Actor Keanu Reeves

Reeves dissects the gains and losses of technological advances and industry shifts in filmmaking, which he details in the documentary, Side by Side.

Keanu Reeves has maintained a steady film career with diverse credits that include a mix of big-budget features, like the blockbuster Speed—which made him an instant A-lister—and The Matrix trilogy, as well as low-budget indies and roles on the stage. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Reeves grew up primarily in Toronto, Canada and, at age 15, opted to pursue acting over his interest in playing professional hockey. While he carefully chooses his acting roles, he's also transitioned to working behind the camera, producing and narrating the documentary, Side By Side, and making his directorial debut with Man of Tai Chi.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Keanu Reeves to this program. The talented and popular star of so many notable projects, including, of course, “The Matrix” trilogy, is out now with a terrific new documentary about the changing nature of filmmaking. The project is called “Side by Side.” He serves as both producer and narrator on the project, which is now in select cities and available through Video on Demand. Here now, some scenes from “Side by Side.”

[Film clip]

Tavis: First of all, I’m honored to have you on the program.

Keanu Reeves: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: So much to talk to you about, and I want to jump right into it in just a second. But I suspect I should probably start with a layman’s definition of digital versus film. My mother watches our show every night -

Reeves: Okay.

Tavis: – and I figure if Mama don’t understand, then the conversation can’t get lift-off.

Reeves: Right.

Tavis: So for my mother and those other folk watching who don’t really get the difference between digital and film and why this is worthy of a documentary and a conversation, let’s explain that first and we’ll jump from there.

Reeves: Okay. What we’re talking about, we’re pretty much in the context of talking about the impact of digital cinema through editorial, through visual effects, through exhibition, so how do you project it, and then for me, which was the emotional connection, the digital camera.

When we talk about how movies used to be made, it was over 100 years of film, literal, physical film, with emulsion, that we would expose to light and we would get pictures.

Then came this new technology that would basically take photons and hit a sensor that would turn the photon impulses, the energy of the photons, instead of hitting film, would hit a sensor, and instead of a chemical reaction happening, you would basically get ones and zeros – you’d get a value for a color, red, green, or blue.

So we’re just kind of talking about here’s some light, we’ve got some film, and we just process it and then we’d project it and we’d watch a movie. Now we’re talking about sunlight hitting a sensor and going to ones and zeros into a box, and we take that box and then we project that, and now we’re watching a movie.

Tavis: So another one of these technological advances.

Reeves: Yes.

Tavis: You paused when you said yes, and I want to dig into that. I ask is it really a technological advance. Obviously, it could be argued in some ways that it is advancing us. But is it causing challenges in other ways?

Reeves: Well, it’s an industry shift, so practically, it’s like what is the role of the cinematographer in making a movie now? He used to be in control of the image. He was the magician. He knew how to do – just dealing with exposure for film, and he was the one who knew, or she was the one who knew.

That image now digitally, it’s on the monitor, everyone can look at it. Now it’s like, cinematographer, I don’t know, that’s not looking so good right there. It’s a little dark up there. So it becomes more of a collaborative art. Also, it’s had impact in terms of jobs, in terms of processing film and film camera makers have stopped making film cameras.

I just want to kind of back up a little bit too. In terms of when I was explaining the digital part of that, that was just for the camera. But that’s also in terms of when we’re talking about digital we’re talking about computers, computing, computing power. So for visual effects, where you used to film stop-motion or if you were doing models, now it’s just in the computer.

When we talk about films like “Avatar,” James Cameron in the documentary says there’s not one frame of a real jungle. So now he can do whatever he can dream. Digital has opened up a world of possibilities to filmmakers and artists, whereas before, you can’t film it, you can’t, you know.

So that’s a very exciting time. To come back around to your question, what are we losing? What have we gained and what are we losing. The documentary takes you through the workflow of a movie, so if you love movies, when you’re watching it, it kind of holds your hand and says this is editorial, this is a visual effect, and it kind of walks you through movies so that hopefully when you watch a film, you’ll have a – for me, my ambition and hope was that you would have a richer appreciation for what you’re looking at, and to enjoy movies in a different way.

