Keanu Reeves 'Side by Side' interview: Hollywood's digital revolution
by Simon Reynolds
Keanu Reeves may be best known for his starring roles in The Matrix, Speed and Point Break, but this week he's stepping behind the camera to produce and present Side by Side, a fascinating documentary that delves into the filmmaking process and looks at how digital has overtaken the photochemical process.
Reeves and writer/director Christopher Kenneally have assembled a who's who of filmmaking talent - from directors such as James Cameron and Lars von Trier, to studio heads and tech pioneers working designing the latest HD cameras - in order to tell their story. Digital Spy got on the phone with Reeves to discuss Side by Side, his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi and the potential for a 3D re-release of The Matrix...
Which was the first film you worked on where you saw that digital technology was clipping at the heels of the traditional photochemical process?
"I would probably say A Scanner Darkly was the first film I worked on digitally. At that time I wasn't thinking of it as clipping on the heels of film. I wasn't thinking, 'This is going to be the demise of film'. That didn't really happen until I was working on a picture called Henry's Crime. I guess that was 2009, 2010 and when I felt that, that was when I came up with the idea of doing a documentary."
What was it about your experiences on Henry's Crime that made you want to make Side by Side with Chris Kenneally?
"He was the post supervisor on Henry's Crime and he had done a documentary before, and really just the conversations I was having with everybody involved: with Technicolor; with Paul Cameron the cinematographer; with colour timer, Don Ciana; the colourist Tom Stipan at Technicolor in New York. I was just looking around and Paul Cameron was showing me images on a Canon 5D that he had shot for commercial. And talking to Charlie Herzfeld who helped us a lot with the documentary, who's the head of Technicolor sales and services their motion pictures. He was telling me how the industry was changing."
As a viewer watching the early digital movies - the Dogme 95 films and Gary Winick's InDigEnt productions - were you able to look past the rough quality of the image or was it distracting to you?
"For me I was never thinking about them, like when I saw Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration, I never thought, 'Oh, what if this had been shot on film?' I was really feeling the medium through the storytelling and not really thinking of an 'other' for it."
Where did you stand on the digital vs celluloid debate initially, and after making this film did you feel differently about it?
"Certainly, I would say going in, when Chris and I were going in to making the documentary, it was kind of like, 'What are we losing, what are we gaining, where have we come from, what is the story of the impact of digital cinema?' I was definitely on the 'what are we losing' aspect.
"Chris was more on the 'I love film but this is an exciting time' [aspect], so I would say through the course of making the documentary, [I was] definitely hoping film would still be available. For me, I got to know digital a lot better, and as the days have gone by and progressed, the technology's gotten better, the look has gotten better. They're not the same, but that's not necessarily the be-all and end-all of story telling. The idea that it will all go away is something that I would lament."
How did you enjoy being an on-camera journalist? I imagine you've done hundreds of press interviews, but here the tables turn...
"I was fortunate in the sense that if somebody agreed to speak, it brought out a lot of passion. So my questioning and wanting to be in the know and this dialogue was basically about something that we love. It was really easy in that sense to sit and speak."
I don't think I've ever seen George Lucas this passionate in an interview. How was it speaking to him about an area that he's been integral in shaping?
"Yes, as you really dig deep into Mr Lucas, you really do see that he's helped create everything that we're doing, with digital editing and with sound and with visual effects and all of that. He's very passionate and it was really lovely to be able to speak with him, You can't tell the story without speaking to him and it was really cool of him to take the time out."
How was meeting Lars von Trier in person? He comes with a reputation!
"He's lovely! He's very lovely and provocative and you know he's like, 'I love freedom but I love discipline! You must have discipline to have freedom, f**k everything! I learned a lot from this Super 8mm book that I have. It's thesis, antithesis, synthesis!' He was lovely, really lovely."
How significant do you think Anthony Dod Mantle's Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire will prove to be?
