In February 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire took the Bets Picture prize at the Academy Awards ceremony, the filmmaking world, unbeknownst to casual moviegoers, officially entered a new, exciting, and in many ways threatening age. Like they did with the equally transitional 2002 horror gem 28 Days Later, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and his digitally forward-thinking cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shot Slumdog solely using digital technology; when the film reigned supreme at the Hugh Jackman-hosted festivities in ’09, the once-frowned-upon alternative to the older photochemical film type formally received the most prestigious level of appreciation. And the movie industry will never be the same again.
One industry move-maker who’s been aware of the change is Keanu Reeves, the actor who’s slowly jumped behind the camera to wear a producer’s hat, which he did to help get the new documentary Side by Side made. Currently playing as part of NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival, and directed by Chris Kenneally, Side by Side provides an unprecedented amount of access into Hollywood’s inner workings, entertainingly breaking down how movies are exactly made while clearly and painstakingly articulating both sides of the digital-versus-film debate.
To give Side by Side insane amounts of credibility, Reeves himself interviewed a countless number of professional cinematographers, editors, and directors. The list of filmmakers he spoke to is basically a checklist of every highly respected shotcaller working today: Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Steven Soderbergh, just to name a few. Through Reeves’ vibrant interviews, Kenneally’s skillfully constructed footage, and an abundance of archival clips, Side by Side is a fascinating and educational doc that should work as catnip for all film fanatics, whether you’re a cinema academic or simply a ticket-buyer.
Complex sat down with Kenneally and Side by Side producer Justin Szlasa to discuss the film’s universal appeal, how it pays to work alongside a guy as beloved as Keanu Reeves, and why this particular revolution is one that deserves more attention.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Side by Side
Side by Side is really fascinating for somebody like me, who, similar to many others, has always loved movies but never went to film school or studied the behind-the-scenes mechanics of filmmaking. How’d the project first come to life?
Chris Kenneally: First of all, what you just said is great, because I think that’s a big part of why we made the movie: We wanted to make something for the film fanatics who are interested in movies but maybe they don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. And hopefully we’ve presented it in a way that’s entertaining and you also learn something.
The genesis of the idea was, I was working with Keanu on this movie called Henry’s Crime—he was the producer on it, and I was the post-production supervisor. It was his first time producing, and he just wanted to know how everything worked, from the lab to the cameras.
So he was coming from that same uneducated film lover background, then.
Kenneally: Yeah, he’s in movies and he’s a huge movie fan, but that was his opportunity to look inside the factory, and I was happy to tell him. We had great conversations about the state of filmmaking today, and how digital technology is changing things, and how we’re really at this tipping point where things that have been around for 100 years are really starting to change.
I had made another documentary [Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating, 2003] that he had seen, and he said, “Hey, why don’t you and I work together? We’ll make a doc, go out and talk to all these great people of this field, like Scorsese and Fincher and Lucas and Cameron, and see what they think about it.” And I said, “Yeah, man—absolutely!”
How long did it take to make this film?
Justin Szlasa: About a year and a half.
That’s all, really? With all of the interviews and research that are packed into Side by Side, I figured it’d be a lot longer.
Szlasa: We started in October 2010, that’s when Chris and Keanu really kicked things off, and I jumped on in November. We started going, and our first big trip to a film festival called Camerimage, which is in Bydgoszcz, Poland, a small town. The festival has been around for a long time and its focus is cinematography, so it’s maybe the only spot in the world where you have this super-hot concentration of some of the hot cinematographers; these guys are working at all corners of the globe and are very much in demand, but they come together at this festival to swap notes and enjoy each other’s company.
We were lucky enough to be able to go to that festival, set a room off to the side, and, one by one, interview some of the great cinematographers working today, and that kind of set our project into motion. It raised a lot of questions for us, and it kicked the project off in a big way. After that, we just rolled right in and the interviews happened one after the other.
The general idea of digital filmmaking versus the old-school ways, was that something you’d been thinking about prior to Keanu’s first idea pitch?
Kenneally: I’ve thought about it, but when we decided to make it, I realized that right now is when this change is really happening. Digital technology had been part of filmmaking for a little while, at least in editing, post-production, and visual effects, but actually capturing a movie in a digital camera was kind of just for indies or lower-budget movies, or maybe George Lucas was doing it because he needed it for special effects. Most Hollywood movies were shot on film because it was inarguably a superior image that you would get.
But nowadays, digital cameras are catching up, and some cinematographers are actually choosing to shoot on digital because of the look, and that was something that was completely different. Once that happens, once the capture medium becomes digital, it’s going to change the game, and that’s what the discussion, hopes, and fears are all taking place. That’s happening right now; that battle is waging.
Side by Side is basically a who’s who of the best filmmakers working today. Was it a daunting task to get all of these big names involved?
Szlasa: We didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to get them to talk about this issue; if anything, it was quite the opposite. People were very excited to discuss it, and they had strong opinions about it. I think once they realized what we were trying to do and the way we were approaching this, they were extremely generous with their time. These guys are all busy people, and to try and get on their controls was no easy task. They made time for us, sometimes a tremendous amount of time, to discuss this issue.
