Interview: Keanu Reeves on 'Side by Side'
by Damon Houx
There has been a paradigm shift in the way movies are made, and it took Keanu Reeves to make a movie about it. Side by Side delves into the movement of mainstream cinema away from 35mm film to digital video, and the walks through the evolution and acceptance by many filmmakers of the digital era. We sat with Keanu, and it was a very nerdy discussion, though we also spoke about his directorial debut The Man of Tai Chi. Check it out.
How was it being in front of the camera as yourself, rather than as a character?
Keanu Reeves: You know, I had a good time. It was fun.
What camera are you using for your directorial debut?
Reeves: We just finished principal photography, and we used the Alexa Aerie studio camera.
Was doing this movie partly homework?
Reeves: I didn’t know it at the time. But we started Side By Side, (Director) Christopher Kenneally and I, it was about Fall 2010? Worked on it for about a year-and-a-half, and here we are.
What was the big surprise as you went through all these interviews?
Reeves: I would say the state of archival, in terms of photochemical and digital, I didn’t really know a lot about that going in. From the filmmakers, I would say David Lynch saying that he didn’t feel like he would work in photochemical film again surprised me. Also, I think speaking with George Lucas. I remember seeing DCP, digital projection. But I didn’t really know or feel the impact of what a maverick he has been, in terms of the technology of how we make movies, from editing, sound, visual effects, projection, and the camera. He was the guy for all of that, and him, and his team, and everyone he works with.
Do you feel digital captures the depth of the warmth of film?
Reeves: Right now, it’s different. They have different looks. They’re different. I think someone should put up a really pristine film print. And the bulb was bright enough, everything was right, and you put an Alexa image, I might be able to tell you the difference. They have different looks and feels, for sure. For me, when I was going through the digital cameras, they all have their own look, which reminded me of film stocks. Kodak had a look. Fuji has a look. The red has a look. The Alexa has a look. However, I think one piece of material having light shown through it. The other is lasers, or lights…they’re different. They’re really different.
Did you have a feeling about this as an actor?
Reeves: Yeah. I would say Christopher Kenneally was more for digital. And when we looked at it, we were like, “Where did we come from? Where is the movie industry at? Where are we today? What’s the future look like? What have we lost, and what have we gained?” I was more of the “What are we losing,” And Chris was more of “What are we gaining.” I would always kind of be the photochemical proponent, and he would call me nostalgic, and “Get with it,” and “Come on, wake up.” I said, “But I love film.” Towards your question…just the richness, the depth if it. And he was digital. He was like, “Come on!”
Why’d you use digital for your film?
Reeves: Really, it was a progress-orial aspect. Also, I did some camera tests. I shot a bunch of cameras, and a bunch of stuff. I wanted…a classical modernity. From the producers, “film’s a dollar a foot. We’re filming in China, and we don’t know about post-film-ically. What are we doing?” Digitally, we can control it a little differently.
Did you explore the fiscal element of digital versus film in the documentary?
Reeves: Absolutely. We talk about that in this documentary. How much it costs to ship, how much it costs to make a print, how much it costs to get the equipment, and how much to buy the film. How much? “How much? Come on!”
But for some filmmakers, it’s not a choice anymore.
Reeves: You’re right. If you’re a young director, your producers might be saying, “It’s a digital show.” And you’re like, “But what about—“ “No, it’s a digital show.” “But what about—“ “It’s a digital show.”
Talk about how it was shooting this as a first-time director.
Reeves: It was great. I had a great producer. I have a great producer. We were able to put together a great team. I found that making movies is making movies. Mainland China doesn’t have as much experience, so the gaffer and grip came from Hong Kong because it’s a longer film history coming out of Hong Kong. Makeup and hair was from Hong Kong. A lot of the construction, though, was in mainland China. A lot of the guys who were under the grip and gaffer were mainland Chinese. Props were mainland Chinese. They just have a younger film industry there, so we brought more experienced people in. It mixed. It was a real learning curve. Once everyone knows what they’re doing, everyone’s really hard working…
Did they work well with a first-time American director?
