How ''The Matrix'' made it to the big screen -- Behind the scenes of the Wachowski Brothers spiritual sci-fi blockbuster
by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
So a studio executive and a producer are sitting in a room. ''Hey,'' they say to Warner Bros. chairmen Bob Daly and Terry Semel, "here's an idea. We've signed these two brothers who direct and write together. They made Bound, a randy lesbian crime caper, for $4 million. Now they want to do a $60 million science-fiction film. Or maybe it's a spiritual allegory. Actually, no one understands what it's about, but that's okay, because they want to use amazing special effects. The technology hasn't been ironed out yet, but whatever. Brad, Leo, and Will were interested, but we got Keanu Reeves, who's so over he's in again. All the stars will do their own stunts, which is unusual because movie stars have, like, this fear of death. But if there's a fatality, the cool thing is, we won't see it happen because, see, the brothers? They're going to take our $60 million and go make this movie in Australia."
Maybe that isn't exactly what was said by Warner Bros. President of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura and producer Joel Silver when they were asking for a greenlight on Larry and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix two years ago. But nuance aside, here's a sure fact: This project was so risky, it might as well have come with a suicide note attached.
This week, Warner Bros.' gamble will pay off...or not. While the studio seems to be on a much-needed upswing (You've Got Mail, Analyze This) it has yet to fully divest itself of a reputation for spending too much on too little (The Postman). And with The Matrix, Warner Bros. has pinned its hopes not only on a pair of relatively untested directors, who refer to themselves as ''two schmoes from Chicago,'' but also on the appeal of an actor who has seemed, ever since 1994's Speed, enthralled with downward mobility.
But before you ask What were they thinking? you must remember this: Those special effects were ironed out, Keanu Reeves cuts one fine action figure, and the Matrix trailer — perhaps the most crucial marketing tool for a sci-fi film — rocks.
Warner Bros. began placing its bets on The Matrix five years ago. In 1994, Di Bonaventura read the brothers' script of Assassins, a tale of two hitmen, and immediately signed the former Marvel comic-book writers to a three-picture deal. While 1995's Assassins, rewritten as a mainstream thriller with Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, took a bullet at the box office, the brothers went on to direct their script of Bound for Gramercy. A critical hit about two women (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) who fall for each other and foil the Mob, Bound earned the Wachowskis reputations as edgy, energetic talent.
Now the brothers were asking to direct a script of theirs that Warner Bros. had also bought in 1994. Intended to be the first of a sci-fi trilogy, The Matrix was a futuristic extravaganza that would use elements of the Bible, philosophy, mythology, Alice in Wonderland, and Hong Kong-style fighting to suggest that reality — or ''the Matrix'' — was in fact a computer-generated universe created by evil creatures committed to keeping human beings enslaved.
The whole thing was a little confusing. Nevertheless, "Lorenzo and Joel were very enthusiastic about it," says Andy, 31, who, like his 33-year-old brother, speaks as if he's watched Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure one too many times. "Actually, they were the only people who were enthusiastic." Says Di Bonaventura, "I knew if I was going to make a leap of faith, this was the one to make."
But Di Bonaventura needed more to go on, and sent the Wachowskis off to do their homework. The brothers called on their comic-book colleagues, and over the next year sketched out every scene in the movie, from terrifying biomechanical bugs breeding humans in a "fetus field" to actors battling in midair. They even illustrated what "bullet time" might look like, though the technique — which would enable characters to move faster than bullets — had yet to be invented.
The detailed storyboards and the brothers' enthusiasm, says Di Bonaventura, were so persuasive that by spring 1997 the Wachowskis were given a $60 million budget (sufficient if they filmed in Australia, where capable crews come cheap) and permission to begin casting the three starring roles. Warner Bros. even agreed that the actors could perform their own stunts — as long as they were prepared in training — in order to avoid the use of cutaway shots with stunt doubles.
The three leads to be cast were Neo, a young recruit who comes to know that reality isn't what it seems; Morpheus, the sage who guides Neo back and forth between a spaceship and the Matrix, teaching him that mind can control matter; and Trinity, a female kick-ass warrior who will carry on the race with the help of the Chosen One, who may or may not be Neo himself.
