Matrix of the trade
by Nui Te Koha
Nui Te Koha takes a trip to the Sydney set of The Matrix sequels and finds a cast and crew bracing themselves for some world-first movie action
IT IS day 212 of a 71-week film shoot and things are about to go bad. Not bad in the traditional sense, producer Joel Silver says, but difficult because of the high stakes and raised expectations surrounding The Matrix.
It's a movie project that started four years ago as a $107 million underdog and became a science-fiction classic raking in $825 million worldwide.
From out of left field, Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski concocted a startling collage of martial arts, Oscar-winning special effects and uptown theories plundering philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Old Testament and Hans Christian Andersen.
Accordingly, The Matrix sequels Reloaded and Revolutions find the Wachowski brothers upping the ante - powered by a $540 million budget.
"It's the beginning of something," says actor Laurence Fishburne, who plays the profound character Morpheus.
"We are all aware that we are involved in something that is absolutely history-making in terms of cinema."
Silver, a Hollywood powerbroker whose hits include the Lethal Weapon franchise, is less subtle.
Four years ago, when the Wachowski brothers devised the groundbreaking, so-called bullet-time technique. It spawned a thousand imitations.
Silver says the copycats started as soon as the movie opened.
"It wasn't just the visual effects . . . it was the way the (Wachowski brothers) shot and staged as well.
"Initially, they thought it was flattering, but after a while they kind of got angry about it.
"So they decided in these two movies they would create visual effects that could never be copied. We have done visual effects in these movies that, because of the time it takes to make and the cost, we will never see again.
"I really think the bar has risen so high that there is no more bar," Silver says.
Hence, the tough home stretch in the 72 days left to shoot.
The Wachowskis started pre-production on Reloaded and Revolutions in late 1999, began shooting in Sydney in August, 2001, and will spend seven months in post-production after filming wraps in September.
They really have saved the hardest yards for last. In some instances, this is purely because technology is struggling to keep pace with their concepts.
There is one shot in the sequels that has taken 2 1/2 years to create, Silver says. A 14-minute action segment, described by Silver as "the most complicated ever put on film", will also be shot in the 72 days remaining.
"We just want to get through this," the producer says wearily. "We keep saying we are in the home stretch, but even in the home stretch, it seems like we have a whole movie to make."
The Matrix is a technology-age parable in which humans are imprisoned in the Matrix, a computer-generated "reality" ruled by machines.
Keanu Reeves is Neo, a hacker turned reluctant hero, recruited to save his fellow men. Unofficial plot theories for Reloaded and Revolutions are already rife, and a cagey Reeves only muddied the water recently when he said: "The first one is about birth, the second one is life, the third is death."
Reeves winces and often tugs at his hair, clearly pained by having to explain Neo's motivation - a messiah by default which, in many ways, echoes Reeve's awkward approach to celebrity.
Reeves read the pre-existentialist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer's willpower theories and the empiricist teachings of David Hume to create Neo's mindframe.
"All of this is synthesised into 'how to be'," Reeves tells Weekend, "and the kind of character Neo is in terms of how he views the world; in terms of how he asks questions.
"He is always saying, 'What is truth?' and he is searching for his life. He rejects fate and he doesn't want someone else's destiny. "In terms of an academic discussion, I don't have the facilities to do that. In terms of a contrast and compare - the Nietzsche in Superman, or Neo as reluctant hero or messiah - I can't do that. Larry Wachowski could do that. I can't do that."
In the sequels, Neo must persuade, then battle, the machines to free the human race.
RELOADED takes place inside the Matrix, and Revolutions is set in the scorched real world. In Reloaded, the Wachowski brothers will finally open the door to Zion, an underground city inhabited by cyber-prison escapees.
New characters, rebel fighter Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Zion resident Zee (Nona Gaye), will join Reeves, Fishburne, Carrie Anne Moss (Neo's love interest, Trinity) and Hugo Weaving (Neo's nemesis, Agent Smith).
The Wachowski brothers originally pitched The Matrix as a trilogy. "With the first film, nobody knew what the hell they were doing," Silver recalls.
"These two screwy brothers from Chicago had this idea, and was it going to work?"
Silver: "Is this gonna be a hit?"
Andy and Larry Wachowski: "It's gonna be a hit."
Silver: "You sure it's gonna be a hit?"
Andy and Larry Wachowksi: "We promise you, it's gonna be a hit."
"That was the sum total of what we were doing," Silver says, laughing. "And they did the best they could with a limited budget."
But Silver knew he had given the green light to something special.
"We made a movie that was an oxymoron: it was a smart action picture," he says, before conceding: "I guess I've been responsible for a number of dumb action pictures in my life.
"The Matrix dealt with a philosophical notion of what is reality: a pop psychology idea, but also a mainstay of every philosophical order. It made people think, and it was brilliantly made."
To date, the Wachowskis have refused to do interviews.
"They don't ask any questions, and they don't expect to give any answers," Silver says. "They don't want to talk about what they do; they don't want to have to explain it. They don't want to identify where they've come from or where they're going. They think the movie does that." Before The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers' only film credit was Bound, a slick noir-gangster flick famous for its Jennifer Tilly-Gina Gershon sex scene.
"Little is known about the Wachowski brothers," Fishburne says.
"They have a secret code that exists between the two of them. They are not very verbal, but they are incredibly trusting with who you are and what you bring. It's very interesting to be on set and be with them when they are composing and creating these wonderful shots. "Larry, generally, will take the viewfinder, Andy will stand by the monitor, and they'll just float around with this camera, talk it through, and talk about the cuts they'll make.
"It's like it's already in their head, and it's almost inconvenient that they have to do it physically."
Silver: "There is no frantic hysteria on the set. They know what they're doing every day. As Hitchcock used to say, 'Once you've worked out the movie, it's boring to have to make it.' "
Yes, it is entertainment and, absolutely, it is a commercial venture, Silver says, "but it takes a turn".
"It is not about what we are used to seeing in movies. It deals on such a broad level about all of us, about our roles in life, and what our lives are about.
"At the core, it's about people surviving if they believe in something."
Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hume and Keanu couldn't have said it better.
The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions are both due for a 2003 release.
Simple bluffing will do the Trix
A BLUFFER'S guide to the Matrix - and where it goes from here. Leave the geeks stunned with wishy-washy, ambiguous insider knowledge on the sequels (provided here in ready-to-blab-at-dinner-parties quote marks).
Neo (Keanu Reeves): Hacker, hero. "Dude, Neo has to know human will is a creative primary factor in understanding. Classic Schopenhauer, you understand?"
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Sage, trusted ally. "Nah, I reckon he's a double agent."
Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss): Neo's love interest. "I'm telling you, she has three different outfits: a tight one for eye-candy, another for fighting, and loose fit for high-wire work."
Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving): Villain, computer virus who replicates himself in the sequels. "I know this guy who tried out for a part as Agent Smith double. He looks just like him."
Niobi (Jada Pinkett Smith): Rebel fighter, former lover of Morpheus. "Hey! That's Will Smith's wife."
The Oracle (the late Gloria Foster): Wise woman guiding Neo to the truth. "Wait 'til you see Revolutions, fellas, she comes back in a different form."
Zee (Nona Gaye): Zion resident. "I can't help thinking how Aaliyah would have played it." (Look to the skies, respectfully.)
The Matrix: The computer-generated reality holding humans captive. "Why is the Matrix? It vexes me 24-7."
Zion: Underground city inhabited by humans who have escaped from cyber-prison. "Larry and Andy wanted Zion in the first Matrix, but the 60-mill budget was way too restrictive."