Koyaanisqatsi: The makers of the film discuss how and why it was made

Interviews with Godfrey Reggio (director, writer) and Philip Glass (music), with discussion of Ron Fricke’s cinematography. 

From the 2002 DVD release: Godfrey Reggio (director), Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (MGM Video and DVD, 2002, original film release: 1982). 
Interview: 25 minutes. Feature film: 86 minutes 

About the film:

The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The film was well-received upon its release in 1982 and became renown in the decades since. In 2000, Koyaanisqatsi was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film contains neither dialogue nor narration. It’s impact is delivered through a combination of images and music, created through what the director called a trialectic between the director, cinematographer and music composer, as well as through a collaborative process involving many others who worked on the film at an unhurried pace over six years. In the Hopi language, the word koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life.” The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films which include Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The director explains his purpose in the interview that follows: “What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those of us that live in it: …the transiting from all-nature, or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu, into mass technology as the environment of life…We live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence.”

Editor's note: Portions of this interview have been cited in many reviews and research papers about the film, but it appears that no one has previously put the entire transcript on the Internet. I’m posting it here to make the text accessible for those who don’t have the DVD.


Godfrey Reggio:

These films are meant to provoke. They’re meant to offer an experience rather than an idea, or information, or a story about a knowable or a fictional subject.

Philip Glass:

If you can put yourself back into 1978 and looking at those images... Several generations have grown up looking at those images, but in 1978 they were extremely startling, and it was like looking at the world for the first time.

Godfrey Reggio:

They are meant fundamentally to stir up enough to actually create an experience of the subject. It is up to the viewer to take for herself what it is that means. So for some people it’s an environmental film. For some people it’s an ode to technology. For some people it’s a piece of shit. For other people it moves them deeply. It depends on who you ask. If someone’s trying to figure out why they’re watching the film, they’re probably not going to get into it. It’s more like taking a journey. It is the journey that is the objective, not the end place where we are going.

Philip Glass:

Earth, air, fire and water: those are the four elements, and in the alchemical system those become the basis of all matter, and we can say that the text, image and music are the basis of any kind of interdisciplinary art form, whether it’s opera, or film, or dance.

Godfrey Reggio:

I think there’s a thread in everyone’s life. In my life I entered a religious community of men at the age of 14, stayed till the age of 28, grew up, in effect, in the Middle Ages, which was remarkably insane and beautiful all at the same time. In other words, it wasn’t bad or good. It was bad and good at the same time, this and that, and I felt it gave me a very special preparation for life. The order that I was in prepared me to live a life of humility and service and prayer, and that certainly goes against the grain of 1950s New Orleans culture which is, let’s say, like la dolce vita. So at the tender age of thirteen, I felt like I had explored that enough and I was ready to move on through idealism. Like any adolescent, I was inspired by the life of other people whose lives moved me. These were religious men that taught me, so I joined their order.

How it influenced my films I can’t say in a specific way, other than I’ve always been, I guess, interested in and motivated by what stands behind the surface of things, and when you’re religious and doing meditation and mental prayer, and trying to go beyond words into some deep feeling with something that’s willful, then it helps you prepare. I guess I had a great preparation for discipline and focus in that mad time. I had come in touch with this extraordinary film by Luis Buñuel called Los Olvidados [The Forgotten Ones, English title: The Young and the Damned (1950)] and that film moved me, gave me the equivalent of a spiritual experience. With that film moving me so much, I felt that I would take that concern into a more plastic form of mass culture through film, and through the vehicle of the IRE.

The IRE is a term chosen by the members of the Institute for Regional Education. We started out to do a mass media campaign on the use of technology and surveillance to control behavior. It was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the project worked beautifully in a non-narrative form of visualization being presented on television at prime time, billboards at high traffic density areas, radio at drive time, with jingles, and all of which was to gather the attention of the public which was in an omnipresent gaze in the medium. So if we wanted to get something happening, we would try to put something in that medium, say like a bank or a liquor company, or cigarette companies.

Excerpt from an IRE public service announcement (narration by TV talking head):

... that few if any of us can understand: extensive information-gathering on every American, human experiments with drugs and psycho-surgery, electronic surveillance, the era of the computer, invasion of privacy, growing government and corporate power over our lives, a people plagued by dehumanization, loneliness, and violence. Dramatic? Perhaps, but we are losing control of our technology and our lives.

