Experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio is best known for his Qatsi trilogy. The trilogy started with 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for “Life Out Of Balance), and is followed by 1988’s Powaqqatsi (“Life In Transformation) and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi (“Life As War). Each film does away with conventional narration; in it’s place are slow motion and time-lapse shots of people, places and things, all set to a spellbinding score by minimalist composer Philip Glass.
He has a new film out today called Visitors. It’s opening at the Loft Cinema, and you can read my Tucson Weekly review of it here. While it’s similar to his past three films, and Glass is still responsible for a masterful score, there are some remarkable differences. It’s shot entirely in black and white, and there are only 74 shots in the picture. There are times where it’s like watching a photo suddenly spring to life. This is as slowed down as Reggio can get, and you’ll find out why in this rare interview.
I spoke to Reggio on the phone, and we discussed some of the themes of the films, the shooting process, and his unique relationship with Glass.
I noticed a bridge between Naqoyqatsi and Visitors. It’s the human relationship with technology. Do you think I’m on the right path with that?
You know, there’s a very famous saying in Latin that says “Quidquid recipitur," meaning "one receives according to their bowl or to their cup or their form." With Visitors the person who sees the film is herself/himself the storyteller, the character, the plot, anything’s possible in terms of how it can be seen. Does it have a relationship to Naqoyqatsi? I think so. All of the films are an attempt to go around the same tree as often as possible, but in a different cadence, in a different form. So, they do all relate in some way to each other.
In Visitors, everything is distinctly slowed down, in contrast to how our culture and how our lifestyle is vastly accelerated. Was that purposeful?
Very purposeful. Indeed. It was done deliberately for that reason. We’re on speed in rush hour, as it were, running our future. As a result of that, the stiller a person can be, or attuned as senses can be - if you look at a normal theatrical film the average cut is anywhere from three to six seconds, so there’s not much time to dwell, because the images are telling you a story. In this case, the story is to behold, and in that sense the longer it’s on, the more there is to behold. It’s like if you went to see a sunset, you don’t look at it for three seconds and disappear. What the meaning of the sunset is, is probably the sunset has no meaning but it can be immensely meaningful. In that sense, slowing things down can be at once unnerving, confrontational, and difficult given the speed. Everything is in a nanosecond at this moment.
I read that some in of the shots, particularly the children, that they were filmed while playing video games and watching television. Was that also intentional?
Oh yes, definitely. The film, it has no words, it’s like a speechless narrative because the people on the screen are looking directly at you. I didn’t want those people acting in any way, so what you see on the screen is nothing more than their ordinary activity. The second the TV comes on, or video games or any kind of screen for that matter, it’s like a tractor beam, it holds our attention. While they knew they were being filmed, as soon as that TV went on, they went inside the TV. These are images from the outside in, being drawn by a screen that’s not present except at the end of the film. So yes, screens are very important, and nobody was told “can you make this face?” It was simply having to shoot an awful lot in order to capture those moments when people have these kinds of expressions or stares. All of that was unacted and non-self conscious.
I assume that some of the footage, such as the abandoned amusement park and ruined buildings, was in New Orleans?
Yes indeed. I wanted to go down there - I’m from New Orleans - and I wanted to go down after the hurricane, but I couldn’t get the backing for the kind of project I wanted. Those locations, having sat there for five years, no longer look like the result of a massive hurricane or flood. They look more like Pompeii or the ruins of modernity. In that sense I couldn’t have a set built better for the point of view for this film.
Did Visitors stem from wanting to capture post-Katrina New Orleans?
No, Visitors started in 2002 actually. I was finishing up Naqoyqatsi, and this idea of slow, very slow, of black and white, of something in another dimension - other worldly - came to me. I don’t don’t know how it came to, let’s just say it was an intuition. Then, taking years to find the money, of course those intuitions mature, and become more reflective because if I’m thinking about them, they’re thinking about me everyday, I’m really focused on it. There were seven years in prep and then a over three year period for the shooting, editing, and musical score.
What’s the collaboration process between you and Philip Glass? I’ve always assumed he writes to your images.