The brothers had only two requirements for their actors: They had to be able to explain the Matrix, and they had to be willing to suffer for it.
Both criteria were a little problematic. Few actors were willing to sign up for the six months of hardcore physical training, and few actors could grasp the movie's concept. "We'd go through the whole process of trying to explain the movie," says Andy, "which was like sitting through the movie. It would take two and a half hours." After getting nibbles from Leo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and Brad Pitt, the directors met with Reeves, 34, and felt they had found their Neo. "We sat around discussing the philosophy and the metaphors of the script," says Andy. Adds Larry, "We knew it would take a maniacal commitment from someone, and Keanu was our maniac."
Maniac? Maybe. Movie star? Barely.
Since 1994's Speed — a role that might have transformed him into international box office gold — Keanu Reeves had seemed to have a tin ear when it came to picking projects. He played a soldier in A Walk in the Clouds (a period love story that went nowhere), then a cybercourier in the disappointing Johnny Mnemonic. He skirted back into action with 1996's underwhelming Chain Reaction, then veered way off track with Feeling Minnesota.
In between films, there were performances with his rock band, Dogstar. At other times, he seemed to mysteriously vanish. "It's weird, because he didn't take time off," says Reeves' manager of 17 years, Erwin Stoff, "but when he's not working, he completely disappears from the public eye."
The media have been more than happy to fill in the blanks. Among the more interesting bits of speculation: He's married to David Geffen (not true); he parties too enthusiastically (maybe true); he rides his motorcycles too fast (probably true, from the looks of him); he lives in hotels (definitely true). What the press hasn't realized, says a friend of Reeves', is that "this past year scared the s--- out of him, and what scared him to no end was that the business did move on, and he realized it. Keanu is extremely competitive."
This laid-back dude...competitive? In person, Reeves does little to clear up the paradox. He's dressed in a natty suit but he's wearing hiking boots. His hair, which points due north, makes him look like he's lost a bloody battle with the stylist from There's Something About Mary. And while Reeves' manner is demure and sweetly shy, he's sporting some seriously scary black nail polish.
Reeves' refusal to be pinned down is a trait he intentionally carries over into his professional life. "A friend of mine has a saying that when an actor plays a kind of character [repeatedly], he becomes 'That Guy,'" says Reeves, chipping away at the polish on his thumbnail. "I don't want 'That Guy' syndrome."
Here are Reeves' concerns: "'Oh, my God, have I disappeared? Will a studio want to see me?' Every once in a while, that comes around. It sucks, [and] I go have a beer."
But in June 1997, pleased with Reeves' work in the recently wrapped Devil's Advocate, Warner Bros. offered him The Matrix, and the star bit. "Neo is trying to figure out his life," Reeves says. "He feels something's wrong. He doesn't trust what's around him, so he removes himself from the world and is seeking his answer kind of monastically. I was working on those questions at the time."
They were million-dollar questions: Reeves received a reported $10 million against a percentage of the action. While the salary was worthy of a box office draw, his casting "made all the people who were nervous more nervous," admits one person involved with the production. "You couldn't say, 'Hey, [it's] got Will Smith, relax.'"
In the fall of 1997, the stars showed up in L.A. for Matrix boot camp, where they would be trained by a posse of Hong Kong martial-arts experts. Val Kilmer had passed on Morpheus, and Laurence Fishburne had been hired; Carrie-Anne Moss, who starred in the syndicated television series F/X, won the part of Trinity; and Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) was in as the key bad guy. While a San Francisco special-effects team began designing the creatures and experimenting with "Flow-Mo," or "bullet time," the actors began testing their bodies.
It was not an auspicious beginning. Reeves appeared for the first day of training in a neck brace, thanks to surgery for a herniated disc only weeks earlier. Two days into training, Weaving began experiencing pain in his hip; the trauma would ultimately require surgery in January.
When the stars arrived in Australia, with two more months of training ahead, Reeves' neck was still nagging him and Weaving was on crutches. Ross (sic), whose fight scenes were at the start of production, sprained her ankle cartwheeling into a wall. Weaving recovered from his hip injury, but then hurt his wrist and cracked two ribs. "At that point," he says, "I thought, 'Oh, who cares?'"
