by Brad Liberti
It’s been over 20 years since Keanu Reeves first achieved superstardom for his laid back, original bro-style and fiercely brooding screen presence in classics like Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, My Own Private Idaho, Point Break and of course, Speed. Reeves has been somewhat quiet recently, but his fans know that every few years, they can count on the reclusive superstar to swing his orbital Hollywood’s way; a veritable Halley’s Comet of good hair and smoldering charisma.
His latest project, Generation Um, is a James Toback-meets-Paul Morrissey, verite-style tribute to lost souls, New York City, and filmmaking itself -- written and directed by the talented Mark Mann. I was fortunate enough to sit for roundtable discussions, first with the superstar and his director, and then with his charismatic young costars, Boyana Novacovic and Adelaide Clemons. I’d be lying though, if I said it wasn’t all about Neo, at least at first…
Tell us about your character…
“I steal a camera and some chocolate”, the actor says with youthful passion, still possessed of all his boyish charm. “Stealing the camera for John (his character) was the only thing he could do in order to have that camera. He’s felt trapped in his life. In this moment of watching this group of people do this improvisational dance in this park in the Lower East Side of New York, he sees an opportunity for something that he’s interested in and it’s one of the times that he steps out of himself and he takes it. And as for the candy bar, he’s hungry, and he wants chocolate, and he’s depressed. “
What was the most intimidating scene to shoot?
“The scariest scene was the scene where John and Violet (Novacovic) come together,” Reeves declares without a moment’s hesitation, “because playing John, I had no idea how that could actually happen. How could this person who felt so vulnerable and insular and wanted to reach out, how could he help someone? How could these two possibly hug each other? And then, a lot of film rolled…”
The actor is of course, jokingly referring to the thoughtful, anything but rushed style that Mann brought to this project, only his second feature film. But the shy, probing writer-director readily cops to his scrupulous process and deliberate nature. “(The 'hug scene') is one of the longest hug scenes ever on film, at over five inutes. It was the hardest scene in the movie to cut and I struggled with it the most, it was the last piece of the puzzle, and just, finding that level of intimacy was extremely hard.”
“I was thinking about how do you change your life?” he says matter of factly. “Often times, you have to make a bold move and do something that people don’t necessarily congratulate you for, to give yourself what you need to move forward. Then, when you start to inject hope, optimism and love inside a wrapper of disassociation and alienation (as is the case with Reeve’s character, after his petty theft), things get very complicated and ultimately, that’s what makes the film”.
Is that what the camera symbolizes, a catalyst for uncompromising change?
“I make films on some level about what I know, and both my films are about the filmmaking process. That’s my thing. The first feature I did was a documentary about the narrative filmmaking and editing process, and now this one is a narrative that incorporates a man learning how to use a camera and document the world around him,” Mann responds passionately.
Keanu, can you talk a bit about your director and costars?
“When you make a movie, one of the coolest things is when artists come together in like mind about the work, and Mark kind of fostered that. He was so collaborative about sharing his perspective and always asking us, the actors, for ours, (which brought about) a real (on-set) camaraderie.
Both Keanu’s character and Sarita’s Choudhury’s thoughtful waitress, seem to be the only people in the film who actually shut up and listen, leading to quite a beautiful, if unspoken connection. Is listening the message of the film?
“It’s certainly part of it,” the director responds assuredly. “First of all, Sarita Choudury is a treat! The quiet moment where she’s behind John and you see their whole relationship- the joy of working with the actors in that particular scene was that they were so connected without even looking at each other. The answer to the question again is, yes,” he carefully reiterates. “We have become so immune to the noise of everything that nothing is shocking anymore.”
“That’s not true”, Keanu ventures with ease, clearly demonstrating the comfort and intellectual rapport between the two friends and collaborators. “It’s not that nothing’s shocking, it’s just that there’s a state of shock. These characters are shocked characters in transformation, trying to reach out to have any type of intimacy or connection.”
With characteristic deliberation, Mark responds, “It fascinates me, the subtle differences in motivation. Like whatever my intentions are in writing it and (Keanu’s) intentions are for playing that character, they are different, and it’s a fun conversation. I just like the dialectic.”
What did you each take from this experience?
“It’s my first narrative film and I feel so happy to have been able to make the film I wanted to make,” says Mr. Mann appreciatively. “(The whole process) was very organic and I was allowed to just make the film without (studio executives) coming at me, and most of that was due to Keanu.”
But for the reluctant superstar whose presence clearly still carries some hefty clout in this industry, it was all about his writer/director. “There are so many pleasures that Mark’s story offered me as an actor (especially) this idea of hope for these trapped characters. And just the opportunity to create, and I’m happy.”