Changing the Game
For his debut as a producer, KEANU REEVES has picked a surprising but highly topical project with the documentary, SIDE BY SIDE, which looks at the pioneering development and influence of digital filmmaking.
by James Mottram
While most actors get into producing to generate vanity projects, tailored to finding themselves an Oscar-winning role, it's not an accusation that you could levy at Keanu Reeves. His first official film as producer, Side by Side, is a smart documentary about a subject crucial to anybody involved in the movie business. Studying the history and process of both digital and photochemical film, Side by Side examines the merits of both at a time when digital looks set to eclipse the more traditional use of film stock. "This experience was based upon interest," the 47-year-old Reeves explains when we meet in a penthouse suite at this year's Berlin Film Festival, where the film premiered. The idea began to ferment during his time working on the 2010 thriller, Henry's Crime. "The cinematographer, Paul Cameron, was showing me these images on this 5D digital camera, and we were looking at the digital image and the photochemical image side by side. I was like, 'Film is going away. Whoa? What's happening? Is this the end of film? What's going on here?'"
As a result, Reeves partnered up with Chris Kenneally, the post-production supervisor on Henry's Crime, and the two began to explore the idea of making a documentary looking at this very subject. With Kenneally directing, and Reeves on camera popping the questions, the result is a film fan's wet dream, featuring interviews with the crème-de-la-crème of Hollywood directors, from James Cameron, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan to Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and The Wachowski Siblings, who directed Reeves in The Matrix trilogy.
With distinguished cinematographers such as Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas), Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) also grilled, you wonder how starstruck Reeves got with this legendary parade of talent. He smiles. "Sometimes, I'd be like, 'We just interviewed George Lucas! He hung out with us and told us the deal. The real deal!'"
Impressively, Side by Side is as democratic a documentary as you could ever wish to see, with just-as-valuable opinions voiced by editors, colourists, visual effects supervisors, and festival programmers. Once they began to get to the heart of the matter, says Reeves, it was a snowball effect. "As I started learning more about the subject, it would be like, 'Well, why aren't we talking to them?' So we'd go, 'Let's see if we can meet them!'"
It helped, of course, that the topic of conversation was something fundamental to their business. Even if the film leaves it up to the viewer to weigh up the pros and cons of the digital vs film debate, that didn't stop lively opinions coming across. "When we walked into a room, it was never like, 'Who are you? Why am I here'" says Reeves. "We were so invested and interested in what they did and do that it brought about openness from them. We were so unbiased, and that comes across."
Admittedly, it's something of a surprise to find Reeves - so often associated with his slow-witted "dude" image from the Bill And Ted's films - asking such pertinent questions. "From the very beginning, Keanu had a strong curiosity to know how everything worked," Kenneally tells Filmink. "How does the lab work? Where does the film go next? And then how does it go to digital? He really dissected it all, and wanted to know the process. I've seen him do that with the camera too - he breaks things down. He's interested in things, and how they work."
Then again, Reeves has often involved himself with groundbreaking films. Think of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, which used the "rotoscoping" technique, whereby actors are filmed and the footage then "drawn over" and animated. Even more stunning, of course, were The Matrix films, with their jaw-dropping special effects - in particular, the use of so-called "bullet time", where the camera appears to rotate around a slowed-down image.
Almost ten years since The Matrix Revolutions ended the series, does Reeves see that game-changing franchise differently now? "You have to, because time has gone by," he says. Back in 1999, with the release of the first part, it became about not shooting an image, but constructing one in post-production. "The deeper thing that happened was that it was computer generated. It was a digital moment. And that can only be put into context by the passage of time. John Gaeta, who did the visual effects, knew what was going on, and so did the Wachowskis…but I didn't!"
His appetite whetted by encountering all these filmmakers, Reeves is now planning to direct his first feature, Man of Tai Chi, an ambitious English-Chinese co-production which he plans to shoot in Mandarin and English. Co-starring Reeves and Tiger Chen, who was on the stunt team on The Matrix, it's a martial arts story, pure and simple - with Reeves promising eighteen fights. "It's about forty minutes of fighting," he says. "I want to make a good, solid kung fu movie." Indeed, if there's one thing that The Matrix taught us, apart from how to rethink digital effects, it's that Reeves knows kung fu.