Filmed for over five years in 25 countries and on 70mm, "Samsara" can most simply be described as an experience. There are no words, just a driving score; no characters, just startlingly honest portraits; no sets, just a global stage.
The title, a Sanskrit word that translates into “the ever turning wheel of life,” is the center point around which a 99 minute series of moving images revolves, each one remote, unusual, and absolutely beautiful in some way. Sound like a tall order? It is.
Director and cinematographer Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson are practiced at this nonverbal visual art form, though. In fact, having together made two other films of the same breed before – "Chronos" (1985) and "Baraka" (1992) – it’s safe to say they’ve mastered it. Here, the two discuss how they made their creation about creation.
Added with your past two films, "Samsara" is your third time producing this sort of visual global journey. What’s new about it?
Magidson: The films have the same approach and style of filmmaking, but they’re based on different overall concepts. There’s a lot more portraits in this film than "Baraka." It’s a lot more about people in a way, wouldn’t you say?
Fricke: "Baraka" was about humanity’s relationship to the eternal, you could say. And "Samsara" – another guided meditation, I like to call it – is on the subjects of birth, death and rebirth. It’s all about how things are interconnected, the flow.
That’s no small theme. How do you even begin tackling an idea like that?
Fricke: Well, we knew how we wanted to open and close the film – with monks making the sand mandala. Once we shot it, we knew we were in great shape.
Magidson: Getting the bookends sounds good in theory, but you have to get out there, and it has to rise to a level of visual stature. But it did. We had one shot at it, and that was very stressful, but we pulled it off. Once that was done, I think we were a lot more relaxed making this film than "Baraka." We knew the structure was in the bag.
Fricke: It was just a matter of moving around the planet to work on our content. No screenplay, no scenario; a concept. But we knew we could do it.
Magidson: We were pretty fearless.
And then you continued to film for five years. Without a cast of characters or narrative arc to follow, do you ever begin to feel lost trying to sort through that enormous amount of footage?
Fricke: Really, the image is the main character. It’s about the essence of these places and portraits.
Magidson: It’s like still photography, this imagery. It has an energy and power within it, and that’s what you’re making the film with. We’re out for so long, but when you average it out, it’s not a lot of content per location. It takes a lot to build up that kind of dazzling visual imagery to make a film like this work for 99 minutes.
Fricke: That’s why we shot it in 70 [mm film]. It gives you the fidelity that digital can’t match. 70 mm film is hardly ever used anymore, but you still prefer it over filming in digital?
Magidson: Well, we sort of had the best of both worlds. Mark, you can better explain this…
Fricke: Yeah, the concern with digital was like digital everything – your iPhone, whatever. It’s just going to be obsolete in 12 months. And when you’re off going to 25 countries, you don’t want your material to be outdated in short order. Film holds up forever, and 70 is such a beautiful, classic widescreen, sort of the "Lawrence of Arabia" aspect ratio format. But then instead of outputting it to film as we did with "Baraka," we took it into a digital environment and scanned into a massive file of imagery at super high res, which allowed us to refine the imagery in a way we can’t in film. So it’s the best of old technology and new technology.
Fricke: We could take the birds out or the cars or wires that were just kind of knocking the shots off a little bit.
So you do all of the editing yourselves?
Magidson: We edit it. We’re the editors. That’s where the film is made.
Fricke: It’s real personal.
Magidson: We [edited it] with no sound or music. We had this zen approach and wanted to keep the film in the middle, in the flow.
Yes, there were times when it felt like the film was beginning to comment on something, but then it would immediately segue into a different group of images. There really was no agenda or point you’re trying to make?
Fricke: We tried to steer it so it didn’t get to be too preachy or narrative. We’re not shooting documentaries. There’s no point here other than that there’s so many pathways for people to be reborn or do work on themselves. It’s just up to you to find them.
Magidson: We’re just trying to reveal something that you feel, something about the connection to the phenomenon of life that we all share. You want everyone to feel that they’re a part of that.
Either physically or socially, there’s remoteness about each of your images, something that we don’t confront every day, if ever. How do you find these people and places?
Fricke: YouTube. YouTube was our best friend.
Magidson: We don’t drag everybody and the equipment anywhere without a really strong target list of main visual objectives that have been worked out in advance. But there are those moments you find that you didn’t know about, and that’s a big part of it, too.
Fricke: There’s a portrait we did of this gang member who was full body tattooed, done with an ink pen when he was in jail. We were at his apartment in L.A. thinking we were going to do another one of these portraits where they stare into the lens. But then his wife brought out this little baby, and he just turned into tattoo daddy. He was just gaga – it was incredible. So we set up as fast as we could and he just kept going with that baby, and we didn’t have to say anything. It was one of those happy accidents. You said this film was more about people than your others, and these portraits definitely conveyed that. Are most of them accidents like this, or did you plan them?
Fricke: The portraits are all posed in front of the camera, and they’re just told to stare into the lens and don’t blink. The blinky ones don’t work. Like the shot with the Geisha, she was a pro, and we hired her. But right in the sweet spot of the shot, she started to tear up because of the makeup and the lights. And I was just thinking, God, is she really doing what I think she’s doing? Yes, yes, don’t blink! I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. The camera is taking the audience right up to her and squeezing that tear out. It has feeling.
One of the most difficult parts about any sort of project or work of art is knowing when to stop. How do you know?
Fricke: It’s like a painting, you’re right. You just keep working on it. Maybe we ran out of money, or I don’t know why. I could have gone on.
Magidson: But films take up a big space in your life, with families and everything else. Like for me, when "Baraka" was done, I thought I can’t do this again. It’s just such an ordeal to finish one of these films.
Fricke: It’s a little different, these projects. It’s a lot of work.
After all of this labor and love, do you have any regrets?
Fricke: North Korea. I keep thinking about it.
Magidson: We tried for two years to get in to film these mass games and performances they have. Everybody gets dressed up, and it would have just been an amazing visual extravaganza, but we couldn’t get it to go through. We got close. We were working with the U.N., but being American was two strikes against us already.
Fricke: It’s a treasure there. That thing is so beautiful, what they do, and the West hasn’t seen it yet. But North Korea isn’t going anywhere, either.
Magidson: Maybe the next film.