Keanu Reeves & Justin Szlasa on “Side By Side”

Keanu Reeves & Justin Szlasa on “Side By Side”
By Abbie Bernstein

keanu reeves, side by side, pbs special

Pretty much everyone in Western civilization knows who Keanu Reeves is as an actor, but fewer know that he’s a filmmaker. As a director, he’s completed the narrative feature MAN OF TAI CHI, in which he also stars. As a producer, Reeves teamed up with director Christopher Kenneally and fellow producer Justin Szlasa to make the documentary SIDE BY SIDE. With Reeves serving as on-camera interviewer, the film consists of conversations with directors and cinematographers including Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Lena Dunham, David Fincher, Barry Levinson, George Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and many others regarding the differences and individual preferences between shooting on film and digital.

SIDE BY SIDE had a theatrical release in 2012. On Friday, August 30, PBS is airing a 56-minute cut of the film, with some affiliates airing a 90-minute edition. Reeves and Szlasa do a panel together at the Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then make themselves available for awhile afterwards for follow-up questions.

“The origin story is,” Reeves explains, “I was working with Chris Kenneally. He was working as a post-[production] supervisor for a film called HENRY’S CRIME, which I was acting in and was part of developing.”

For those who have not seen HENRY’S CRIME, it’s a charming low-budget crime comedy. Reeves plays a thief who falls for an actress played by Vera Farmiga. To pull off a robbery and to win the Farmiga character’s love, Reeves’ character must perform in a Chekhov play.

“While we [Reeves and Kenneally] were in the post process,” Reeves continues, “we were side by side, the two of us, going through the color correction. And this is where it really hit me. We were in Technicolor [post-production facility in] New York, and what happens is, they take the photochemical [film negative], they digitize it, you color-crrect it, and then you have a digital version of your film and a photochemical version. Once you’ve color-corrected digitally, then you have to match the photochemical to the digital. So they’re literally side by side. Behind you, you have a color timer, who’s doing the [color work on the] photochemical, and you have a colorist doing the digital – two mediums talking to each other to try to make them match. At the same time, Paul Cameron, the cinematographer [for HENRY’S CRIME], was showing me the commercial he’d just shot on his DSLR. ‘Look at those images. Aren’t those great?’ And so what happened is, I was sitting there and I was thinking it was the end of film. You know, you just took the photochemical out of it, and I’d been hearing about the digital cameras [used to shoot feature films]. So I went to Chris – ‘Film might go away.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, but digital’s coming up.’ And I’m like, ‘So, you want to make a documentary?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ So we agreed to do that, and then Chris and I were like, ‘We need a producer.’ And then Chris went and spoke to Mr. Szlasa.” Reeves then turns to Szlasa. “And how did you respond to the idea?”

“It was great,” Szlasa says. “I loved the idea. Next, cut to, I’m on Skype talking to you [Reeves], and it all kind of fell into place. It was the right time, the right place, and a great subject. So I think things got started in October, and then we were shooting in November.”

As to why neither Reeves nor Szlasa decided to direct SIDE BY SIDE, both express total faith in Kenneally. “Chris was awesome,” Szlasa says. “The project started out as a collaboration between Keanu and Chris in the process of post-production on HENRY’S CRIME, and that’s when the project got traction.”

“He had directed a documentary [CRAZY LEGS CONTI: ZEN AND THE ART OF COMPETITIVE EATING] before,” Reeves adds.

“So he was the right man for the job,” Szlasa concludes.

pbs documentary side by side

As for when and how SIDE BY SIDE was made, Reeves relates, “We worked on the documentary from beginning to end a little over a year and a half ago. One of the first things we did is, we took our team, our merry band, and we went to a film festival in Poland called Camera Image or,” he approximates a Polish accent for the festival’s name, “’Cameraimage,’ which is a film festival that orients itself around cinematographers. So we just went there and basically got a room for a couple of days, and we started there speaking with cinematographers about this subject.”

