Exploring the Depths of ‘Visitors’ With Directors Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane

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“The meaning is in the eye of the beholder; we all see a different picture,” says director Godfrey Reggio. “So the beauty of art is that it has no intrinsic meaning—it has meaning to the person who is willing to drop the familiar and take another path.” And throughout his decade-spanning career, the experiential filmmaker has never been one to delve into familiar territory. With his visually stunning documentary films, he wishes to guide you into an immersive experience where the film becomes a reflection of those who view it, a trigger to spark your prime emotional sensors, and a canvas for which you can imprint yourself upon.

Best known for his Qatsi trilogy— Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi—Reggio’s directorial style exists in the poetry of cinema, in the unspoken ineffable sensation when sound and image amalgamate to produce a deep feeling within you. Having worked with iconic composer Philip Glass for over three decades now, Reggio’s work has become synonymous with the brilliant composer, whose music not only accompanies each film but acts as a character of its own, elevating the visual essay of images and movements to a place of exquisite beauty.

And with his latest film Visitors, Reggio and his associate director/editorJon Kane spent years developing the astounding black and white feature—a “wordless portrait of modern life,” that, “reveals humanity’s trancelike relationship with technology, which, when commandeered by extreme emotional states, produces massive effects far beyond the human species.” And as Reggio’s films are wont to be, it’s a visceral and immersive film experience  that captures you slowly with its astounding grace and holds you captive before truly unleashing its potent strength. Composed of seventy-four shots, Visitors is a cinematic endeavor that connects its audience with the screen in a way only Reggio’s work can.

A few weeks back, just after Reggio, Kane, Glass, and Steve Soderbergh all reconvened at the Museum of the Moving Image for a screening and discussion of the film, I got the chance to sit down with Reggio and Kane to go deeper into their artistic intentions, the commune-like creation process, and the provocation of beauty.

You’ve spoken a lot about how your intent is for the viewer to have an immersive experience while watching your films. Yesterday, you were very adamant that we view the film as experiential and not experimental. Can you delve a little farther into your definition of such?

Godfrey Reggio: I don’t want to be pedantic about it, but it rubs me a little wrong. I’ll give you an example in another medium: Philip Glass wrote his own musical language, really, right out of the blue. He has influences for sure, but he created a new language of music. And because critics didn’t know how to approach that, they call it minimalism. It’s not only Philip, there’s a whole genre of composers that fall into that. What it means is, it’s different from the 12-tone western scale of classical music and to call it minimal is to miss what it is. It’s metamorphic—it helps change one. Well, the same thing with cinema—if science is where people experiment and they try things out, it’s call the deductive method. In cinema, that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. I’m trying to find what’s already present from a voice within myself. And again, I want to comment clearly what I said yesterday that  “I means we.” This means Jon, Philip, and all the great crew Jon brought to the work. But what we have to do is find together what’s already present, and our interests are the interest of the project, which is to create an experience for the viewer.

As anyone knows about an experience—let’s use painting, if you go to a museum and 20 people all look at a painting, if there aren’t 20 different paintings or points of view about it, it’s not really art—it’s propaganda or advertising. The same thing with the sunset. What does a sunset mean? It has no meaning, but it can be incredibly meaningful. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder; we all see a different picture. So the beauty of art is that it has no intrinsic meaning. It has meaning to the person who is willing to drop the familiar and take another path. In that sense, we can offer them an experience of the subject, rather than being told a story about the subject. These films are not a story to be told. So all meaning is in the form, in this case. Of course, as I said yesterday, nine out of eight films are done by screenplay or are theatrical films with a story to be told—characterization, plot, etc. If you take all of that out of the foreground, you’re left with the background. What I do is rip all of that tradition out of the film, and the background or what you usually call second unit production in the business, becomes the foreground. We would shoot a building like you would shoot Tom Cruise—give it that much meaning, literally, that much oomph. None of these films are ever shot in a documentary fashion, which means literally in docs the image is illustrating what the voiceover is talking about is saying—and here there’s no illustration of that.