Reeves: Yeah. They all kind of look at you. Anywhere, even if you’re a first-time director here, there’s that look. You get that look. And they either stop looking at you like that, or they don’t. That look is, “What are you doing? How are you doing it? What’s your vision?” I developed a script for about five years, so I had an idea about what it needed to be about.
What do you think about older cameras?
Reeves: They’re great. You can put good glass on it. The images are beautiful. Again, Christopher Nolan speaks about this in the documentary. “What standard is it? Does the standard matter?” I kept saying, “Well, what kind of movie? What kind of movie?” And you kept going, “independent.” I think if you want to make a movie, if you want to tell a story, if you want to get actors and shoot something, they’re really great. The technology will be with that camera. It’ll be a 4K camera at some point, or a 3K camera could be comparable to the camera that I used. It’s what level of production do you want on it, I guess. In terms of being able to make a movie, you don’t even need a 5D. You could use your phone. I mean, are we using phones anymore? I don’t even know. Whatever the apparatus that has the phone capability on it, that has image capabilities. Part of the message of the documentary was—Michael Ballhaus talked about it, he’s like “It doesn’t matter what you use, but if you come out with something with passion, with your heart.” But Christopher Nolan made Dark Knight on that. He might’ve used some of that for the crowd stuff. It just really depends on what you’re doing. Is this the right tool for the job? To answer your question, I think they’re great.
Discuss how you dealt with addressing the state of an art form that’s constantly without a state.
Reeves: I really enjoyed speaking to people about that. When Martin Scorsese says, “When young people aren’t believing the image anymore, what does that mean? James Cameron, “When was it ever real? What are the new ways that we see stories? On all of the different portals that we have now, all of different monitors, what is the movie going experience? Does any of it matter? Archival? The idea of creating something, the idea of wanting it to last forever, but now, that idea doesn’t really exist. Or does it, and does it matter?” Just the democratization, the idea of when Lorenzo Di Bonaventura says “There’s no taste maker,” What does that mean? Standards. Or when people talk about film discipline, or no discipline. It’s fun to speak about those things and to think about that in terms of what are we making. What are we watching? How are watching it? The Wachowski’s are talking about the communal, digital experience of sharing. “It’s actually more intimate not to be in a room full of people, but to be separated.” I said, “What was that again? But what about the flesh and the blood?” And they were like, “Well, it’s more intimate, now that I can go watch this in a separated, communal environment. And now I can think about it, and share my thoughts, and I can…” So how are watching our stories? And with the amount that’s being made. Greta Gerwig talks about that. The fears. Everything’s available, and everything that gets made is going to be terrible. Everything’s lost. No one can see it, but everybody can watch everything. It’s a fecund world that we have right now, of a lot of potentialities.
How much coaxing did it take to get the Wachowski Brothers on film?
Reeves: They had worked on a documentary over the past couple years themselves. That, plus the idea that they knew me, plus the idea of the subject matter, helped them to want to speak on-camera, which I think was great. On the documentary side of that, they knew what it meant to ask someone to be in their documentary because they had done it. Subject matter, they’re definitely interested in and experts on. And we go way back. One of their responses was, “For you. Only, for you.”
Who were the hardest to interview?
Reeves: The ones who said no, who I won’t say.
Do you know the reasons why they said no?
Reeves: Generally, it was work-related, or they had no interest talking to anybody. It was either time, schedule, no interest. It might’ve been just that they don’t like doing interviews. I wouldn’t press—“I know you’re not interested, but why?”
When did you take an interest in non-performance elements of film?
Reeves: I was always interested in the camera and acting for the camera. I was always interested in the lens. You always have to know your relationship to the lens in the scene. Then, the lighting. I always liked watching crews work. Sometimes, I’ll sit, and I’ll just watch people see the set getting built. I just like it. There’s a craft to it. It’s like good work. I guess that’s where it started. Then, for me, for this doc, it was really just the question of seeing, feeling the end of film for me, really. Chris was like, “But it’s the impact of digital cinema.” I was like, “Yeah, but it’s—yes, but.” So we started side-by-side.
Does this conflict compare with that of talkies versus silent pictures?