The first few weeks of filming in Sydney were grueling. "We were on this rooftop, and every day you'd have to get up [there]," says cinematographer Bill Pope (Bound). "It's not like L.A., where buildings have helicopter pads. There was just a single-file staircase and a narrow pathway and swinging cranes. It's raining, it's not raining, the wind is blowing in gale force, then it's not blowing. The logistics were incredible."
The unprecedented special effects made for an especially difficult production, with one scene taking as long as three weeks on location to film. Says visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, "You'd have these crazy rigs around [the actors], and then you have these three wires on each of them, and then the wire guys in fluorescent ninja suits so they blend into the screen."
While the actors bulked up for fight scenes and trimmed down — via strict dieting — for others, the shooting schedule went into flux as well. The 90 days stretched to 118, but the Wachowskis were no longer hearing "What are you doing?" from the studio, thanks to eight minutes of footage sent to Warner Bros. one month into filming. Warner Bros. even gave Gaeta permission to raise his special-effects shot count from 200 to 415. "A lot of times studio executives get uptight because we don't understand why [the filmmakers] are doing something," says Di Bonaventura. "We understood."
Now comes the hard part: persuading audiences that they too can understand The Matrix. To wit, here's what a studio like Warner Bros. can do when it smells a hit that also happens to be a cerebral, complicated action movie. First, the studio sends a check for $4 million plus to the directors, along with the request that the movie be ready months earlier, thereby getting it the hell away from the Star Wars trajectory. Then, while the directors are busy hurtling through postproduction, the studio figures out how to make a virtue of the intricate plot in its ad campaigns. "You can't be told what the Matrix is," warns the eye-grabbing trailer, "you have to see it." Finally, the studio sets out to impress the press.
While elaborate media junkets, awareness campaigns, and promotional giveaways are standard issue for studios, Warner's Matrix marketing has been relatively massive, especially for a pre-summer opening. Morpheus' spacecraft was packed up from its Sydney stage and sent to the lot at Warner Bros. in L.A., where it was then reconstructed for the junket interviews; the stars spent three days being grilled in the ship's control booth.
Another sign of faith is that Warner Bros. hasn't waited for the Matrix release to begin negotiations with Reeves to star in another picture, this one a football comedy called The Replacements. But if The Matrix makes Reeves a star once again, the Wachowskis say their professional future is the last thing on their minds. Exhausted by the movie's five-year odyssey to the screen, the brothers say they're trying not to think about the second and third installments that could follow if The Matrix is a box office success. They returned from Sydney only in November, they edited up until a week before the movie's release, and all they want is to go home to Chicago. "Right now," says Andy, with his Beavis chuckle, "we've got a date with a big bottle of booze."
How'd they do that?
This is the stuff buzz is made of.
The Matrix trailer includes an astonishing shot of Keanu Reeves bending over backward and moving faster, apparently, than speeding bullets. He makes dodging ammo look easy. The shot, on the other hand, took F/X supervisor John Gaeta and his team two years to get right.
The basic technology is used in advertising (check out the Gap "swing" ads), in which an object frozen in midair is circled by a camera. Gaeta amped up the trick by seemingly moving cameras around an object that itself is moving in slow motion — a stunt, says Gaeta, "10 times more difficult." He began testing the technique of "Flow-Mo" (or "bullet time," because of the scene in which Reeves dodges gunfire) in 1997. He estimates that the computer equipment used for the shot is worth $750,000 — and that's before a crew is paid for two years of its time.
The first task: videotaping a stuntman in a twisting, backward fall. That moment was loaded into computers, which created a 3-D image, or CGI animation of the action (2). With that, the directors decided which angles they wanted to film from. On a green-screen soundstage, Gaeta mounted a flexible rig with 120 still cameras and two motion-picture cameras, which recorded Reeves falling onto a stunt mat.
With images of Reeves' fall in the computer, the gunfire and background (created virtually from pictures of the rooftop location) were digitally animated (1, 3). "This is going to break something open," says Gaeta. "We want this to do well, because the people in my business are really, really bored with what's out there."