But what are we losing? It’s a hundred years of how we did things, the big screen (unintelligible) film. It’s gone. Artists are losing the choice to use film. People have a love for it – the grain, how it feels, the texture. Now it’s – Christopher Nolan, the director of the “Batman” films, is an example. He was saying this industry, artists are being forced to make a change that isn’t as good as film.

Take this digital camera – well, it’s cheaper, it’s faster, it’s lighter, it’s quicker, and he’s like, but it’s not as good. Yeah, but it’s cheaper, it’s faster, it’s quicker. (Laughter) Yeah, but it’s not as good. But it’s cheaper.

Tavis: Yeah.

Reeves: So there’s a lot of the producing pressures on artists to use that. When we started to make the documentary, that was kind of transitioning and I kept asking, well, how much longer? What that means is that when you go to the movies now you won’t see a photochemical projection.

Some people would say that’s great, there’s no scratches. Digitally now it’ll just be all perfect and clean and just settled. But then other people would say, but it’s not as rich. So are you getting an inferior product? Is that – and then also digitally now with distribution we’re seeing different ways of storytelling, right?

So now you can stream it when you’re On Demand, you can go on your computer, people are watching movies on their pads, on their phones, on everything. So how is that changing?

Tavis: You mentioned earlier that this is – and obviously, you’re right about this – it is a transition that the industry is undergoing. But to your earlier point as well, there is still debate about this.

You talked to some great directors in the project; some of the names have already come up in this conversation. How would you characterize the debate that’s happening in the business, or is it much ado about nothing, given that it is the way of the future and there may be a few hold-outs, but the debate – is the debate meaningful at this point?

Reeves: It depends who you’re asking. I think – I don’t know, maybe it’s nostalgia. But the choice, losing the choice to be able to use film is going to be – it’s gone. It’s going to be gone.

Of course like you said, some artists, some people will be able to have a kind of I’m going to choose to use film, but I don’t know, maybe it’s just romantic or not, but it’s, it’s gone. It’s not completely, but it’s changing. Like all of the projection.

The studios, Hollywood, they don’t have to pay for the prints, they don’t have to ship the prints. There’s all of those kinds of things.

Tavis: Earlier in this clip and in the documentary, somebody made the point that what this does is it democratizes the process. I think George Lucas is the one who said that in the film – it democratizes the process. You agree with that?

Reeves: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. On different – we’re looking at still cameras that ended up to have video capability. The DSLRs, the 5D the 7D, and filmmakers were like, “Wow, if I put a lens on this and I can shoot video, I can make a movie.”

So the means of production are so much less expensive, the quality of what you’re getting now is getting – it’s becoming fantastic. You can put almost professional lenses on these cameras. So yeah, it’s cheaper, and if it’s cheaper and more accessible and it takes less technicians, I don’t need all these people -

Tavis: Right, that means anybody can do it, ultimately.

Reeves: There’s the short answer.

Tavis: But is that a good thing?

Reeves: Is it a bad thing?

Tavis: There are enough bad films already being made in this town. (Laughter) There are enough bad films coming out of this town already without the process being more democratized. I’m a guy who loves democracy. I’m all for democratizing any process, but I think there is a price to pay for that.

It’s like the blogosphere. Everybody has an opinion now, but I don’t really freaking care about – all opinions ain’t created equal, because everybody can go out there and express themselves and hide behind some character we don’t know who you really are, a bunch of cowards – I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I got carried away there for a second.

But the point is that because it’s democratized and anybody can do it, does that mean we’re going to have greater access to better film? I’m not sure I believe that.

Reeves: Yeah, who knows? I don’t know the law, the kind of law of quantity and quality, but I think the opportunity of people being able to express themselves and to have the means of production is a great thing. It’s also changing how we’re telling stories. The serialization through the Internet or through digital portals, means of ways of communicating, and I think that’s great.

I think the form, the Hollywood movie, I think the quality is obviously always going to be there and I think that the question of taste, there’s always a question of taste.

Tavis: Right.