Godfrey Reggio:

And that led to the formation and development of the IRE out of which came our second project, Koyaanisqatsi. We wrote a book, the organization, colleagues and myself, which came into the Sunday supplement [of the newspaper] which went out to 125,000 people immediately. It was sent to prisons all over the country because it had a lot about prisoner rights and stuff. It’s just another way of getting information to the public in a manner whereby it’s almost unavoidable. We tried to take this campaign nationally. It failed. As a result, we wanted to continue in a mediated form because it seemed very efficacious and film became the next journey.

I also met Ron Fricke during that time. He was the cinematographer and collaborator on the moving image stuff for television that was done, the PSAs [Public Service Announcements], and I was amazed at his dedication, his artistry, his fanatical attention to detail, unquestionably a master of the highest form—and yet without all of the of the industry. He was an original and authentic guy out there lensing, a painter, a great sense of color composition, a mechanical genius, but add to that the brilliance of an eye that’s artistic and the sensibility of a very compassionate person who’s super-disciplined, and you have this monster cinematographer, director. He’s also a director now, so he was terrific. He was an absolute godsend for this project. Ron Fricke is a legitimate American genius.

Both he and I, and our colleagues, became so excited during the first period of shooting that I approached my angel [investor] and said, “Look, we must take this... We’re pushing the envelope. We’re trying to do something with no words.” Of course, we were all getting very involved and focused on this, and if we did it in 35 [mm film], we’d have a chance really to come out and be viable in the marketplace, as it were, to slip the grid with some freak show, and the angel went for that, and Ron Fricke and I worked together for almost six years to put that together.

To be truthful, to work with the likes of Ron Fricke, Philip Glass, my other collaborators, I feel like a blind man getting to work with those that can see. I don’t touch anything. I do now have to know about all these things in order to do my job better, but I deal through sensibility, through word, in a medium that’s not about words, and at the end of the day, nobody cares what my sensibility is, so I’m very lucky to deal like a blind person, like an illiterate person, like a deaf person, through the tremendous talent of these other collaborators.

I offer the locations. I talk about how I want to see them, how to approach the subject, how to take the background and make it the foreground. Those are my ideas, but how to realize that? I can only put them there. I expect, and get, from people like Fricke an artistic response. He is as involved in the life of this film as I am. Philip Glass is as involved. No one person, no two or three people made this film. It’s a work of many, many, many people, and without the soul of Fricke in there, it wouldn’t be present.

What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those of us that live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers, the obviousness of conflict, of social injustice, of the market welling up, of culture, but to me the greatest event, or the most important event of perhaps our entire history—nothing comparable in the past to this event—has fundamentally gone unnoticed, and the event is the following: the transiting from all-nature, or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu, into mass technology as the environment of life. So these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry, on people. It’s been that everyone, politics, education, the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion: all of that exists within the host of technology, so it’s not the effect of. It’s that everything exists within. It’s not that we use technology. We live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence.

So what I decided to do in making this film is to rip out all the foreground of a traditional film; the foreground being the actors, the characterization, the plot, the story. I tried to take the background, all of that that’s just supporting like wallpaper, and move that up into the foreground, make that the subject, ennoble it with the virtues of portraiture, and make that the presence.

So we looked at traffic as the event. We looked at the organization of a city as the equivalent of what a computer chip looks like. We looked at acceleration in density as qualities of a way of life that is not seen and goes unquestioned. Life unquestioned is life lived in a religious state.

I wished for Koyaanisqatsi not to have any name at all. The discussions were early enough on about the trilogy when I thought that we shouldn’t have a name; that we should have an image. Why use a word to describe something that we’re trying to say is it indescribable or unnamable.

It’s not for a lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live, and in that sense, going to these films, Koyaanisqatsi, since I was forced to take a word, I felt that I wanted a word that had no cultural baggage, that had no preconceived meaning surrounding it. And to take a word as inscrutable, from a non-literate language, from a culture of orality, I felt was fantastic. They have a whole different take on things. Everything that we call normal they call abnormal. Everything that we call sane they call insane. That was music to my ears because I was not trying in these films, in any of them, to make commentary on Hopis’ way of life or their culture. This is not an ethnographic film about Hopis. It’s not a collaboration with Hopi particulars. It’s the opportunity to find inspiration in another person’s point of view about the life that we all live, so in that sense it says salute to a language that is more powerful in its descriptive capacity to describe the world in which we live. So koyaanisqatsi means that... first of all, qatsi itself means life. It means way of life, life way. So koyaanis means crazy, turmoil, out of balance, disintegrating, a way of living that calls for another way of doing it. So it means a way of life that’s out of balance, a way of life that’s crazy, that’s in turmoil, a way of life that calls for another way of living.

