We're Artists: Keanu Reeves on Side By Side and Man of Tai Chi
The debate between celluloid vs. digital filmmaking, why Bill and Ted wouldn't like Dogstar and how he shot his kung fu directorial debut.
by Fred Topel
So we got our own private interview (get it?) with Keanu Reeves, one of the biggest stars in the world. Normally his exclusive time is reserved for the Lenos and Lettermans of the world, but this time he had a subject that was better suited to the hardcore movie geeks, if you will. Reeves produced the documentary Side by Side, narrates it and conducts interviews with filmmakers discussing film versus digital production. It premieres on VOD August 22 where anyone can see why Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan and others stand by their formats of choice, and novices can learn what the difference is in the first place. Christopher Kenneally wrote and directed.
CraveOnline: Why is there a debate about film vs digital? Why can’t a director just use whatever format he wants?
Keanu Reeves: He can, or she can, but it’s going to become more and more difficult because of I think financial pressures. I think from the financing/producing side, you’ll have pressures to shoot digitally as opposed to photochemically simply because of the cost. Then I think in the short term, right now there’s becoming less and less of a need for a film print. Digital projection, DCP has become the industry standard in America so you’ll need less and less prints. Film will become just a capture medium and I think you’ll run against the financier saying, “Well, we can’t afford it.” That’s not to say that it won’t be an option though. Wes Anderson just did Super 16 film. I did a Super 16. Hunger Games was shot on film, Batman was shot on film. So you’re seeing independent films and mainstream films still being shot on film.
But some of those are directors fighting to get to use film.
Yeah, you’ve still got to fight.
Could it be dangerous for a new generation of filmmakers to lose the foundation of celluloid and how images were originally made?
I don't know if it’s dangerous. I don't know who it’ll hurt, but I think certainly it’s something to be considered in the sense of what have we lost? Martin Scorsese speaks a little bit about that in the documentary and the beauty of that image, the discipline of what it takes to work with it, to work with film, to light it, to develop it, to color it. Not so much to cut it anymore, but the disciplines of working with that would be a lost art or a lost craft, but a new one is here to take its place. Christopher Nolan in the time when we were interviewing him spoke about that filmmakers of his level were even being asked to shoot digitally, but why are we being forced with something that’s technologically not at the standard of photochemical film. That definitely was true back then. It’s becoming less and less true. It’s not the same. It’s different.
If an artist loves the craft of film, would it be vital to understand how it originated, not just how we do it now?
Well, if you’re going to work with film, you’d have to. You’d be entering that dark room, wouldn’t you? This is how you light it. Depending on the speed of your film stock and the conditions and the environment that you’re lighting in, if you’re shooting with a camera, well this is how you turn it on. These are the lenses. So you would be entering into the past. If you want to go into film history or start watching movies, I don't know if you have to go to school for that, but there’s the cinema language. But photochemically, there are differences than shooting digitally definitely.
Did you ever explore how digital and film are transferred onto Blu-ray? Would you have liked to include that component of the discussion?
We didn’t go specifically into Blu-ray. In the documentary, we didn’t go into videotape or DVD or the end of DVD, going into streaming. Blu-ray is a form of DVD. It’s also not the best way, right? The limitations of the blue ray is actually not the best image you can have actually, but that became the industry standard. That’s a whole other conversation. It’s funny when you get into 24 frames per second photochemically was basically the bottom line. That’s how you could use the least amount of film and not have image flicker. If you filmed at 22, if you were filming a light bulb, you would see a pulse of light. So 24 was picked because for monetary reason, you could have a successful flow of a moving image without any flicker, but you didn’t have to use as much film.
48 frames per second is a very new thing. Was that even an issue when you were doing these interviews?
Yeah, it was coming up. The new new was 48 frames at 4K and that was basically talking about grain or pixels digitally, horizontally across in terms of image. What do you think is interesting about Blu-ray?
I’ve noticed when celluloid films and digital movies are transferred they each look different, so in what format something is shot is a factor in how it’s reproduced on home video.
Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It also comes down to the monitor that you’re watching. What are the black settings on your monitor, right? Did you remember to put the aspect ratio right or does it just automatically do it? We speak about it in a way through the cinematographer having to follow the image, from capturing it, from filming to following. You do change your lights and darks and densities when you’re going to make a Blu-ray. You used to at least. In different formats you used to have to scan it differently to show it in Europe. There’s all sorts of ways where you have to follow the image for quality control and just like if a projector is not set up right, your Blu-ray will look different on three different monitors.
You keep the debate very civil in the film. Did anyone get contentious?
I don't know about contentious. No, not in that sense. Michael Chapman was like, “Who cares?” Christopher Nolan was, “This is very important.” But as artists, we kind of come down to the bigger picture of if you do something with your heart and your passion, it doesn’t matter what you’re using. We didn’t really have any, “F*** digital” or “F*** film” or anything like that. We didn’t have that. We’re artists. [Laughs]
It seemed the part that got the most heated was the 3D issue. That was much more divisive among filmmakers than digital vs. film.
Yeah, that sounds right.
Why do you think that was?