This is a quiet revolution. It’s been unfolding for the last 20 years, and it's changing the way that something we love is made. The heritage that’s lasted over 100 years, of making films on celluloid, is giving way to the digital process. These guys have strong, intelligent opinions and want to express those opinions, and we gave them a platform for that.
It’s impressive to see directors like the Wachowski brothers, David Fincher, Lars von Trier, and David Lynch featured so prominently in Side by Side, because those are all filmmakers who very rarely, if ever, give interviews.
Kenneally: Yeah, and I just feel so lucky that we were able to get some of these people. A lot of that is because of Keanu, the type of person he is and how respected he is. He’s just a wonderful, nice, kind, genuine person, and I think people in the industry know that, and root for him and want to help him out. They know that he’s going to give them a fair shake and that they’re going to have an enjoyable time. It’s going to be a fun, intelligent interview, because that’s the type of guy he is. Having him as our producer definitely helped us attract all of those people.
Szlasa: I think between Keanu and the subject matter, it was a really exciting project for these guys. People in the industry know that this is an important topic, and they have something about it and they really want to talk about it. All of these add up to the level of access we were able to get, that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Side by Side could’ve very easily turned into a dry, overly teacher-like documentary about filmmaking that’d be used in stuffy film schools.
Kenneally: Yeah, you don’t want it to be a textbook. [Laughs.]
Exactly. How’d you approach it from day one to make sure that it’s both educational and entertaining, a film that would appeal to every kind of movie lover?
Kenneally: That was a goal of ours from the get-go; I said, right off the bat, “I don’t want to make a boring movie, because this subject matter, if it’s not done the right way, can be a real snoozefest.” I hope that it’s entertaining and engaging. I think there are laughs in the movie—every five or ten minutes, you’re cracking up at something one of the interview subjects just said. And those funny lines all pertain to the subject. If I could tell the world anything, it’s that this movie is not a dry, textbook movie—it’s entertaining, and if you like movies already you’re going to like them even more once it’s over, and have an appreciation for them on a different level. You’re not going to be learning in a painful way.
Seeing the way Keanu engaged people and was able to make them relax was a big part of it; while he was interviewing them, their guards were always down, and that’s just great to see. You feel like you’re the third person in a room watching someone have a conversation. The shots we were able to get behind-the-scenes, some of the clips we were able to show, and the history that we were able to tell, you get this appreciation for what happened in the early days all the way to today; you see that kind of connection and history. I just approached it like, “Is this interesting to me and the guys I’m making this movie with? [Laughs.] If they like it, hopefully other people will like it. I don’t think my tastes are that wacked-out from everybody else’s. Hopefully not.
Szlasa: I do think that all those things contributed to it: the passion of Keanu for the project; the passion of our subjects; the excellent camerawork of Chris Cassidy, our director of photography who looked at things in a way that’s really visually striking.
Kenneally: That’s a good point. Being inside a film lab, if you just set the camera up on a tripod, it’s not going to be interesting. But Chris was able to bring beauty, I think, out of these shots that he took. That’s why we hired him.
Szlasa: We had a very small team, which let us, I think, stay focused. With a crew that small, everybody had to dig in, and that made the whole experience really stimulating.
A really intriguing point that the film makes, one that everyday movie fans might not even realize, is that Slumdog Millionaire’s success at the Academy Awards in 2009 marked the official changing of the guard, so to speak, for digital filmmaking. Were you aware of that at the time?
Kenneally: I talked to a lot of people and did a lot of research, and the Dogme 95 films were very important to digital. 28 Days Later was also really important, as was Slumdog Millionaire, and as I looked at those movies I noticed that they all had the same cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. I was like, “This guy has his fingerprint on every digital cinematography milestone—we have to find this guy.” We tracked him down; I was emailing him for like six or eight months, and then we finally got the chance to interview him, which was awesome.
And then we talked to Danny Boyle [director of 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire], and that gave us such a nice storytelling thread to weave throughout our film. It’s interesting to see how Anthony Dod Mantle, dating back to his Dogme 95 days, was always digging through the trenches and getting shit on by everybody, like, “Oh, that doesn’t look as good as film!” He had a sense of what he wanted to create, so when you see Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar win in our movie, it’s this triumphant moment. You start rooting for a camerman. [Laughs.] It’s kind of funny.
Near the end of Side by Side, an alarming point is that made that it’s actually harder to preserve films digitally than it is through the older film type; meaning, all of these movies that are being made digitally today could very easily be lost and prevent archival restorations years in the future. Does that alarm you?
Kenneally: It’s a little scary. If you have money and you’re a big studio, you can adapt to the digital archival; one thing becomes obsolete, you change what you have over, and back them up. But indie films and smaller productions, and stuff we’ve shot on tapes… I don’t have a player for them or a camera for them, but I also don’t have the money to transfer all of that over to film, either, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to shoot it to begin with on film.
It’s something that’s still being solved, and it’s a little bit scary. It’s a little bit ironic, too, that the tried-and-true film is what, at this time, is the easiest to preserve. Something like that sparks the kind of debate that I hope our film will also spark.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Side by Side