"I think definitely from history's point of view, it will look like it had a huge impact. I would probably say in the moment as well. I think as the technology was being adopted and being used as it's getting better, it became less anathema to some filmmakers. It was like, 'Okay, let's do this digital or maybe let's shoot this in film, but let's do this digitally.' I think it was part of the growing momentum of the technology, for sure."
Christopher Nolan has spoken about wanting to preserve a choice for filmmakers to shoot either digitally or on film. Having recently directed your first movie digitally, Man of Tai Chi, did you feel you had that choice?
"I kind of had a choice, but I had different circumstances. I was shooting in China and I had some considerations definitely on the money side of it. From the budget that I had and from what I was hoping to do, digital would give me more reach. Also, I came up with camera tests and worked with the cinematographer Elliot Davis, and we came up with a combination which looks beautiful and was really suitable for the picture. We shot on an Arri Studio camera with some Hawk anamorphic lenses. We shot it 2:1 anamorphic."
Which part of directing did you enjoy the most? The preparation, the filming or post-production?
"They all have their joys, they really do. The prep was fun, you're getting in and getting into the mix of collaborating on all of the elements that go into the picture. Location, costume, casting, set design, production design, all of those elements. Storyboarding, there's a lot of creative and great moments in that for me. Shooting is great. I love actors, I love working with Elliot, and finding the shot, and actors are great - they just make everything better, the surprises that come up, the way that they show you things that you didn't expect is wonderful. And then editing, making the film. You have some days where you have all of the classic stuff like losing the shots you love, but then the joys of finding the scene and all of those things."
Can you foresee a time when a major studio film is released day-and-date in cinemas and on-demand? Netflix has recently put out an entire season of House of Cards in one go. Will the film industry shift its attention to online platforms?
"Well, you kind of saw this thing happen in the olden days, the '90s! A motion picture would have a theatrical release and exhibitors would ask for certain windows before there could be a DVD or a VHS release. It had to be a certain amount of time and that battle has been going on for a while, and that's changing with theatrical movies and distribution. So I don't know how far it will go.
"There's such an investment from the Hollywood movie studios, it's a huge investment. I'm sure a little while back it didn't seem plausible to recoup but now it's not pirated, it's on some kind of portal, whether it be Netflix or elsewhere. So now you're seeing simultaneous releases, especially with independent films. I guess it's going to that everywhere and anytime model. With digital releasing, you're still getting your picture seen, but it's tough on the producers in terms of financiers recouping stuff."
You seem to have a strong affinity with the cinema - would you ever watch a film on an iPhone?
"I like the big screen a lot. There are some pictures that get you there more than other films. I'm not against watching films on an iPhone, I haven't done it yet. I have certainly watched a movie on Netflix on a computer monitor. It's not the best way, but it is a way to watch a movie. Then again I don't know if seeing Lincoln on an iPhone is the same thing. It's a different thing."
Do you think that Hollywood is forcing 3D on audiences when it's up to a high enough standard?
"James Cameron talks about this in the documentary, there was Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon first, right? The other films that followed weren't of the same quality. I don't know if it's being thrust upon us, but most certainly sometimes it has. Some people really like it. For some stories it's the right thing to do. Then there's a lot of conversion going on nowadays, too. Maybe we can see Lincoln in 3D!"
Given its subject matter and content, are you surprised that there hasn't been a 3D re-release of The Matrix?
"Yeah, it would lend itself to it. I don't know if I'm surprised, I don't know if it'll happen. We'll see."
Finally, is there any update you can give us on Bill & Ted 3?
"There's a script. We just have to figure out a way to get it made, it's a good story. Bill and Ted are older gentlemen and the pressure of having to write the song that saves the world has made them go a little gonzo and a little crazy. The future comes back and says, 'You have to write this song, or the universe as we know it will break apart!' So they go to their future selves and try and figure out who wrote the song. Along the way, they learn some life lessons!"
If they're going crazy, it sounds like you should get Lars von Trier to direct?
"I know, right? Him or Werner Herzog!"