Christopher Doyle is best known as the cinematographer behind Wong Kar-Wai’s strongest series of films, having also been an instrumental presence in the films by Edward Yang, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, and Phillip Noyce. With his latest endeavour, the Kickstarter-funded Hong Kong Trilogy, Doyle has teamed up with producers Jenny Suen and Ken Hui, alongside a much broader team brought together by a connection to Hong Kong. Hong Kong Trilogy is what Doyle and Suen deem as part of a process of “giving back” to the city that has influenced their lives and careers so much.
We caught up with Christopher Doyle and Jenny Suen to talk about the city, the trilogy of short films and the influences that promulgated the work in the first place.
For those who aren’t too familiar with the project you’re currently working on, I thought I’d start by asking what Hong Kong Trilogy is about, what’s driving the filming at the moment, and how the shooting is going?
C : We’re almost there, we’ve shot 60% already. We’ve only got two more days to go. Of course, it’s only a five-day shoot basically. But yeah, I think you’re right – I think the whole point is, well, Jenny was born here, I was conceived here. I was created here. So I think the point for us is, “Hey! It’s about time we give something back,” and you do it in a soft way, whatever that is. You take care of your parents or you invest in something or you buy a house – in our case we make a film. It’s where we come from and certainly Du Ke Feng, my so-called “Chinese persona”, was created in this city and I think most of the films that most people relate me to come from the energy of this place.
So what is the energy now? When we started off making this film the energy was quite low. The crew (the 15 people around us right now) really wanted to find out “what is the energy of Hong Kong?” as one does about wherever you come from; whether it’s Sydney or, let’s say, the suburbs of Parramatta or some sort of space in Brisbane – you’re always looking for what it’s really about. The great gift that we’ve been given is that we have a voice that most people don’t have. Although now you have YouTube so everybody has a voice.
So you know, that’s the thing I think that one has to respond to one’s energies, one’s needs, one’s sense of where you are. Now, it happens for some reason we are here in this space and then we need to move on because China’s taken over Hong Kong. So we have to say, “Hey, hold on a minute – we also have a voice, we also have a slightly different view of things.” So then, suddenly, all this stuff happened when the kids… instead of making films, instead of talking to the press, instead of complaining to their parents, instead of staying home and watching TV they got on the streets – that’s what happened. The film started from a very personal place, from our little group of young film makers [there was] a need to share with the world to reflect upon how we are. Then suddenly you have this astonishing sociopolitical energy coming from this change that everybody wanted.
Now we have a slightly different platform, now you’re responding, now people are paying attention. Now it seems relevant. To us it’s always been relevant, but now this energy is more focused, because of what’s happened. The film is more focused because of that and I think that’s a great thing. I think that’s the thing that one has to do as a filmmaker: to say “What do people relate to?” I want to tell you about my horrible suburban upbringing but who cares unless it relates to other people? So I have to tell you about how wonderful Hong Kong is, but who cares if they haven’t been here or if we don’t share it with them? Who cares – to be blunt – about breaking news in Yemen or Iraq, unless it’s, “Oh wow, I’ve never thought about things like this”? We’re not making breaking news, but we’re making breaking ideas. I think that’s what we have to do. We have to say these ideas are there but how do we share them with you, and then we go back to filmmaking. Then we have engaging characters, we have wonderful cinematography and then maybe you actually care about what we’re talking about. That’s what we have to do.
The setting of the film clearly creates a sense of empathy and appeal to those who live in Hong Kong. That said, do you feel this has an ability to extend to a broader audience?
C: Number one: this film is not made for anybody but us. If we don’t make it for us, then nobody will sense us and nobody will have empathy. I think in my experience – of 90 films or whatever – you have to be true to yourself and then people will see and they will feel. If you’re Jerry Lewis, you’re Jerry Lewis. It’s great; it’s nothing more or less. If you’re the Marx Brothers, you are. If you’re Stephen Chau, if you’re Crocodile Dundee – as long as you’re true to that character it will say, “There’s something of that character in me.” That’s the wonderful celebration that film is. Our process is we have to be true to our relationship with what we’re talking about; we have to be true. Look at Korean films – do you understand Korean? Look at world music, why does it work? You don’t understand what people are singing when they’re singing in Ethiopian but the rhythm and the energy translates to you. I think that’s what we have to get in film. We have to get this wonderful celebration of who we are, which is so sure about the sincerity and the need and the intent. You have to be really sure of that, that’s what we’re looking for in that process.
