Neo and Again
Ahead of its release next month, we go behind the scenes of The Matrix Reloaded to reveal the secrets of this year's hottest sequel.
by Paul Calder
It seemed like a straightforward question. What is The Matrix Reloaded all about? For the answer we figured it best to ask the film's star, Keanu Reeves, who plays hacker-turned-superhero, Neo. "I guess it's all about Neo trying to save the world," he begins cautiously. "In the first one he wanted to find out where he was. Now he knows. Or he thinks he does. And that's when he doesn't," Er, right, Keanu, Can you be more specific?
"It's all about the development of the hero's journey and new challenges and choices."
Sorry, but you're going to have to do better than that. Having waited four years for the next chapter in The Matrix saga, fans want details. When last we saw Neo, he'd learned that his world was an illusion controlled by evil computers. In the film's finale, it was revealed that our leather-clad hero was The One, a saviour who's destined to destroy the cyber-menace known as The Matrix and free humanity from their virtual reality. Helping him overthrow the machines were rebel warriors Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss).
Speaking of Trinity, maybe Moss can shed some light on Reloaded's plot. Or maybe not.
"I can't go into too much detail," she informs. "I want you guys to have the experience when you're watching the film." Uh-huh. Thanks. Trying to get information on this much-anticipated sequel is as tough as trying to crack the Matrix code. Blindfolded. Why all the mystery? Laurence Fishburne jokes, "We were told that if we released any information we'd be put to death."
By upholding the code of silence, the stars aren't playing coy. They're following orders. Producer Joel Silver swore his cast to secrecy to build buzz for Reloaded's release. "We've all agreed," advises Silver, "to not really say what it's all about because we really want people to experience the picture." Given that the teaser trailer was downloaded over two million times within the first 72 hours it was released on The Matrix website, Silver knows there's no shortage of fans anxious for the further adventures of Neo & Co.
Thankfully, the stars can't dodge questions with the same dexterity that they dodge bullets. This much we know: Reloaded focuses on Neo coming to terms with his superpowers within the Matrix and putting those powers to use. Seems the machines have discovered the location of Zion, the underground city that's inhabited by the few thousand humans who've escaped cyber enslavement. When the machines begin digging toward Zion with the aim of blowing it away, Neo and his cohorts work to stop them. But that's only half the story. To find out who wins the battle, fans will have to wait till November when The Matrix Revolutions, the final instalment in the trilogy, hits cinemas.
Fortunately, you don't have to wait for the inside scoop on Reloaded. During a two-day visit to the film's Sydney set last May, we met the cast and key production personnel and compiled an A-Z guide to this long-awaited sequel. So log in, boot up and download everything you need to know about The Matrix Reloaded.
A is for The Animatrix
When conceiving The Matrix, writer-director siblings Andy and Larry Wachowski drew inspiration from the Japanese-style of animation known as anime. "They really dig anime and thought it looked so cool," says visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta who accompanied the pair to Tokyo to meet the director of the cult-classic Akira. So impressed were the brothers that they piloted a series of nine direct-to-DVD animated shorts titled The Animatrix. Due for release in June, these tales, three of which were penned and directed by the Wachowskis, will explain how the Matrix came to be.
B is for Bullet time.
That's the much-imitated visual trick that we first saw in The Matrix in which the camera seems to whirl around a seemingly frozen image. Since then, it's been used in TV ads and parodied in films like Charlie's Angels and Shrek. Although the Wachowski brothers first saw the imitation as a form of flattery, they soon grew weary of the copycats. "So for The Matrix sequels, they decided to create visual effects that could never he copied," boasts producer Joel Silver. "We were in the Stone Age when we were doing the bullet-time sequences. In Reloaded, we have done visual effects that - because of the time and money involved will never be seen again," Well, at least not for some time. Some of the images in Reloaded took over two years to create.
C is for Clones
If you were a fan of Neo's nemesis, the dour Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, right), you'll be seeing a lot more of him in Reloaded. In the sequel, Smith has learned to replicate himself and now exists as a computer virus. In one dazzling sequence, Neo squares off against dozens of Smith clones. "Smith's ego has expanded," jokes Weaving. "But basically he's on the same path. If Neo exists, Smith has to exist."
D is for Down Under.
All three Matrix films were largely filmed in Sydney, Australia. "There was a certain look that we established in the first film that we wanted to carry through in the next two," explains production designer Owen Paterson. Arriving Down Under in September 2001, the cast remained there until last August. Shooting both Reloaded and Revolutions simultaneously for a reported cost of US400 million (S$510mil), the production occupied six soundstages and required 150 sets be built, including the interiors of four subways. But filming wasn't limited to the soundstages. Parts of Sydney's city centre were closed to allow for filming of a low-flying helicopter chase. For two days, office buildings were evacuated to accommodate the shoot.
E is for Expectations.
Visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta didn't have high hopes for The Matrix. "We thought it was going to be a weird alternative film," he recalls. "that took all the pressure off us because we thought it was too strange for the mainstream." How wrong they were. Not only did The Matrix earn US$459 Million (S$780mil) worldwide, it became the first DVD title to sell a million copies. Now the challenge is to top the original and wow the audiences with something new. If Gaeta is feeling the burden of expectation, he's not showing it. He's confident that fans will embrace this latest chapter. "After reading the script. I thought that this was just an outrageous and wild extension of the story. All we had to do was follow the blueprint that the directors had laid out."
F is for Freeway finale.
Reloaded contains a climactic freeway chase that reportedly makes anything in Speed look like a Sunday drive. Rather than shoot on a regular freeway, the producers chose to build their own at a deserted naval base in California. One segment from the trailer that has fans all revved up shows a rogue agent leaping onto a moving car's bonnet, crushing the vehicle and then hounding away. One Newsweek reporter who was shown the full 15-min sequence concluded that it is "the most audaciously conceived, thrillingly executed car chase sequence ever filmed."
G is for Getups
Carrie-Ann Moss didn't mind squeezing into Trinity's skintight leather jumpsuits. "What's so wonderful is that as soon as I slip into my outfit, I'm Trinity. My costumes give me a big part of my character." That was always the intention of costume designer Kym Barrett who adds that in Reloaded, "Carrie-Ann's character is in love, so her costumes show off more of her feminine attributes." But Moss will have some competition in the sexy stakes front Italian stunner Monica Bellucci (right) who plays the enigmatic temptress Persephone. "Monica doesn't need a dress to look sexy," notes Barrett. "You could put her in a plastic bag and she'd look gorgeous."
H is for Halfway
Consider this a warning: Reloaded has a cliffhanger ending. To see how things pan out, you'll have to queue up for the final instalment, The Matrix Revolutions, when it opens in November. Producer Silver tells fans not to think of the movies as two separate adventures. "It is one enormous movie that's been cut in half."
I is for Injuries.
All that bullet-dodging, high-flying action comes at a price. As Laurence Fishburne explains: "People don't understand how physically taxing all this work is. When we fight each other, we're often making contact and walking away bruised." Hugo Weaving, however, was ready to roll with the punches. "The first time we were all pretty shocked at how difficult and dangerous the training was. I really had to force myself to get through it. I think we were a bit more prepared for it this time around." Well, not everybody. While rehearsing a stunt for Reloaded, Carrie-Ann Moss landed badly. For the next six weeks she had to rehearse her scenes with a broken leg.
J is for John Gaeta
He's the F/X whiz who, along with his team tech wizards, bucked the odds and beat out Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to bag the Best Visual Effects Oscar in 1999. "No one even considered that a possibility," he laughs. But don't expect him to be gracious about his fellow nominee. He still considers the last Star Wars adventures "very boring and not very good-looking film".
K is for the Keymaker
Pivotal to Reloaded's plot the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim, left) can access all of the doors into the Matrix. If the rebels are to defeat their cyber captors, they need this guy. "You've always got to look for parallels in the way your computer operates." instructs Silver. "Your computer has a program that holds your passwords, and that's the Keymaker's role."
L is for love
The sexual chemistry between Neo and Trinity finally ignites in Reloaded. Although the trailer includes a kiss between the two (below), word has it that they also get it on during a stopover in Zion.
M is for Matching meanies
Apart front the duplicate Agent Smiths, Neo also squares off against the silver-coated Twins played by karate pros - and real-life twin brothers - Neil and Adrian Rayment. Charged with guarding the Keymaker, these guys have the ability to disappear at will and can morph into different forms.
N is for Newcomers
Jada Pinkest-Smith (right) joins the cast as Niobe, a rebel warrior and ex-flame of Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus. Also signing on is Ali star Nona Gaye (Marvin's daughter) who plays freedom fighter Zee, a role originally intended for Aaliyah, the R&B singer who died in a plane crash in 2001. Of her character, Gaye notes, "She wants to make sure that what she considers sacred is kept safe." Chiming in, Fishburne adds, "And she can really kick ass."
O is for Oracle
Gloria Foster, who played the sage Oracle in The Matrix, died from diabetes complications last September after shooting her scenes for Reloaded. In typically cryptic fashion. Keanu Reeves explains the Oracle's role in the latest adventure: "Neo's told by the Oracle that he has some choices that he'll have to make that will affect the survival of the human race. And there are some hard choices." Although Foster was expected to appear in Revolutions, a quick rewrite now, has her character returning in a different form.
P is for Philosophy.
If there's one message Reloaded's producer and cast want to drive home, it's this: scratch beneath the cyber-sleek surface of The Matrix films and you'll find something much deeper. "They deal with philosophical notions of reality," advises producer Joel Silver. "It's an oxymoron, but we've made a smart action movie." Given that the Hollywood titan gave us such bullets-and-bombs actioners such as Exit Wounds, Romeo Must Die and the Lethal Weapon series, he adds, "I guess I'm responsible for a number of dumb action pictures in my life."
