Keanu Reeves interview: the future of film and Bill and Ted
by Alice Vincent
Keanu Reeves’s film appearances might suggest a waning career - no longer the leather-clad action star of The Matrix, he’s appeared in tepid rom-coms The Lake House and Henry’s Crime in recent years. In fact, he’s moved into production and direction and his latest offering, Side by Side, could well become a cinephile classic for its exploration of film’s changing state.
Reeves interviews over 150 filmmakers, cinematographers, directors, actors and engineers in Side by Side, of which 70 make the cut, to discuss the past, present and future of the film industry as digital technology creeps in over photochemical film. Reeves is co-producer as well as interviewer, and what really comes across is how good he is at making a relatively niche subject fascinating.
The supposed ‘death of film’ has been a discussion point between film buffs for a few years now, and Side by Side came out of a similar chat between Reeves and writer Christopher Kenneally. He tells me: “It started with the idea that this was the end of photochemical film. If it was, what are we losing? What are we gaining? How did we get here? Where are we going? What is the impact of digital cinema?” It’s something he “had a passion for”, which combined with his impressive Hollywood contacts - Matrix writers the Wachowskis hadn’t done an interview in a decade, but appear extensively in Side by Side - to create the documentary.
In one endearing conversation with Martin Scorsese, he remembers how splicing film together would result in nipped fingers. Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s allegiance to tradition paints digital film in a bad light. But a chat with Girls creator Lena Dunham shows how the accessibility of digital equipment has created a whole legion of new filmmakers, and a look into George Lucas’s revolutionary steps into digital projection establishes the place of the Star Wars franchise in cinematic history.
For Reeves, the process was transformative: “When I started the documentary, I was on the 'what are we losing' part of the story. And then through the course of it, I came to a place of understanding the difference and I kind of came to the place the documentary is talking about. It doesn't matter what tool you are using basically to paraphrase, but how do you want to tell your story?”
He remains wary about the total absence of film, however. “It’s fine, as long as we still have a choice. A year ago, I was very, very concerned. Fuji is not making commercial film stock, I believe.”
Not surprisingly, it was a project that set tongues wagging in film circles. Reeves says, “As time went along, the documentary itself started to become known. We started talking to people and they’d already know what we were doing, which was nice.”
Although Reeves is diplomatic when it comes to the interviewees which really blew him away, (“Every interview had its moment"), he was star-struck a couple of times: “I was definitely, ‘Get ready, you're about to meet Zeus’ with Mr Lucas.”
There is, however, a surprising absence from such an all-star list. “It would have been nice to speak to Ewan McGregor,” Reeves says. “He was a performer who was on the forefront of mainstream digital.” Unfortunately, after a year’s worth of interviews, Kenneally had to draw a line.
The film packs a lot in for 90 minutes - there’s even a section on the manufacture of the cameras and projector which caused the change. For the average cinema-goer, though, it’s perhaps the insight into streaming and viewing film on laptops and phones, rather than in a cinema, which is most relevant. Reeves is surprisingly relaxed on the issue of piracy. “It means people can watch movies, and watch them for free - that ain’t so bad. I think digital distribution is a really exciting thing. People are going to have opportunities to watch such varied content, which I think is great.
However, he admits that there is something a cinema offers which Netflix, and indeed illegal downloads, can’t: “What the big screen offers is size and the commitment of going to the movies and a shared experience. The cinema, the lensing, the production values - all of that is seen on the big screen. Those elements are unique and very special.”
Side by Side tries to leave the viewer on the fence about the changes in the film industry. And perhaps predictably, Reeves isn’t making any grand statements either way about it - his work in bringing together the great and the good of Hollywood is done, and done well. He’s now moved into directing, and is working on a film called Man of Tai Chi, a trilingual kung fu movie. I had one last question: is there another Bill and Ted on the cards?