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Face to face with visionary 'Visitors' director Godfrey Reggio

Legendary director Godfrey Reggio ("Koyaanisqatsi") took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about his latest work, the visually stunning "Visitors". Unfortunately, the interview wasn't a face to face but, it was transcribed in its entiriety from a telephone conversation with the filmmaker. Reggio came off sounding as eloquent as the films he makes in this candid interview. So read on to find out about what it really takes for a true artist to complete his vision to that wonderful form known as celluloid.

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Q: What was the meaning behind these visuals in "Visitors"? What themes were you trying to explore?

A: Well first of all, meaning is in the eye of the beholder. In terms of the meaning that I put in, I want to state that all meaning comes from the form. That’s what art is about so that art is free. Each person sees the form in a completely different way so if there are five people watching the movie, there could be five different points of views. We all see a different picture as it were.

The images that I chose represent four categories. To be as generic as possible, lets take the first one; locations. I look at locations as characters, like the genius loci. We all know that term. Every location, as it were, has its own voice, its own genius, its own articulations so I’m not looking at locations as background for a text or for a story, but more for a story that comes from the voice of the location itself.

So those, the locations in this film, were the moon, some buildings of ancient modernity, an abandoned amusement park, a swamp, garbage, a bone yard. These are all characters in the film. The other three characters are a gorilla, humans and cyborgs. The gorilla in this case is the adult in the room. She is a female lowland gorilla whose face I felt most resembled that of human beings. The inspiration for using a gorilla is from Loren Eiseley’s beautiful quote “We’ve not seen ourselves until we’ve been seen through the eyes of another animal.”

The humans in this film are the first set of portraits. Again, none of the portraits were developed in terms of telling people what to think, or how to look, or not to blink, or were simply sitting for a portrait. The point of view there is that the human faith reveals enormous amounts, not only about that person, but as that person looks at you. The intention of this film is not so much a subject matter as the act of seeing or looking. You know, I’m sure that the various arts paintings about seeing music, is about hearing poetry, is about speaking dance, is about motion and film is about seeing in time or the moving image so it’s to present these characters.

The third character is the cyborg. You and me. Those of us texting, Googling in cyberspace. These are not cyborgs of science fiction, but more like the fiction of science. So, between those three characters or groups of characters, and the characters of the landscape, make up a code of those subjects in the film.

Q: How many takes did you do for each shot? Were a lot of them storyboarded?

A: The whole film is conceptually storyboarded because lets take the gorilla for example, we can’t tell Triska, that’s her name, this 26 year old gorilla in the Bronx Zoo, what to do. So, we have to wait for that moment of grace which means the camera has to be running pretty much the whole time and we shot at the Bronx Zoo three times. It was only on the third shoot that for whatever reason, beyond my understanding, this particular gorilla, Triska, looked right into the lens of the camera for over 19 minutes so we were very fortunate that it was enough to get the three shots that we have in the film. I want to also add parenthetically, that if we had been looking at a gorilla in Uganda or in the Bronx Zoo, where they spent 34 million dollars to make it look like Africa, then we would be looking at a gorilla but if you take the background out of the gorilla, but then of course, the gorilla is looking at you, the gorilla now is in the blackground? . As for the other shots, each portrait lasts almost two minutes in its photography and some of them are on the screen close to that long, others are a minute or more. There were 143 takes of which there are 6 in the film. Photography, once you’re shooting, is the things you want to do the most of because only after seeing the image does it speak to you and you know whether you have any connect with what you were doing and then as far as cyborgs, the children are watching TV, the gamers, people in the sports bar, we asked them to do nothing other than what they ordinarily do we didn’t ask them to act for sure, but knowing that as soon as the TV or gizmo comes on with a screen, it’s like a tractor beam it pulls the attention of the viewer right outside its self-conscious states and that’s why you can see emotive states and automaticities, facial displays, eye behavior, all of which is in response to the predicate that’s not seen on the screen so those are the three kinds of responses for those people but again we shot probably in the neighborhood of over 150 subjects to get the few subjects that are in the five word category.

Q: Were the faces used in the film actors, people from the did you find them?

A: They were people from the street, friends, people at a sports bar, people in the business called extras, who were certainly not actors, their background to characterization and plot in a traditional film. It was ordinary people like you and me chosen either out of an extra pool, or through friends or going to street corners or going to sports bars because they’re specifically directed not to act. We put them in a situation where what we recorded was only what they normally do anyway.

Q: Were looks used as a determining factor in the faces you used? Did they remind you of people you know?

A: Well, yeah. Again, it’s all about editing. We were looking for emotive states and some of the subjects have much more emotion in their expression than others, so that’s why we chose them.

Q: Composer Phillip Glass seems to hold the abstract imagery together in all your films. Did you work together as a team or individually?

A: No, it’s always as a team. As a collaborative forum between myself, Phillip, cinematographer Jon Kane and the rest of the editing crew, the graphic artists, the producers. It’s a collaborative forum. He doesn’t have an assignment - he’s there with us to create the film, so in that sense, it is one of the more difficult forms of collaboration. Obviously, we all have enormous egos, which is good I think, but vanity of ego would kill the project so some people who are extraordinarily talented, but possessed by vanity of ego, can’t collaborate in this kind of forum. The relationship with Phillip Glass is one of complete collaboration.

I asked Phillip never to write until he’s been marinated as it were in the subject, the ethos, the point of view, the feeling of the film and then he goes back and remembers to forget everything that I said because he wants an original response. I take him to the location, the studio where we were shooting the subjects. Then he writes what he feels in the moment. I then listen to it on the piano if we feel it’s grabbing, then he has it transliterated as it were with digital sounds on an emulator. We get those as a scratch tract and then we start working it back and forth and one median motivates the other. It’s a complete integration of composer and film. He’s co-equal. His participation is half the film with the image.

Q: Do you feel 'pigeon holed' as a famed director of experimental films?

A: Well, first of all, I would like to reject the word experimental. I’m not a scientist and that’s what happens in science. These are experiential films. You have films that are present and my job is to discover them within myself and in a collaborative forum within my colleagues.

I look at the films more like a cine monad; a monad is something beyond the boundaries of definition. The films that I do, when they are released, they don’t know whether to put them into DA, musical, or a category called experimental, which I don’t like. Art, it’s a poetic cinema and because there are many paths to the source in film. So, Yes, I have been pigeonholed, but that’s a subjective response from the public and that’s up to them

Q: Do you have any desires to do a drama, comedy or more 'commercial like' films?

A: Not really, no. Though I am working on a film now. A neo-fairytale, comedic piece written for children, to be vastly different from Visitors though not in the form of literature it will be with Phillip Glass again, with a very large children’s choir.

Children will make up a great part of the people that are on the screen, and I am very much looking forward to it. It will be quite different from the other works we’ve done together.

Q: Some Critics have described "Visitors" as an artsy staring contest. Was one of the major themes to show how little we communicate with one another without face to face and/or eye contact anymore?

A: No, not really. This film is about seeing. It’s about observation. It’s about how we see and everyone sees in a different way so it’s completely up to the viewer. Artsy, artistic, those are terms that are banners when usually there’s little understanding of what’s on the screen. Everyone’s free to have his or her own point of view. It’s not written as to what this means, it’s up to the viewer, which is what art is about. You don’t want to explain the explanation.


The Pittsburgh Indie Movie Examiner would like like to thank Mr. Reggio for this insightful interview, as well as, the PR Firm, Bender/Helper Impact, in coordinating this Q&A session.

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