Like the Wind: Being Christopher Doyle

October 28, 2021
Famed Australian expat and regular Wong Kar Wai collaborator, Christopher Doyle gets his own documentary.

Christopher Doyle has a reputation as a ‘force of nature’. Tall tales of eccentricity abound in the movie world about this legendary cinematographer.

Some of these can be heard in Like the Wind, an excellent biographical portrait from Melbourne based filmmaker Ted McDonnell. Honest, perceptive and compassionate, it’s a thrilling insight into, not only, a splendid craftsman, but a brilliant mind.

Famous for his visionary work with Wong Kar Wai on Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000) and Phil Noyce on Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), and many others, the multi-award winning Doyle, nearing seventy, is still a prolific workhorse, making two, three, sometimes four films a year.

Anchored by a riveting on-camera interview with Doyle shot over the past few years, Like the Wind is full of revealing personal archive and many of the great camera-man’s finest moments, but it’s no turn-on for the notorious Aussie ex-pat himself, who we learn prefers just about anything to watching a movie. As Ted McDonnell says, Australians aren’t very good at celebrating their Artists but Like the Wind explores the wonderful life of a filmmaker not as a career but as a passion, a kaleidoscope of chance encounters and mystery.

Erudite, philosophical, and funny, a conversation with Doyle is an avalanche of ideas, one-liners, digressions without benefit of a firewall between thought and word.

Like the Wind will appear at the Sydney Film Festival and later at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival.

FilmInk spoke to director Ted McDonnell by Zoom [in Melbourne] and Chris Doyle [in China] about the new film. Doyle at first, had tech issues.

Like the Wind achieves a rare intimacy with its subject. How well did you know Chris Doyle before you started shooting?

TM I knew his films. I started my career at AAP in the early ‘80s, then I went onto News Corp. I was the East Timor correspondent. I covered a lot of heavy stuff – riots, the humanitarian crisis of refugees…[That takes a psychological toll.] I needed a break from that. I ended up doing a few docos and they ended up on Amazon. I thought I would try a feature film. In 2017, I started to do a little bit of research on Chris. Our knowledge as journalists often just lays on the top edge, if you know what I mean? We surface the facts. Then I did a bit more digging. I sent him a note in Hong Kong. I told him I wanted [to meet him] and have a chat about a film…

We met in a French restaurant with some of my mates and some of his.

The filming took place over a couple of years, years because it’s hard for Chris to sit down for more than thirty seconds….

At this point, Chris Doyle gets his mic working and interrupts…

CD You are the only person who ever fucking says that. [Asking interviewer and TM followed by much laughter.] Can I say something?

Go ahead.

CD I am never going to watch that film [meaning Like the Wind.] Yesterday, we did the premiere of a film I did with Ang Lee. I slept through that. I dunno…I’m not interested in the content, but I’m interested in the people. But one of the people in this film is me! And I have enough trouble with me as it is. Do I have to sit through my own bullshit again? I have enough problems with it every day!

Christopher Doyle

Can we ask you about a story heard in the film? About the nudity? On set?

TM “Wong Kar Wai tells that story in the film. It was a night shoot. Chris was asleep [on set].

CD I was very drunk [at the time].

TM He ended up racing into this fire naked. The thought occurred to me: did he end up with any pubes left? [Much laughter from everyone].

But Chris, why were you nude?

CD Ok. Let me tell you something. I am a creature of habit. I have lived in Hong Kong in the same part of town forever. If I go to a bar, it’s the same bar.

So, there I am, walking down this street where we have shot most of our films near the longest escalator in the world which is in the middle of Hong Kong [Ed. It features heavily in the film] … This guy comes up to me and says, ‘I have pictures of you naked in the street’. I looked at him. And he goes, ‘Did you hear what I said…?’ I said, ‘what’s your point?’ Obviously, he wants to blackmail me, right? And I said, ‘you have pictures of me naked in the street, right? Everyone has pictures of me naked in the street!’ What’s the big deal?’ [Much laughter].

McDonnell says that he is now good friends with Doyle. Critical of the current vogue for filmmakers to somehow ‘make themselves part of the narrative’ and the journalistic tendency to heavily editorialise, he says Doyle was the ideal subject because as director “I could sink into the background.”

TM It’s a simple story, done simply about a guy who in my opinion has an incredible and unique mind and who remains, to this day, one of the greatest cinematographers in the world.

Ted McDonnell

The film deals very movingly with Doyle’s background and childhood in Australia. We were surprised to learn he had no training, no tech background, and no interest in learning it! Do you think that is why his work is original?

TM Most definitely. He sees things in a different way. I’m not a bad photographer. But I see things in a very editorial manner. Chris can look at the same thing and see something totally different. His hobbies are reading, making his art and making films. That’s his life…Chris won’t mind me saying this is not a typically normal person. I think that’s a compliment.

Doyle interjects…

CD I’m glad my mum and dad are not around to hear that! [Much laughter].

McDonnell continues…

TM The film is Chris narrating his own story…

CD His real function was to read my mind and translate my dreams. I’m serious. A film has to be a form of dreaming. If a film works, it’s a state of dreaming. I think documentary filmmaking is the most creative filmmaking ever. You start with an idea and the idea takes you somewhere… it takes you somewhere you haven’t been before. I hope this film is a dream. And I hope it wasn’t a nightmare for Ted. [Laughter]

TM Outside films, Chris drives people crazy. But I’ve seen him on set and it’s another person.

CD First of all, the person who photographs those films doesn’t exist. I have this incredible freedom as Dou Ho-Fung [Doyle’s Cantonese name] – I like this Chinese guy. But he’s not me. I’m Australian. If I did not grow up on the beaches of Cronulla and if I did not grow up with the naivete of Australia, If I did not grow up with this optimism, I would not be able to work with Dou Ho-Fung. There are more people in Shanghai than there are in Australia. Yet, if you look at how many Australians there are in film…that’s extraordinary. That’s something about where we come from.

Chris, can you talk about working with Ted?

CD Ted could make this film because he has experienced life. I hope Ted included my favourite line: ‘film school is good for your sex life’ [Much laughter]. It’s true. That’s a metaphor of course, but it is true that the only thing film school is good for is learning how to be with other people. The rest is bullshit. Some has-been cinematographer or director or whatever is telling you how to make films… well, why are they teaching you how to make films instead of how to make life?

Filmmaking is not about films. Do you know how many people imitate my films? It’s ridiculous! Why would you want to imitate Chris Doyle?  I have enough trouble with Chris Doyle, you know? He’s a fucking pain in the arse.

Like the Wind is screening and streaming at the Sydney Film Festival

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