Digital or Film? Keanu Reeves Looks at the "Evolution Revolution" in Movies
by Michael Logan
International film icon Keanu Reeves is the producer and host of PBS's Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema, a documentary airing Friday, Aug. 30 that is, in a way, like the Matrix: No one can be told what it is. You have to see it for yourself. And, trust us, it's so worth your time! TV Guide Magazine spoke with Reeves about this labor of love, which puts him face-to-face with some of the greatest filmmakers of our time — including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron — as they fervently discuss a major tipping point in motion picture history.
TV Guide Magazine: A program that looks at how digital filmmaking is replacing the use of traditional celluloid film sure sounds dry, yet Side By Side is totally riveting, often funny and surprisingly emotional. Judging by your commentary in the program, you seem pretty moved by this digital-versus-film issue.
Reeves: I am! I feel a kind of sadness about it, really. Maybe you can chalk it up to nostalgia, since I grew up in this business working on film. This is my life! This is art versus technology, art versus commerce. This is 100 years of Hollywood history giving way to a new filmmaking process — an evolution revolution — that some feel is superior and some don't. I still think of a beautiful film print as an object of art, an object of glory. For all the benefits of digital filmmaking — and there are so many —we are losing something very special here.
TV Guide Magazine: Christopher Nolan tells you in the doc that he is determined to keep working with film. Will it get to the point where only he and other superstar auteurs will have that privilege?
Reeves: It sure looks that way. Digital is the way to go, financially, and that's always the bottom line. Not only do the studios prefer it but the study of celluloid filmmaking is being phased out in schools. No one's growing up with that technology, so there will be no new generation to take the torch. And, after a point, you don't have the labs to develop the film and no one's making the equipment. It will become more and more niche, and therefore more expensive. But, just as Paul Thomas Anderson shot The Master on 65 mm, traditional film will remain alive thanks to those who support it and have the pull. Even then there will be pressure to make the switch. A director or a cinematographer will be told, "This is a digital project." They might say, "Well, I don't do digital." And the response will be, "Well, that's nice. Goodbye." Because someone else will be more than happy to work that way.
TV Guide Magazine: And some actors don't like it! With digital, you can keep shooting and shooting without reloading or relighting, which can lead to long, exhausting work days without the customary breaks. You have a hilarious anecdote in Side by Side about Robert Downey, Jr. peeing in Mason jars and leaving them all around the set.
Reeves: As a form of protest! [Laughs] Yes, some actors are in shock, but others really love the freedom of digital and the new opportunities for creativity and storytelling. In addition to the directors and cinematographers I interviewed, it was good to include a few actors in the discussion — John Malkovich, Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig. Our director, Chris Kenneally, has made Side by Side very accessible and he found ways to really bring forth the passion people feel. There's a lot of heart.
TV Guide Magazine: Whose response most surprised you?
Reeves: David Lynch! Over the years he's moved into digital and I had no idea he'd lost all interest in pursuing traditional film. The images and textures, the beauty of his earlier work, are so striking and wonderful, that I was kind of shocked to hear him say he was finished with film. He's done! But I understood, because his work in digital has also been incredible.
TV Guide Magazine: What if you'd been able to do Side by Side with the great directors of yesteryear — Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, David Lean. Wouldn't they have hated this digital revolution?
Reeves: I'm not so sure! I bet they would have liked the sensitivity of digital. It's so fluid. All the men you mention were known for their visuals and their incredible camera movements and they might well have embraced it. Certainly Hitchcock would have been intrigued.
TV Guide Magazine: You couldn't have done this program without George Lucas, right?
Reeves: He is the Zeus of Digital! He was on the cutting edge of all this 20 years ago, bringing filmmakers up to Skywalker Ranch and telling them about the digital revolution that was coming. He was the tip of the spear.
TV Guide Magazine: And he raised a lot of hell!
Reeves: Oh, people were furious with him! He caught so much flack. They said he was heralding the end of filmmaking as we know it. [Laughs] But here we are today!