Reeves: But it’s really an exciting time for storytellers and for people to get their story out. So that’s kind of cool, whether we like it or not.

Tavis: Yeah, I accept that. Let me ask a personal question. I wonder if this technology had been available to you at the start of your now three-decade career as an actor, whether or not you might have made different choices, whether or not you might have jumped behind the camera before you did.

How might this technology, had it been around 30 years ago, impacted Keanu Reeves’ career choices?

Reeves: I don’t know if it would. No, I don’t think – if there was a great story to tell, if I had the opportunity to play this role or to work with such-and-such, I don’t think – the idea of like well, “I’m shooting digital.” “Oh, well, I can’t do that. No, no. I don’t want to act on digital.” (Laughter)

So I don’t think so. I don’t know, I was thinking like what would my own private Idaho have been like if that was a digitized movie? Would that have – I don’t know. It becomes quantum, doesn’t it, because you can’t know, you can’t project those ideas. But personally, I don’t think so.

Tavis: So what then – second personal question – what got you, then, interested in this particular subject matter, to the point of spending all this time to do a documentary about it?

Reeves: Yeah, I was doing the post on a film called “Henry’s Crime” that I was involved in, and there comes a time in a – I was in New York at Technicolor New York, and we were doing a process which is explained in the documentary called the DI, or color correction.

So we shot the movie on film. Then they scanned it, digitized it, and then they start working on the color, balancing all of the edits and everything together digitally.

Then there comes a time where they’re like okay, we’ve got this great digital image now on the screen. Now we have to match it back to film, photochemical film. So behind you is a colorist and a timer – one guy who works on digital color and another guy who works on photochemical. They start talking, and that’s where “Side by Side” came up.

Because the old and the new were kind of speaking to each other, or this medium. Then at the same time, the cinematographer was showing me images on his 5D, going, “Look, I just shot this for a commercial,” and then the director was saying to me, “Yeah, I’ve been shooting digitally.”

Then I was talking to the guy at Technicolor saying that they weren’t, the film companies who were making film, their business was changing. I was working with Chris Kenneally, the director of the documentary, in post, he was working on the film, and I was looking around, and I just had this moment where I was, film is going away.

This is all going to change. This is already changing. That hit me, and I guess because I grew up with film, I wanted to go on an expedition to find out what that meant and what was the impact of digital. Where did we come from, where are we going and where are we today.

Tavis: I’ve had similar conversations. You’re the first person to really dig into a documentary about this, so I’m glad you did, but I’ve been honored to talk to a lot of folk in this very chair about this issue. James Cameron and I had a great conversation about this one night on this program.

Reeves: Oh, yeah, great.

Tavis: Danny Boyle and I had a great conversation about this one night on this program. So I’ve kind of played around the edges with this, and I can see how digital allows for things that heretofore have not existed. You mentioned “Avatar” early in this conversation. So I get that.

The flip side of that though is that while it’s true that nothing we see coming out of Hollywood is real – I mean, it’s all Hollywood, these are actors and these are stories that are being told – so nothing is really real in that sense, but I wonder how it ultimately impacts the movie profession, the actors.

You’re in front of and behind the camera these days. One day you could completely be written out. If everything is “Avatar” like and you get to create characters and nothing is as it appears, what’s it do for people – actors and et cetera – in this business?

Reeves: Yeah, it starts to grow. The ideas start simply and then the possibilities of it are is it a virtual actor, the idea of real becomes even – it just starts going. Because the artificiality can be presented so real, and that’s always been the case, but now it really is.

In terms of – I hope I don’t become just an animation. (Laughter) The idea – and it turns into things as well, is that we talk about the materiality of things, that something exists. When something doesn’t exist anymore, it’s just in a box. You can’t shine light through it. It’s not there.

The experience of doing it, living to edit and cut and have contact, to changing the rolls of film, to hearing the (makes noise). To have it being that it’s – even though it’s pretend, there still feels, I think, in a human way, some kind of contact, a reality to that there’s something really, physically capturing us.

