TORONTO — A first meeting with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio can be a bit unsettling. When I was ushered in to talk with him at last fall’s Toronto International Film festival, the morning after seeing his new film “Visitors,” he was seated in a comfy chair. When he slowly rose to shake my hand, he seemed to keep on rising, till he was towering over me at his full 6 feet 7 inches. He’s also thin and gangly, with a white beard and a messy flop of graying hair. It was quite a sight to take in. Then he spoke. It’s a deep, rich, mellifluous voice, and the words came out very slowly, as if each one was carefully being formed and measured before it was uttered.
Reggio, 73, has only made four feature films, along with three shorts, in a film career that began in 1975, when he set to work on “Koyaanisqatsi,” a wordless visual extravaganza, accompanied by a Philip Glass score about, some would say, the rise and fall and rise and fall of Western civilization. The film was released in 1982, to international accolades. Reggio’s “qatsi trilogy,” taking in “Powaqqatsi” (1988) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002) with only Glass’s music for sound, is the work of a visionary. The films look at our world and its people in a way never done before. Reggio doesn’t call them documentaries. He refers to them as experiential – every viewer will see and interpret each film in a different way.
But while those films concentrated on people and places, “Visitors,” again wordless, again with a score by Glass, but this time shot in stunning black and white, zeroes in on faces and places. It’s a study, often in extreme close-up, of all sorts of people of different genders, ages, ethnicities – and of one gorilla – all staring at us as we are staring at them. Like meeting Reggio, it’s at first a bit unsettling, until something clicks and it becomes mesmerizing.
Q. Why is the film called “Visitors?”
A. I had a number of other titles: “Savage Eden,” “El Duende,” “Once Within a Time,” “the holy see.” But “Visitors” became the title to go with. The etymology of the word means to see or come to see. Since the subject of this film is the audience watching the film, and the film watching the audience, it’s all about seeing. So I felt it was the most ubiquitous term we could use.
Q. Is it true that you were already formulating ideas for this film 10 years ago, when you were finishing “Naqoyqatsi”?
A. Yes, but the idea was only in nascent form. It didn’t have the clarity of a screenplay, it was more of a process. It’s something that you sit with, and it develops. It’s not something where you have a flash of the clarity of the full film in front of you. There was a lot of writing. My medium is actually the word. I know that sounds strange, since I make films without words. But because I feel our words no longer describe the world in which we live, I’m happy to give up those words. We’re dealing not with a narrative or with actors that have spoken lines; we’re dealing with images that have feelings and their own articulation. There was a script. But once the film is shot, all of that goes out the window and it starts to motivate how we’re going to put it together. It’s all shot, however, from the point of view of what the edit might be: lenses, color, whether the camera is still or in motion.
Q. Your producer Jon Kane said in an earlier interview that you work out your films in advance on white boards, and that the boards “have the scrawlings of a madman.” Could you please comment on that?
A. I scribble a lot. I like to write on a board because it’s not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I speak, therefore I think.” That’s how I feel when I write. When I get in the act of writing, the thoughts come to me. I don’t want to say it’s automatic writing because that’ll sound too weird. But I use the white boards because they’re very easy. And when I’m finished writing on the boards, someone takes a snapshot of it for me. . . . It’s a way to pull things out of myself, and then they’re very easy to make records of, because they’re there.
Q. The people in the film are sometimes staring, sometimes reacting to something that we never see. What did you say to your subjects before you turned the camera on?
A. As little as possible. Let’s take the blond-headed little girl, about 38 minutes into the film. She’s 6 years old. It was about a three-minute shot [in the film]. The direction is more the context in which we put her. Let me explain. She was watching television in a studio in Brooklyn. She was an extra. All of the people in the film were registered as extras, and each person sat for about 15 minutes to look at the TV. I knew that the second a TV set goes on, people act like a tractor beam has taken them, and they go into the state I wanted which, if you want to look at it in terms of a direction, is a non-self-conscious state. So the medium, itself, produced the direction.
Q. What was on the TV?
A. Anything. Maybe it was “Cinderella” or “Dumbo.” It didn’t matter; it’s the medium itself. It’s light. We’re all attracted to light, like a moth on a light bulb.
Q. The pace of the film is very slow, and it’s in black and white. What are your thoughts on how people will be affected by it?
A. I see the film as a meditation. I see it as a transcendental event. I see it as going counterintuitive to technological filmmaking, by virtue of its stillness. The modus operandi of the film is the moving still. [H]aving it moving inhumanly slow . . . and black and white is much more emotional, less contemporized. It brings more depth to the image. Half of the image is involved with the blackground. It’s all about grand subtlety.
Q. The blackground?
A. All of the black [behind the people] is a special effect. Actually, there are many special effects in this film, but they’re hidden in plain sight. The whole film is based on a special effect. Everything. We removed objects. In the shots of people’s hands, there was a Blackberry, there was a pad with a mouse. But we removed them. Those were my daughter’s hands playing a piece on a piano, but we removed the piano. There was the pan shot across all of those people, ending up at the gorilla. Well, the gorilla wasn’t sitting in the studio with the people, and the people were not sitting next to each other. They were all filmed separately. But because of the blackgound, it allowed us to play with those images and make some magic. That’s my wife’s term. When she looked at what I was doing, she said, “This is the blackground, Godfrey.” And I love it. Each shot took a lot of time. That’s why it took 23 months to make the film, after seven years of looking for the money.
Q. Have your previous films been successful monetarily?
A. “Koyaanisqatsi” has made an awful lot of money . . . for somebody. It got ripped off everywhere, but we haven’t had the money to pursue that. The angels that put in their money got their investments back, but the film has a life of its own. It’s like a child. It’s out there in the world.