It’s not my process, it’s the people we engage with’s process. I can’t speak for 10-year-old kids, I can’t even speak for teenagers occupying Central, I can’t even speak for my generation who are playing cards in the park, because I’m not them. The point is to give them a voice, so that’s where the structure of the film, and the way in which we shoot, and the way in which their voices come through as 90% of the dialogue. It’s their voice. Of course we interpret it, and we are the bridge to share it with other people, but basically it’s a document of where we are at this time and how similar we are to everyone else in the world. All our concerns are the same. Everybody with a family wants a happy one, everybody wants to at least sleep comfortably at night, everybody wants to avoid war, everybody wants to say, “Hey, you know who I am – it would be really great to connect with you.” That’s what it’s about.
Do you believe that those collective thoughts and this idea of those resonating inspired you to turn to a site like Kickstarter for funding for the second and third films?
J: Yeah, I think there’s something that is inherent to the spirit of what we’re doing that we do it directly with the people that are interested in it and not have any kind of middleman. So, when we use Kickstarter we’re going directly to the people who are interested in our work and we’re doing that directly without a distributor in between or a PR person or a marketing company in between – and we’re doing it from conception which is really different from when you do it when you’re releasing a film. Actually, we’re going to release the film ourselves because we really want to do it ourselves and its kind of our own rock ‘n’ roll way of doing it. We don’t want to hand it off to someone and let them do our movie poster, let them decide how to market our film. We want to do it ourselves.
C: I think that’s what you see – why are you talking to me? Supposedly I have a certain image and some of the stuff I do resonates with people out there. The thing is – and it happens in the music industry much easier – you’ve got to connect more directly, I think that’s the real point. And then you realise… if we’re really going to do it – because there’s no budget for films anymore. It’s either YouTube or Harry Potter 75. There’s nothing in between. The whole so-called concept of film festivals and “independent cinema”? It doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t work. So what are we doing? I mean, I’m not saying we’re super super special. There are definitely people doing it much better than we are, but everyone’s looking for this new kind of energy which is great. It’s like the so-called “New Wave” in France, or the Australian New Wave, or what happened in Korea.
We have to create our own environment for the exchange of energy and ideas and the pleasure that film is– that ideas are – and we have to work on it. Everyone has to work harder on it and make sure this happens. In our case… because I’m more old school, you realise it’s all falling apart. So Kickstarter, or talking to you, are platforms to enhance the possibility of actually sharing ideas because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about a film. Actually a film is just an excuse for this conversation. Really, honestly, yeah. If we really thought that film was so important then why am I not sleeping with Emma Thompson, or Helen Mirren, or James Cameron? If I really make it I should fuck James Cameron, you know? Fuck that – I’m not going to fuck James Cameron… he doesn’t have a big enough ass for my taste. No, he’s too big of an asshole for my taste – that’s probably the truth.
So what are you saying? This is the great thing. This is what you’re doing I assume, why we’re talking now, because you’re looking also for this space. We have to regenerate, we have to recreate, we have to share, we have to have this space where what we’re doing matters and it matters to people who care – not to these fucking horrible, Hollywood wankers, who are all bankers, who are worried about their mortgage and have no idea of what creativity is. They don’t know. That’s what they keep on remaking everything, because they don’t know what works, because they don’t care what works, because all they care about is what used to work. Nothing works anymore that used to work, we have to make it work. So if we talk about our work – me too – it wasn’t stylistically conceived, it happened through the people who are making the film.
It’s not this “I, Super Chris” bullshit. The style of the film came from the making of the film, which is a great pleasure – and hopefully, it means it’s more true. That it has more subtleties, more nuances, more sense of the real people and is not confused by my “poetic cinematography” ding ding ding ding. Which of course, it’s still poetic, it’s still beautiful, but it’s filtered through the pleasure of the encounter and I hope in terms of the way in which the film evolves it’s that. For us too, the film is evolving day by day, hopefully it has that spontaneity, it has that energy of something you didn’t expect. As opposed to, “So we have 850 million dollars and we want to have 65 special effects shots and we want three babes with really big boobs and then we want Leonardo DiCaprio to make a cameo” – no.
