Godfrey Reggio is the director of Visitors, but his long-time collaborators Philip Glass and Jon Kane are at least as important to the finished film. Glass's musical score and Kane's editorial acumen are essential components of Reggio's experimental documentaries. (Glass has been working with Reggio ever since 1982's Koyaanisqatsi; Kane joined the team with 2002's Naqoyqatsi.)
At the Toronto Film Festival the day after Visitors made its world premiere - with Glass's score played live by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra - the pair sat down to discuss their relationship with the filmmaker, the technique of the film and a few other things.
It's been 11 years since the release of Godfrey Reggio's last documentary, Naqoyqatsi. How long has Visitors been in development, and have you both been involved with it the whole time?
PHILIP GLASS It is important to remember that in Godfrey's lifetime, he's only made five movies. He's made fewer movies than Orson Welles made - and we're talking about two important filmmakers. I'd put Godfrey up there with Welles, who I think [directed] eight movies. He couldn't get the money! Godfrey couldn't get the money either. Between films, it took about 10 years to raise the money for the next movie. So that meant that we had a lot of time [laughing], and Godfrey had a lot of time to think about things. He'd talk with me a lot, he'd never stop working. He may not have been actively making a movie, but there were always thoughts going around. So his process has been continuous, even if the output of work has been discontinuous. And he has another movie he wants to make, by the way. The trouble is, I don't know if we all have 10 years left in us. [laughter]
I have to say, it amazes me that Reggio - and you, for that matter - still have to scrape financing together. You guys made Koyaanisqatsi, a film that still plays repertory theatres today. It seems ridiculous that you can't just go into an office somewhere and say, "We want to do another one. Let's go."
GLASS Oh, no, we can't. It doesn't work that way. The way the picture business works is, you have to make your money back on the first three weekends. If you don't make it back on the first three weekends, they yank the movie out of circulation and it goes right to video. You know that.
So what's Reggio's creative process like?
GLASS He's always been on the edge of new technology. With this film, Godfrey knew what he wanted, but in some ways he didn't know how to get it. He forced Jon to come up with ideas to make things happen. Is that true?
JON KANE He's one of the most low-tech people you'll ever meet, but the film we made is one of the most high-tech films that's probably gonna be released this year. He had these ideas and certain atmospheres and certain emotional landscapes that we were trying to make, [but] the technology that we employ to do that....
GLASS It didn't even exist.
KANE Some of it didn't even exist when we started. But that's my job: how are we gonna bring this idea to life? And his ideas led us into some areas of movie technology that are really not out yet. And he didn't know that that was gonna happen, but he did know that he wanted the film to be [produced] in high resolution. The reason the movie's in 4K is we wanted to be able to present it large and clear, and the reason we wanted to present it large is because a lot of the images are so intimate. So that's one of the ideas of the film: there's nothing more intimate and familiar than the human face, and seeing that [so] large makes you feel different than if you see it small. So in order to be able to do that, we have to finish the film in 4K, and when you do that you're into a whole area of technology that we're still all figuring out.
GLASS See, this is what Jon was talking about. This gives you more insight than I can give you into how [Reggio's] process is.
KANE We were talking about the demos for the music. As Phil was making the music, they were [produced] digitally. But then we went to all this great length to go to Austria and work with the Bruckner Orchestra to have it recorded by a real symphony orchestra, with real musicians, and it changed the colour of the music. And the same with the pictures.
And then last night it was screened with live accompaniment by members of the TSO, which changes it yet again, I'd imagine.
GLASS It's a good orchestra here. They're pretty damn good.
KANE They're really, really great.
GLASS What Jon points out is a very important point - the size of the image and how do you get there, and if you think of it that way then what else could I use but an orchestra? I really had no choice, but I wasn't even thinking that way. Godfrey was talking to me about this and that - half the time I don't even understand what he's saying.
KANE One of his themes was this idea of "monumental subtlety," which actually I think I came up with.
GLASS It's good!
KANE But it came from what he was talking about. There's a moment in the film where the little blonde girl, whom we called Cinderella - you're on her face for a long time, and she goes through some things, and if you're engaged in the film you're amazed. She moves her mouth just a little bit, and people gasp. So we tried to get to that place, but to get there required, we felt, a certain level of scale with the picture and the music so that you can bring the audience to this place where if someone moves their mouth just a little bit, it's gonna have as powerful an effect as a car screeching around a turn in an average movie.
GLASS We didn't have to do any stunt photography, did we?
KANE Well, there was some, but we won't get into that.
GLASS Okay. [laughter]
No, get into that, what are we talking about?
KANE There was a lot of manipulation of everything, but it's all invisible. We didn't manipulate any of the people's actions at all - not at all. Just with the people, it's all about stabilization, but they're actually reacting to different things. Cinderella, the blonde girl, is actually watching The Wizard Of Oz. We have this kind of half-mirror setup; she just sees the movie, she doesn't see the camera looking at her. So we didn't manipulate the way people's faces were reacting, but all manner of other things had to be sort of artificially created in order to make it seem like it's not artificially created.
There's probably a whole other documentary to be made about watching children respond to The Wizard Of Oz.
KANE Well, Godfrey did a movie called Evidence, which is like that. It's on YouTube. You should see it. It's all children watching movies and cartoons.
GLASS There's a piece of mine that I wrote for Koyaanisqatsi but was never used - I used to tease him, I used to say, "Godfrey, you took the best piece I wrote for Koyaanisqatsi and you didn't use it." And finally, 30 years later, he said, "Could I use it?" And I said [waving hand dismissively], "Yeah, yeah." And it's in Evidence.
KANE It's a study for this film.
GLASS It is a study. That was important. He did it in Italy, I think.
Now that Visitors is on the festival circuit, what's next? You said Godfrey has another movie he wants to do...
KANE Yeah, we're talking about a new film. Not much to talk about yet.
GLASS The history is it takes 10 years to come up with the money.
KANE [laughing] We're gonna speed it up this time.