Rob Beams interviews Christopher Kenneally & Keanu Reeves

28 November 2012

On the surface it’s not the sexiest of topics, with the average movie goer probably not even aware of the seismic change taking place in the film industry right now – right through production, distribution and exhibition – yet the shift from making movies on traditional photo-chemical film to shooting them on cheaper digital cameras is a profound and incredibly divisive one. As the gripping and informative documentary Side By Side demonstrates, it’s a subject that inflames the passions of filmmaking elite, with the proponents of digital (who include talents as diverse as David Fincher, George Lucas, David Lynch and Danny Boyle) in clear opposition to those who prefer film, such as Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese.

Those mentioned above are joined by dozens of equally impressive names – such as Lars Von Trier, Michael Chapman, James Cameron and Steve Soderbergh – in being interviewed by actor Keanu Reeves, in as thought-provoking and entertaining a film as you’ll see this year.

Rob Beames  was able to catch up with director Christopher Kenneally and movie star-turned-interviewer Reeves to ask them about this unique  and timely documentary project for CINECITY:

The film is very balanced, with equal time given to both sides of the debate, but where do you guys stand on the debate individually?

Keanu Reeves: I was a sentimentalist. I was the photo-chemical sentimentalist. And you are the pragmatist.

Christopher Kenneally: I guess you could put it that way.

KR: When I say that though, Chris, it doesn’t mean I’m taking you out of the love and appreciation of photo-chemical.

CK: I know what you’re saying, but for me anyway it was always about the last person we talked to. If you talk to Martin Scorsese about filmmaking and he says “this is my opinion on it”, I’m going to be like “ok”! It’s Martin Scorsese, I’m going to do what he says. And then the next time you’re talking to Soderbergh or whoever – or someone else you love – and they say the opposite… so now I have to make up my own mind?! There’s no consensus on what’s good and what’s bad, on the advantages and disadvantages.

KR: Just different points of view.

CK: There’s overlap, but I think we’re at the point where it’s really changing and everybody is trying to figure it out. These are the tops guys who should know, and they’re not necessarily in agreement…

KR: And that’s ok. But Chris Nolan had a point though, about when you don’t have a choice [which medium to shoot on] and, as we say, film cameras are not getting made anymore. Film stock production is changing – it’s not winning the Darwinist battle anymore for survival.

CK: Yeah. And digital won’t have an opponent or something to strive for. These guys in the last hundred years with film, these craftsmen, these wonderful artists, took this form of image making to such a height – we’ve all seen what beautiful movies and beautiful images [have been produced on film] – so digital all along has been like “that’s what I have to achieve”, so what happens once digital achieves that? What’s the next target that it’s aiming for?

KR: The stars…

CK: I think Nolan was a little nervous about that. I think rightly so.

Of course, you shot this film digitally. How did shooting digitally impact on the making of Side by Side?

KR: Doing a documentary a digital camera is a wonderful tool. I think we’ll probably look back on this era of digital cameras and we’re going to see, or have already seen, so many more documentaries.

CK: It’s definitely a moment of change and there’s no question, digital has great advantages for cost and usability and portability and how much you can shoot and how fast you can set up, and we don’t really talk about documentary aspects in our movie – because we’re trying to at least limit this giant, broad subject to cinema and feature films – but there’s no question it’s democratised storytelling and documentary making. There are people who normally wouldn’t have the geographical location or the funding or the ability to make movies and tell stories – and now they do. I think that’s an amazing thing for the world.

Keanu, you seem very comfortable as an interviewer, with many of the subjects very giving and clearly having a good time – Danny Boyle in particular is very funny and must have been very easy to talk to. Were there any people who you found more difficult to interview?

KR: It was really just based on their level of shyness or how used they are to being in front of the camera, or being interviewed. We met a lot of technicians that hadn’t done an interview before. But Danny Boyle was pretty confident in front of the camera!

CK: He was great! All of our tiny crew were like, wow, this guy has a vibe, he’s really passionate and full of life, which is great for a documentary. When someone is passionate and has a strong opinion on something. But these are very intelligent people and they’re usually thoughtful about things, so sometimes it’s difficult – sometimes – for someone to really come down for film or digital, because they think about it and have a very informed opinion. I think [Keanu was] able to make people feel really comfortable and made it seem very conversational, although we had the questions, but we could get round to them all by the end of it. And that’s because we shot on digital, we could shoot for forty minutes or an hour and get the ten minutes we needed. But the whole time we could talk made people feel comfortable and I think that comes across.

So, in a way, the fact that you’ve shot in digital for this film because of these advantages is almost a secret pro-digital argument!

KR: For this story.

CK: I think it’s a tool and it depends what you’re trying to achieve, you pick which one you want to use. There could have been another documentary where it really made sense to shoot shorter interviews on film. But for this particular one I’m happy with what we used.

