Enter the 'Matrix' – again
Two sequels to the unexpected blockbuster come out this year with one goal: to amp up the original's 'Wow!' factor.
by Barry Koltnow
Halfway through the filming of "The Matrix," actor Laurence Fishburne was resting in his trailer when there was a knock at the door. It was a messenger carrying a gift from the film's writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski.
The gift was a bottle of champagne with a note attached.
"One down, two to go," the note read.
Mind you, this was long before the movie was completed. Long before it went on to make $460 million at the worldwide box office in 1999 and to become the first film to sell 1 million DVDs. Long before "The Matrix" would revolutionize the action-movie genre and influence fashion, TV commercials, music videos and countless other movies that followed. Long before it would transcend into a genuine pop culture phenomenon.
And certainly long before it would spawn not one but two sequels, the first of which, "The Matrix Reloaded," opens Thursday with an anticipation level that rivals an early "Star Wars" sequel. The last part of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions," will hit theaters in November.
"The boys (Wachowski brothers) always intended it as a trilogy," producer Joel Silver said recently in his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. "They had the whole story written out on yellow pads before we even got started on the first movie."
The reason for the brothers' unbridled optimism is anyone's guess. The notoriously press- shy filmmakers aren't talking (see related story on Page 5).
But an informal survey of the trilogy's stars - Fishburne, Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss - indicated that there was a general sense of optimism on the set of the first movie from the beginning.
In fact, all three said they agreed to return for the sequels even before they saw a finished script.
"We all came back for the brothers," Moss said. "We came back for the story. We came back for the movie. You have to be a part of it to understand it. They (the brothers) really inspire people to want to show up for them."
In the new film, Moss returns as the tough, leather-clad Trinity who again teams with Morpheus (Fishburne) to help Neo (Reeves) save the human race from the machines. There also is a serious love connection between Neo and Trinity.
Just in case you came late to the "Matrix" party, the Wachowskis have created a world in which humans have been enslaved by machines. In the first film, Reeves' character is a hacker who learns that the world as he knows it is a computer-generated simulation. Humans, used as an energy source by the machines, are literally hooked into an artificial reality system (the Matrix).
There are a group of determined, unhooked humans fighting the machines, and some of them believe that Neo is their savior. They call him The One.
In the second film, Neo has firmly embraced his role as The One, and he embarks on a desperate mission that he must complete before an army of mechanized sentinels wipes out Zion, the underground city that is home to the unplugged humans.
This film expands on the original in many ways, with "Thunderdome-like" crowd scenes in Zion and "Star Wars-like" scenes aboard the ships. But don't fret; there are still enough stylized fighting scenes, mind-boggling effects and Eastern-inspired philosophy to fill two "Matrix" movies. In fact, they do.
Each sequel is half a film. "The Matrix Reloaded" ends abruptly in a cliffhanger, with a more satisfying ending promised in the next sequel. The sequels were filmed simultaneously in Australia in a grueling 270-day shoot at a cost of more than $300 million.
"It was a tremendous cost- saving to do both movies at the same time," Silver said. "Each film cost about twice what the original cost, but it would have cost at least 50 percent more if we had shot the two sequels at different times."
It wasn't just the actors' salaries that inflated the costs of the sequels, although Reeves' reported $30 million paycheck didn't exactly keep down costs.
A large part of the budget - estimated at more than $100 million - went to pumping up the "Wow!" factor.
MASTER OF EFFECTS
As visual-effects supervisor on the three "Matrix" films, John Gaeta is in charge of the "Wow!" factor.
He won an Oscar for his "Wow!" factor in the first film. For the sequels, he headed an army of about 1,000 people whose sole mission in life is to make audiences say "Wow!" when they see the movie. They created more than 1,000 effects for "Reloaded," compared with 412 effects for the original.
"The "Wow!" factor is pretty much self-imposed," the effects wizard explained in his trailer. "I challenge myself to do something better than I did before. I don't even go to most effects movies anymore because I find them redundant. The way I approach a project is to figure out how I'm going to twist it to make it different."