J: It has its own life.
I feel that you’re evoking this idea that the films have been sociopolitically conceived rather than through a conventional process. There’s a continued reference to the Occupy Hong Kong movement in the trailer and I was curious as to what role it played in influencing and bringing this trilogy to fruition?
C: I made a film called Rabbit Proof Fence, which was a reflection upon a certain aspect of Australian history that had been neglected in cinema for such a long time. I’m extremely proud that I know now Rabbit Proof Fence is part of Australian education systems, so film can change the world. I know that it wasn’t because of the film but it was because of the public and personal response to the ideas that the film was sharing; that actually the government should step back and say, “Hey, there’s something here we have to address.” The Occupy stuff is this astonishing movement in the history of this city, and of this country, and perhaps this sociopolitical world that you cannot step back from. It’s people in the streets because they care. It’s people in the streets trying to find a voice. As filmmakers we have this incredible privilege of actually, perhaps, giving this voice more resonance – as we did with Rabbit Proof Fence, which was about a very particular period of Australian history. I’m not saying we’re the Nelson Mandela of film, but I am saying that if we don’t respond with integrity, with energy, and with trust then who is going to do it? So the film is not sociopolitical, it’s just this is where we are, at this period of our time, together in Hong Kong. This is the choices people have to make about whether they live or submerge. That’s what it’s about, and the energy of the kids is the energy of the film.
J: I think one of the things you hear over and over again from the people who were there, or the so-called villagers who lived there, who spent a lot of time there, is that they were so surprised. They all thought that Hong Kong was not a creative place, that it was a really commercial place. But then these people built this community and it was incredibly idealistic, and even though all these so-called adults were saying, “Hey, please be more pragmatic,” and “Stop blocking the streets,” these people dared to dream and they created this… if you were there – and that’s what we try to capture in the film – there was this incredible sense of hope. In the middle of Hong Kong, this concrete jungle, these kids were trying to build a farm. There was a garden, they had crops there that they watered and irrigated. That to me was such an important symbol.
C: It was a time for reflection. So, the rat race: go ahead. “We’ve taken over the main road of the rat race, and there’s no rats in the race. On our roads, it’s clean, it’s environmentally friendly, we’re recycling.” It really was symbolically and metaphorically and actually physically a true… you know, an aspiration to idealism. Of course, it can’t work. But at least to say, “Hey, don’t forget – most of the religions of the world are based on that same stuff.” “Dare to dream” and “believe in something impossible”. That’s what the kids were saying. Of course, it is impossible – but to stop for 79 days and say, “Reflect upon your lives, reflect upon your values, reflect upon what materialism is doing to your world.” All the stuff, you know. They did much more than any politician can do. They’re celebrating much more the hope that is used. They rejuvenated our city and we have to respond to that because you have no choice.
Either you reject it totally, and you bring in the tanks and wipe them out. Maybe, hopefully, some people in the world, maybe even some people in the Chinese Government will say, “Yes, when I was with Mao Zedong on The Long March, I had the same idealism.” That’s what it’s about. They used to have that idealism, but then they get corrupted. It’s about saying, “Hey, remember what it’s all about.” Remember the great changes in history have come from the Nelson Mandelas and the Ghandis and even for example – believe it or not – I believe through Rabbit Proof Fence. It’s possible and you have to hope and you have to live that way. It’s naive, but the only thing that does it better than politics is film, or maybe Korean pop music, which also does a pretty good job. It’s the same stuff. We all care about the same stuff. We don’t have the answers to the same questions. They’re stupid questions but we have to ask them.
Does the sense of idealism or hope change throughout the subjects over the course of the three films as the subjects age?