Jon Kane: We’re making everything into an icon of an idea. Also, you were saying about stripping away the narrative, that’s also quite difficult to do when you’re not working with abstract imagery but with real things and people. The mind tends to want to create meaning and associations, so in the editing, if you put one thing next to another it often adds up to the third idea in a hurry. We were constructing the flow of the film so that it leaves open the interpretation of the audience. It was actually something to avoid being didactic and saying, here’s the time you’re supposed to feel awe for nature or you’re supposed to feel like this is bad or good.

GR: It’s autodidactic—and what I mean by the that is, you are the subject of the film. So you are the screenwriter, you are the character, you are the storyteller, and the plot of the film. Also with these film, if they have grace, they unleash the three aesthetic triplets of sensation that reside within us all: emotion, and perception. The film is to engage a conversation with those three dear triplets that are inside of you and me and everyone on the planet.

What I found interesting is that the act of watching a film in a theater is such a shared experience—especially in a theater like Museum of the Moving Image where you even said there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. However, although we’re in it all experiencing it together, everyone is seeing something completely different and impressing their world upon what they see on screen.

GR: In that sense, a film like this is usually the odd one out. Perhaps now it can be he odd one in. It takes them to a medium where it’s a freak.

JK: That’s something we talked about a lot—if there’s 200 people in the room, there should be 200 movies that play.

You had said what originally got you into Godfrey’s work was a love for the amalgamation of image and sound and how that can speak volumes without words.

JK: It can tell a bigger story in a shorter amount of time, a deeper story.

Yeah, I find the films I’m most drawn to exercise that heavily and can speak to our emotions without proper language. Godfrey, how do you imprint that idea into your work and then Jon, how do you translate it?

GR: The reason these films have no words is not for lack of love of language. In fact, if I had to say my love for anything it would language—but a language, that from my point of view, no longer describes the world in which we live. It describes the world that’s no longer here, so it’s like an ancient point of view about the world that’s completely changed. So our language lacks the oomph to describe what’s happening. This famous statement, “a picture’s worth  thousand words”—try to take that idea and make metaphorically a thousand images that give you the power of one word. It gives you another point of view to see the world through another language.

JK: After college I went to work at MTV, and that was right when the whole explosion of music videos was happening. The first music videos are funny to watch because they’re trying to tell a linear story with lyrics, but then they started to change and cuts got faster and they became more abstract. The video and the words and the music started to be their own thing, which made another thing, so then advertisers wanted to glom onto the MTV style—meantime, Koyaanisqatsi was before all of that, so it had a huge influence on that whole next string of culture because it pre-dated all of that.

How was the transition from commercial directing to going to work with Godfrey?

JK: It’s very gratifying and difficult.

Did it feel freeing as an artist?

JK: Definitely freeing, but in a way, we have a greater responsibility to the subject matter when we make art in this way. There’s no this corporate criteria, our criteria is totally to do with the work and the art and the language that we’re creating.  So it’s really nice to be doing something that comes from what you feel and want to do, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easier, it’s actually harder. It’s much easier to go into a meeting and have them say, okay we’re going to need this this and this and at this point point people are supposed to cry and at this point people are supposed to be happy and they want someone to buy the thing. It’s like there’s a roadmap. When Godfrey and I work together there’s not really a roadmap. We’re going on a road trip in a direction, but how we get there and where we’re going to arrive is very open to the process.

What is the process like between you two?

GR: Well, it’s between Jon and I and Philip and about fifteen other people on a regular basis. It’s a collaborative process. These films are certainly beyond any one person’s capacity to pull off—certainly, let me speak for myself, way beyond my capacity. So as I said, I always want to work with more talented people—like where I feel like a blind person working through Jon’s eyes, a deaf person working through Philip’s ears. The essence of collaboration is that when I say, “I” means “we”—and in that sense, all together we make up one. So I know immediately if it’s going to synch, we need to have one breath, one heartbeat, which doesn’t mean everybody loses their input to who they are, it just means that we’re all imputing into the same thing, each in their own unique capacity.