In the first film, Gaeta and his army created an effect known as "Bullet Time," a revolutionary concept in which 120 Nikon cameras were placed around a scene. They fired in sequence, with digital technology added to fill in the blanks. At the time, it was considered state-of-the-art technology.
For the sequels, Gaeta said, the bar had to be raised considerably, not only to satisfy the expectations of the audience but to motivate the visual effects team.
"The type of people involved in these movies are only interested in doing original work," he said. "Four years after the first movie, they would never consider doing something that went over old ground. They would never take the easy way out."
Because the technology didn't exist to fulfill all the visions of the filmmakers, Gaeta and his team had to invent their own technology.
"Bullet Time" looks outdated compared to the concept of "Universal Capture," a process used in the sequel to create virtual humans so that Neo can battle 100 Agent Smiths. (Yes, he was killed at the end of the first film, but he's back and he's picked up a nifty ability to create more Agent Smiths.)
In reality, Reeves is fighting nine stuntmen. The rest of the Agent Smiths were manufactured.
"When you start a project like this," Gaeta said, "you first take a risk assessment. You need to assess how far out of control the objective is, how long we have to do it and are we going to be financed.
"I have seen a lot of scripts get knocked out of any hope of being done because the writers didn't realize that they were describing something that would cost millions and millions of dollars or would be impossible to do because of the existing technology.
"That didn't happen with the Wachowskis. They had a clear vision of what they wanted, and they gave us total freedom to make that vision a reality."
Gaeta said the Wachowski brothers and the effects people who worked on the films share a philosophy about the movies they make. They also share a philosophy about the people who see their movies.
"From the first movie on, we never thought of our fans as the average mainstream audience. Our audience is the movie audience that has been largely neglected for the last 20 years.
"Because of the movies that Hollywood has been turning out, people have come to believe that big visual effects blockbuster-type movies are light fare. They see them as easy summer popcorn movies.
"That thinking ignores an audience that loves science fiction movies with trippy, futuristic storylines. Hollywood used to make movies like that. They were just called movies - movies that happened to have special effects in them. Now, all people talk about are special-effects movies.
"We set out to make movies that happen to have effects in them. Some people have called them smart movies, but we just call them movies."
ENTER THE MATRIX
Reeves, 38, underwent six months of intense physical training before filming began on the two sequels. That included two hours of stretching each day.
"It wasn't real kung fu, but it was real stretching," the actor said. "And that was no joke. I'm talking about stretching with 20-pound sandbags on your legs and people pushing on you."
Reeves said he already was in pretty good shape from the last "Matrix" film, but concentrated on advanced choreography for the sequels.
Moss also planned to train for six months before the start of the filming, but she broke her leg during the first week of training. She was out of commission for eight weeks.
"It turned out to be a good thing," the actress said, "because it made me aware that even in a movie, you can get hurt."
Moss said the actors on the first film knew they were making something special but no one imagined that "The Matrix" would become a cultural phenomenon.
"I was very proud to be in that movie," she said. "But I wasn't sure it would do anything for my career. I thought I might have to waitress again.
"The first time I realized that it was going to be big was at a Super Bowl party I had at my house. I showed a 10-minute trailer of the movie to my friends and I could tell something was up from the looks on their faces. I felt very cool after that."
In fact, "The Matrix" has defined cool since its release four years ago. That cool factor has only been enhanced by the coming arrival of the two sequels. Last December, Newsweek magazine declared 2003 "The Year of the Matrix."
Such unabashed enthusiasm in the media has led some skeptics to accuse the studio of over-hyping the sequels, a charge that Silver adamantly denies.
"I read about our so-called marketing blitz, and it drives me crazy," the producer said. "There are no lunch boxes or Happy Meals tied to this movie.
"When Newsweek put out that cover, that was their call. We had nothing to do with that. We were very concerned about overexposure. We released one teaser last May, one Super Bowl spot and then the trailers, which started a few weeks ago. That's it.
"We decided right at the beginning that we would make ourselves the cool police. And we kept to that. Anything else out there is someone else's hype."