Berlin Film Festival: Keanu Reeves tackles film vs. digital
by Susan Stone
Capturing a fleeting moment in time before it disappears forever is one of the essential functions of a film camera. A new documentary, “Side by Side,” aims to grasp the transition from photochemical film to digital in an objective way, by talking to some of the most opinionated people in the business, from George Lucas to Lars von Trier to David Fincher. The movie premiered Thursday at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Berlinale Special section.
“Side by Side” is directed by Chris Kenneally (“Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating”), with Keanu Reeves playing a dual role as co-producer (with Justin Szlasa) and interviewer. The two have woven a user-friendly but detailed look at the tools and techniques that are challenging tradition, working their way through filming, editing, color correction, digital effects, distribution, projection, and archiving.
Kenneally and Reeves came up with the project while working together on “Henry's Crime.” Reeves starred in and produced the 2010 film; Kenneally supervised its post-production. “We were having all the same conversations you see in the movie,” remembers Kenneally. “One day Keanu's just like, 'You know what? We should make a documentary about this.' ”
The two went on to interview a lengthy dream list of directors, cinematographers, editors, technicians, and even a couple of NYU film students, all of whom have heartfelt and often hilarious commentary to offer Reeves, who elicits a relaxed conversational tone from his subjects.
It's pretty clear which side of the digital divide technological innovator George Lucas falls on. He succinctly points out, “Film is a 19th century invention,” and maintains that the digital format democratizes filmmaking. That's exactly what gives producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura pause; he fears a glut of mediocre films flooding the market and the loss of discerning tastemakers. But the makers of “Side by Side” did get a few unexpected answers. “I was surprised by David Lynch saying he wouldn't work photochemically anymore. I remember saying during the interview -- 'David -- Elephant Man, Blue Velvet!' " recalls Reeves. “He's made so many beautiful films on film,” chimes in Kenneally.
One of the most compelling voices is that of Anthony Dod Mantle, who shook up the film world (and some audiences) by shooting by the critically acclaimed 1998 Danish film “The Celebration” with a handheld Sony digital camera. Dod Mantle says he was both “applauded and almost executed” for his nervy approach, but concluded early on it meant he would never get recognition for his work. But attitudes and technology have both advanced -– “Slumdog Millionaire,” also shot digitally by Dod Mantle, went on to win an Academy Award for best cinematography in 2009.
Another theme is a sort of power struggle between cinematographers and directors. Some mourn the loss of a sort of vaguely unpredictable film voodoo that meant keeping the faith, while others excoriate the "betrayal of dailies." Also, the almost limitless nature of digital encourages directors to just keep shooting –- never yelling “Cut!” means less down time for actors. Reeves tells Richard Linklater that during their (digital) filming of “A Scanner Darkly,” he was sometimes thinking, “Can we please stop!” And Joel Schumacher comments that with digital, some actors insist on seeing every take. “I'm convinced everyone's just looking at their hair!” he jokes.
Stephen Soderbergh wryly admits, “I really felt I should call film on the phone and say 'I've met someone.' ” But it's not all a digital lovefest -– Christopher Nolan declares, “There isn't yet a superior or even an equal imaging technology to film,” but concedes the industry is now forced to examine new alternatives. Film's archival advantages are also touched upon; digital formats and the machines that play them have changed so much throughout the years that many archive copies require obsolete technology for playback. One film lover compares his favorite format to oil paints, and asks if he is meant to swap them for (digital) crayons.
Kenneally and Reeves say that “Side by Side” is not meant to take sides; it functions more as a time capsule than a call to arms. “If 100 years ago, someone had done a bunch of interviews with all the top filmmakers -– the Lumiere brothers, and Edison, and all those people -– we'd love to have that. And I feel like we do have that [present day] document,” insists Kenneally.
In advance of the film's premiere on Thursday, Tribeca Film picked up the rights to “Side by Side.” Release is planned for summer 2012, with TV broadcast and film school screenings planned for 2013. Currently, says Kenneally, there is no theater distribution scheduled -– ironically, Tribeca Film will offer the film as video on demand. Reeves said he wished “Side by Side” would make it to theaters, but he's not sure the market is there. “To me, to make a film is still about the big screen. But I'm old school!” he adds with a laugh.
Reeves is currently in pre-production for his directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” which will be shot in China –- most likely with an Alexa digital camera. He's back on screen in 3-D this year in “47 Ronin,” directed by Carl Rinsch, which is slated for release in November.
Photos: Top: Chris Cassidy, Justin Szlasa, Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves. Credit: Stephan Ukas-Bradley. Bottom: George Eastman House Archive in Rochester, N.Y. Credit: 2012 Company Films