Mark L. Mann’s narrative feature debut, Generation Um…, shows the fun and terror that evolves out of someone getting his first camera. In the movie, John (Keanu Reeves) steals a video camera, turning him into a guy who enjoys filming squirrels and his two friends falling apart. Basically, he’s the worst indie filmmaker walking the streets of New York, which is saying a lot.
It’s a movie that relies more on mood, a feeling that Mann created on 16mm running around New York streets and a claustrophobic apartment. He wasn’t the only one in control of the camera, though. Within the film we John’s own footage, which Reeves shot himself. According to Mann, that footage allows the introverted John to express himself.
We spoke with Reeves and Mann about the character’s internalization, filming on 16mm and more:
The movie shows the joy and annoyance when someone gets their first camera. Do you both remember the first time you picked up a camera?
Reeves: Mark, would you like to answer that question?
Mann: Picking up a camera was sort of something I came to late, actually. I think it was almost a reward for surviving my childhood, so to speak. There was sort of a pure indulgence about it. It was back when I shot on Hi8. I was living in Chicago. I just liked shooting things that I liked to look at, and that was it.
Reeves: I guess my first experience in picking up a camera would be Generation Um…. Yeah.
So did Mark let you be spontaneous with that camera or was it still disciplined in what you were supposed to capture?
Reeves: It started in rehearsal. He would say things like, “So, what is John interested in?” “So, you are in this park, Keanu. What is John interested in?” And it was like, “So, this camera is kind of like John’s perspective.” I’m thinking in my head, “Yeah, but it’s the movie’s perspective as well,” which was really a cool opportunity for me. Ultimately, Mark and the cinematographer let me shoot those scenes. So all of the video footage is John/Keanu.
Mann: Part of the whole thing of the movie was watching a character make decisions. When someone gives you the answers, that’s no fun. [Laughs]
Reeves: Yeah, that’s true.
How did you both see John’s perspective and how he views the world?
Mann: I saw John’s perspective as basically what John saw. Keanu and I had discussions about John beforehand, and I kinda watched him going through the evolution process as he was building the character out and embodying it. And the camera, you know, he sort of took up the camera after a lot of that foundation work was done. The whole point to the camera was to take that character to a whole other level.
Reeves: It helps John externalize. It helps him gain a kind of gateway into someone who’s kind of trapped in their own head to have a way of connecting, investigating, experiencing and sharing. And the aesthetics; I think John is interested in the frame as well. So I would say that. He was interested in the girls and what they were saying. He was interested in how they lived. It was also a sense of play for him. We see him play in the park with squirrels.
Mann: And from the sense of the story, the point was to get a sense of what John was interested in. So you are watching it in motion. You are watching the character develop through John making all these in-the-moment decisions about what is drawing his attention.
Reeves: And then Violet, Bojana Novakovic’s character, who wants to have a TV show! For her, the implications of the video camera are profound.
Mann: Exactly. Then the women enter into the picture and suddenly … how does John deal with Violet? And then Violet is sort of running the show. And Mia is subverting it all. They’re battling for whose vision is taking over and they’re making a TV show. Then they’re just talking.
Reeves: Are they telling the… Anyway, next question!
[Laughs] You mentioned how John is interested in framing, so did you approach that as he’s a guy who knows what you should do with the camera, or did you see him as an amateur?
Reeves: I don’t know. I think John, he pays attention to things. I think that he frames things. I think he pays a lot of attention to his surroundings. I think there’s something about that to how he was framing.
Mann: You look at it as a little bit of a metaphor for how we all sort of move through the world. You are making decisions about how to perceive things. We do put things in little boxes and focus. Ultimately, we are doing it to try to make sense of something or to find a place for ourselves in the situation that we are categorizing.
Keanu, it’s ironic that this is coming out shortly after Side By Side, a movie about how powerful a camera can be to tell a story, whether it’s film or digital.
Reeves: Yeah. I would say that that correlation was not personally intentionalized. But certainly, in retrospect, there’s a correlation.
And what made you want to shoot on Super 16 instead of digitally?
Mann: I always wanted to shoot my first narrative film on 16mm just like everybody else. I just thought it was beautiful and timely. We used Kodak film, which is kind of an honor. You’re sort of indulging in this history of cinema by doing that. It’s nice to think you are still part of something. In the end it’s just beautiful and it lends itself to that feeling of almost cigarette smoke exhaled through a handkerchief. It’s like the whole movie has a stained quality to it. That’s Super 16. I like flaw. I like the beauty of flaw.
Reeves: Yeah, but I would say you also explored a lot about not only contextual or emotional gaps, but also, cinematically, your foreground, mid-ground, background kind of explorations in verite and formalism was really cool.
Mann: We pushed the limits. At times, just watching the depth that you can get on film and comparing it with almost a lack of depth in video. And then just turning it in. Juxtaposing. When we’re in that apartment it looks so simple, but there’s like four rooms of lighting. It’s crazy. That’s something that you gotta do on film. You gotta, because you’ve put so much work into it, but then again, you know, video, you’re getting the real story, the real stuff. You are getting the point of view.
When you were shooting on those New York streets, which there is a surprising amount of in the film, was it a time crunch where you’d constantly be running around with the crew?
Reeves: What did we have? We had a day.
Mann: [Laughs] Yeah. We had like five minutes. There was no time. We were like a…
Mann: It was like guerilla filmmaking. We were out there and you had to get it. When you shoot on film you have that urgency, or you feel it. The reality is the actual shooting process is not so much different than shooting on video. But you feel differently shooting on film.
How about for you, Keanu? Do you find the environment that different when shooting with film versus a digital camera as an actor?
Reeves: You know, it really depends on the context. I think the impact of the shorter reel definitely puts something on it. What else?
Mann: It’s the immediacy of it. The thing about it is, is when you take the context of this movie with respect to what you’re talking about, we weren’t really shooting on video. The video was an element of what was being shot on film. That was always intentional. It jumps the line. It’s not really a found footage movie. It’s a movie about watching someone shooting video and then seeing what they’re shooting. So it’s slightly different.
You both have just completed your narrative feature debuts. What were your biggest lessons?
Reeves: Mark, what is your biggest lesson from the film?
Mann: Just keep going. [Laughs] Keep at it, man. I mean you gotta hold tight. You gotta hold tight. You gotta believe 100%.
And how about you, Keanu?
Reeves: You know what? I think I’m going to jump on that bandwagon. There’s so many practical lessons. But I think one of the things that I did take away from working with Mark and applying to stepping forward or telling a story was just the thought of passion and just to hold onto that. That’s your kind of compass. Everyone has that idea of it, too, but also to collaborate and sometimes check in with someone else’s compass. Because it might take you to the same place, but you might get there a different way. That can be, oftentimes, really cool.
Mann: I think what I took away from Keanu on a personal level is just patience and respect for the people you are working with and process. You know, just disciplined. He’s a gentleman.
Reeves: Thank you, Mark.
Generation Um…is now in theaters and on VOD.