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Eye of the Lion Behind 'Psycho's' Camera

Movies: With successful Hong Kong films under his belt, cinematographer Christopher Doyle takes a shot at Hollywood with the remake of Hitchcock's classic.


For one night anyway, the Bates Motel looked like Chinatown on New Year's.

When "Psycho" director Gus Van Sant was ready to start shooting at the new Bates house set last July, his production team organized a lavish feng shui ceremony designed to ward off any Hitchcockian evil spirits that might be lurking on the Universal Studios back lot. A kung fu master and his disciples blessed the house by performing a costumed lion dance in front of a Chinese temple altar. A round of firecrackers exploded in the air.

Watching the ceremony unfold, Christopher Doyle, "Psycho's" director of photography, had the delighted look of a man who felt right at home.

"It's something we always do on our films in China," said the 46-year-old cinematographer, who speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese and has lived in Hong Kong since the late 1970s. "The offerings and the firecrackers are used to celebrate and ward off evil spirits. And you always have a lion dance because lions are considered auspicious creatures. If we were in China, we'd have sacrificed a pig too, but being my first time in Hollywood I wasn't sure how that would go over."

A native Australian and self-proclaimed "wild child" who is so well known in Asia that he is greeted by strangers on the street, Doyle has emerged as perhaps the most noted cinematographer of modern Asian cinema. The self-taught cameraman has won five Hong Kong Oscars for best cinematography working with such top directors as Chen Kai Ge ("Temptress Moon"), Stanley Kwan ("Red Rose, White Rose") and Wong Kar-Wai, with whom he has made such groundbreaking films as "Chungking Express," "Fallen Angels" and "Happy Together."


Doyle's first Hollywood effort won't be out until "Psycho" arrives Dec. 4. But his Hong Kong films are on display from Saturday through Nov. 24 at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which is presenting an eight-film retrospective at the Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall. A collection of Doyle's work in photography, video and collage is also being exhibited by the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies at two area galleries.

"Chris is a creative hand grenade--he's always breaking all the rules," says "Psycho" executive producer Dany Wolf, who introduced Doyle to Van Sant when the director was looking for a fresh eye to shoot his new film. "Most cinematographers are observers. They look at life through the lens. But Chris is a participant. . . . He's always doing something innovative or outrageous, always living in the moment."

A puckish character with a mop of curly, graying hair, Doyle was a lively presence on the "Psycho" set. Given a director's chair with his name written in Chinese characters, he joked with crew members about his crush on actress Maggie Cheung and demonstrated his "drunken zealot" karate kick technique to "Psycho" star Vince Vaughn.


For "Psycho" Doyle served as his own camera operator, as he did on his Hong Kong films. "It became a habit," he said one night after work, sipping the first of many beers. "There were so many times when we were shooting on the run, literally stealing shots, that you didn't have time to explain to your assistant how to get the shot--you just did it yourself."

Doyle's whole career has been a demonstration in do-it-yourself craftsmanship. He joined the Norwegian Merchant Marine at age 18, spending three years sailing the globe. He also studied Chinese art history at the University of Maryland, lived on a kibbutz and dug wells in the Indian desert.

He first picked up a camera in Taiwan, where he'd joined an experimental theater group that wanted to document its performances. He also shot exposes for a "60 Minutes"-style TV news program.

"One of our big hits was a show about the brothels of Taiwan," he recalls. "It was all sex and danger and beautiful women. We were always moving, so that became my signature style, putting the camera on top of a bus or a truck or a boat--anything that moved."

By the early '80s, Chinese cinema had burst into full bloom. Doyle worked with New Taiwan Cinema directors like Edward Yang and Chen Kui-Fu, underground filmmakers in mainland China and Hong Kong new wave artists like Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kwan.

Most films were low-budget, improvised and shot on the fly. When Wong Kar-Wai needed a stylish-looking apartment to shoot several key scenes in "Chungking Express," Doyle volunteered his own place, which has a high-tech escalator right outside.

"It wasn't like in Hollywood, where you could come back and get the shot. . . . On some movies, we couldn't even afford any scaffolding. So you survived on energy and improvisation, which was a great learning experience, because you extend yourself under duress."

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