You say digital made your documentary possible, in terms of budget and other practical concerns. Has the barrier for making feature films been lowered by this technological shift too?

KR: I think you’re in situation where you can make your film, but I don’t know if the situation where you can distribute the film is any better. I think that is a way that technology has been underutilised at the moment. You can make your film and you can put it out there, but how is it going to be seen? Besides word of mouth, you know, it’s very difficult to get a film seen. It’s harder and harder.

CK: Unless you really market it and give it proper exhibition, you can put it on the internet but who’s going to see it?

Do you think the rush towards digital filmmaking can reduce the power of the studios in the long-term?

KR: No, because they’re going to use it. They’re going to be proponents of it. I don’t think they’re protecting photo-chemical. They’re not the guardians of photo-chemical film, not anymore. And once they’ve changed the distribution and how films are projected… But in terms of digital films and filmmaking: we want to have different kinds of films and different means of production, on a different scale. Hollywood, they call it the dream factory, they do make the extraordinary sometimes – for better or worse – they do make films that make worlds, that only they have the resources to do. And sometimes they make films that are very special and that can’t get made anywhere else… yet. [James] Cameron talks about how effects are getting cheaper, but there’s some weird math that no matter what – even when you can doing it simpler and cheaper – there’s always this other thing that says “make it bigger and more expensive”!

CK: There’s always another technology that they’re developing that comes along that only the people with the resources and studios can do. So maybe in five years some kid can make Avatar at home on his computer, but by then there’ll be something beyond Avatar – some other type of movie that they don’t have the software for. But it seems like it’s getting closer and closer.

The music industry showed that there’s the possibility for other methods of distribution…

KR: I don’t know… I mean, music and film have some similarities, but not really. If you take Apple out of music, how are you monetizing music? You have to go tour.

Has digital filmmaking made you freer as an actor? Or are you still limited, for instance by the requirements of 3D?

KR:  Lars Von Trier would say you need boundaries, rules and controls in order to break out and be free. It depends what you mean by being free. Can you do anything you want? OK, great [makes snoring noise].[ As an actor] the problem with digital is it’s just a long take…

Yes, you mention in the film that the increased shooting time digital affords can be exhausting for actors. On that tangent, it’s intriguing to hear you say you shot forty minutes to an hour with some of your subjects. Given how interesting and important many of the people you interviewed are, are there any plans to release that material at some point?

KR: It’s something that we need to talk about. We’ve discussed whilst we’ve been making it that one  of the things we want to do for sure is take these interviews, clean them up and have a situation where they can be made available to students. And put together some sort of box set.

CK: It’s a resource. I think we’ve collected thoughts and ideas from the top image makers and directors that are around today. I think that’s valuable. I mean, how great would it be to be able to get something from 1900 and hear what the Lumiere Brothers or Edison thought about motion pictures? In a way that’s what we have here.

KR: We have a historical record aspect, also with the technicians, so I’d like to look at putting together some transcripts and, yeah, you could do a whole other film with just the technical side – if we had the time.

CK: We interviewed 140 people for this movie, and I think 69 people are in the movie. It’s great stuff and all the people who aren’t in the movie did help because they informed the story and gave us ideas of what to ask the next people. You just can’t have that many people all in one movie, and if they’re saying similar things – so that was really difficult to edit, having that amount of footage to go through.

The film also looks at the new challenges digital filmmaking present to archiving. Do you think we risk losing part of our film heritage by going digital?

CK: Everyone says film is so great to store things on, but a lot of films aren’t here anymore because they weren’t stored correctly. It’s the same thing with digital: if you take care of it the right way and it’s really important to you… I think Lana Wachowski said it really well “if things are important to us we find a way to keep them and hang onto them”. Maybe it’s easier to put something on film, put it in a cool dry place and forget about it, but if it’s important you can’t be lazy and you’ve got to make sure…

KR: But it’s interesting we even have to ask this question. All the pictures on your computer, the 80,000 pictures we take a day now. No one really knows if they’re going to be ok.

CK: Even on this project I’m always asking “is this backed up?” And something terrible could happen with that because we’re a low-budget documentary. I’m contradicting myself, but we don’t really have time or money to constantly move things to the next medium. With lower budget things it’s tricky. But we wouldn’t have had the budget to put things on three-strip YCM film either, so… you know.

The film (thankfully) focuses more on the artistic side of the discussion rather than the business one, is this where the bigger changes are happening in your opinion?

KR: No, but I think it works in a way as a launching point. If you want to look at the effect of digital on theatrical projection and distribution, if you want to look at the redundancy of certain companies, or which companies bought other companies to fill the gap left by photo-chemical falling out… how have businesses changed? How has the labour shifted? What are the locations of the labour that has shifted? I think there are economic questions that you can ask based on what the film does look into. But it’s a changing business, so as with any changing business it’s all about where can we go. What’s next?

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