Reeves says he’s more optimistic about the survival of photochemical film now than he was when he and his partners made their movie. “I ended up directing a film shooting digitally, and I would say certainly the digital [format] has continued to grow and improve. Something that ties into why I went into doing the documentary in the first place is the sense of, ‘Is it the end of film?’ I was much more skeptical that it would survive a year ago, and now, even though film stocks are getting harder to get, [and there are questions about] who’s going to develop it, there still seems to be an artistic pushback that I think will help it survive in a niche way, that there will be a way that it will hang on a little bit longer.”

Although he’s not interviewed in SIDE BY SIDE, filmmaker Michael Mann has touted the benefits of digital filmmaking when he was discussing his action thriller COLLATERAL, shot on the streets of Los Angeles. “In the documentary,” Reeves notes, “we talk about FESTEN, or CELEBRATION [the English title], in the wave of independent cinema that was born because of the mobility [and the less expensive] cost of doing standard-def and then going into HD. That certainly was changing in a broader sense what you could do storytelling-wise. But I think COLLATERAL is an example of creating a look that was utilizing the tools they were using. I don’t know if that will change.”

Digital filmmaking, of course, has made it financially possible for almost everyone to make content, Reeves adds. “To ramble a bit, I would say that we’re seeing so much content, and now digitally, not only through the camera, but through the format of exhibition and distribution. We’re seeing a lot of short-form storytelling, serialized storytelling. I would say the technology has influenced that in the sense of availability, cost, means of production. I’ve got a [camera] phone. I can tell a story. I have a camera. I can tell a story. I have the Internet, and I can share my story. I think digitally that had a profound effect in terms of exhibition and distribution, connected with the tools.”

In interviewing people for SIDE BY SIDE, Reeves says, “The two things that struck me were just the love of movies, the love of storytelling, and the interest in how we make our stories, how the stories are told. And the other thing that came across to me really strongly was the debate. You know, I always called it an intersection. Is it an evolution or revolution, this moment in time between this new [digital] technology coming up and this gold-standard [traditional film] technology? So it was with everyone involved with stories and storytelling, it’s our lives. It was their life, and I think it comes across in the documentary, the personal passion for this idea for what’s happening and how we’re telling our stories. So it was the love of film, and then also talking about this moment in time.”

Some of the issues raised in SIDE BY SIDE, Szlasa notes, have nothing to do with the look of film vs. digital. “Richard Linklater [who directed Reeves in A SCANNER DARKLY] talked about the fact that if you’re shooting digitally, one of the things digital gives you is the ability to shoot and shoot and shoot. And Christopher Nolan [director of INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy] said he doesn’t like to do that [shoot continuously, because] the crews can’t concentrate. But Linklater said, ‘Well, you could do that with digital, right? You just turn the camera off, and you can organize a digital shoot in the same way you organize a film shoot.’ So I think a lot of it is still being worked out.”

SIDE BY SIDE does not, however, feature one pro-traditional filmmaker and one pro-digital filmmaker debating one another directly. “We cut all the cage-match interviews,” Szlasa quips. “They’re on the edit room floor. They’ll be in the extras. No, it just wasn’t the way we were interviewing people. We approached each interview separately, and then our team cut together the interviews in a way that created that debate so you can see it unfold on the screen. But we did it the way that Chris Cassidy, who is our d.p. [director of photography], and Chris Kenneally, our director, discussed how to do this. And we had some constraints in terms of just production in terms of being able to set up quickly, move around quickly. Everybody who we interviewed has a limited amount of time, and sometimes we’d have very short notice that we’d have an opportunity, a window to shoot the Wachowskis [siblings Lana and Andy, who wrote and directed the MATRIX films] in Berlin tomorrow, and Keanu is in London, and literally, it was like that. I’m in the middle of Auvergne, and our d.p. can’t make it, and Chris is in New York, and we’re like, ‘All right, we’ve got to do it now.’ So we needed to create a setup and a look that we could easily replicate quickly. And the way that we liked to do that was with one camera locked off on our subject and then another camera that went between our subject and Keanu. It didn’t seem to be natural, or it was going to break the flow to have some kind of debate setup. So we do it with edits.”