In a way, and in a way, not. It’s like a hand-in-glove operation. For almost all theatrical films music composers write what’s called music cues. Those are anywhere from a few seconds to a a few minutes and will include a thematic composition as well. Those are taken by the music editor or the film editor more properly now, or the director will chop it up and do what they want with it. The composer is paid off and frequently there’s not much traction between the composer and what the film is. That’s not always the case, but it’s certainly frequently the case. With Philip, I started to talk with him way back in the beginning of this century. When I go to New York, I sleep on his kitchen floor, we’re like family. He does an awful lot of listening and I do an awful lot of talking! Once we get the financing to this, he likes to go on location as much as possible. That’s almost totally rare for a composer. He wants to get the charge. Philip is not writing music cues, he’s writing a full orchestral piece that’ll be 87 minutes. Once we shoot the film, he comes to see all the selects in my studio in Brooklyn. He lives in Manhattan, that’s why I always go to New York to work, or do as much as possible there. Once the rough cut is made, which is based off a dramaturgical shaping I do with my crew, and let’s say there’s six discreet pieces of music like in Visitors, that’s enough to start at point one and go to point six. He can start anywhere he likes. I go and listen to it on piano, first off, and then I give him my comments. He might make a little change here or there or a big change depending on what my response is. Once he has it wherever he wants it, he sends it to my studio with digital recorded instruments and I use it, and we go back and forth at that point, one medium motivating the other. Once the film is locked, then, and only then, do we commit to the recording of the film. You can say it’s a full court press. If I use the body as a metaphor, all of our bodies are bilateral, so the film is like the body, it’s bilateral, meaning I couldn’t do the film without having Philip involved. He’s input is co-equal with the image. He is writing the emotive armchair for people to sit in and view the film.
You open and close the film with a shot of a gorilla, which I thought was very striking. What was that shooting process like?
Well, it was very difficult. Gorillas are generally - they have a certain a calmness to them, unlike chimpanzees and human beings. I shot it in the Bronx Zoo, and I had too shoot it through a big, thick glass. There were literally of thousands of viewers coming in all day long, I was on a little platform above them. The real King Kong in the room where the visitors coming to see the gorillas. People would go ballistic trying to get the gorilla to go ballistic. What we know about the gorilla is what Hollywood tells us. King Kong, Mighty Joe Young - We’re the real King Kong hanging by our t-a-l-e-s in the trees, as it were. The point of view for the gorilla is motivated by this beautiful quote from Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist, poet, a beautiful thinker, a philosopher. He says “we humans have not seen ourselves until we’ve been viewed through the eyes of another animal.” It seemed to me that we could all benefit from seeing ourselves in a way we don’t normally do so, and the gorilla became a vehicle for that. Now had I just shown you the gorilla in the zoo were they spent 30 million dollars to make it look like Africa, or had I gone to Africa to shoot the gorilla then we would be looking at a gorilla. But when I take the background out of the gorilla, out of the shot, then I have the “blackground” and the gorilla is now looking at us. It sets up a different kind of relationship completely.
Speaking of the “blackground”, the moments in the film that stuck with me the most were the shots of fingers and hands texting, typing and scrolling, but you don’t see the tools and instruments they’re using. When you take that out of the frame it’s like a finger ballet.
Whatever we do with our hands, our fingers, it patterns our brains. Whatever we look at, it patterns our brains. Whatever we hear, it patterns our brains. We become the environment we live in, we’re sensate beings. Our fingers our now in constant motion. I live off and on in New York, I’m now obsessed every time I go anywhere out of the studio, be it in the most reckless part of Brooklyn, or in inglorious Manhattan, at least half or three quarters of people on any given block are involved with their instruments of one type or another. Our fingers are dancing all over the place. It’s this addiction to the screen. It’s not so much what gives us back, it’s that it becomes addictive and obsessive. One would feel naked if they lost their gizmo because they have to keep checking it in case someone is trying to reach them or blah blah blah. I wanted to point that out by the finger play that we have.
There’s also distinct footage of the moon in Visitors. How did that come about?
Well, to me the moon is a grand metaphor. The moon has the blackness of space around it, it doesn’t have this beautiful blue balance of 63 to 68 miles above us. Of course, right beyond that blue is the black of space. I went to film this in black and white, and the moon becomes a metaphor for the Earth, and I wanted it to be as stark as possible and of course reveal the blackground of the atmosphere. I feel if we’re not careful we’re gonna end up with that same kind of blackground in our sky.