JK: In practical terms though, we do something that’s very unique in making films. We sort of make a commune around my studios in Red Hook. So we have this kind of home—Godfrey lives in Red Hook where the studios are, I live there, and we meet at this place, my studio everyday. Godfrey set up a bell and we ring the bell at ten o’clock, it comes from his days as a monk. There’s order to this thing. We sit down, we have our meeting, we spend all of the time together everyday in what he calls “the tank.” We have a chef there that cooks for us, we don’t really leave the place.

GR: We socialize everything together.

JK: Everything’s like we’re in a home. There’s a fireplace and we’re on the water. It’s an environment that’s conducive to the kind of work that we do, but really we spend all of our time there. We edit in this theater environment and we basically  start with a long discussion that begins with Godfrey’s ideas. For example, we’re talking about a next movie and he has an outline and beginning ideas to start the conversation.

Is Philip there for that part of the process as well?

JK: Well, Godfrey speaks to Philip all the time.

GR: I speak to him all the time and way before we got money to start the project, I’d been talking with Philip about this film since 2003. I come to New York and usually stay on his kitchen floor and take care of the kids, take walks with him, and speak with him until I drive him nuts—that way he gets on the same page. When I’m finished here this evening, I’m heading to Philip’s home to yap at him again about about our new project.

JK: Philip also comes to our shoots. He’s a real equal collaborator.

GR: He’s part of the community. And I want to just parenthetically say that I have made six films with my collaborators,and Visitors is the only film where I haven’t lived in my studio—only because it was not allowed by the owner of the building.

JK: Well, we got him an apartment right down the street. But when we did Naqoyqatsi he lived in the studio.

GR: It’s kind of intense for the crew because you don’t make this film, you have to live it. It’s a different modality.

JK: But all the crew—all the guys—we came up together. They’re younger now and didn’t work around the MTV, but it’s not difficult for us to make the switch from the commercial world. It’s a welcome thing. We want to get involved with something where we can really make something.. Making commercials is like an obstacle course you set up for dogs, like you’re testing if they can jump here and there—that’s what they’re doing with me. Here’s a check instead of a treat. But this is the real work and it’s not like that at all. We bring all our sensibilities to it and try to get away from any false criteria.

You spent so many years working on this project, and working so closely together— when you’re done working on the film, how is it to step away from that world you’ve been so heavily a part of for so long?

JK: I had a nervous breakdown over the summer. We finished in June. Godfrey was fine, he went on road trip. But for me,  everybody disappears all of a sudden and you have to go back and deal with commercial people, it’s kind of a drag.

GR: It’s like being committed—but not with grace or gratitude—to an insane asylum and you have to live it. Remarkably it’s like midwifing a child—once the child is born. So it’s something you don’t have a choice in. Well, do you, but once you start, you give that up and it chooses you. So it makes for whole different way of doing things. It’s not a job, it’s something that’s a life work.

You touched on this before, the sentiment to not want to manipulate the sequences, but did you have an idea of how each portion or movement of the film would unfold?

GR: There’s general feelings about things, but because it’s pictorial composition, the biggest effort comes in how the photography is shot.

JK: But Godfrey, even for the next film, there’s a lot of prep. Visitors, before we shot anything, it was already organized in movements—there were three movements: an intro, an epilogue, and tissues in between the movements. It was pretty specific.

GR: And we know where it’s headed, at least intentionally. That tells you also how you might wish to shoot it, because as I said, it’s pictorial composition and once you shoot it, all the paper goes out the window and you start letting it speak to you. The mistakes you make shooting, which are many at the time, become your best teachers as to how to shoot it properly. So for example, the gorilla you see, the very first shoot in 2010 at the Bronx Zoo, we went there and made some technical mistakes—for all kinds of reasons, unimportant why—and we didn’t end up with what we wanted. We go some great gorillas but they weren’t at the resolution we wanted.