In some colleges, philosophy lecturers have been screening The Matrix to introduce head-spinning theories about reality and religion to their students. Not that Keanu Reeves is interested in such matters. "In terms of doing an academic discussion... I don't have the facility to do that."
Q is for quest
Much of Reloaded's plot follows Neo's journey from reluctant hero to exalted saviour. "Neo has changed," says Reeves. "He's a lot more in control of his powers. But the Wachowski brothers have put up some great obstacles to test those powers. The story starts to go outside the matrix and starts to concern itself with the machines and Zion. He's still on the path of discovery."
R is for Revolutions
Although little is known about the final chapter in The Matrix trilogy. visual-effects hotshot John Gaeta hints that it'll involve "all these battles and some epic real-world confrontations." Unlike Reloaded, which takes place in The Matrix, most of the action in Revolutions occurs in the scorched ruins of Zion.
S is for sequels
The way producer Joel Silver tells it, the Wachowski brothers always conceived The Matrix as a trilogy. "They had the whole story down," he informs. "With Revolutions, the story they wanted to tell has ended." Could the franchise continue after Revolutions? "I don't know. It gives you the impression that it might be able to. but I don t know if we want to."
T is for Trade-off
In a move that shocked Hollywood, Keanu Reeves reportedly sacrificed a large chunk of his acting fee and poured the money back into the production so the filmmakers didn't have to scrimp on the visual F/X. When asked about the generous move, the actor buries his head in his hands and turns to producer Joel Silver for help. On cue, Silver advises that the sequels "were very difficult to make. During the process, a lot of things were done and discussed, but we're very happy with the way it all worked out."
U is for urgency
Racing against time, Neo and the rebel leaders have only 72 hours until the machines tunnel their way into Zion and blow away the remaining human survivors. Further cranking up the tension, a ticking clock counts down the hours.
V is for videogame
Part of Reloaded's marketing blitz includes the release of Enter the Matrix, a videogame that takes you into the heart of the virtual universe. To ensure the look and plot of the game were consistent with the films, the Wachowski brothers not only wrote the game's script, they also directed the action. "The games will consume the story," explains production designer Owen Paterson. "We shot film sequences with the actors that will go directly into the game."
W is for Wachowski brothers
Andy Wachowski, 35, and older brother Larry, 37, became Hollywood's go-to guys after their kinky-cool 1996 thriller Bound earned critical raves. But if you want to talk to the writing-directing siblings, you'll have to get in line. The pair refuse to meet the press or do interviews. "They don't want to have to explain anything or identify what they're about," says producer Silver. "They let the movie do that."
And they let their cast do it, too. Laurence Fishburne reveals that the brothers "have a secret code that exists between them. They're not very verbal. Generally Larry will take the camera and Andy will stand by the monitor. It's almost like every shot is already in their heads and it's inconvenient to have to actually film it."
X is for X-Large.
For Carrie-Ann Moss, size matters. Not an off-the-rack kinda girl, during the shoot the 35-year-old wore four custom-made sets of leather pants of various sizes. "One's a beauty fit. That's for standing and looking good. One's an action fit so that I can have flexibility, they have gussets in them so I can kick and run. And then there's a really big pair so I can put a wire underneath. I can't really say that I'm really ever that uncomfortable. Or maybe I'm just used to it now."
Y is for Yo-yos.
We're talking human yo-yos here, To perform the gravity, defying, wall-walking fight scenes, the actors spent hours suspended from wires and being flung about the sets. Being the newbie on set, Jada Pinkest-Smith soon got the, er, hang of it. "I was filming my fight scene with Keanu and I saw him soaking in a tub of ice," she recalls. "I thought, 'What is he doing?' After two days on those wires, I could not move my body. I was so swollen and so sore. That's when I knew what the ice was for."
Z is for Zion
Hidden deep in the Earth's core, Zion is the only city where humans can roam free. Judging by the sets we saw on our visit, though, it's not a very inviting place. Part industrial junkyard, part Batcave, Zion's sense of freedom may be its only selling point. And it's not a place production designer Owen Paterson wants to return to soon. This set caused some major headaches for the artist. "It's such a large set because the needed to fit in 800 extras. On top of that, you've got people wearing diaphanous costumes and all these flames and torches everywhere."
As fiery as things got on the Zion set, the release of The Matrix Reloaded next month looks set to generate some real heat. If you believe the hype, this sci-fi sequel will set new standards in terms of visual F/X. "We are all aware that we are involved in something that is absolutely history-making," asserts Laurence Fishburne. "Reloaded is going to be remembered as a monumental advance in the history of filmmaking."
We're impressed. Or, as Keanu might say: "Whooooa."