We’re at a moment of great transition in the world called the day of purification, and from that purification will come a more balanced, harmonic life. Koyaanisqatsi was like a plague that had happened to them in the underworld, and that they tried to come into this world to avoid.

The definitions at the end are my commentaries, but they’re faithful to the root or the etymology of the word. Would people understand what that word means? I don’t know. Is it important that they take my understanding, trying to be true to the etymology of the word? That’s not important, either.

In most cases music is background to support plot and characterization, and to splay out an emotive theme, to create an atmosphere in the film, and the composers usually are highly professional and do their work under the director’s indication and give that to the director, and the director usually cuts it up. There are exceptions, but that’s generally the way it works.

Phillip Glass:

When I first met Godfrey in 1978, he called me up and he said, “Would I be interested in scoring a film?” and I said I don’t write movie music, which of course is kind of funny right now because I’ve done a bit of it since then, but he said, “This is a little bit different.”

Godfrey Reggio:

I talk more about mood and feeling. I leave the scape of mathematical contour to Phil. I try to get them on the platform. They let me drive them crazy, and I talk to them, write them papers, give them sheaves of notes, pictures, bring them to my studio, practically weep in front of them, and they come back with beautiful things.

Phillip Glass:

This mutual friend called me up and said, “Look. This guy’s from Santa Fe and he’s going to stay here until you look at what he has brought, so why don’t you just look at it, and then you can go home?” So we got together and we had the afternoon to ourselves. What I saw, basically, was, I guess, the first 40 minutes of the film—things like the cloudscapes where they’re all kind of qatsi, and maybe the pictures of The Four Corners [the border region of four US states: southeast Utah, southwest Colorado, northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona].

Godfrey Reggio:

It’s more about a symbiotic, a symbiosis, a chemistry, and Philip... You know, I’m sure in some way I probably rave on and he turns it off, but that’s OK. He lets me rave on.

Phillip Glass:

Actually, Godfrey did a very smart thing. He said I’m going to show you the movie—what I’ve done. I’m going to show it to you twice—once with a an electronic score that I’ve got, and once with your music, and he showed it to me both times and he said, “Well, as you can see, your music works much better.” So what could I say? Basically, I had said yes, so I was interested, and I said, “Oh, this is something I can do.”

Godfrey Reggio:

Philip’s ability, his quickness of mind, his interest, his ability to be enthusiastic, his capacity to produce was overwhelming. He’s disciplined to the point of being totally inspiring. I mean, it was the perfect person. He was on for the ride.

Philip Glass:

When he first gave me a cut of it, I divided the cut into sections, and I timed the sections. There were about 12 or 13 or 14, or maybe more, of different moments, and then I wrote music for each section, and I put it together. Then Godfrey listened to that music and he completely reassembled the images so it didn’t fit at all the way I thought it was going to, so, basically, I tried to put them together, and he pushed them apart in a certain way, and I think he was right to. What he did, in effect, was he took the ambiance of the music instead of the structure of the music, and he cut to the ambiance and not to the structure, so he cut to the feeling of the music, and not the way the music was built, which turned out to be the right way to do it.

Godfrey Reggio:

What I find in Philip is an enormous, extraordinary sensitivity. When I say Fricke’s a genius, certainly Mr. Glass is a perceptual musical genius, and here I get a chance to work with these two giants.

Philip Glass:

So we spent about three years. We had a very leisurely pace. No one was waiting for this movie. No one knew what it was going to be, and we ourselves had no idea who would look at it, and that was a tremendous advantage because we had time to look at things, to rewrite things, to recut things. In fact, we got into the habit of working interactively. He would show me images. I would show him music. We would recut. I would recompose. We would come back together again and we would look at it again. We would go through the process again, and on every one of the sections of Koyaanisqatsi we went through that process numerous times, so that we can say that truly the image and the music began to function organically together.

