Film oftentimes offers room for interpretation. That’s the beauty of the medium (and any art form, really). The screen serves as a conduit for both kinetic and static images, which the viewer in turn analyzes through his/her subjective lens. Experiential filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s latest brainchild, Visitors, is of an altogether different gene pool, though. It’s ambiguity to the extreme. But then again that’s Reggio’s cinematic calling card, and something he’s embraced since his first feature film, the cult classic Koyaanisqatsi (meaning “life out of balance” in the Hopi language), was released in 1982.

Imagine an 87-minute-long hallucination juxtaposing shots of human faces, disembodied hands, the lunar surface, gorillas, Louisiana landscapes, and urban architectural decay, overlaid with an ominous, strings-driven score courtesy of composer Philip Glass, and voilà, the DNA of Visitors. Reggio, with the help of associate director and editor Jon Kane, transmits the surreality through beautiful long takes and extreme time-lapse sequences, allowing the eye to soak in the minute details and textures of every inch of the framed setting. We are certainly visitors to the bizarre world he creates.

Reggio, like his wholly visceral cinema, is unique. He spent 14 years (1954-68) training to be a Catholic monk within the Congregation of Christian Brothers, eventually abandoning the path and turning to film. Manufacturing movies, it would seem, was his higher calling. Visitors, which made its world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, marks the 73-year-old’s return to the screen after a decade-long absence — Naqoyqatsi (Life as War), his third and final film in the celebrated Qatsi Trilogy, hit theaters in 2002. GALO recently caught up with Reggio to discuss the director’s distinctive approach to filmmaking, the language of his wordless movies, and how audiences can find the meat on the hamburger.

Editorial note: Portions of this interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: You’ve described how the title word is where you start any filmmaking endeavor, and your word went through a few iterations before you settled on Visitors. How did you come to choose the title for the film?

Godfrey Reggio: I had several titles. There was one that I loved very much, but I felt it would get in the way of the film. It was called something like “holey moley,” “holy smoke,” or “holy see.” But it could’ve gotten confused with the Vatican, which wouldn’t have been very interesting, so I didn’t want to do that. In the course of that, I had another title in mind, Visitors, which came to me, like most things, with spontaneity at the shoot in New Orleans. It was [inscribed] on the wall of a building. I thought it would also make an excellent title, so we had it shot. What I loved about Visitors is that it’s a ubiquitous term. It’s in every culture, it can have any meaning you wish to put on it; it can mean something from outer space. Visitor, etymologically, is one who comes to see and that was what this film is about — it’s about coming to see.

GALO: Visitors is quite abstract and you’ve described it as ambiguous. What is the logic you used in the editing process to shape and structure the film, especially considering the whole movie consists of only 74 shots?

GR: There are many different forms of cinema. The one I use is not that prevalent, but certainly has a history. It’s called “poetic cinema.” This is not logic or linear or a story to be told. In other words, it’s not based in literature or screenplay, which is the theatrical equivalent of literature. It’s more about texture and text. So in that sense, rather than logic, it’s a pictorial composition and this is the way it was conceived from the beginning. Once we start, there’s a lot of writing — I write what’s called “talking papers” to get my crew onto the same page, so that when spontaneity happens, we’re ready to take advantage of it, but that wouldn’t happen until we’re extremely well-organized.

Once it is shot and all those notes go out the window, what we’re left with is the “words” of poetic cinema, which are themselves images. Of course, the shooting has a script — it deals with color, what the lens is going to be, whether the camera is going to be still or in motion, what the background of the shot is, and all of those are projected a priori. But once it’s shot and those images start to speak to me and my crew, that then determines how it’s put together rather than beforehand a priori a logical construct of what the film will be. In other words, if I knew what the film would be before I started it, then it wouldn’t be interesting in this case to make. It’s a wholly different process.

GALO: It sounds like spontaneity is an important part of your filmmaking, so what is involved in these “talking papers” that you draft for your crew?

GR: My films have no words, not for lack of love for the language, that’s for sure, but because I feel the language no longer describes the world in which we live. What I do, I try to put a blank slate in front of my head, my soul, and sit with it until it starts to speak to me. I know that could sound a little “ooga booga,” but that’s the process I use. Once it starts, I usually end up writing for anywhere from a week to several months for all these things that come to me, and I organize them spontaneously and not through logic, but more through the pictorial composition in my own imagination. Images and the feelings is what the film is trying to do. It’s what I call the “dramatic shape.” And that becomes the basis for the rough cut after the film is shot. It also becomes the basis for the beginning of the score. But that’s only the basis; we have to play with it a little bit.

I never experiment with my films. That’s a term that is put on the films because they are beyond the boundaries of traditional definitions, but I never try to experiment at all because the films are an experiential form. It’s not like we try this and try that and see if this works. It’s finding something that’s already present.

(Interview continued on next page)