Reeves: I don’t know. I think it’s not as—the impact is not as large as going from silent to speak-talkies, talkies, or from black-and-white to color. I don’t think it’s that kind of seat change. But behind the camera—I guess even with those technologies were the loss of some jobs and the gains of other jobs, or places in the process. That’s definitely been the case with digital. Some other aspects of filming can become redundant. Now, there’s new people, DIT’s being the example. The whole film services and post-business is changing. Projectionists, the job of the projectionist. Editors, editing. It’s not as big as silent to speaking, or from black-and-white to color. It’s something else. I think growing up with the technology, 100 years of what is a movie. In other words, it’s got the same end game, but it’s different.
Discuss the arbitrariness of the term anti-technology in this conflict.
Reeves: I don’t know. Filmmaking was such an Industrial Revolution era tool. Now, it’s not. Now, it is, but it isn’t. There’s still lights, and “Be soft.” I would say he’s like anti-technology. I guess he’s demonizing the technology as other, because it’s new and coming in, and it’s not quite what the technology he’s using anymore, right? I guess it is arbitrary in that sense. It’s an emotional, arbitrary comment.
Were there any things you couldn’t use for time?
Reeves: Oh, yeah, definitely. On the website now, they’re doing what they’re calling outtakes. I’d like to personally create an archival aspect of this. We have 140 interviews. I think in terms of a technology or a process or an industry or way we do things, this moment in time, I think we captured, really, a lot of people who have been involved in that. I’d like to make that accessible to anybody for free. Like, “Here’s the whole interview. Here’s Dennis Muren talking about everything for two hours.” There it is, and kind of make it up. My producer probably doesn’t want me to make it for free. It’s basically just, “Here it is, and if you want to study, or listen to Walter Murch about editing and digital and hear that whole interview…”
Talk about working on a digital set.
Reeves: It’s one of those kinds of quantum elements, in that until it’s observed, you don’t know its state. So I can’t say whether or not it does change the performance, because the performance doesn’t exist yet. But the environment has changed. If that impacts the performance, I can’t judge, but the room that you’re in is different, for sure.
Does it throw you off your game?
Reeves: For me, it was different, definitely going into the Prius the first time, because the rhythm of it changes, just by the simple act of having to say “Cut.” Because you have to preserve the film, because it takes so much time to change the film, and money is time, and film is God.
How would you compare using digital locations over practical ones?
Reeves: It’s like playing cowboys and Indians in your house…or in a park. It’s a different sense of control and abandonment, because you either have things to interact with and it affects you, or you are pretending that there are things to…that’s why it’s like you’re either all pretend and imagination. But if you have another actor, it’s great. If you’re just acting to the tennis ball, you know? “There it comes!” That’s not as much fun, for sure, to have interactive, and to have the actors, and to have a real environment.
But you don’t want to have a real fire.
Reeves: You don’t? I do, if it’s at a safe distance. There’s nothing like being close to fire. Like, wow!
Did you feel Scorsese’s melancholy for losing film?
Reeves: Absolutely. Absolutely. The way he kind of smiled, and then you get the blood on your fingertips. Editing…
Was it just him who felt like that?
Reeves: In terms of the directors, yeah. He had the most kind of visceral, emotional share of that. The others, not so much.
Why do you think they knew where they felt so strongly?
Reeves: I don’t know. There was a practicality to it. They were just practical. “This is what I do. This is what I’m doing. I might go over here. I might go over there, but this is what I’m dong.” But Martin was really sharing, “Yeah, I’m doing this, but I used to do this.”
Is this the beginning of Act Two?
Reeves: If I make a good film, yeah. If the film isn’t any good, then no, it’ll be the end of Act One.
Are you OK with the death of film?
Reeves: No, not really.
Is there still hope for the old way of doing things?
Reeves: Yeah, yeah. Technologically, the red epic, or the next generation camera. But not everyone gets to shoot 15 perfs, 65 mm film. It’s pretty astounding stuff, though. Even now, there’s just people who won’t have experienced it. Maybe that’s why Martin is nostalgic, because he’s into film preservation. That idea that no one will have that experience anymore, I think, is part of why—coming that part of him from that part of him, like, they won’t see it. They won’t have those cuts. They won’t sit in that room. They won’t have that flickering light. They won’t have that experience.