Interview with movie producer Mark Magidson for the magical Samsara

Samsara, a non narrative film, is a sequel to the highly acclaimed 1992 film Baraka. The film was shown at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year to great acclaim from the audience. While he was in Dublin, Brogen Hayes sat down with producer Mark Magidson to delve behind the scenes of this beautiful film.

You last worked together on Baraka in 1992, what was it like working with Ron Fricke again after such a long break?

MM: We know each other really well. Every experience is different and I think this film is different because the world is just a different place than it was when we made Baraka or when we made Chronos years earlier. In some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s harder. When you are doing something that takes this much time – four and a half years – there’s just a lot of differences in the experience. When we did Baraka we had a relatively elaborate written treatment for the film, as opposed to Samsara where we had a lot less, and when we completed Baraka we realised that it really didn’t follow what we had written so there was a sense of confidence with this film that we didn’t have with Baraka, that it was going to work out somehow. We would make it work.

What was your role on Samsara?

MM: We only had a crew of four or five so I was involved in everything from production side and creative side. You just do what has to be done to make the movie. Ron’s out there, he is a brilliant cinematographer, a terrific editor and filmmaker. We edit separately; the film is edited in sequences and then the parts are assembled and you don’t know how that is all going to work until the end. It’s based on the reality of the imagery that you come home with; it’s not really based on something that you might have written. We edit sequences – we each work on different parts – and then try to assemble those into a whole. You try it in a lot of different ways and you end up with the film that we ended up with.

Why did you decide to shoot in 70mm, in such a digital age?

MM: Well we shot Baraka in 70mm as well. Basically, there is still nothing as pristine and beautiful as 70mm film for image capture. In a lot of ways we would have loved to shoot digital, we are not hung up on having to do it this way, but when we started Samsara, the standard for digital cinematography was a 2K camera system and now it’s no longer a standard, it has been obsoleted and there is an 8K camera system now. One of the pitfalls of digital is that there is always something better coming within a year or 24 months or something and when you are out for this long and going to this many locations, you want to bring back the footage that is going to stand the test of time and hold up. The film really does that.

What were the biggest challenges while making Samsara?

MM: There were a lot of challenges. It’s hard to find imagery that is at a level of interest that we felt would make it into the film. There is a lot of visual sophistication in the audiences and what people have seen, particularly in the internet age with what they see on YouTube or what they see on the news. It’s challenging to bring back material that rises to a level of interest that you say is worthy of making the cut in the film. The logistics and staying with it for so long and keeping your life going outside of the film, which is hard to do. You are sort of on a million and the focus and energy levels, for Ron and I, are not a problem because you have the goal in sight all the time and it is a tremendous opportunity to do something like this, so you don’t want to drop the ball at all and we did the best we can with the opportunity.

The visuals in the film are stunning; do you have a favourite part?

MM: I don’t have one. A lot of the material, you see it and for me it’s also the memory of what was going on when we were filming that. I am imprinted by some of the locations that we went. Those aerial shots in the hot air balloon at the beginning of the film were stunning and it was a very special experience to do that… to be there.

You mentioned the editing process for the film did Samsara change and evolve during editing?

MM: Yes it’s all about the reality of the images that you have and how those go together and how the sequences go together. We had a structure, which was basically the Sand Madala at the beginning and the end of the film, which is a metaphor for impermanence, and we hung the structure of the film on those elements and built around it.

Were you affected personally by the material you were filming?

MM: Of course you get involved, you’re in those environments and you’re only there for a short time so you are not living it, but you are definitely impacted by it. How can you not be? You feel very fortunate in a lot of ways because of where we live and the lifestyles we live.

You were allowed to film at Mecca, was there anywhere you were not allowed to film?

MM: Yeah there is one that we call ‘the big one that got away’, it was North Korea. We had almost got in there… We wanted to film the Masked Games, which are these performances that are put on annually by 100,000 people in costume in a big stadium and it’s very surreal. We got close twice over a two-year period. It’s over the summer and we just couldn’t quite make it happen. There was always one crisis or another, a world crisis that happened, or South Korea at one time and we just couldn’t do it. That’s the one that got away.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?

MM: It’s not so much what they are thinking, as what they are feeling and you hope that people get a sense of connection to humanity and to people around the world when they see the film in a way that they haven’t before. That’s what your hope is. It’s an ambitious hope when you spend four and a half years on something like this – that you can watch in an hour and a half – it’s crazy anyway. Obviously you are hoping that it has an impact like that. There is no expectation on the film, it is showing imagery and sequences that we feel work and people can take that differently. It is not really a ‘message’ kind of film.

What inspired you?

MM: It’s just the totality of the experiences that we have had as people and filmmakers to end up with this end result. I just really haven’t thought about how we got here. It’s really intuitive.

There was a huge break in between Baraka and Samsara, have you thought about what’s next for you?

MM: I need to take a bit of a break from it. That will end at some point, and at that point I don’t know exactly. There is a big gap between these films and they take a lot out of you. It was 16 or 17 years between the end of Baraka and the beginning of this film and when I finished Baraka I said; ‘That’s it, I am done with this kind of film making’, but here we did it again! I don’t know that I would do another one, it feels complete to me, at least at that level of ambition and time commitment.

SAMSARA is in Irish cinemas from August 31st
WORDS – Brogen Hayes