When most people think of Keanu Reeves, "inquisitive cinephile" may not be the first description that comes to mind. With roles in films from the action flick Point Break to cult-fave fantasy franchise,The Matrix, the mild-mannered actor is known more for his signature, low-key line delivery than his dedication to plumbing the depths of film history and a searing interview style.
But with his new documentary, Side by Side: The Science, Art, and Impact of Digital Cinema, Reeves has set aside acting, donned all-black and grown a beard to dutifully chart the advent and evolution of digital filmmaking. "I love movies," he said at a Q & A for the film Friday at Laemmle's NoHo 7. And after wrapping Henry's Crime (2010), which made heavy use of digital techniques, he said, "I was really struck by that, and wanted to go on this expedition to find out where we came from, and where we're going."
Directed and written by Christopher Kenneally (Henry's Crime, Cadillac Records), the film is comprehensive and reverential, cautionary and lighthearted all at once, with famous directors, cinematographers and other luminaries doling out opinions and punch lines by the dozen. Following a screening of the film Friday, the same spectrum of missions and moods spilled over into the discussion, in which Reeves and Kenneally spoke with the audience about how they made the movie, and shared some of the anecdotes along the way, in shoot locations from Poland to London, and Los Angeles to Marin.
During much of Friday's Q & A, both Kenneally and Reeves, who produced the film and conducted many of the interviews, were evangelists for the future of filmmaking, reiterating some of the points made in the movie, and revealing their methodology technically (yes, they used digital cameras) and editorially (they connected the dots). "Chris had the idea of going through the workflow of a film to show the different elements," Reeves said. "One of the good examples is when we were talking about [1998 Danish film] The Celebration, and that was [part of] Dogme 95, and that was [director] Lars von Trier, and that was [cinematographer] Anthony Dod Mantle, and that was [director] Danny Boyle, and so we got the board [of interviews]."
While Reeves's verbal Venn diagram suggests an easy fluidity to the film's creation, the actor drew sympathetic laughs when he shared the line he included in every interview request, in a deep, faux-narrator voice: "We will meet you anywhere. At anytime. At your convenience." The offer stood when after six months of emailing Anthony Dod Mantle, who was one of the first cinematographers to use a digital camera (for The Celebration) and the first to win an Oscar for a film shot digitally (Slumdog Millionaire), offered an hour of his time in London. Reeves, Kenneally, and their small crew jumped at the opportunity, and reconvened across the pond.
The interview with Mantle, Kenneally said, had "great editing. [He] ate an orange while we were talking [that was completely cut out]. ...But we couldn't cut that English kid who you see sitting in the back of that interview."
As much as Reeves and Kenneally were serious about their film and the subject matter, they also kept the mood light, and let the audience in on their jokes. Even more surprising than seeing Reeves in an interviewer's chair throughout Side by Side was seeing that behind his auteur's beard, he has a healthy sense of humor about himself. Taking on at times a serious tone and play-acting at others, the man who once played a time-traveling teen walked a line between fielding (mostly) hefty questions about the future of Hollywood with predictions ("pro-sumer tools is another place [where digital filmmaking] will evolve") and entertaining a crowd with improvised riffs ("This is my cat taking a piss in the kitchen, in 3-D! I don't need to go to Hollywood now, I just [projected it] on a building. Meow.").
Still, improv aside, Reeves and Kenneally's love affair with film, and investment in its future resonated through their crowd-pleasing banter. The mood may have stemmed in part from the fact that, despite some of the very real problems posed by digital filmmaking, to the producer/director pair the future of digital is very, very bright (with higher resolution). In closing remarks, Kenneally was practically gushing. "I think it's amazing, the democratization, and what this technology allows, vis a vis the cost," he said. "You're not limited to where you grew up, or economics, or background.
"Pretty much anyone in the world if they can get their hands on a cheap digital camera, can tell a story, capture it, share it with the world. ... Yes, there's more good, there's more bad. There's more of everything. But there's more ways to communicate, people can share what they thought about something. ... I don't see any downside at all."