C: There’s people who oppose the Occupy movement. It’s not like Mary Poppins, with “The hills are alive with the sound of Occupy!” Of course it can’t be like that. There are people with their ups and downs. It does have a happy ending, but not in a Hollywood way. It’s a reflection of where we are at this time, and some people agree and others don’t, but I think the only thing we can do is reflect back, affirm it, and say, “where do we go from here?” Because we don’t know. Of course we don’t know. But we have to react, otherwise we’re robots.
With the idea of collaborative cinema, within both of your careers, working with an extensive variety of people, how has this particular process worked with everyone working on it as a particular intergenerational project? Is this final product what you intended to create by any measure or has this emerged more from the process itself?
The process created the film, there’s no question – wait. If we didn’t have the energy and the intent and the give-and-take… I started to make films in Hong Kong. The films that I’m supposedly famous for come from the energy of Hong Kong, the look of Hong Kong, the colours, the way in which we move the camera. It comes from this space. To me, personally, it’s a chance to return that gift. Secondly, as with those films, the wonderful thing is that there’s a sense of collaboration on all sides. There’s a lot of people around us here right now. Even with the kids – we’ve got 5 year old kids and their parents come along and we’re honoured because they’re not making the kid a superstar. They’re making the kid part of their responsibility to the next generation of Hong Kong people. Then we have street people and people from very different spaces and I think that once you engage at the level of energy, which is the level of trust, the level of intent which is “we’re really in this together,” then people just become exuberant.
In this film I think our greatest, greatest star is the guy who collects trash on the street. And again, I’m not being a Mike Leigh or some dustbin Hitchens English-period thing in filmmaking. It’s just this person seems to trust what we’re doing most. And yet this person in most people’s eyes is the person you’d disregard most in your life. Yet actually he’s become one of the most articulate and the most forceful energies of this film because he’s centred, he comes from somewhere else, he’s just doing his stuff and he takes pleasure in being in this place with other people – it’s astonishing, thats it. That’s all we can do. We create a situation, we engage in a certain way with people, the film is what it is… Or not. And to me, film is always about the integrity of the people who are involved.
You know that Jackie Chan really is going to kill himself to make a film, you know that Bill Murray is that ironic, you know that Tilda Swinton is such a centered person. The characters come and go but the essence and the integrity and the way in which these people live – it actually comes through the screen. In our case it’s a little bit simpler because they actually are being themselves. But ultimately the great films are made by great people. I’m saying us, I’m saying the actors. I’m saying in our case, they aren’t even actors. They’re our respondents, they’re our collaborators, they’re part of our experience of this space. Once we share it and once they know we’re sharing it with people who care – bang! There’s such an exuberance, it’s quite astonishing actually and it’s got nothing to do with us. I mean, we create the situation, later we’ll construct the film but actually the energy comes from them, because they need to share. It’s that simple.
To wrap up things up, I just wanted to know when you were expecting to get the final two films out?
J: Around March, late March.
C: Another month. I mean we’re editing as we speak.
J: We’re editing as we shoot.
C: We have to because it’s the same thing. We can’t be too precautious, because once you’re editing things you lose the energy – once you start double thinking things. That’s the great thing about making a film in this way because nobody’s an actor, everyone is who they are, what they’ve said is how they think and that’s it; just go with it. Don’t make it a film – and this is why we don’t know what to call it. It’s not a document, but it’s a celebration. It’s not a feature film because 90% of it isn’t voice-over, it’s people’s interviews. The film is creating itself, which is a great pleasure actually because as we said – who knows the future of cinema, who knows where we should go? Nobody knows, and certainly the people in Hollywood have no idea. That’s why they keep on making remakes, that’s why they keep on having sequels for everything – because they have no idea, and the only people who can tell us are the kids. The only people who can tell us the future are the people who are actually making their own stuff. It’s not the older generation. It’s not the established film community.
The only people that can show us the way are the people who are doing it, because they care. Now the great pleasure is: maybe we’re part of that group of people who care. That’s all we can say. So I have to throw away all the other stuff and bring a little bit of experience, but basically we let the film make itself. Otherwise, then we’re just… what am I going to do? Then I make another ‘Christopher Doyle masterpiece’? Maybe! Hahaha, how boring. I’ve done enough masterpieces. On that note, goodnight.
Goodnight! Thanks again.