chinese love,” says Doyle, clinking glasses to start the meal. “They think it is one of the great quotes of recent history.”
We are meeting at M on the Bund, a restaurant perched atop a spectacular strip of turn-of-the-century Shanghai architecture that hugs the arc of the Huangpu river before it spills into the mighty Yangtze. It is Doyle’s choice. He knows the manager, who doubles as the sommelier; this makes ordering simple. The Bund’s colonial-era buildings also provide a backdrop for the film Doyle is shooting: The White Countess, made by those masters of period-piece movies, Merchant Ivory Productions.
As it turns out, Doyle would consider “period piece” far too benign a description, but I don’t discover that until later in our meal. First, he wants to talk about being accepted as Chinese in China.
”What I am most proud of these days is that people here just say my name in Chinese. In other words, you can’t escape me,” he says. Doyle’s Chinese name is Du Kefeng, which means “like a refreshing breeze”. “It used to be ‘the Australian-born filmmaker, also known as… ‘, but now they don’t bother with the explanation. They have come to live with it, for better or worse.”
Doyle is an easy interview: he has so much to say. He is just back from London and Poland, where he has been doing publicity for exhibitions of his work; the self-promotion, he says, is in a good cause.
”We are trying to remind people to ask questions: why do you have to understand a film? Why does it have to have stars? Why does it have to have a beginning and a middle and an end, like the American system? Why can’t it be just a visual experience? That is what I am pushing towards. I am just like a Nike spokesman. I say, ‘Just do it’ to the kids. So if I didn’t ‘just do it’, then I would be a liar, I’d be a wanker.”
It is also why his next job will be a low-budget Thai film. He says that he regularly does such films for next to no money, because otherwise his creativity would dry up. “Why do I fuck young women? Because they have all the stupid questions that, if you are not careful, you forget to ask. Of course, we know there are no answers, but it is in the asking of them that you learn. It is the same with filmmaking. Working with first-time filmmakers takes me to spaces that I don’t know and wouldn’t go to unless I went with them. It really is an exchange of energy.”
There’s another clink of the glasses as Doyle next darts off in a defence of his origins as an amateur cameraman. “I know where the green button on the camera is, and I know that it turns it on,” he says. “But I make choices based on my eye, not on my technical competence. It’s like leadership – you have people around you who can fill in the gaps.”
”Many directors are intimidated by actors, but cinematographers have to engage with them directly,” he says. “And if you don’t trust me… well, first of all, if you are Tom Cruise, you would probably fire me,” he laughs. “Secondly, if you are a slightly ageing actress, you will really want me to care for you; and thirdly, if you are someone who has a certain energy, you will want to share it with me.”
When I ask him, quite casually, how he is enjoying the Merchant Ivory film, he sighs and pauses for breath for the first time that afternoon. “Do you want me to tell you honestly?”
From this point on, Doyle is less the international cinematographer than the Chinese patriot. The confidence of a citizen of a great civilisation that is once more starting to surge with power and creativity rubs up against his resentment at the enduring influence of the west.
He hesitates at first to talk directly about The White Countess, which revolves around a relationship between a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) and an aristocratic Russian refugee (Natasha Richardson) in Shanghai’s decadent colonial heyday in the 1930s.
”If you really want me to be blunt, you need China, we don’t need you,” he says. “China always knew that – it just happened there was a glitch in its 5,000-year history which started with the concessions to western powers. To the Chinese mind, China doesn’t need anyone.”
There then follows a rambling discussion, interrupted by the odd well-wisher approaching the table, about how earlier that day he had seen Chinese people for the first time recycling plastic bags and milk bottles at the supermarket (”They don’t recycle in America very much!”), along with other apparent examples of the country’s rapid progress.
It clearly rankles with Doyle that no one ever seems to give credit for the good things that happen in China – he cites Zhang Yimou’s donation of a sizeable part of the box-office receipts from Hero to the indigenous peoples of one of the film’s main locations.
”That doesn’t fit with the black-and- white, Richard Gere view of China,” he says. “Yes, of course, the Han [Chinese] immigration into Tibet is another form of the Israeli settlement plan, but there are other areas which are evolving differently. Why does the world want to paint China in black and white?”
The trouble, I tell him, is that the Chinese government itself often still paints things in black and white, and refuses to allow many films made in China to be shown there. That’s not the fault of foreigners. Yes, he relents, film is still an instrument of propaganda. “It’s a battle,” he says. “I think change is another five years away.”
Try as he might, he can’t keep his mouth shut about The White Countess. Doyle has no self-censoring mechanism. (A Chinese friend, who saw him as the film was being shot, said he hustled up to her and, motioning to the foreigners around him, said: “Laotu, laotu”, which loosely translates as “bunch of rednecks”.) “To us, the Chinese filmmaking community, White Countess is irrelevant,” he says. “The real thing is, who cares? Why should we do this [film], when we have so many other more important things to do? I think that is the feeling of a lot of people involved. To be honest, it’s mundane because we all know this [colonial] stuff. People in the west might say that they didn’t know this stuff. But what people in Shanghai would say is: ‘We have been telling you about it for years, you fuckers; open your ears and eyes.’”
By now, he is speaking more directly into the tape recorder. “I don’t care if you say that I say that Merchant Ivory is a piece of shit,” he says. “I dare to say that. People [from the west] come in with preconceptions and paraphernalia and it is usually about privilege. The west is brought up with privilege. We [Chinese] have earned it. That’s the difference. And it’s been a hard road.”
It is getting late. Other workers on the film and an assortment of hangers-on are gathering nearby in the bar, and Doyle wants to join them.
”You mean because of this I am going to be in trouble?” he laughs as he gets up from the table. “I get into enough trouble on my own.”
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief