SFX (US), June 1999
Prepare to have all memories of Johnny Mnemonic extracted. Keanu Reeves is back, starring in a cyberthriller but, he tells Marta Massa, the film really kicks ass....
Keanu Reeves found filming The Matrix so exhausting, he was left almost unable to walk after standing around for three hours carrying 50lbs of weapons: "It was just such wear and tear. But I love that—I love that intensity, that challenge."
The Matrix was a rough film to make. Reeves endured months of training before the punishing shooting schedule. But, as he points out passionately, this is no typical Reeves movie. It is, he says, about "Love. Evolution. Faith. Anime. Frank Miller. Classic myth structure. Question, questioning. Knowledge. Authority. Systems Order..."
Or, otherwise translated, The Matrix is one of the most provocative science fiction adventures Hollywood has ever made. It may be a cyberthriller, but this is no Johnny Mnemonic part two. In the film, Reeves believes he is living a normal life in the '90s. After being haunted by recurring flashes of being hooked up in a lab, he discovers that he and the rest of humanity are living in a computer-generated work far in the future. Powerful computers that rule the Earth are using humans beings as their energy source. Reeves somehow manages to break free and joins forces with an underground group of computer hackers to lead their enslaved society in revolution against the digital rulers and ultimately save the world.
Not his usual action role, then....the kind that seem to be aimed at college kids in baggy shorts whose idea of art is the front cover of a Metallica CD?
"No, it starts with my character asking 'What is the Matrix?' So from there, I think you're asking, 'What is reality? What's around me?' The film also introduces themes of choices. What are your choices? The choices you make in life. And what happens when you make them? You can either learn about reality or you can live as you're living. and when Morpheus [the character played by Laurence Fishburne] offers me two pills, what's he's saying is that you can just go on in ignorance—the easy way— if you want. And those choices are made all the time in the film, for all of the characters. My character believes that he's in charge of his own life. Are you? Ever? So there are moments where you have to make them? So there are all sorts of ways to jump off on this film."
Sounds like a gen-u-ine art movie we're talking about here. No surprise, really, as it has been scripted and directed by the Wachowski brothers who, on their past record with movies like the lesbian oddity Bound, look set to challenge the Cohen brothers as Hollywood's 'frères' terrible. So, could Reeves's casting send out wrong messages for an audience who might just want to see cool special effects movie with a goodly dose of action and blood?
"I don't think so. I think the brothers' film really takes care of all those issues. It's got spectacle in it. But what I really like about the film is that it's not without meaning. It's not just empty spectacle."
The film may not be typical Reeves fodder, but Reeves is in typically flippant mood. He sips Chardonnay nonchalantly as he answers—sometimes flippantly, sometimes passionately, depending on whether they interest him or not—while constantly exchanging mischievous glances with co-star, Carrie-Anne Moss ("We worked together a long time...why shouldn't I look at him?" she retorts). He's also wearing black nail varnish, not that he's forthcoming about why.
"Oh, gosh...someone painted them," is all the information he's prepared to give up before urging, "Can't we still talk about the ideas of the film?"
Okay, anything to please. So, what is the film about?
"It's about evolution. One of the things I liked is just the way that the relationship between technology and man—the creator and the created—are switching parts in the film. I think that's an interesting idea. Hugo Weaving's character says, "It's really became our world, didn't it? And that's what this is all about.' I think that's another interesting topic—the hubris of man. The monster and the creator."
Yeah, sounds great. But, um, what is the film about?
"It seems that it's a forum where the present and the future of a particular culture can act itself out, in a really hyper-real way. And what I mean by that is enlarged, perhaps. And I like that. It's about maternal feelings about technology surrounding the way we relate to each other. It puts it very forward."
Uh...right...but, like what's it about?
"One of the themes that the brothers are working on is a synthesis of ideas. So that you see a Christ figure, or a Mary figure, or a mentor—the wise man—with Laurence. You see machines becoming animals, insects. You see humans becoming batteries. You see signifiers and objects in scenes and shots that you can relate to, but they're not quite right.
"There's something different about them. And I think that the brothers are really throwing that out, so that you can relate to what you're seeing, but...It's not morphing but synthesising, perhaps. Mixing different religions. Mixing different technologies. Mixing the way people tell stories. It's not a straight narrative. You see these figures represented in a traditional, organic way, but there's more to it, and there's kind of a difference to it."
