Keanu Reeves Talks Generation Um...
by B. Alan Orange
Generation Um..., now available on VOD, opens in select theaters this Friday, May 3rd. If you haven't heard of the film, you may still be very familiar with one of the scenes in it. Paparazzi spotted star Keanu Reeves on the set, sitting on a bench, alone, eating a cupcake. And the following photographs helped push the 'Sad Keanu' meme into the stratosphere. Taken out of context, those cupcake pictures certainly took on a life of their own. (Note: the original Sad Keanu image that first got famous was not from Generation Um, but a paparazzi shot of Keanu sitting on a bench eating a sandwich. The cupcake ones came later. - Ani)
The scene is still included in Generation Um..., though it's pre-screen history may be a little distracting. Keanu plays John, the driver of two private escorts, and it might as well be called 'Sad Keanu: The Movie' as we watch the actor eat alone at various locations throughout New York City. The story revolves around the act of stealing a camera, which John uses to document the lives of these two call girls he sometimes hauls around in his station wagon from one bachelor party to the next.
It's a generational drama about aging and technology, and privacy. Reeves, acting alongside the beautiful Adelaide Clemens and Bojana Novakovic, gives one of his best performances to date. We recently caught up with the actor and his director Mark Mann to talk about the film, that notorious cupcake eating scene, sad Keanu and even Bill & Ted 3.
Here is our conversation.
A lot of people think stealing is wrong. But when you steal to make art, do you feel that justifies the act of stealing? Or does the act of stealing become the art?
Mark Mann: (Laughs) I don't think that art justifies the act of stealing. But I think it's excellent to incorporate your inner desires and urges into your own form of expression.
Keanu Reeves: Stealing is wrong!
Going off that, the scene at the gas station, where Keanu, or rather John, picks up the candy bar and puts it in his pocket is very subtle. And for him, it's an unnecessary act. He doesn't need to be stealing candy. What are we, as an audience, supposed to take away from that moment, in looking at him as a human being?
Keanu Reeves: He is in pain, and he wants some comfort. (Laughs)
Mark Mann: I think it was nice to set up a theme. Where there is not a lot of attention pointed at that part of the scene. A lot of people look at it as discovering something, I believe.
Is John soothing the pain and getting comfort from the candy bar? Or is he finding solace in the act of stealing a ninety-cent piece of candy when he just gave the cashier a twenty-dollar bill, and not to mention he just got that nice big check for his birthday from his mom...
Keanu Reeves: (Laughs) Both!
Now, Keanu has answered this in a way, with his book. But Mark, as a director, what has it been like for you to see photos from your set turned into something else. We have these great photos of Keanu eating a cupcake alone, on a bench, and they've been taken so out of context, that it's hard to watch those scenes in the movie and not laugh. We've seen these moments out of context for so long...
Mark Mann: I love it. I think that's what its all about. I think the context of the film is obviously intentional. I think we're supposed to spur other people's creativity. Not to say there aren't copyright issues, or what not. But I like that it inspires people to react to it. And to have an opinion about it. Art is supposed to create discourse.
Has it been weird to see these photos take on a life of their own, almost a year before the movie comes out?
Mark Mann: I thought it was awesome. It was interesting. As a filmmaker, it's interesting. On the business side of it? I don't know about all of that. As a filmmaker, to do something that inspires people to make something even beyond that, with it, its kind of an honor. They made some cool stuff. I thought it was funny! Yeah. I admire people's tenacity, and their creative spirit.
Keanu, you wrote the book as an answer to some of this stuff, right?
Keanu Reeves: You're talking about Ode to Happiness?
Yes. That came in the aftermath of some of these photos, right?
Keanu Reeves: No, it actually had nothing to do with those pictures or any of that sad Keanu business (laughs).
Mark Mann: That was a great book by the way.
Keanu Reeves: Thank you very much, Mark. But honestly, those things were not intentionally connected. That book is a universal thing.
Mark Mann: (Laughs)
I'd love to own a copy of the book, but I'm not rich enough.
Keanu Reeves: Save up for Christmas! (Laugh)
That's what I'm trying to do! I actually want a copy really bad. Now, in terms of the technical aspects of Generation Um, I watched it first as a drama. But then I went back and watched Side By Side, and I realized both movies are really about the trading of technology and the passing of media throughout new generations. Did you intentionally move directly into Generation Um because you saw it as a companion piece to Side by Side?
Keanu Reeves: Um...Certainly not intentionalized. It would be a reflection of the past, but it wasn't considered in the moment. No, they were not connected. But they certainly are related. It was never intentionalized.
Now, Keanu, I wanted to ask you about working specifically with Bojana. Did you guys rehearse her more erratic behavior before filming, or did she constantly surprise you within those scenes where she is acting out. Cause she seems to always take it to the next level in how annoying she can be, and you genuinely look bothered by some of her outbursts.
Keanu Reeves: We did a lot of rehearsals...Well, not a lot. But we certainly did some rehearsals in preparation. We wouldn't do a lot of rehearsal on the set. We figured everything out. We would do blocking rehearsals. But when the camera started to roll, it would go to another level. She is a wonderful actress. Both her and Adelaide Clemens are wonderful actresses. There are a handful of lines that are improvised. But most of it is Mark Mann and his wonderful script.
What about the penis line? Is that scripted, or did that come out of that moment and her reaction to the earlier dialogue?
Keanu Reeves: Mark, do you want to speak about the penis? (Laughs)
Mark Mann: Are you talking about the 'dicks to the moon' line?
Yes. I bring it up because, when she walks away, and he says that line, it's incredibly insensitive, but it's also incredibly funny. Its one of those lines that generate various different emotions, and though it's a joke, it's not a throw away line. It seems to mean quite a bit to the relationship of these three individuals.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, that line was absolutely scripted.
