As the star of “The Matrix” Keanu Reeves was on the front lines of the digital revolution of cinema, as film making technologies shifted from the traditional photochemical process to pixel manipulation.
As a result, the actor’s long been fascinated with the slow end of the physical filmic techniques that defined movie making for a century. Reeves now serves as producer, narrator and interviewer in the documentary “Side By Side” (debuting on VOD Aug. 22) in which he chronicles the often wildly disparate, frequently polarized views on the benefits of film versus digital from some of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood, including Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, David Fincher, James Cameron, Danny Boyle, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, Andy and Lana Wachowski, Robert Rodriguez and Lena Dunham.
What were the big surprises as you went through all these interviews?
From the filmmakers, I would say David Lynch saying that he didn't feel like he'd ever work in photochemical film again surprised me. I think also speaking with George Lucas. I mean, I remember seeing DCP – digital projection – but I didn't really know or feel the impact of what a maverick he's been in terms of the technology of how we make movies, from editing, sound, visual FX, projection and the camera. He was the guy for all of that – him and his team at [Industrial Light & Magic] and everyone that he works with.
Did you have a feeling about film versus digital as an actor, before you did this project? And did that change as a result of doing this?
Yeah. I would say that [“Side By Side” director] Chris Kenneally was more digital, and when we looked at it we were like, 'Where did we come from? Where is the movie industry at? Where are we today and what's the future going to look like, and what have we lost and what have we gained?' So I was more of the ‘What are we losing?’ and Chris was like more about what are we gaining. That was pretty much it. I would always kind of be for the photochemical print and he would call me nostalgic and say, 'Get with it. Come on, wake up.' I'd say, 'But I love film,' just the richness of it and the depth of it. He was digital. He was like, 'Come on, let's go!'
In this film you also touch on the fiscal elements of film versus digital.
Absolutely. We talked about that in this documentary: how much it cost to ship, how much it cost to make a print, how much it cost to get the equipment, how much to buy film? How much? A lot.
It seems like for most people – except Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and a few others – that it's not so much a choice anymore, right?
Yeah, you're right. I mean, if you're a young director your producers might be saying, 'This is a digital show.' And you're like, 'What about –?' 'No. It's a digital show.' 'But what about –?' 'It's a digital show.'
You delve into the philosophy behind going digital. Can you talk about that aspect of the film?
I really enjoyed speaking to people about that. When Martin Scorsese says, 'Where young people aren't believing the image anymore...' Well, what does that mean? When was it ever real? What are the new ways that we see stories on all of the different portals that we have now, and all of the different monitors? What is the movie going experience? Does any of it matter? Archival – the idea of wanting it to last forever, but now that idea doesn't really exist, or does it? Does it matter? And yeah, just the democratization – Lorenzo Di Bonaventura says, 'There's no taste-maker.' What does that mean? Standards. People talk about filmic discipline or no discipline.
It was fun to speak about those things and kind of think about that in terms of what are we making, what are we watching, how are we watching it? The Wachowskis talking about the communal, digital experience of sharing: 'Well, it's actually more intimate not to be in a room full of people, but to be separated...' I was like, 'What was that again? But what about the flesh and the blood?' And they were like, 'Well, it's more intimate now that I can go watch this in a separated communal environment and now I can think about it and share my thoughts.
How much coaxing did it take to get the both of notoriously camera-shy Wachowskis to sit down with you?
I think they had worked on a documentary over the past couple of years themselves, plus the idea that they knew me plus the idea of the subject matter helped in terms of wanting to speak on camera, which I think was great. The documentary side, they knew what it meant to ask someone to be in a documentary because they have done it, and the subject matter they're definitely interested in and experts on. And we go way back. One of the responses was, 'For you. Only for you.'
Who was the hardest cold call of the filmmakers you haven’t worked with personally?
The ones who said no, who I won't say. Generally it was work-related or they had no interest in talking to anybody. So, it was either time, schedule or no interest.
Starting out as a young actor, you were likely more concerned with performance than anything else. When did you start taking an interest in the technical side of the business and then all the other elements that go into a film?
I was always interested in the camera, acting for the camera. I was always interested in the lens, your relationship to the lens and the scene and then to lighting. I always liked watching crews work. Sometimes I'll sit and I'll just watch people, see the set getting built. I just like it. There's a craft to it. It's, like, good work. That's I guess where it started. For me, for this doc, it was just really a question of seeing, feeling the end of film, for me, really. Then Chris was like, 'But it's the impact of digital cinema.” Yes, but…
Is it as divisive as talkies versus silent films, that kind of thing?
I don't know. I think the impact is not as large as going from silent to talkies, or from black and white to color. I don't think it's that kind of sea change, but behind the camera, even with those technologies there were the loss of some jobs and the gains of other jobs or places in the process. That's definitely been the case with digital. Some other aspects of film making have become redundant, and then now there are new people. But I don't know…It's something else. I think growing up with the technology, a hundred years of ‘What is a movie?’ I don't know. It's got the same end game, but it's different.
Was there any great stuff you couldn't use just for time?
Definitely. On the website now they're doing what they're calling outtakes and stuff, but I'd like to personally create an archival aspect of this. We have a hundred and forty interviews, and I think in terms of a technology or a process or an industry or the way that we do things, this moment in time, I think we captured really a lot of people who have been involved in that and I'd like to make that accessible to anybody for free.
As a performer, how would you compare working with digital to having practical locations versus doing blue screen work?
It's like playing cowboys and Indians in your house or in a park. It's a different sense of control and abandonment because you either have things to interact with and that affect you or you're pretending that there are things. That's why it's like you're either all pretend in imagination…if you have another actor it's great. If you're just acting to the tennis ball, or like, 'There it comes,' that's not as much fun for sure, to have interactive and to have the actors and have the real environment.
Everyone you talked to seemed to fall on pretty much one side or the other. Then there’s Martin Scorsese, who wants to embrace all the technology yet appeared to feel melancholy about losing film. Did you feel that in talking to him?
Absolutely, absolutely, yeah, like the way that he kind of smiled, but then you get the blood on your fingertips from editing. In terms of the directors, he had the most kind of visceral, emotional … shared that love. The others not so much.
Having done this project, are you okay with the death of film?
No, not really…Even now there are just people who won't have experienced it. Maybe that's why Martin is nostalgic, because he's into film preservation and that idea that no one will have that experience anymore I think is coming from that part of him, like, 'They won't see it. They won't have those cuts. They won't sit in that room. They won't have that flickering light. They won't have that experience.'