Ah, so it's about perception?
"Yeah. That's why when people see it they go, 'I recognize...Oh, there's some Frank Miller. There's some Japanese. That's Yoda! No, that's not Yoda. There's a villain. That's not the villain. There's the machine. Oh, he's not a machine—the machine is a human.' So they want you to relate to it, but they also want to excite questions. It's the whole idea of the Matrix, and where are we, the whole idea of the machine gaining humanity. What are we doing, how are we doing it, and what is it going to become? I think the whole idea of evolution is very strong in the film."
Okaayy....Time to get onto safer ground. There were a few injuries suffered during the movie, weren't there?
"Yeah, Hugo [Weaving—Agent Smith] had hip surgery."
But all of you must have gone through hell?
"Let's see. Hugo had the hip. Carrie-Anne [Moss—Trinity] had the hip and ankle. Laurence [Fishburne—Morpheus] got hit in the head. He got his eyelid sliced open...I couldn't walk a couple of times. I mean, I'm exaggerating a bit, but there were a couple of sequences where I had to carry all these guns. It was about 50lbs of weapons. And waiting for the special effects sequences, the bullet hits, etc.—there was on time where we stood for, like, three hours.
"And then also the triple kick in the Dojo sequence. We did that on a Friday, it was the last shot of the week. And is was just such wear an tear. And I love the moment where sirens are going. Carrie-Anne had one take—she does a cartwheel off a wall, on a wire. She got one take, and it took four months and a half hours to set up." He laughs. "You train for five months, and they tell you you've got one take! Larry Wachowski said it was like the Olympics. You train, and then you get one shot at the diving board."
As well as risking life and limb, Reeves also had to undergo months of Kung Fu training, though he has not so much as a certificate to show for it, and doubts his body is a deadly weapon.
"I remember saying to Tiger, one of the people who was training us, 'What belt are you?' And he goes, "Belt? What belt? What do you mean, belt? Belt hold up pants!' In Kung Fu, there's no belt system. It's not about that."
He doesn't think, though, that all the action and effects undermine his own chosen craft.
"In this film, particularly, I think that what you would call action sequences are connected to the story. It's not just pure spectacle, although there is spectaclele in it. But in terms of acting—it's still acting. They say 'Action', and you still have to perform. In terms of being as difficult as Hamlet's soliloquy...Well, they offer up different challenges. But you still have to be present. You still have to do the same work. That's the way I work. Carrie-Anne had to do this one scene where she had to react. She was suppose to be hanging on pipes between two walls of the room. She had to listen to shots. She had to hear off-camera dialogue. The whole set was maybe eight feet wide and ten feet high. All of your crafts and skills come into play there. So the same work goes into it. It has different paybacks. But it's still emotional.
"I think that's what's cool about this film. It's almost like there are three layers. You have the actors and the environment, then you have the mechanisms around us, like wires and bullet hits. And then behind that, they did a trans light, this rear-projection screen. They they also did CGI.
Indeed, some scenes required hundreds of still cameras on set, as well as the usual motion picture equipment. These enabled the FX guys to create stunning sequences where the VR characters play around with time, freezing bullets in mid flight. "This film—it's on such a grand scale," agrees Reeves, "and so innovative. To walk on that set, where there are 100 still cameras, five motion picture cameras—all aligned—and you have two wires on you, and you're responding to bullets flying at you...This is going to allow the camera to move in real time while you move in slow motion, and other objects are moving fast. It's awesome."
Many people might be surprised that Reeves accepted a role in another cyberthriller after the disaster that was Johnny Mnemonic. But Reeves didn't worry about that.
"Not once I read the script and met with Larry And Andy [Wachowski]. They were so prepared. And I really enjoyed their vision. I was really looking forward to it."
On the other side of the cameras, the Wachowski brothers's were also raving about their star, saying they had never encountered anyone who showed up as well-prepared as Reeves. Is he a bit of an obsessive, then?
"Yeah, yeah, I love it," he enthuses.
And where does he think this drive comes from?
"My mother's side."
Ask a stupid question....