Or whoever, however we are in the light, low light, whatever, something’s actually there. When it’s digital, it’s a recreation of this event, and I don’t know if it – it’s a different version of real, isn’t it? It’s some other – I’m sure we’re seeing that in printing, just the loss of books into digital, so less – the content is there, but the object isn’t.

Well, an object is, but it’s not the independence of it. I don’t know if that’s philosophy or if that’s something else, but to me it has an emotional feeling to it, that this materiality, the loss of the materiality.

Tavis: I’m feeling like I’m getting lost in the matrix right about now. (Laughter) I’m getting lost.

Reeves: I don’t know. It’s like – I don’t know, it’s like a contact with your medium. Like if we shake hands, it’s flesh and blood, a contact. If we have a simulation, if something is there and then we kind of, our avatars have contact – so we’re sharing an idea of like, let’s shake hands, but we haven’t shook hands. I think that’s something that’s changing.

Tavis: I wonder if – how do I phrase this?

Reeves: Cameron would just be laughing at me right now. He’d be like, “Reeves, come on, I spend hours,” but this is a different person. I’m sorry to interrupt.

Tavis: No, no, please.

Reeves: It’s just that the artist who’s making that artificial world, the sweat, the blood, the creativity, the time spent, that’s as valid as well. So I don’t mean to -

Tavis: No, no, no. I was going to ask two other things. One, I wonder how much, if any – I have my own thoughts about this – how much to this push to digital, and if not, the push to, the overwhelming embrace of, has to do with the fact that audiences are getting harder and harder and harder to impress.

So it’s not even so much about great storytelling. I’m not trying to bash the industry that you are a part of. It’s not even that we’re not getting great stories told anymore.

It’s that you don’t even have to do that. If you can come up with something, if you’ve got a great story and it’s told digitally well and you impress people, then God bless you. But I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that audiences are just harder and harder to impress nowadays, and if you can play these tricks and games and do all this mimicry with digital, why not?

And, to your point, it’s cheaper, it’s faster, it’s all those other things. But how much of -

Reeves: Sometimes.

Tavis: – this has to do with that we’re getting harder and harder to impress with old-line, old-school filmmaking?

Reeves: Mm, I don’t know. “Batman” was shot on film.

Tavis: Yeah.

Reeves: But there’s still digital visual effects in that. I don’t know, that’s the idea of the audience, then, right?

Tavis: Right.

Reeves: What is spectacle, what is spectacle playing the part of entertainment? What are we looking for? Martin Scorsese in the documentary talks about young people not believing the image anymore. I don’t quite know the implications of that, but that ties in to me something about that idea, of spectacle and entertainment and not – but that happens as well in traditional filmmaking as well.

The ambition to go further imagistically, to do the more impossible. I think that’s part of the fun. But I think we’re also just talking about the literacy of the audience. The visual literacy of the audience. They’ve seen so many images now, especially here in the States. There’s so much to look at, to watch. So the visual storytelling literacy is harder to impress.

Tavis: You talked earlier about the fact – my time is running here, so I have to do this quickly. You talked earlier about the fact that this digital makes the project in many ways much more collaborative. This is inside baseball, but over the years of doing this and being a film lover and being in this town, I’ve come to appreciate what cinematographers do.

Like I appreciate costumers. You do this long enough, you start to really appreciate all the names of all those folk who you see at the end of the movie. Is this a friend, digital, the friend or the foe of cinematographers?

Reeves: Certainly in the early days it was the foe, because it wasn’t good enough. As digital cameras are getting better and color recreation and the technical side of the camera is improving, that’s becoming less of the issue from the cinematographers I’ve spoken to.

Also, the other issue for them was who controls the image. So in that room with the cinematographer was the colorist, and so he’s now changing the color – and that has always been happening, but now it’s like okay, well, when it goes to vis effects, what does it look like? Then when it comes back, and once it starts going into the cinemas, to the BluRay, the ownership of the image is getting – the time spent for the cinematographer is getting more and more involved.

Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds to go. Can you just tell me a quick work about the “Tai Chi” project?

Reeves: Oh, sure. Thank you.

Tavis: Yeah, please.

