Brothers Unleash the Comic Book of Ideas
by Bernard Weinraub
The Wachowski brothers were seated at a restaurant table in a Sunset Strip hotel the other morning, drinking cup after cup of coffee and claiming, with some nervousness, that their new high-tech, big-budget film, "The Matrix," could ignite or doom their careers.
"We just really want to see how the idea of an intellectual action movie is received by the world," said Larry Wachowski, 33, the older half of the team of writer-directors. "Because if audiences are sort of interested in movies that are made like McDonald's hamburgers, which do have a value in the world, then we have to re-evaluate our entire career.
Not to worry.
By this morning Larry and his younger brother, Andy, 31, were hardly seeking new careers. Their film, which was almost as risky for its studio, Warner Brothers, as it was for the friendly and low-key Wachowski brothers, was No. 1 around the nation. The film, which opened last Wednesday, took in $37.2 million at the box office in its first five days, according to Warner Brothers. "It's the largest Easter weekend opening in motion-picture history," said Dan Fellman, the studio's president for distribution.
Why is the movie so successful? "It's a cutting-edge film," Mr. Fellman said. "No one has seen anything quite like it. It just rocks."
In contrast to the old-style Warner Brothers action genre fare, "The Matrix," which stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss, is a compelling but not altogether coherent blend of mythology, religious mysticism, martial arts, virtual reality and time travel. In part the story deals with the aftermath of a war between humans and superintelligent humanoid computers that want to rule the world. Mr. Reeves plays a computer hacker, and Mr. Fishburne is the leader of rebel fighters battling those evil computers.
Although "The Matrix," cost nearly $70 million, the movie, with its special effects, is not considered as lavishly expensive as similar films. Warner Brothers executives said it would have cost close to $95 million if it had been made in the United States instead of in Australia, where film production is cheaper.
For "The Matrix" the Wachowski brothers studied the work of directors as varied as John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, George Lucas and Fritz Lang. They also read and reread their favorite book, "The Odyssey." Larry said: "I read it all the time. I always get something out of it."
The film grew out of the brothers' longtime fascination (since they were teen-agers) with ideas that challenge current perceptions of reality. They said they were also intrigued by the way mythology and the Internet informed culture.
"The script was a synthesis of ideas that sort of came together at a moment when we were interested in a lot of things: making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life," said Andy, the bigger and quieter half of the Wachowski team. "We started out thinking of this as a comic book. We filled notebook after notebook with ideas. Essentially that's where the script came from."
All this highbrow and even esoteric exploration seems improbable at a large Hollywood studio, especially Warner Brothers, which traditionally churns out meat-and-potatoes action films like the "Lethal Weapon" series or romances like "Message in a Bottle."
But Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the studio's 42-year-old president for worldwide production, tracked the script for four years and pushed it through.
"When you read the script, you knew it was a new and different kind of movie," Mr. di Bonaventura said. "It had great action and great characters, and you got a sense of how important these filmmakers would become." He added, "A few of us didn't find it incomprehensible and felt the brothers would be able to execute visually what some people had a hard time understanding when they read it."
Even before the studio agreed to make the movie, the brothers hired two cartoonist friends -- Geof Darrow, who created the well-known comic book "Hard Boiled," and Steve Skrose, who once drew Spider-Man comic books -- and made a 600-page, scene-by-scene comic book, based on the script. What Larry Wachowski called "this gigantic comic book" was shown to the studio, which then approved the film. "It was virtually identical to the movie," said Joel Silver, producer of "The Matrix."
The brothers are hardly the kind of superconfident, supersmug action-film directors who are commonplace now in Hollywood. Modest in manner, the brothers frequently defer to each other, although Larry, the older one, seems more talkative. Each of the brothers is married, and they live near each other on the North Side of Chicago. They write their scripts on large yellow pads and work at each other's homes.
The Wachowskis are college dropouts. Larry attended Bard for two years, and Andy went to Emerson College. Afterward, they worked as house painters and carpenters, working all the time creating comic books. Their father, Ron, a businessman, and mother, Lynne, a nurse and painter, encouraged them.
In the late 1980's Larry read a book about Roger Corman, the master of B movies, and excitedly told his brother to read it. The Wachowskis quickly wrote a Corman-style, low-budget horror movie that dealt with cannibalism or, more specifically, rich people being eaten by cannibals.
"The script was too disturbing," Andy said. "We showed it to some people in Hollywood who said: 'This is a bad idea. I can't make this. I'm rich.' "
The cleverness of the writing stirred interest among studio executives, however, and led the Wachowskis to write "Assassins" (1995), a Sylvester Stallone action film about a hit man dogged by a rival. The film was a dud, and the brothers loathed it. Their careers rebounded in 1996 when they wrote and made their directorial debut with "Bound," a stylish and violent action drama with a lesbian twist: two women conspire to run off with a suitcase containing millions of dollars.
"After 'Bound' we were offered a lot of lesbian thrillers," Andy Wachowski said.
With the success of "Bound," the Wachowskis returned to "The Matrix," the script they had been working on for years. They credited Mr. di Bonaventura, the Warner Brothers executive who lobbied on behalf of the script, as well as Mr. Silver, the producer, for getting the movie off the ground. Although Mr. Silver also produced "Assassins," Larry Wachowski said, "We forgave him."
The brothers said that, for the moment, they had no idea what to do next. "Maybe we'll just retire with a two-film retrospective," Larry said. "We're just so tired at this point." The two seem to get along well, and said they rarely argued during the writing and directing process, or engaged in the kinds of fistfights that took place while they were growing up in Chicago.
And what happens when creative arguments occur now?
"Mom," Larry said dryly. "We show the work to Mom."