The Matrix Makers
One year, two sequels—and a revolution in moviemaking. An exclusive look behind the scenes of 2003's hottest flicks
by Devin Gordon
Jan. 6 issue — The Warner Brother's studio lot in Burbank, Calif., is frenetic on most days, but on a Thursday in early November it was really humming. The company's box-office Bigfoot for 2002, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," was set to open in eight days, and nearly every division of the studio was working furiously to get it ready. Until 2:30 p.m. That's when everything stopped. For the next half hour, the boy wizard had to make way for "The Matrix."
ALL MORNING, BUZZ had rippled through the lot that producer Joel Silver would be screening, for the first time, 20 minutes from the sci-fi smash hit's two feverishly anticipated sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," both of which will hit theaters in 2003. In Hollywood, showing up late is standard practice. The theater that Silver reserved for his grand unveiling was juiced with 35 Warners executives—and one NEWSWEEK journalist—by 2:25. By 2:50, people were peeling their jaws off the floor.
The climax of "Reloaded" is a lengthy freeway chase that, like the original "Matrix" in 1999, will redefine action filmmaking and visual effects for years. Two familiar heroes, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), have captured a critical pawn in mankind's struggle against the Machines: the Keymaker, a tiny Asian man who has access to all the doors into the Machine world. Now they must safely get the Keymaker out of the Matrix and back into the real world, and the only way to do that is through a hard telephone line. The closest one is a few miles down a nearby freeway. The trouble is, in the Matrix, a freeway is the last place you want to be. There are people everywhere, meaning the bad-guy Agents have an unlimited supply of bodies to jump into—each behind the wheel of a guided missile. "You always said never get on the freeway," Trinity reminds Morpheus as they race up the entrance ramp. "You said it was suicide." Morpheus grins. "Let us hope," the rebellion's Zen-calm leader says, "that I was wrong." The ensuing sequence may be the most audaciously conceived, thrillingly executed car chase ever filmed. Sounds like hype, yeah. But you've gotta see this thing. The scene features two kung fu battles in speeding vehicles—one in the back seat of a Cadillac, the other on the roof of an 18-wheeler truck. There's also a heart-stopping motorcycle chase through oncoming traffic and enough wrecked cars to keep a junkyard in business for years. Fans will go particularly bonkers over one shot of an agent leaping from atop a moving car onto the hood of another and, with his feet, crushing the entire thing into a pretzel. Says cinematographer Bill Pope: "It's going to make "The Fast and the Furious" look like "The Slow and the Dimwitted".
Four years ago "The Matrix" arrived out of nowhere and grossed $171 million in the United States alone—terrific for an R-rated film. But it accelerated into a phenomenon thanks to DVD, becoming the format's first title to sell a million copies. Fans watch it again and again, each time discovering cool new bits, like how the phone conversation that opens the film foreshadows a key betrayal and how scenes inside the Matrix have a green tinge while scenes in the "real world" are blue. (Sorry, geeked out there for a second...) Critics, meanwhile, lauded writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski for bringing an elegance and choreography to American action films that had been missing since the days of Sam Peckinpah. On a basic level, though, "The Matrix" was simply good storytelling. "I've heard the 'Star Wars' people boast about shooting frames that are 97 percent digital, and lo and behold, the movies are soulless," says John Gaeta, visual-effects supervisor for all three "Matrix" movies. "They traded the whole idea of depth in filmmaking for this supertechnological hype. It helped us focus our own philosophy: the story drives everything."
The sequels appear to have only one serious drawback: you can't see the first one for five months. "Reloaded," which features every actor whose character survived the original, including Keanu Reeves as Neo and Hugo Weaving as the relentless Agent Smith, arrives in theaters on May 15. Then, in a potentially risky strategy, Warner Bros. will release "Revolutions" just six months later, in early November. "Our fans would be angry at us if we made them wait any longer," producer Silver explains. "'Reloaded' ends, I promise you, at a moment of true filmus interruptus."
The sequels were shot simultaneously in Australia over a 270-day stretch from 2001 to 2002. Combined, they cost more than $300 million—probably far more, but no one's talking. The franchise's first videogame, titled Enter the Matrix, will hit stores the same day that "Reloaded" opens in theaters. The Wachowskis are also spearheading a DVD project, due in June, called "The Animatrix," a collection of nine animated short films with stories that fit like puzzle pieces into the movies' mythology. Make a mental note: 2003 is going to be the year of "The Matrix."
To date, the Wachowskis have worked meticulously to keep "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" shrouded in secrecy. Even its stars say they've seen just a few scraps of film. So how about we spill a few beans? The first "Matrix" told the story of a hacker named Neo, who learns that his reality is simply a computer simulation created by machines to enslave the human race. Once jolted from his lifelong slumber, Neo discovers that he's a messianic figure known as the One, and that it's his destiny to save the world. "Reloaded" begins right where the original left off. (If you want to enjoy the sequels blissfully uninformed, better skip the rest of this paragraph.) The machines have made a terrifying breakthrough: they've learned the location of Zion, the last human city, hidden near the Earth's core. Their plan is to tunnel down to the city and use thousands of sentinels—the squidlike kamikazes from part one—to obliterate it. Tracking down the Keymaker is the humans' only hope. But he's being guarded by a pair of new villains known as the Twins, a dreadlocked duo who wield switchblades and can vanish and reappear like ghosts. Along the way, we'll meet Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), a former lover of Morpheus', and Persephone (Monica Bellucci), a shady temptress who tries to seduce Neo. We'll see that the Matrix is actually a megacity, more than 10 times the size of New York. We'll discover that the machine world isn't entirely evil, that there are powerful machines that have been surpassed by newer, more ruthless models—and aren't happy about it. And, of course, we'll catch up with our favorite machine, Agent Smith, who's learned to replicate himself like a virus. In one bravura kung fu sequence, shown to NEWSWEEK in rough form, Neo faces off against one hundred Agent Smiths.
And that's just the first sequel. (Come to think of it, better skip this paragraph, too.) The plot of "Revolutions" depends heavily on the outcome of "Reloaded," so we can't reveal much just yet. Suffice it to say that "Revolutions" is essentially, from start to finish, one all-out war between the humans and the machines. Unlike "Reloaded," most of which is set inside the Matrix, "Revolutions" unfolds largely in the smoking ruins of the futuristic real world. Silver is promising a climactic battle like we've never seen before: a 17-minute sequence that alone cost about two thirds of the budget of the first "Matrix." (That film, in case you're wondering, cost $65 million.)
Silver has been deputized to speak for the brothers, and he's a good choice. The producer, the Hollywood titan behind the "Lethal Weapon" series, is a world-champion talker, teased by his employees for his verbal uneconomy. He answered one NEWSWEEK question with a 1,840-word reply. (The question was, "Can you give me an example?" Never ask Joel Silver this.) But even he has trouble articulating how Larry and Andy, whom he calls "the boys," are different. The cast and crew all insist that the brothers are not a two-headed monster. When pressed to elaborate, however, they all pause for a while and end up noting how eerie it is that the siblings never seem to disagree. Both men consume books like air, but Larry, it's said, prefers philosophy while Andy reads science fiction. Larry likes wine; Andy likes beer. Andy is the more accommodating of the two; "Larry," says Pope, "is like a jihad warrior."