Q&A: Side By Side Producer Justin Szlasa On Keanu Reeves’ Powers Of Persuasion
'He got an old-fashioned typewriter, typed up a note to Christopher [Nolan] and mailed it to him.'
by Becky Reed
With the fascinating and hugely enjoyable Side by Side in UK cinemas today, we bring you the highlights of a Q&A we attended with producer Justin Szlasa (759: Boy Scouts of Harlem) at the BFI last December.
A must for film fans, Chris Kenneally's film features a passionate and curious Keanu Reeves interviewing top directors, cinematographers and more about the rapid advancement of digital filmmaking, and what it means for photochemical film.
Watching the likes of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Joel Schumacher, The Wachowskis, James Cameron, David Lynch, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan talk about their experiences with each format, how it affects their work, and ponder the future of film with Reeves makes for essential viewing.
At the preview showing in London last winter, producer Szlasa (pictured above, second from left, with Chris Cassidy, Kenneally and Reeves) was on hand to discuss the production. Below, learn how Reeves managed to persuade the stubborn Christopher Nolan to participate, what the star brought to the film, and the possibilities of seeing all those amazing interviews in full.
How the project came about:
"Chris Kenneally our director was working post-production on a film with Keanu called Henry's Crime, which Keanu produced and starred in... Keanu said to Chris, 'Things are changing here, and I want to do something to investigate this.' That was the genesis of it, this side by side comparison of the chemical image and the digital image. Over his career, Keanu has seen the industry change and he wanted to capture this while people were still working in both mediums. That was in 2010 in the fall - I came on to the project about a week and a half after they decided to get going on it."
On the scheduling nightmare of having star Reeves interviewing equally famous directors:
"We made a wishlist of people we wanted to get interviews with. We did a lot of telephone calls with people - as you can imagine, co-ordinating Keanu's schedule with people who were in the film was really tricky. We had a very small team - our credit roll doesn't last very long. Chris and I were the only two full-time on the project. We had an excellent DP Chris Cassidy, who came with us to shoot. Ivan Wood is our production assistant in London, so we did have a couple of local folks too, whether we were shooting in Berlin, London or Morocco. Everybody on the team could play every position - if the DoP couldn't make it, I would shoot, Chris could help with the edit and media management, Keanu would carry the lights... we were a small group."
On what Keanu Reeves brought to the table:
"The thing about Keanu, first of all he was passionate about the subject. It was his idea to do this, and he brought a huge amount of curiousity and passion and energy to it. He also put people at ease when he was speaking to them. It wasn't a journalistic approach, it was more a conversation with peers. A lot of people he interviewed were people he worked with, or knew professionally, over his long career. The Wachowskis hadn't done an interview in ten years - we were the first ones to do that. He had relationships, access and a conversational style that wouldn't have come from anybody else. He also kept us honest about keeping from a bias about the questions, or the approach. We really wanted to reflect the voices of the people we interviewed. Keanu did 80% of the interviews personally, which is a lot."
On the struggle to get Christopher Nolan:
He was very difficult. We called Christopher Nolan's person, and said, 'Hey, we are ready to meet Christopher anywhere in the world, at any time over the next 16 months - we just need 20 minutes. Is he available?' 'No.' That was the answer we got again and again. Finally, here in London Keanu was working on a show, and he got an old-fashioned typewriter and typed up a note to Christopher and mailed it to him. He got a response, saying he'd give him 20 minutes in a truck in Los Angeles. Analogue, man. Old school. I don't know if he had a wax seal and sent it by pony express, but it was old school. I think we got about 25 minutes."
On premiering the film in Poland:
"Where can we get a lot of DoPs in one spot, and get a lot of interviews done quickly? There's a festival called Camerimage in Bydgoszcz, Poland, which is a smallish town, but it's a great cinematography festival. I said to Keanu, it's not going to make a lot of sense, but we have to go to Poland. After I explained we could get all these guys in one spot, we went there in November 2010, and set up shop in a little room. We shot 25 interviews in three days. That helped us lay a foundation of content and ideas. Side by Side opened at that festival a week ago [December 2012]. Keanu, David Lynch and 15 people interviewed in the film were there for the opening."
On whether directors are starting to lose a choice between digital and film:
"I think that there is all kinds of pressure to make decisions on directors and DoPs. As Christopher Nolan says, the transition starts with being offered a choice, and slowly that choice is taken away. I think that if you talk to a lot of DoPs, their choice is being limited. You need a certain economy of scale to make film work. You need labs to be processing it at volume, you need crews who have experience to make that ecosystem work. The less film is shot, the harder it will be for it to survive. Film is complicated and specialised, and requires a competence to make it look great. There's a lot of pressure on the film value chain that threatens us. I don't think it's good, I think it's bad, but it's kind of the way it is."
On cutting 140 interviews down to 70 voices in the finished film:
"We tried to tell the best story with what we had, and we had to make decisions - if it didn't serve the story, it couldn't be in the film. Chris made those choices with our two great editors. We left some great stuff on the edit room floor. But those other interviews are on our hard drives, and we are working to make those available. There's one clip we made available from Ed Lachman, and we will be releasing more. We didn't interview Dick Pope for the 60 seconds, we had a nice long interview. We're working on ways to make them more accessible. We've got to find the best way to do that. We have a lot of footage, and rather than release an extended film, if they really love Robert Rodriguez or whatever, they want to hear more from them, we're working on a way to do that that's responsible. We've cut about 60 of those together already, and we just have to find a way to release them that will make sense to us from a production stand point."
On being surprised by the interviewees' opinions:
"There were a lot of surprises. We were surprised at how indecisive and mixed people felt about things, even people we thought would be more pro-digital or pro-film. Except for [George] Lucas, everyone had some nostalgia for what was being lost on film. I thought all the older DoPs would be pro-film, and it wasn't true. Some were excited about digital, like Michael Chapman who shot Taxi Driver, saying, 'If I was shooting this now, I'd be doing it in digital. A TV screen is big enough for me.' I didn't think he was going to say that! The flip side is some of the younger DoPs we talked to like Reed Morano or Bradford Young, were pro-film and had a lot of respect for the photochemical process. To hear David Lynch say he's never going to shoot film again..."