Godfrey Reggio:

The power of these pieces is that you can induce the meaning out of it that it stimulates in yourself. It’s like a trialectic relation between the music, the image, and the viewer. The viewer is an active participant. It’s not about going over the head of the viewer. We’re trying to go right into the solar plexus, right into something that is more akin to direct communion rather than going through the metaphor of language. So what better narration to have than that which can go directly into the sensibility, and hence the soul, of the viewer?

Philip Glass:

I came away from that experience very much prejudiced to thinking that that was the best way for image and music to work together, and I still think it’s true.

Godfrey Reggio:

The idea is to take these two mediums and create a fusion, not to make commentary, not to use it as a club to make a point, but to have it operate on their own tracks, but they find a level, if it’s efficacious, where there’s a fusion that takes place between those mediums.

Philip Glass:

It’s about observing accurately the distance between the image and the music, and this is a very different way of looking at it. For example, if you look at a commercial like a soft drink commercial, or a beer commercial, look at what’s happening. The pop of the can or the sound the music: they’re happening right on top of each other. There is no space in between them, and there’s not supposed to be a space because by doing it that way, that’s the propaganda aspect of it. There’s no room for you as a spectator to get in the middle, and the reason we don’t like commercials—though we give prizes for them, and people make a living at it, and so do I. My music is used in commercials too—the reason we don’t like them is because there’s no place for us in it. So starting from that extreme example, which is an everyday occurrence, if you just turn on your TV, the question is “What happens when they’re in that space?”

Let’s say there’s a distance between the image and the music, and when the spectator crosses that line, that’s when they personalize the event. That’s when it becomes theirs. The transaction between the music and the image happens during the time that the listener is traversing the space between the music and the image.

But you want to know all my secrets? I work so hard and I’m going to give them away on this video? Are you kidding? Well, I’ll tell you something. As a practical matter, let’s take a part of the film like Vessels. We called it Vessels because that was where you see all the airplanes, and at first I looked at the image and I said, “Well, what is the right music for this?” And I looked at the planes and what struck me as I looked at them was that planes are these enormous, huge things and yet when you see them in the air they seem so light and airy. And what I wanted to do was find a music that said that. That’s what I was trying to say, and so I chose voices. I took voices. Nothing is lighter and airier than voices. And I put the voices against the image of the planes, and boom you had it. And then I began writing music for voices. I wrote a vocal composition to be listened to while we looked at the planes, and then it made us look at the planes in a different way.

So, in other words, the music has a powerful ability to tell us what we’re seeing. The interesting thing about The Grid [a segment of the film] is that the world doesn’t really look like that, and yet it does. The world doesn’t really go along at... How many times faster than real life are those images moving? A hundred times? 200 times? 300 times? The cars become lights that are moving. He said, “Well, this isn’t real, and yet of course, from some perspective, it is real.” It is certainly real from the perspective that we have when we’re looking at it. In other words, what Godfrey is showing you in that image—and this is what I got out of it—was that the world has a lot of ways of appearing to us. The way we see it is a cultural thing. It’s a conditioned thing.

Godfrey Reggio:

In the image that the people were seen taking the wieners out of whatever that big squirting machine is where they come out... the same stuff that makes baloney, fundamentally, makes hot dogs. They change the formula a bit… and the same thing with the ladies with the Twinkies. Hot dogs and Twinkies are Americana, and so I felt that they would certainly fit in there.

Someone asked me what the film was about once, and I said it’s about awesome beauty, terrible beauty or the beauty of the beast. Some people say, “Well, is the film so celebratory of technology?” Well, I didn’t want to show the obviousness of injustice, of social deprivation, of war, of etc. I wanted to show that which we’re most proud of. Our shining beast, our way of life, so it was about the beauty of this beast. I think in terms of the feeling of the piece, I can’t think about what people are going to think about it. What are the critics going to say? I’m trying to bring some resolution and realize that myself. It’s a struggle. It’s a process that gets us this. I do write a scenario, and I do have a point of view, but at a certain point the words have to just disappear off the page as the image and the sound become that which you’re responding to, and it tells you how to shape it. It speaks to you. You’re trying to stay in touch with it, that which you’ve helped to create.

See also:

Richard Whittaker, “Interview: Godfrey Reggio: A Call for Another Way of Living,Works and Conversations, February 18, 2006.

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