It would depend on who was speaking about it. I think because it’s newish. I think there’s been so much good 3D and bad 3D. At the time it was going through this fad phase. It just brought a lot of opinions. It’s also, for how long it’s been around, imagistically, it’s kind of in its infancy in the sense of the sophistication of how to use it. Other than that gag, other than something coming out of the screen. Certainly Avatar, creating that world was another way as a new thing. Hugo with Scorsese, the framing and the journey, the entering into this world are examples of really successful 3D. There are other 3D that were dark, looked sh*tty, no reason to exist. So when you’re having something like that that has success and people are being asked to use it and the audience is, and you have good and bad, I think it creates really strong opinion.
As an actor, do you prefer the speed of digital on the set with no down time?
Yeah, at times it’s nice. Sometimes it’s nice that you don’t have that clock running. It’s running but it’s not as short. The typical 35mm film role is over nine minutes but under 10 minutes. New digital cameras, depending on what rate you’re recording at, you can have 40 minutes, an hour and a half. You can just roll, so those bring freedoms to it and possibilities. Sometimes you have to say, “Stop.”
You just directed The Man of Tai Chi. Did you use film or digital?
Yeah, I just got back. We filmed in China, in Beijing and Hong Kong and we shot digitally on the Arri Studio Camera which is a full chip camera.
Was that your artistic choice or out of necessity?
I went into it going in going, “Okay, I’d like to shoot this photochemically.” I did some motion blur tests just to see how digital would deal with motion blur because it’s a Kung Fu movie. I wanted to see those artifacts. Then it was like, “Okay, we’re shooting in China. What is developing in Beijing like? Okay, we don’t know. How much does film cost? Where are we going to get it?” So I started to go into it from a production side of it to look at digital, because film had some issues there to me. So then I tested cameras and looks and ended up with the Arri which is awesome.
With Tai Chi and 47 Ronin are you using your old Matrix skills or all new ones?
[Laughs] I had some wonderful training in the Matrix films so that gives me a bit of a foundation, but you know I’m older. I got older knees, so my older knees are standing on that foundation. But I have a good Kung Fu fight in Man of Tai Chi and in Ronin I get to do some things.
Some of my colleagues already asked you about Bill and Ted 3 earlier today.
Is now a good time for that?
I have no idea if it’s a good time or a bad time. It’s certainly a surreal time. I don't know what it would be like to play that role right now. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too harmful to my health. Those films are filled with such love and joy. We have a script and it’s funny, so we’ll see.
How long ago was the script finished?
A while ago. It’s a first draft.
Would Bill and Ted be LMFAO fans now?
I don’t know.
They’d be classic metal snobs, right?
I don't know. I don't know.
Would they have liked Dogstar?
Probably not. I don't think we rocked in quite the right way for them.
That might be too meta too.
Were the film clips and behind the scenes footage in Side by Side easy to license?
Our approach was if anyone spoke about anything specifically, then we would try to illustrate it in a movie. So that was our approach.
Did you have to call in any favors?
Yeah, sometimes. We did some fair use so it was really just trying to do it like that.
Are there some extended interviews that could be on a DVD? Who was good in a longer form session?
They were all good in a longer form. Yeah, hopefully if it ever has that life of extras and stuff, we’d like to make that available. We interviewed over 140 people and I think really are a part of capturing this evolution/revolution from so many people involved in the industry of moviemaking, of this art form. So I’d like to have that archived or made available as: okay, here’s a film university or here’s a film school or here’s an academy. Here they are. Make these available to whoever is here to be able to watch all of these full-length interviews. We’re cutting some of them now but yeah, I’d like to make them available.
We’d love to hear more from Nolan, Fincher, Soderbergh…
Yeah, that’s up to Tribeca [Film] too for a while because they own the movie, they have rights to the movie for a while.
How much time do you actually have to watch movies these days?
I’ve been pretty busy. I was filming over the past, with prep, like nine months but I was watching a lot of Kung Fu movies. So I was making time, just to look how Kung Fu movies have been shot. What are the different ways, styles, camera angles, lenses and stuff, and editing styles. Then working with the cinematographer, Elliot Davis, we would watch movies together and just look at things. As a civilian, maybe I won’t watch a movie for a month and then maybe I’ll watch like 12 of them.
Luckily it’s my job, so I can always say I have to watch this for work.
Isn’t that great? I mean, I love it and I love going to the cinema.
But I still feel like I don’t watch enough.
Do you have any cool obscure Kung Fu movie recommendations?
I don’t have any that an aficionado would not know.
Were you watching any of those movies during The Matrix also?
During the Matrix time we looked at Yuen Woo-Ping films, so it was Fist of Legend, Tai Chi Master, Iron Monkey. I got to work with him on Man of Tai Chi so that was really an honor. He did the choreography.
Well, it’s great to have a discussion about hardcore film and how it’s done.
Yeah, it was extraordinary. We worked on it for about a year and a half. It was really great to sit down with people and speak about their passion of movies.
And to document it so anyone who doesn’t know the specifics and digest it, and the techies can get into it too.
Yeah, Chris and my ambition was to make something that would be interesting to the specialist through people’s opinions and perspectives, and for anybody who likes movies just to be able to go behind the scenes and to see how it’s made, how it’s done. To hopefully deepen the appreciation for what we watch and how we watch it. That was our hope.