JK: We were finishing this film in 4K, but there are new cameras now that we didn’t have.

GR: Well, the cameras we were using were prototype cameras at the end of the day.

Because you were shooting for so long, did you have to change your own ability to fit with what was happening technologically.

JK: Totally.

GR: Well, to get the resolution, but you have to have the mediums to work with. So fortunately, one of the cinematographers is a person that busted on the scene about a few years ago and became a genius cinematographer. He’s self-taught and has a following everywhere, and he got involved in that because of Koyaanisqatsi . So when I found out through a friend who this guy was, he jumped all over and said oh, he’s a good personal friend of the owner of the Red camera company. So it was through him that we were able to facilitate getting all kinds of stuff that wasn’t on the market yet.

How did you come upon the locations and what significance did they hold for you?

GR: Because the film, in feelings started, started so many years ago, and I being from New Orleans, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina that went through there. But I couldn’t get any money at that time, and as things would be, it’s better that I didn’t because had I got the money then, I would have wanted to shoot there. I wanted to shoot there before the hurricane, and after the hurricane was even more motivated, but it would have looked like the catastrophe of the hurricane. And now which was five years later in 2010, it didn’t look like that any longer, it looked like the ruins of modernity.

So it had a whole other presence to it that was very fortunate. All of the location of the swamps, the big oak tree, they were all things I grew up with as a child. My father was born less than two miles from the swamp, as a teenager I used t0 be in that swamp all that time, I played on that tree as a kid, I was in a terrible accident at 14 and just about killed myself and my buddy in my father’s car, and I went to the emergency room in that place. So I knew that city well, and it’s like a beautiful woman, it had a big attraction for me, and I wanted to try to lens it and give it some energy.

How did it feel revisiting those places now and sharing that beauty and attraction to others through your own expression?

GR: It’s all very present to me now. I want it always to be beautiful, because beauty, the etymology of the word in greek is kallos, and the etymology of kallos means to provoke. So something beautiful is not just to be placid, something beautiful is to provoke the soul, and to make it as beautiful as possible keeps it alive and makes it a provocation—and a truth can be revealed through beauty, as we all know.

When did Soderbergh come get involved?

GR:  I remember the date, March the 19th, 2000. At BAM, they were playing some of my films there with Philip Glass, and the New York Times had covered Philip Glass so extensively that they didn’t want to do another article on him, so they asked if I would be willing to have an article done. I said under one condition, that I could talk about the new project that I wanted to do. And to make a long story short, the article happened and Soderbergh read that and that day Philip got a call from his producer because he knew someone that knew Philip. So he gave me a number to call and Soderbergh said, “can you come to LA right away?” And I said, “You bet!” He said that he couldn’t believe I don’t have the money—it took eleven years—and he said, “Do you the emotional fortitude to go froward, or will you collapse?” And I said that I absolutely did and I’m ready to go.

So anyway, he was the angel for not  Naqoyqatsi and he tried with reality to get me money for the other film early on, but it never happened. So when this film was just about completed, just out of courtesy, I wanted him to see it and I knew he was in New York and I had his number, so I called him and invited him to Jon’s studio. He came and was blown away—what can I say? So he said, I want to do anything possible to get this film seen. And so that wasn’t just a lot of bullshit, he became the driver of the distribution bus and led the whole thing.

JK: As soon as he put his name to it we got distribution.

GR: He met with us on a regular basis and still does and makes phone calls, and for a guy like this, he’s basically inaccessible.

What he said that he admires about your work is that it’s so far removed from anything he would ever do, or could do. And although you two are, of course, very different filmmakers, you’re both adamant about not repeating yourself and with his films, each are so different and reinvent him as director. Is that something that echoed in you as well?

GR: You don’t want to redo what you’ve already done, so in my case, with the work that Jon and I do, the opportunities are limited because you’re using a medium that has real limitations. So how can you create a new language, a visual language out of the modalities of the camera, light, whether you’re using digital or negatives with different technical capacities, all of that’s evolved, so it pushes the envelope.