“In the documentary,” Reeves points out, “Christopher Nolan talks about at the time that digital is not at the same standard [i.e., not as good] as photochemical. And at the same time, Robert Rodriguez was saying, ‘I couldn’t make SIN CITY without a digital camera.’ David Fincher really loved how digital looked and the relationship he had with the camera. Steven Soderbergh loved the way that digital looked. So there were definitely different points of view.”

As an interviewer, Reeves expresses his own opinions. He says, “My feeling was, I wanted to be next to the camera and be the interviewer, but I also wanted to be engaged in the conversation. So I tended to have the research that we had done and then to speak as a peer interested in this moment in time and to have a conversation about your interest and your passion about what we were speaking about. So I was trying to do both – I was kind of objective and subjective.”

Szlasa adds, “But also, a lot of times, you can see the camera in the shot. We were a small team, we had a small setup and we traveled like that. That was kind of our ethic. And we tried to translate that with the shooting style we picked and how things were expressed, that Keanu was part of the team that was looking at this.”

It was heartening for the producers to find how many filmmakers wanted to talk about SIDE BY SIDE’s subject matter, and how much they’d extend themselves to be available, Reeves says. “Like, Christopher Nolan was so amazing. He was shooting [THE DARK KNIGHT RISES] at the time, and he was really lovely about taking some time out during his lunch. We went to set and it was really awesome of him to give us his time there. We went to visit George Lucas out at his place and he was awesome to give us some time. So we were just fine, “Whatever you can do,” and people were really great about wanting to speak about this.

Did doing the documentary help Reeves with his own work as a director? “I’ll answer that with just the digital side of it, because I ended up [directing] a film called MAN OF TAI CHI, and having spent a year and a half with the subject, I was definitely a lot more prepared, I was a lot more familiar with the trees in the forest than I would have been if I hadn’t had the experience.”

Does Reeves have a preference for film over digital? “It really would depend on the story, absolutely,” Reeves replies. “I worked with a cinematographer, Elliot Davis, on MAN OF TAI CHI and working digitally, we got to use the Aries Studio camera, which was fantastic that. We married that with an anamorphic lens, a Hawk lens from Vantage, which was a great, almost what we considered a filmic look, but it still had a mobility to it, so I was really happy with how that turned out.”

Did the digital format help Reeves with the effects in MAN OF TAI CHI? “Well, you know, when you shoot photochemical, it’s always getting digitized anyway, so it’s already ones and zeroes. So when you’re doing vis [visual] effects, that’s almost happening – it’s already there, even when you’re shooting film. But yeah, I’m sure it made some of the people’s lives easier.”

As for what’s ahead as an actor, Reeves relates, “I’m working on a film called JOHN WICK, hopefully filming in New York in the fall. It’s an action/drama/assassin.” There are also films already in the pipeline. “MAN OF TAI CHI is coming out hopefully in the fall here in the States, being released by Radius, and 47 RONIN I believe is coming out at Christmas. 47 RONIN is dram-action.”

Reeves expresses his enduring love for photochemical film. “It’s so beautiful. THE MASTER came out, Paul Thomas Anderson did THE MASTER in 65 millimeter, which was amazing. So there are filmmakers and artists utilizing the format.”

Szlasa maintains, “I don’t have a vote. We let our subjects speak for us,” he laughs. “I love digital. I mean, I think in terms of the flexibility it gives you as a filmmaker, it’s great. And we didn’t cover [making] documentaries in SIDE BY SIDE, but it certainly has revolutionized documentary making.”

Whatever their position on film as opposed to digital, Reeves concludes, “We were really fortunate to speak to so many people who gave of their time and of their passion. And in a way, it seems that we would get, ‘Well, when I started …’ So you’re getting their life story of their art. And that turns into their perspective on their craft, which was inspiring. You’re hearing [veteran cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro talk about when he got into cinema and what you need to understand to make an image – classical art and architecture and design and color. These are things that are in my life, and so just being around these passionate people definitely lifts.”

Interview by Abbie Bernstein

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein