"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Very often the second and third chapters of Hollywood careers are the most interesting, and that seems to be the case with Keanu Reeves in middle age. If his iconic science-fiction role as the universe-saving Neo in the “Matrix” trilogy marked the apex of Reeves’ career as a leading man – which went clear back to “River’s Edge” and the “Bill & Ted” movies in the late ’80s – the conclusion of that series launched him onto a new and complicated trajectory. Most of his roles in the last decade have come in small independent projects, from Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” to Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” to Rebecca Miller’s “Private Lives of Pippa Lee” and Malcolm Venville’s “Henry’s Crime” (which Reeves co-produced).
Indeed, “Henry’s Crime” marked the beginning of Reeves’ journey behind the camera, or at least into the producer-director-actor hybrid role currently epitomized by George Clooney. What I didn’t realize until seeing the new documentary “Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema,” which Reeves produced and narrates, is that he’s a hardcore cinephile who’s passionate about all kinds of movies and extremely knowledgeable about the filmmaking process. At first “Side by Side” might sound unbelievably wonky: a documentary about the transition from 35mm film to all-digital cinema, a process invisible to most moviegoers. In practice, it’s an utterly fascinating tour of the contemporary film scene, featuring interviews with many of the most prominent living directors, that explores all the logistical, technological and even philosophical issues underlying this historic shift.
Reeves and director Chris Kenneally talk to digital converts from the regretful Martin Scorsese to the enthusiastic David Lynch, along with hardcore photochemical holdout Christopher Nolan. They explore the immensely sped-up pace of technological change, in which the supposedly cutting-edge digital cameras of three or four years ago are now hopelessly outmoded. Most theaters in North America now project digital images – and virtually all will within a year or two. Roughly half of all Hollywood films are now shot on digital video – and almost all non-Nolan movies will be within the next five to 10 years. What does all this mean for the audience, for the future of visual culture, and for the preservation of the art form formerly known as cinema?
I recently sat down with Reeves in the boardroom of a Manhattan private club to talk about all that. Despite the semi-memorable “Sad Keanu” Internet meme of 2010, he turned out to be a cheerful, witty and articulate presence, apparently delighted to sit and gab about the past and future of cinema as long as I cared to. And even unshaven and shaggy, dressed in a nondescript dark blazer and jeans, the 47-year-old Reeves still has that thing you can’t purchase or quantify: Heads turn, and silence falls, as he walks through the lunchroom, favoring all who are present with that slightly mysterious smile.
It’s always easy to make guesses about somebody’s career from the outside, but it seems like this documentary is part of a step back from acting into working more behind the camera. Is that fair?
It’s somewhat fair. I just finished principal photography on a kung fu movie in China called “Man of Tai Chi.” I directed the film. And yes, in answer to your next question, we shot it digitally.
Are you in it?
Yes! I play the bad guy. And last year I shot a film called “47 Ronin” for Universal. It’s a 3-D digital show.
Right. Is that a version of the classic Japanese story, the one that produced the great Mizoguchi film, among others?
It is, although in a revised version. The character I play is an outsider, who isn’t found in the original story. With “Man of Tai Chi,” that’s a script I’ve been working on for about five years. I have a producing partner named Stephen Hamel, and we’ve been trying to generate material. I did a film called “Henry’s Crime” out of that — I really like that movie. I’m really enjoying the directing side of it, but I still really love acting. And producing this doc was a great adventure. Wherever I can fit in! If I have a story to tell, I’d like to be able to tell it.
Well, this project took you all around the world, literally, as well as around the world of film. There are so many great directors, it’s like a film geek’s fantasy tour! Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Soderbergh, Lars von Trier, Danny Boyle, George Lucas – it goes on and on!
It was a great adventure. We started around late summer or fall of 2010, and it took about a year and a half. What happened was, I was working with Chris Kenneally on “Henry’s Crime,” and doing post at Technicolor here in New York. It was that part of the film where – well, after you shoot photochemically, you scan it, it becomes digitized, then you color-correct it digitally, and once you’ve done that, you have to make a film print. So you have to match the film print to the digital print, and that’s what’s called “side by side.” At the time, being in Technicolor and looking at this process, the cinematographer was showing me an image on his DSLR camera, saying “Look at these images,” and Malcolm Venville, the director, was saying he had started shooting digitally. And I just had this moment where I felt that the world was changing. It was the end of film. So I asked Chris, “Do you want to go on this expedition? This quest to find out what is going on with digital cinema?” Which to me meant the end of film.
What was interesting was that I came at it from the filmic side, the photochemical side, and Chris came at it from the digital side. So I was more like, “What are we losing?” and he was like, “What are we gaining?”
Have you always been interested in the behind-the-camera or even inside-the-camera aspects of filmmaking, or was that a new discovery?
I was always interested — I mean, it’s kind of part of your job — I was always interested in the camera. What were the lenses, what’s the camera doing, what’s the shot? And then in the lighting of it. I’m not a photographer, so I didn’t get into F-stops or ND filters or background, foreground, cross-light, all that stuff. But I was interested in the camera and the lenses. That’s the world that I’m moving in, in terms of acting and giving a performance. But I love cinema, and I had done a digital film for the first time when I made “A Scanner Darkly.”
You know, in an odd way that’s one of my favorites of your performances. It might be personal, in that years ago I lived in a drugged-out West Coast household that was unfortunately rather like the group of idiots that you and Robert Downey and Woody Harrelson play in that movie.
Oh, I love that movie! Yeah, they’re home but they’re lost. They’re home but they’re in another world.
Was it actually different, shooting in digital? I mean, suddenly the idea that you can’t shoot for more than 10 minutes or so is totally gone.
Yeah, it was different. People speak about this in the documentary, but the rhythm of filmmaking is changing. You’ve got more time on the clock. For a performer, that’s the biggest impact. And the other big impact is the virtualness of it, when you get into green-screen work. You can do that photochemically, of course, but these days it’s entirely digital. And then I got into the philosophy of it, you know? If we’re practically at the end of film after more than 100 years, what does that mean? At the time when we were making the film, the digital image wasn’t yet up to par with the photochemical image, and Christopher Nolan was talking about how people are being forced to make a decision, a choice. And the new choice is to remove the photochemical option – the option of shooting on film – altogether.
I think you guys have done a nice job of balancing the positives and the negatives, the question of all the new possibilities this opens up, alongside the question of what we’re losing. Here’s what I feel very agnostic about: Does this make any difference to the audience? Do they even notice this transformation, or care about it?
[Extended pause.] You know, what I’m hoping is that this film helps with appreciation, and that turns into increased enjoyment of the movies that they’re watching. We tried, whenever anyone spoke about an image they could only create digitally, or the increased latitude — which is light and dark — of photochemical images, we tried to provide examples. So you may look at “Gangs of New York” in a new way, or “Sin City,” or even the “Star Wars” films. Or for that matter some of the early independent DV films, what it took for them to do that. During the documentary, we try to take you through the workflow, the process of how a movie gets made: filming, directing, editing, special effects. I think you learn a lot, and it’s told by people who are really knowledgeable and passionate. Hopefully people will enjoy the discourse and enjoy seeing the movies, and I think the takeaway is that you can appreciate films in a different way, a richer way.
We also talk about archival issues: What’s going to happen to all the digital material that we create? How can it be stored? Because that question really hasn’t been answered. We talk about the democratization of film, the fact that these tools are becoming cheaper, faster and lighter. Anyone can do it now. And I think the filmmakers we talk to have mixed feelings about that: Who’s going to be the tastemaker? Does that mean there will be less good and more bad?
But, yeah, to answer your question — I mean, it’s not as groundbreaking as when film went from silents to talkies. Let’s say that. Or from black-and-white to color. This doesn’t have that feeling of sea change to it. But there are many implications that come out of it. Especially in the early days, there was the question of the quality of the product you’re looking at, the quality of the image. For certain artists whose vision is to make the best possible image, they felt digital wasn’t there.
Yeah. It seems clear that Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, his cinematographer, are going to keep shooting on film until they pry it out of their cold, dead hands.
Exactly. Whereas other people felt that digital was better than film for certain applications, or for a certain aesthetic. There’s the loss of the big screen and the proliferation of smaller screens. How do people relate to movies now, when they’re on portable devices or streaming them? It’s not as much about going to the movies. That experience has changed.
There are a lot of startling moments in “Side by Side,” and here’s one of them: You show a clip from “Chuck & Buck,” an early DV American indie that won awards at Sundance and was kind of a hit. I remember liking that film, and it looks like total and absolute crap! [Laughter.] But I guess you can say that was an aesthetic choice on some level.
Right. Jason Kliot, who was one of that film’s producers, talks about how that actually made that film better. Its qualities, that low-definition look, brought an intimacy and a voyeurism to the project. It felt like home video.
Right. You also interview the actress Greta Gerwig, who I’ve known since she was making films with Joe Swanberg that were shot inside somebody’s apartment and cost maybe $3,000. You can argue that the look of off-the-shelf consumer video works fine in that context.
Yeah, it’s kind of a signpost. It lets you forgive certain things. You’re just interested in the story, and you know it’s not gonna have certain physical production qualities. It lets you in on that. But the thing is, now you can see these wonderful-looking movies shot on 5D or 7D cameras, where it’s the same kind of independent storytelling, like in Lena Dunham’s work, but now it looks really good. Or at least it looks sharp and clean. Not everybody thinks it looks good!
There are so many historical landmarks in this film. It’s all history that I lived through, of course, and I had the reaction, “Oh! I barely noticed this at the time.” There’s 1999, when a Hollywood film was shown in digital projection for the first time.
Right, it was George Lucas’ “Phantom Menace,” which was screened digitally in something like four theaters.
And then in 2002 there was his next installment, “Attack of the Clones” — the first major film that was digital all the way through, from production to mastering to projection. [Although most theaters still projected it from film.] There were so many turning points, or tipping points, in the transition from film to digital, but I’d have to say that was a big one.
Well, we talk about that in the film, and I do think you have to couch that idea of a turning point in the context of a Hollywood film. The gold standard for doing that was always 35mm film, and when you got to make a movie that way, you had arrived. Danny Boyle talks about that. So when did that shift? When did it become a situation where Tom Rothman from Fox says that he thinks that film is done in five years?
I would say we’re right there. It happened very recently, and it’s all about technology. Almost all the movie theaters have installed DCP, or digital cinema projection. The cameras are getting better all the time, and from the producers’ standpoint, digital is now thought of as being cheaper than film. And the outlets, the way we’re watching movies, have become digitized. At the same time as we’re seeing the end of film, we’re seeing the end of the DVD — it’s about streaming and VOD. It’s not just about the camera or the projector; it’s the confluence of money and technology. And you certainly have to point back at George Lucas. He drove this whole thing.
One of the artistic landmarks you guys identify, which I hadn’t thought about, is Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” which was a Danish film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, shot cheaply on digital video. That was a low-budget European art-house movie that certainly did not attract a large audience, but a lot of people in the film world saw it, and in retrospect it looks hugely influential.
I’d agree with that. It was like, suddenly John Cassavetes had a DV camera. You had all this artistic intention, this impulse, and suddenly it was much cheaper. Also it had the discipline of cinema, the craft of Anthony Dod Mantle, who was the DP. It was a lot different than just being in a room with this haphazard documentary style. It was cinema, it was a movie, but it wasn’t made on film.
You and I are old enough to remember the indie films of the ‘80s, when Spike Lee or Jim Jarmusch or Steve Soderbergh were making their first movies. There was this element of financial sacrifice, and of scavenging. You had to mortgage your parents’ house or max out your credit cards or collect loose ends of film rolls. There was a kind of artistic purity to that, right? Or at least it felt that way. Nobody has to do that anymore.
I know, right? It’s not necessary now, and what does that mean? In the documentary, people talk a lot about discipline and craft, about the old idea that cinematographers were magicians, and now their magic wands have been taken away. I mean, I think it’s still really hard to make a movie! Just try writing a good script. But when you hear Scorsese talk about the blood on his fingers from doing old-fashioned film editing, you have to wonder. What have we lost when we lost that? That level of effort!
And then there’s the trajectory from “The Celebration” to “Slumdog Millionaire,” another big turning point. That was the first film shot on DV to win an Oscar for best picture. That strikes me as a really important moment — and Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot both of those films, suddenly looks like this important historical figure.
I think so. He’s the guy!
I would assume that most people watching the Oscar ceremony that year didn’t grasp the significance of that. I certainly didn’t. Do you think people in the industry understood how big it was at the time?
I think there were a couple of people who probably went, OK, the writing is on the digital wall, I guess. Anthony Dod Mantle is certainly an artist who went with the technology and went with that idea.
You got to hang out with some amazing directors while learning about this, including of course your old friends the Wachowskis. The “Matrix” movies were all shot on film, but have they made the switch?
Well, their new movie, “Cloud Atlas,” is photochemical. They’re still working on film!
That’s interesting but maybe also odd. They’re such technophiles, and the effects you guys pioneered in “The Matrix” were so far ahead of the game at the time.
Well, they shot “Speed Racer” digitally with David Tattersall, who shot the “Star Wars” films. And now they’ve gone back! Of course, the thing about shooting on film now is that it gets digitized almost instantly. It’s getting laser-scanned into 1s and 0s right away. But what they want, I suppose, is for the image they’re capturing to possess that filmic quality.
Who else was really cool to meet? I assume you had to go to Denmark to interview Lars von Trier, since he won’t travel by air and has never been to America.
Yes! Lars was great. So much fun to hang out with, and so interesting. To me it’s about stories and storytelling, and the stories Lars tells are so memorable. He asks really good questions about the human condition, how we relate to each other and how we treat each other. And those things are sometimes misogynistic or confrontational or arbitrary or brutal. He’s a real artist.
Well, if we’re going to get deep, what about the philosophical implications of the switch from film to digital that you mentioned before? What, for you, were the big whoppers that came up while making this film?
Well, it’s when you start thinking about the fact that people will never again enjoy a projected film image, which is so beautiful when it’s done right. And what does that shift mean? Does that force us into a permanent present? Does this kind of subtextual, subconscious element force us into — how does it deal with memory? How does it deal with culture? If we’re being forced into the permanent present, with a hungry eye, who does that benefit?
I think about that all the time. Christopher Nolan is still trying to make big, meaningful popular movies that will endure forever, pretty much the same way David Lean made them. I admire that, but he might be the last person to succeed in doing that. Most of our visual culture is, like, last month’s viral YouTube videos, which we’ve now completely forgotten.
Yeah, who cares? Permanent present. What is that constant consuming of the image? I’m genuinely curious. That’s part of the digital story. It might be the digital story. The permanent present, get it now, and then on to the next thing. Are you experiencing or are you watching, and is there a difference? What do you let in? And when it’s all catered to your culture and your taste — I don’t know. Oy! We could talk about this forever.
“Side by Side” is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Quad Cinema in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle. It opens Sept. 15 in Chicago; Sept. 18 in Bridgeport, Conn.; Sept. 21 in Key West, Fla., Lake Park, Fla., Miami, Portland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio; and Oct. 18 in San Francisco, with other cities to be announced. It’s also available on-demand from cable and satellite providers, Amazon, iTunes and VUDU.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)