Reeves: I directed a film called “Man of Tai Chi.”

Tavis: Your directorial debut.

Reeves: Yes, indeed.

Tavis: Yes, sir.

Reeves: Yes, indeed. A kung-fu movie that we shot in Beijing and Hong Kong, and it’s a kung-fu film. I play the villain. This lovely actor named Chen Hu, Tiger Chen, is playing this innocent man of tai chi who, because of life and responsibilities, has to get involved in underground fighting.

It’s about the yin and yang and power, and power is an illusion.

Tavis: All you have to do is say it’s a kung-fu film. That’s it.

Reeves: Okay, I’m sorry. It’s a kung-fu movie.

Tavis: (Laughter) No -

Reeves: With some ideas. With some (unintelligible) big idea.

Tavis: All you got to do is say, “Kung-fu movie, Keanu Reeves,” we’re there. I think that pretty much works.

Reeves: Thank you.

Tavis: The new project, the documentary from Mr. Reeves, is called “Side by Side.” Glad to have you on this program.

Reeves: Thank you.

Tavis: I enjoyed this immensely. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Denise Chicoine

    We are meant to process the world around us through our physical bodies, not just our minds. I so appreciate Mr. Reeves comments about his emotional (visceral) response to film that may be missing from the digital experience. This may seem sentimental or romantic, but I prefer the grainy appearance on the screen vs. the airbrushed quality of digital – just not real enough for me. Really enjoyed this interview, Tavis. Great, as always. Thank you!

  • Walter Paluch

    I truly enjoyed the inview with Keanu Reeves, however, I know first hand what digital cinema has done to the film/movie industries. The bottom line is it has put thousands of people out of work. Workers in the manufacture and processing of film , to its distribtion and projection have all been displaced due to this technology. Yes, I know time marches on but at a cost. Cheaper and quicker” as Reeves said, simply means more money in the pockets of the “film” distributors while the labor force suffers.

  • Valerie

    I enjoyed this interview and it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen or read with Keanu Reeves talking about ‘Side By Side’. I’m not in the industry, I’m merely a fan of movies so I don’t fully understand what the future holds and I honestly couldn’t tell you what movies used film and what ones used digital. It’s like the difference in Blu-Ray vs. DVD.. you don’t really notice the difference unless you see them side by side. This debate between film and digital reminds me of the debate of practical effects vs. digital effects or CGI. CGI effects look better, you can do more with them but they aren’t actually cheaper. CGI has put stress on the practical effects makers and probably put several out of jobs. People like Tom Savini will be totally obsolete in the future and that’s sad. Right now practical effects are used a lot in low-budget films that not many people see or want to see because the effects aren’t what they are used to seeing. The younger generation won’t hardly watch the older classic movies because the effects are not very good and I’m afraid that’s going to be the fate of most movies shot on film in the future. Hollywood is remaking movies left and right and I suppose it can be a good thing but what bothers me is that this younger generation will watch the re-boot of a movie like Superman but won’t watch the original with Christopher Reeve and they won’t and can’t understand what they are missing.

  • Dorothy

    Interesting concept. I can see it, feel it…but, I can’t touch it, taste it. I think that it is the richness of simple things I’m afraid of losing. Progress is not always moving forward.

  • Anjana

    I have a deep appreciation for Keanu Reeves’ desire for continuity within the idea of value. He is an intelligent deep thinker with a spiritual sight into his medium.

  • Sarah Lao

    Great Interview, Tavis! I got to see the documentary and the input from such directors as George Lucas and David Lynch on this industry shift, as Keanu mentions, is very insightful. I also appreciated how Side by Side delves into the opinions of cinematogrphers, editors and actors to come full circle into what is indeed a fascinating debate.

  • CMullins

    What a extraordinarily thoughtful man. Almost better, however, than hearing him describe the wondrous new world of digital media so articulately are the times when he struggles, almost to the point of losing his ability to speak at all, about what might have been, had the world NOT taken this path, and about how we are now to judge and utilize technical quality.

Last modified: August 23, 2012 at 4:26 pm