Keanu Reeves on 'Side by Side' and the Future of Film

From 2012, here's Christopher Campbell's interview with Keanu Reeves about producing the filmmaking film 'Side by Side.'

Keanu Reeves Side by Side
Company Films

This interview with Keanu Reeves about the documentary Side by Side was originally published on on August 17, 2012.

This weekend we get the perfect film to close out the summer, an all-star bash with many of your favorites from the last few decades of the movies. No, not the Expendables sequel. This is something with even more famous names than that: Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, George Lucas, the Wachowskis, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh, Lars von Trier, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Joel Schumacher, and Lena Dunham.

Titled Side by Side, it’s the new documentary from Christopher Kenneally (Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating) and it’s produced, narrated, and hosted by actor Keanu Reeves.

What kind of nonfiction topic could gather all these experts and artists together? Obviously, it has to do with cinema. Specifically, the doc looks at the discussion and history of how digital moviemaking is taking over the industry while celluloid filmmaking is all but extinct. It’s a conversation that isn’t over, of course, and even since Side by Side debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, studios announced plans to do away with film prints. Meanwhile, more and more issues with digital projection have come about.

So when we spoke with Reeves recently, sure, we had a tiny moment in which to address Bill & Ted 3, and there was also a relevant reason to bring up his forthcoming directorial debut, the martial arts flick Man of Tai Chi. But mostly we talked about the doc, the debate on film versus digital, the future of cinema, and which film director he’s most upset to learn has quit celluloid completely. You can read our conversation in full below.

It is such a perfect time for this film because the debate on film versus digital keeps going and in fact may never be stronger. Was it hard finishing the film when you did, while the history and the discussions continue?

Yeah, when Chris Kenneally, the director, and I decided to go on this expedition to look at “the impact of digital cinema,” we thought the only way to stay relevant, or in it, was to start from where we came from. That was the photochemical process. Then Chris had the idea of following the workflow of a film, how a movie gets made from image acquisition to visual effects to editing. So when we started to go through those processes and see how digital has impacted these “traditional” ways of making a film, it took us to the present, which was I guess eight months ago, when Arriflex announced they weren’t making film cameras anymore and Technicolor was closing film processing plants. The idea of where it would keep going was the end of film.

So I guess we wanted to capture this moment in time, this intersection. We’re living it now. Digital is becoming — or is — the industry standard, and the norm. And it’s a technological transition, right? So with that, there are always going to be bugaboos.

I really like that it’s not totally geared for the movie geeks already having this discussion online. It’s basic enough to include the general moviegoer. How do you think the debate affects mom and pop going out to the movies this weekend?

If you’re a technological movie geek, if you want to talk about pixels and compression rates and color space, this film will probably be, well, you’ll know more than the movie, or than the movie will show. Chris Kenneally’s objective was to be interesting to the specialist and interesting to the general public. And I think the way he did that was to always bring it back to the movies and to storytelling. Every time you have something technical or something that’s inside baseball, you see a movie. A film illustrates what’s going on. My hope is that by watching the documentary you come away with a deeper appreciation for movies, for storytelling, for what you’re looking at, for what you’re experiencing.

Were you surprised that so many people defend digital? Or that there were fewer people taking the stand for film other than Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, especially some of the older guys like Martin Scorsese and [cinematographer] Michael Chapman?

Yeah. I mean the cinematographers were definitely — actually everyone had an opinion. The film represents both sides of it. When we interviewed [Nolan], digital had not reached the technical excellence, to him, that film has. Then there were other people who just didn’t want to lose film for so many qualities. It was what they were brought up on, how it looks, how it feels, everything about it.

I guess the one that really did surprise me was when David Lynch said that he wouldn’t work in film anymore. Because he had just done so much beautiful photochemical work. So for him to just say, “Eh, I’m not gonna do that anymore,” I was surprised. But I understood his point, the intimacy that he could have with the performances and the immediacy of his images, and the control of his images. I got why he was doing it, but I was surprised.

I was surprised that some of the guys, such as Chapman, are like, “Well it was a 20th-century art and now it’s gone the way of opera. We’re on to the next thing and we’re not going to be sentimental over it.”

Yeah. I don’t know. It’s almost emotional how you deal with change maybe, as well, right? It’s an evolution and revolution in this medium. So for Chapman, he’s like, “Who cares?” He wants to be present. But maybe that’s his not wanting to… Again, it becomes an emotional dealing with something, doesn’t it?

Some of them probably respect that when color and sound came around people had similar reservations about moving forward. Now things are moving so fast with technology and the art form that we just have to get used to it.

Change and get used to it, or become obsolete. But the cinematographers’ jobs have changed. They have to light differently. You know, the documentary talks about how they were “the magicians.” And now everyone can look over their shoulder and look at the image. That must be difficult.

Was there anyone you wished you could talk to that wasn’t available or willing? I do wish that there was some mention of how digital also sparked a doc explosion.

