The Reeler


March 6, 2008

"Rooms Full of Silent Reveries"

Reeler Interview: Rock star DP Christopher Doyle on Paranoid Park, Portland and his Van Sant reunion

Gabe Nevins in Paranoid Park, opening Friday in New York (Photo: IFC Films)

For every hundred or so cinematographers who make movies, maybe one has an eye for honest-to-God art every time he or she peers through a lens. Among those, even fewer have the name-brand appeal of Christopher Doyle, about as close to a rock star as the field has, immortalized for his 14 years' worth of collaborations with Wong Kar-wai and, of late, the go-to DP for American auteurs from Jim Jarmusch to M. Night Shyamalan. Paranoid Park, his latest collaboration with Gus Van Sant (opening Friday in New York), plants Doyle and partner Rain Kathy Li in the decidedly foreign soil of Portland, Ore., where teen skateboarder Alex (Gabe Nevins) becomes embroiled in a mysterious rail yard death. Doyle's frames relay his subject in his exposure-challenged, signature slow-motion that alternately emphasizes, exploits and unravels Alex's youth as the gravity of his predicament settles in.

The Reeler found its hero and old acquaintance in Spain, where he is at work shooting Jarmusch's latest, The Limits of Control, with stars Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Gael Garcia Bernal. Via e-mail, we caught up about his new project, his reunion with Van Sant and his on-screen coastal cameo.

THE REELER: Thanks for taking a few minutes to correspond; how is it going with Jarmusch?

CHRISTOPHER DOYLE: Hot and fecund. Tempered and precise. Roads unending to rooms full of silent reveries.

R: You last worked with Gus Van Sant on Psycho, which is about as far as you could get conceptually from Paranoid Park. How did you two come to reunite for this film?

CD: Ask Gus. I think he pressed the wrong button on his BlackBerry. Or perhaps??? As with all those I work with we have been friends first and collaborators as a result. When you pursue and find the perfect expression of an idea that is the Gerry/Elephant/Last Days trilogy I guess one asks oneself what's next. Rain Li and I could never approximate the poetry of Harris Savides work on those; maybe that why Gus invited us to Paranoid Park.

R: Gus is a Portland filmmaker; how did his sense of the city and its character influence this film and you, specifically, as a cinematographer?

CD: Portland drips through you after a while. As in Saskatchewan or the Australian desert, the climate has a great deal to do with how a film looks, the way the crew work, the energies of a place (or set). I feel that my Asian experience has taught me to GO WITH what you have, to assimilate it rather than to try to appropriate or overwhelm it. So the style of any of my films is a derivative of logistics [and] color -- the way I assume the work will evolve as much as aesthetics or taste.

R: How would you describe the functions of your collaboration here with Rain Li?

Rain Kathy Li and Christopher Doyle in New York, July 17, 2006 (Photo: STV)

CD: We have collaborated for nearly four years now on all manner of commercial and personal projects -- on, I think, six features by now (two of which I have supposedly directed). The give and take is manifold. We hope it is like that for certain directing teams. But Rain is more technical and I am more emotional so we are still working it out film-by-film. Mostly it works best (and pleasantly surprises producers and directors) when we operate two cameras at the same time. The parity of our choices and the efficiency of our communication makes for speed in accuracy. Besides a woman behind the camera gives the misogynists a kick in the butt and the aspirants more hope than most unions do.

R: You've been working on a relatively disproportionate number of American films over the last three years, as opposed to those sprinkled throughout the previous decades. What are the specific interests that have drawn you to these projects?

CD: The people involved. The challenge to be more or less than a big fish in the beautiful pond that is Asian cinema.

R: I was surprised to see you in the film as Uncle Tommy; it's a very small part, and we can barely see your face. Why you?

CD: We wanted the film to have a soft opening -- we wanted Gabe (and the others) to feel that film acting is no big deal. So six or seven of us went to Gus' Oregon coast house to shoot all the diary [writing] and such scenes on the beach. Since Gus was doing the sound and the producer was doing the lights, there wasn't much more or less for me to do than to set the camera with Rain and then walk in and out of the shot -- sad you don't like my butt!

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