Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh visited the Coolidge Corner Theatre last week to present an advance screening of “Once Within a Time,” the latest brain-bending, psychedelic experiment from 82-year-old monk-turned-filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, whose 1982 “Koyaanisqatsi” melted minds with its trippy, time-lapse vision of a modern world run amok. Like that film and its similarly wordless, increasingly alarmist sequels — 1998’s “Powaqqatsi” and 2002’s “Naqoyqatsi” – “Once Within a Time” utilizes bleeding edge technology to indict a culture losing touch with its humanity, an intriguing oxymoron at the heart of Reggio’s work.
Soderbergh got on board the Godfrey train some 20-odd years ago as an executive producer of “Naqoyqatsi,” brokering a distribution deal because “I was able to bundle it with another quote-unquote normal movie that people were interested in doing.” When no such offers were forthcoming for the new film, Soderbergh went so far as to finance the project out of his own pocket. “Selling the yacht was painful, but worth it,” he jokes.
The damnedest thing you’ll see this year – or maybe any year – “Once Within a Time” follows a group of children as they flee the clutches of a techno-dystopia, guided by a singing tree-lady and some sort of prophet played by Mike Tyson. Powered by a propulsive Philip Glass score, the dialogue-free movie harkens back to the very first silent shorts, digitally re-creating early cinema’s hand-painted color effects, errant brushstrokes and all. It’s one spectacular image after another, with the actors digitally composited into meticulous, miniature sets.
This is not a picture particularly interested in subtlety. One scene finds the kids trapped in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland inside of an hourglass, while an ape swings from power lines wearing virtual reality goggles that show him how the world used to be. A pack of wolves howl around a cell phone that towers over them like the “2001” monolith, its screen lit up with footage from Georges Méliès 1902 film, “A Trip to the Moon.” The film ends with a question asked via on screen text in seven different languages, "Which age is this: the sunset or the dawn?”
“It took about a year for us to figure out how to do it so it didn’t look like an Instagram filter,” explains co-director Jon Kane, who joined Soderbergh at the Coolidge to talk us through the arduous making of the picture, which was shot over 16 months in his Brooklyn studio. Nicknamed “the Godfrey whisperer,” Kane has edited Reggio’s last three movies and often finds himself tasked with finding practical ways to realize the filmmaker’s outlandish ideas, at times having to invent new technology in order to do so.
“Once Within a Time” was originally envisioned as a 20-minute IMAX 3D film for children, an approach Kane says would have cost tens of millions of dollars. “Finally, Steven said, ‘I’ve got a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. I’ll just give it to you guys. Do whatever you want.’ It was far less money than we were looking for. But he said, ‘If you can make the movie for this amount of money you can start tomorrow.’”
“They did not hit that number,” Soderbergh deadpans.
With wild eyes and a flowing white beard that makes him look like a mystic from a medieval fantasy novel, the chain-smoking Reggio is such a larger-than-life figure in the film industry, his co-director calls him “the crazy hippie uncle of Hollywood royalty. He can call up Spike Lee. He can call up Francis Coppola.” Kane regales us with a tale of being at a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon when the filmmaker phoned him and said, “Jon, we’ve gotta get to Manhattan immediately. We’re gonna have dinner with Mike Tyson. Don’t worry, Robert De Niro’s paying for it.” The meal culminated in the former heavyweight champ accepting a role in the film, claiming Reggio was “speaking to his subconscious.”
Age and mobility issues have kept the filmmaker from traveling to screenings like this one, but so large looms his legend that Kane says, “We were in Seattle last weekend and a couple of people afterwards asked me if Godfrey actually existed.”
“Godfrey is a fun hang, absolutely. But I tap out fast,” Soderbergh admits. “It’s so abstract. I leave inspired, excited and confused. It’s one of those things where I go, ‘I’ll never see the UFO, but I believe he saw it.’ You go with that. You go with the resume, which is absolutely unique among American filmmakers. What’s really inspiring is that with each film he creates a new grammar. If you look at the films that Godfrey’s made, then you do an overlap of movies and videos and commercials that come out within a year to two years after that particular film, you can see how the visual ideas that he came up with have been appropriated and normalized and put into the mainstream.” Indeed, it has always struck me as an awful irony that a cautionary tale like “Koyaanisqatsi” created a whole new language for advertising.
The biggest laugh of the night comes when an audience member asks Soderbergh if he expects to make his money back. After a pause that would make Jack Benny proud, he explains, “Godfrey says you need an angel to help the process. And an angel is someone who is willingly going to make a bad deal. You just go in knowing this is how these things work. We live in a time in which the film will gradually have to find its audience. But it’s there. At the end of the day, my name is the only thing I have that is all mine. So I try to be very careful about how it’s deployed. This, to me, is a no-brainer.”
Kane sums up his executive producer’s position. “Steven is acting as a patron of the arts. A patron gives money and gives their name. The currency that they’re dealing with is not necessarily monetary. Thank God, in all levels of culture, people are willing to take what they have earned and lend their weight to new things. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any.”
“Once Within a Time” opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday, Nov. 11.