Mark Mann: Yes, speaking on that, I think its one of the more complicated lines in the movie, for various reasons. Keanu packs so many different levels of intention into that one line. Its just...You know? It speaks volumes, as they say.
Keanu Reeves: It's a weird combination of tenderness and meanness. It's a search for a connection, but in private, through another. (Laughs) It's very odd. It makes him feel bad, which makes him reach out.
Mark Mann: Its self-flagellation, and it's a cry for help. It's also sort of a soft caress.
It made me laugh, but it also made me feel kind of bad for this woman.
Mark Mann: Yeah, cool, man. I'm glad that was affecting.
We see a lot of found footage movies now. A lot of them are coming from first time filmmakers who've never made a film before. You are a documentarian filmmaker. Is the film itself a comment, or a commentary on the found footage movement?
Mark Mann: Succinctly, with respect to me, I am into filmmaker films at this juncture. The first film was a documentary about the narrative editing process. And on some level, this was a narrative of the parallels of the documentary filmmaking process. On some level. In terms of what is happening within the film itself...Its sort of a commentary on found footage, because the movie itself isn't found footage. Its set up within a construct. We set up a show once they get into the apartment, and you always see John as the cameraman. He goes back and forth between whose intention with the camera is really being satisfied. By the time they leave the apartment, you don't really know if its all been a put on or not. The movie is not a put on. But the characters within the film are playing with what is truth. John's camera is feeding into that, because its recording things in a very literal way. Although, it's all from his point of view, and the girls are only showing you what they want to show you.
That all goes back to the act of stealing the camera, and the fact that John was able to pull these emotions out of these two girls. If he hadn't of engaged in that bit of thievery, we wouldn't feel the same way about the girls during the end bachelor party scene. Seeing them work through another night would have been as meaningless to the audience as it is to these two girls.
Mark Mann: I think the camera becomes a character development tool for John, as well. For the girls, it's a very strong statement about how they want to appear. To men, to John in general, to each other. How they operate, what they want to communicate to the world on top of it, I think the act of stealing the camera speaks on many different levels.
Now, Keanu, I want to know...Is there a level of self-consciousness that comes in acting with the camera that doesn't come when you are acting in front of the camera?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah. For me, in terms of going into making this film, that was a very exciting element to the picture. It was very unique, in the sense of being the operator. Then also, having to be this character. What is John interested in looking at? And it has to be as much John's aesthetic as it is my aesthetic. In dealing with privacy, and intimacy, him alone with the camera, him in the room with the girl, with the camera, the way he discovered their apartment...Its in the idea that the audience can also discover so much through this other eye. All of these things needed to enrich the experience.
What about the last scene in the movie? Was that just you four actors alone in that room with the camera?
Keanu Reeves: No, that was actually...Mark Mann set us free that night...
Mark Mann: I had something else to do...
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, it was interesting, because it was unwitnessed. There was no crew. There was no cinematographer. He set up these lights, and then the characters basically have a dinner. They are at John's apartment. For a good twenty minutes, we filmed. And we interacted. That was all unscripted, and Mark's magic of editing.
This may be a dumb question, and it may be like asking a painter why he uses a certain color, but I want to know...Why the station wagon?
Keanu Reeves: Ah, the story of the car!
Mark Mann: I love that car. We looked at a couple of different cars, but, eh....
Keanu Reeves: Mark! The hunt for that car was like two months. (Laughs)
Mark Mann: In the end, what I can say is...I wanted to play with the time period of the movie. Our perceptions of what is now. To be honest, I looked inside at my perception of John, and I thought, this is the car he would drive. You know? It's big. It's sort of odd. It's hard to park...
Keanu Reeves: (Laughs) It's a family car.
Did either of you see The Comedy with Tim Heidecker?
Keanu Reeves: No, I haven't.
Generation Um... and The Comedy are similar thematically. I think they would make a good double feature. They serve as companion pieces. But I didn't know if you were aware of that movie, or if you'd seen it.
Keanu Reeves: Oh, okay. I'll have to go check that out and take it in.
Mark Mann: Sounds good. The Comedy/Generation Um... double feature.
Keanu Reeves: Unintentionalized correlations! (laughs)
It's interesting to watch a movie like The Comedy, which has a limited release like your film, and it doesn't get seen by many people, and some of the critics don't quite understand it. But then it hits Netflix and its one of the most popular movies on their the last two weeks. So these smaller movies really find a second life after their intentional release, which is what I'm sure will happen with Generation Um.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah. Which is cool. I think its great in terms of this contemporary distribution. Films are having more of an opportunity to be seen.
Mark Mann: Yeah, it's nice to be able to do something really different. That's bold.
Watching The Comedy become one of the more popular releases when it starts streaming, it seems like audiences are really hungry for that sort of drama. If that can serve as any indication.
Keanu Reeves: That was one of my attractions to Generation Um... That it didn't follow the traditional dramatic plot tropes. Yet it does pay attention to them, and utilizes them in terms of the mystery about whom these people are, and what is going on. There is this undertow of circumstance that we learn at the end of the picture. For me, I liked that it was a power construct that becomes something else in terms of its form.
I don't want to make you frown Keanu, but I want to ask a Bill & Ted question, if that's okay?
Keanu Reeves: Sure!
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey ends with the two of them getting lost on their way to playing the first ever rock show on Mars. Will that at all play into the storyline of Bil & Ted 3?
Keanu Reeves: (laughs) In the incarnations that I have seen...No!
Keanu Reeves: I know!
You know, we've talked to Werner Herzog a couple of times since you said that you wanted him as a director, and he wants to make the movie.
Keanu Reeves: He does?
I know that was a joke, but he's gone back and watch the first two. And he says he's interested.
Keanu Reeves: (Laughs)!