I completely agree with you. We were really just kind of Western, Hollywood-oriented. At some point, I would always say to Chris, “What’s happening in China? What’s happening with documentaries? What about India? What about…?” And he would go, “Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah. Too big. It’s too big. Let’s just talk about here.” And I’d say, “Well, what about…?” But it really has. Documentary has benefited so much from it.

With China and documentary, it’s not about cinema, it’s about them being able to go underground and expose things that the media doesn’t.

Right, but when I was mentioning China it wasn’t about the documentaries. It was about how they have changed digitally, how digital has impacted the film business in India or China, or Europe for that matter. So there was that and then documentaries.

How did the interview process work? Did you come up with your own questions?

Basically, Chris and I, when we were doing it, just had this question: Where are we, what’s going on, with the impact of digital? And so we started by going to a film festival in Poland called Camera Image, or Camerimage, and trying to speak with cinematographers and anyone who would talk to us. If I was there, I was interviewing. If I wasn’t there, Chris was interviewing. Because I was working. Over the course of a year and a half, I was working and then I wasn’t working. It was really me being the central interview, the lead interviewer, but if I couldn’t make it then Chris would do the interview.

So there are some interviews in the film that you’re not present for?

Yeah. Yeah, sure.

So it’s edited very well to make it seem like you’re the host and interviewer all throughout the movie. That’s interesting.

If there’s no reaction shot then I guess I’m not there.

Is that something you guys had talked about, you being the on-screen gateway for audience appeal because of who you are? And also did it make some of the people more comfortable, especially if they knew you?

I can’t speak for anyone, because I didn’t really ask them, “Hey, did it make you more comfortable in this interview because you were talking to me?” But I have been working in the industry for a while, so to some of the people I was talking to I was familiar. The way that we would approach people was that this is about this. And if I was approaching someone I would say, “This is a subject that I’m really interested in. Are you interested in speaking to me about it?” It’d be disingenuous not to say that my involvement was my involvement, but it was just Chris and I wanting to make a documentary, so we tried to go do that. And Side by Side is what we made.

Well, I really love the stuff with the Wachowskis. We don’t get enough of them. They don’t do as many interviews. You know, we’ve seen George Lucas and Martin Scorsese talk about movies.

Right. I felt very honored and fortunate that they spoke with me. I hope that we can show some more of their interview because it’s great. It’s wonderful to hear their intelligence and wit and humor and perspective. It’s lovely. I was very grateful to them for taking the interview.

Did making this film and talking with any of these people influence or change how you approached directing for the first time on Man of Tai Chi?

I would say that going through the process of working on the documentary the past year and a half certainly made me more familiar with digital filmmaking and what it is. And I ended up shooting a digital show. We worked on the Arri Alexa Studio camera, and so I think that did help. I was in this new forest, but I had a couple of maps, and I had walked a few of the trails. Yeah, I think it definitely helped.

Were you already on the side of digital when you started or was that part of why you made the film, that you weren’t sure about it yet?

I was more photochemical and interested in the end of the film, as in what are we losing, and Chris was more digital, and what are we gaining. We were kind of both sides of the dialogue, which was great. Then through the course of it, I think I moved more than he did.

You’re shooting your film digitally, right?


So you’re obviously comfortable and happy with it. And the proof-of-concept video we’ve seen of the new kung fu camera rig looks pretty cool.

But I lost the experience of working on film. I will probably get to see it in film, because there are still some places where it will be released — if it’s any good — that have to have a film print. It would be cool to see that.

Not just with that film, but does it seem like it’s now harder for producers to okay a film being shot on film now? Are you encouraged to shoot digitally?

From my experience with it, yes it is. Because basically they just go, “Film is a dollar a foot. And digital is eighty-three cents. Digital wins!” So yeah, from the financials of it. But then there are other people who would say, well, if you look digital shows are still really expensive. But definitely, that’s what you’ll get first off the bat is the cost of it.

There are still plenty of blockbusters shot digitally that cost more than any film ever cost.


It’s like how they say technology is supposed to make things easier for our lives, and yet we’re busier than ever now.

It’s the great lie! It goes up in the list of great lies.

You know, Christopher Nolan, one of his points was, “We’re losing the ability for choice. And I, as a filmmaker, as an artist, am losing something that is beautiful and wonderful. I’m losing the choice as an artist to use it.” He’s an auteur, and he can. And of course, you can still go out and make a film photochemically, but it’s going away. That choice is gone. This thing that’s supposed to make your life easier — but here’s the DIPs and here’s your workflow and, oh, there’s a little bug in…. There are problems with it still. But as [George] Lucas says, “We’ll figure them out!”

I know that people are trying to see as many revival screenings as they can now because they want to watch the films on film one last time.

Wow. Yeah. Yeah.

So there won’t be that choice for the audience. And that’s the difficulty.

Yep. I agree. Something that was so populist is now going to be in the museum. Or very boutique-y.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.