Plus Camerimage: Keanu Reeves and the Filmmakers of Side By Side


Poland’s annual cinematography festival, Plus Camerimage, is currently celebrating its 20th year and is on location all this week covering from the city of Bydgoszcz. Today, we’re bringing you a special interview with actor Keanu Reeves, the host of the recent documentary Side By Side. Along with by director, Chris Kenneally and producer Justin Szlas, Reeves discusses the trio’s look at the changing landscape of filmmaking and the pros and cons of entering an increasingly digital world.

Begun at Camerimage two years ago, Side By Side boasts interviews with filmmakers like James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle and many more.

Reeves, a budding director himself, also talks a bit about his debut project, Man of Thai Chi, which recently completed production in China. Check out the full interview below and check back throughout the week for more from Camerimage.

Q: Keanu, coming off of “Side By Side” and its discussion about celluloid versus digital filmmaking and going into your directorial debut, which format did you choose to go with?
Keanu Reeves:
Yeah, I ended up shooting a film called “Man of Thai Chi,” which I directed and acted in. We used the ARRI Studio camera with hot lenses. Early days, from the producer side of it, we were looking to shoot digitally because we were in mainland China and Hong Kong. They felt that, in terms of cost and QC and everything that we should look into digital. I went in to look into digital with the cinematographer, Elliot Davis, and with this camera, the ARRI camera and with the hot lenses, we came to a look that we thought would be really great for the film.

Q: Do you find that the role of the cinematographer is evolving with the increase in digital technology?
Yeah, I think that the role of the cinematographer has already evolved in terms of how they have to manage their image. Chris, do you want to talk at all about this?

Chris Kenneally: Yeah. With digital, the power of the cinematographer or DP has shifted a little bit. They used to be the only person on the set who knew exactly what image they were going to capture on film. Now, with digital, you’re able to monitor very closely what you’re shooting and you can see it while you’re shooting it and everyone else on the set can see it while you’re shooting it. Also, after the image goes into post-production, there’s more ways to manipulate it and more people that can get involved and have a say in it. The DP has to really get in there and make sure they’re involved all the way down the whole length of the image chain.

Reeves: But that may mean the end of the cinematographer.

Kenneally: It seems like there will, hopefully, always be someone involved in that role to care and be concerned about the image.

Reeves: It’s about knowing what image you are capturing. They kind of bring in the history, the take and the aesthetic as well.

Kenneally: Yeah, it’s one of those jobs that is very technical as well as artistic. I think that’s really what interested us a lot about this subject. It’s where those two worlds meet. These are the digital artists. These cinematographers are the Da Vincis and Michelangelos of our modern day. It’s having someone able to reach over their shoulder and say, “Hey, change the color of that painting.” That’s what’s kind of dangerous about what’s going on now. Hopefully that’s not what’s going to happen.

Q: Keanu, how important would you say your experiences making “Side By Side” were to filming “Man of Thai Chi”?
I think that, had I not been part of making this documentary, then going into a film in a digital way, the conversations with me would be another 50 percent of me going, “Can you explain that again? What are we doing? How is this?” I think going through the documentary really helped. The analogy I used is that I knew a little bit of the forest for the trees. I knew a little bit the paths of the world that I was moving into.

Q: In “Side By Side,” there’s a number of genuinely surprising facts about digital filmmaking. Can you each explain what you were most fascinated to learn while making the documentary?
To me, it was not really a technical surprise. I was kind of trying to go back through the short history of digital and find out what were the milestones both in terms of films and technology and where those merged. A brand new camera allowed for this type of movie or 24 frame video allowed for this type of movie. As I was finding those milestone movies, I would figure out who shot them and everything surrounding them. Anthony Dod Mantle, the cinematographer’s name kept popping up at each magical moment in this historical process. That was really cool and ended up being a neat find that helped the story arc of the documentary even though it was just factual history. That was really interesting and I knew we had to track that guy down and do an interview with him. It took a while to look him up but, to me, that was the most interesting thing.

Justin Szlasa: Yeah, I kind of agree with you. Anthony Dod Mantle and the things he did with Danny Boyle, as he refers to in the film, the balance of power on a film set and the way a film set kind of operates and the way the roles work, he’s able to, through digital cameras and digital technology, change that way of working. And that’s a way of working that has been established for 100 years in terms of roles and how a set operates. He was kind of able to break that down and totally change that. He loves that shift. He loves being able to make people do things differently and shift the power on set and get shots and angles that he would never have had a chance to do. What it really means is getting images that you’ve never had a chance to get. I think that that’s something that is profound and that’s what Danny and Anthony Dod Mantle were doing with “Slumdog,” for example. I think that that’s really what became enabled.

Reeves: For me, it was about the archival. That there’s really no way to standardize an effective way of keeping a digital archive going. I didn’t quite know the extent of that and that, for me, was the biggest surprise.

Q: Keanu, what does the digital versus film debate mean for you as an actor?
For me, it’s the rhythm on the floor and the time you can spend actually filming a film role and then what you can do with digital. Digital, oftentimes, is actually a lot longer. That’s really the most concrete difference. Otherwise, whether you’re doing multiple takes or how you’re moving the camera, those things are shared between digital and film. But that is, generally, a major difference, the rhythm of it. I have a real fondness and nostalgia for a film camera. I feel like a film camera can really capture, pull out and peer into [the scene]. The digital camera, to me, still feels like it’s watching and you have to externalize a little more in a weird way.

Q: Because technology is moving so fast, how hard was it to keep up with major innovations during the making of “Side By Side”?
Yeah, that was definitely an issue when we were making the movie. When we first came here and started shooting, the Alexa camera, which is now ubiquitous, was just kind of a model sitting out for people to look at. “What this? ARRI has a digital camera?” Now everybody is using it. We tried to make the documentary about the history of how we got here and the grander issue of capturing people’s thoughts at this moment of change, but we weren’t trying to put the period at the end of the sentence of say, “This is how it ends! With the RED EPIC!” or something like that. I think it’s obvious in the movie and people make mention of it a lot that the technology is always changing and people are going to change and improve. We made the doc because we felt we were kind of at that moment where digital had been rising and it was maybe just about to overtake film.

Q: How do you each think digital is going to affect the notion of quality versus quantity in filmmaking?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura talks about this in the film. He says he thinks there’s going to be more bad and less good. Personally, I think he’s probably right, but there’s also going to be more total. If you look a the number of films being made, Geoff Gilmore talked about Sundance submissions where they just went up like a hockey stick. I certainly think there’s going to be more people making more bad movies, but it’s not like there weren’t bad movies when everything was done with film. You’ve got to be excited about it, seeing more tools in more hands and the ability for people to tell more stories. That’s a huge difference that’s been enabled by digital. But there is going to be more noise. It’s already happening. Just look at how many festivals there are and how many films are coming out.

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