Reeves against the machine
Keanu is back battling Agent Smith and his minions in this year's hottest film. Garry Maddox plugs himself into The Matrix Reloaded.
Only occasionally did the action spill into the streets of Sydney. Except for the odd night or weekend shoot - including a camera-equipped helicopter swooping over the business district - filming the two sequels to The Matrix largely took place behind the nondescript brick walls of Fox Studios.
The security was so tight - to prevent leaks about two of the year's most anticipated films - that scripts were printed in black on purple paper with the receiver's name stamped over it. Try photocopying that!
After redefining the sci-fi blockbuster with The Matrix, Chicago-born brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski set new standards for filmmaking endurance and technical complexity with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
The $US300 million ($476 million) sequels, in which Keanu Reeves battles to save humanity as the hacker-turned-saviour, Neo, took 270 days to shoot and involved plenty of pain.
Carrie-Anne Moss, who returns as the leather-clad Trinity, broke a leg training for a wire stunt. Laurence Fishburne, who is the ultra-cool Morpheus, needed a cast on his wrist after another training accident.
And Hugo Weaving, the malevolent Agent Smith, injured a disc in his neck while being yanked backwards on a wire.
While Reeves avoided anything too serious, he would have felt the pain after 93 takes of one fight scene alone. During the training for the shoot, he would sit in a bathtub full of ice to ease the hurt.
"It was relentless," says the Australian executive producer, Grant Hill. Weaving says it was "really draining on a lot of people".
Think about how long it usually takes to make a film. An Australian feature with a budget between $3 million and $10 million will shoot for 25 to 50 days. Reloaded and Revolutions shot for 209 days in Sydney alone.
There were also two shoots in California - one for a freeway chase on a specially constructed stretch of road, the other for miniatures.
Then there were the visual effects that set new standards in the first film.
Where there were 412 such shots in The Matrix, there are more than 1000 in Reloaded, including Neo battling 100 Agent Smiths, Neo flying at 3000 kmh over the Matrix megacity and the 14-minute freeway chase involving two martial arts battles.
When it was released in 1999, The Matrix became a worldwide hit nd won four Oscars. Fans responded to the engaging story about a computer hacker who learns that his reality has been constructed by machines that want to eliminate humans.
They enjoyed the movie's action-film pace, the philosophical reflections, the cool style and stunning visual effects.
In Reloaded, Neo has to protect the last safe haven for humanity, Zion, from a horde of 250,000 attacking "Sentinels".
"The second film is really a personal quest for Neo," Reeves says. "He's going through a process of trying to come to terms with what he's been asked to do. He's on a further quest for the truth and this means he has to fight harder than before and confront visions of the future."
Despite the gruelling shoot, Weaving loved working with the Wachowskis again.
"I'm always fascinated by their minds and their imaginations and their ability to bring that imagination to some sort of concrete reality," he says. Then he offers a hint about what these enigmatic characters are like.
"If they walked in the room and sat down, you'd have a couple of umming and ahing, slightly geeky, shuffling kind of guys, in shorts and baseball caps probably, and they wouldn't say much," he says.
"If you went out and had a meal, you'd learn a bit more about them. You'd have a drink and they'd start chatting and you'd think these guys are really smart.
"But they're definitely human beings. They've got their feet on the ground.
I find them very entertaining and warm and had a lot of laughs."
Hill, who ran day-to-day production for the Wachowskis, knows all about tough films to make. He worked on the famously troubled Titanic, which survived production problems, studio politicking and budget blow-outs before breaking box-office records around the world and winning 11 Oscars.
He describes the Matrix sequels as "the most complex visual effects project undertaken" for the screen, including even The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"What makes it so relentless is firstly the fact that you're doing two movies together," says Hill. "The two movies are also very complex and you're filming over a long period of time on two continents.
"Then you've got all the multimedia platforms being done, which all tie-in."
As well as the video game Enter the Matrix, the tie-ins include the nine animated shorts that make up The Animatrix and a website that fleshes out the story in the soon-to-be trilogy.
While they are famously reluctant to talk about the films, the Wachowskis also felt the pain.
"The last three or four weeks prior to the handover of the first movie were pretty hectic, with last-minute visual effects and sound fixes and whatever," says Hill. "After working for three years, they finally got to finish a movie. On Friday night about 11, they got to go home and have a few drinks on Saturday, sleep Sunday then come in on Monday and pick up the new one."
The trilogy will close - and the Wachowskis can rest - when Revolutions is released in November.
Even the costuming for the Matrix sequels was a major project. Australian costumer designer Kym Barrett, who worked on the original Matrix as well as Romeo + Juliet and Three Kings, spent 700 days on the sequels. Barrett says her job was more technical this time around.
"The more money you get, the more political things are," she says. "You can't kind of hide away and scribble down pictures."
Barrett enjoyed the invention that was going on everywhere.
She had to create different fabrics to look identical under varying conditions. Neo's outfit was a lighter fabric when he had to fly.
He had another fabric when he was being soaked by rain and yet another when he had to fight.
While her outfit is usually patent leather, Moss needed a different fabric when she showed her kung-fu expertise. And sexy rubber clothes had to be created for Monica Bellucci, who plays the temptress Persephone.
Barrett says audiences rely on costumes to fill in the gaps when it comes to characters.
"His costume this time tells us that Neo has moved on," she says. "He's now got a focus, a mission. It's constructed so that it makes him stand up straight, it makes him feel more confident. I try to do that with all the characters, mirror the way their character has evolved."