The Neo Wave
by Daniel Fierman
New heroes rise, Keanu flies, and Agent Smith multiplies. We hack into the mainframe for the inside story on the summer's next wild action tsunami.
"I'm not supposed to show this to you. But f--- 'em." Joel Silver is a bearded, giggly man. When he's excited, his knees bounce, his voice rises, and curses tumble out pell-mell. And here, frantically searching his gleaming office on Warner Bros.' Burbank lot for a certain set of facts and figures that will demonstrate just how big The Matrix Reloaded is going to be, his body is a dervish of small movements. After some scrounging, he locates his eyeglasses and peers at papers spread across a desk. "There, see!" says the producer, jabbing a thick finger at columns of members. "Look at that! As of Monday, April 28, there's 95 percent awareness of the movie. And it opens in three weeks! There's 89 percent definite interest. Those numbers are unheard of! Spider-Man at this date was the first choice of 21 percent of moviegoers. We're 30. Already! When these numbers hit, on that phone"- he stops to finally take a breath - and wave a hand over all unholy array of extensions – "all the f---in' bells went off with people saying that its the highest tracking ever seen! It's going to be huge!"
Please. As if we needed Joel Silver and his fancy facts and figures to tell us that.
The Matrix is the most influential action movie of its generation. This is not hyperbole. It isn't even a stretch. The story - in a future where machines have enslaved humans in a virtual reality called the Matrix, a hacker named Neo discovers that his destiny is to lead the resistance - had seismic impact. And since the movie's release in March 1999, every 360-degree sweep of a camera, every black-clad hero, every sexy yet deadly heroine, every bullet rippling slowly through the air, is a rip-off that can be traced back to writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski. They made Carrie-Anne Moss. ("I had no career before," says the actress. "None.") They inspired the most slavish fan worship this side of Star Wars. They triggered countless pale imitations and dull-witted parodies. They were hailed as geniuses, and for a brief, mad moment, they were even blamed for the shootings at Columbine High School.
"Larry and Andrew shared some of their e-mails and showed me how it was being discussed on the Internet," says star Keanu Reeves, "'that's where I started to see [how big the movie was], which was a ways after it came out."
"Oh, God, it was everywhere," laughs Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, a leader of the human rebels. "You just think about the concept of Bulletproof Monk. And The One. Remember that movie? Jet Li is ... THE ONE!" Says Moss, who plays Neo's tough girlfriend, Trinity: "Every once in a while I'll go, 'Wow! I'm like the girl hero, right? You know, in a really important movie!' to a friend or my husband [actor Steven Roy] and they'll say, 'Yeah'.' Of course, right now" - she pats her six months' pregnant belly – "I'm just amazed I ever fit into that costume." To no one's surprise, the Wachowskis' encore - two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (opening May 15) and The Matrix Revolutions (Nov. 7) - instantly became the most anticipated movies of 2003.
It's lost to history now, but 1999 was supposed to be the year that George Lucas redefined the sci-fi film with the return of Star Wars. Then The Matrix - that dizzying pastiche of Hong Kong kung fu, Japanese anime, American comic books, and religious texts from the Bible to Tao-te Ching - changed all that, grossing $171 million domestically, $460 million worldwide, and making minor celebrities out of the Wachowskis. The strange thing was that the two Chicago natives - Larry is 37; Andy, 35 - wanted no part of major celebrity, let alone the minor strain, and suddenly What is the Matrix? seemed far less important than Who are the men who made it?
"They have different brains. And it's funny, because different cast members will take to one or the other," says Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays a freedom fighter named Niobe in the sequels. (She's also the star of the tie-in videogame, Enter the Matrix, which features an hour of original footage.) "I took to Larry. Love Andy, you know what I'm saying? But I really took to Larry. Larry is one of the most intelligent people that I've ever had the pleasure of sitting down and having a conversation with. You know, besides maybe Cornel West. Or even Sister Souljah." "Please," says Neil Rayment, who, along with brother Adrian, plays one of two identical chalk-white baddies in Reloaded. "They're more like twins than we are." But for all the stories about the brothers (they started out as high-end carpenters; Andy likes comic books, Larry likes philosophy; Andy has a dry sense of humor, Larry takes the lead on set), they now exist in a fog of Kubrickian secrecy, declining interviews, rebuffing any efforts to get them to explain themselves or what the dense tangle of philosophy, mythology, and other literary and filmic references in The Matrix means.
"They're not hugely forthcoming, to be perfectly honest. They certainly didn't get us all together and say; 'Here's all these things you need to understand,'" says Hugo Weaving, who plays the diabolical Agent Smith. "Keanu, Laurence, Carrie-Anne, and I needed to sit down and talk to them about 'What does this mean? And what's the link between this and that? And which German philosophers do we need to read in order to comprehend this?'"
"And everything is in their head. Everything. From the day I got the script, not a line of it changed. Not. A. Line," says Moss. "And that stereotypical discussion, 'Oh, they finish each other's sentences! One's taller! And one's this and the other's that!' is just bulls---. They're just great filmmakers."
According to almost everyone involved, the brothers just wanted to create a world that was entertaining as well as intellectually dense, without offering simple answers to anything. "We're interested in mythology, archetypes, and trying to reinvestigate them in a modern context," Larry Wachowski explained to EW just before the release of the first film. "We tried to put in enough fun stuff [so] that if you don't want to look at it any deeper there's still great action. We like kickboxing. We like guns. We like blowing stuff up. We like action movies. But we always wanted more from them."
There are pages. Legendary yellow, lined pages that hold the key to the world of the Matrix. After director Richard Donner significantly altered their screenplay for 1995's Assassins, the Wachowski brothers began work on what was to be a new graphic novel. They sketched out the plot on a bundle of yellow paper.
"They had the whole thing," remembers Silver. "The whole story. And finally they said it would really be better as a movie than as a comic book. Which was good news for me!" Silver showed the idea to Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Warner Bros.' then president of production, who signed off on a $65 million budget (with co-financer Village Roadshow) on the strength of the Wachowskis' first effort behind the camera, the 1996 lesbian noir thriller Bound. And many expected that to be the end of the tale. (Warner Bros., like EW is owned by AOL Time Warner.)
"We couldn't believe they gave us all that money. We just knew that there would never be another two, that nobody was going to go see [the first] movie," says cinematographer Bill Pope, who has worked with the Wachowskis since Bound. "Well, we were wrong."
Sure were. And when the sequels were greenlit, the brothers pulled out that legal pad and constructed the screenplays for Reloaded and Revolutions - which are basically one big movie about the final war between man and machine. The stars signed on again (Reeves earned $30 million for both movies, against 15 percent of the box office gross) without even seeing the scripts. "It's the first time I've done that," says Fishburne. "And it pretty much goes without saying that [secrecy is an issue] when you get a script and it comes to you and its got FISHBURNE in big block letters going diagonally across it and a serial number on it." (Though that didn't stop a couple of bogus screenplays from appearing on fan websites. "The brothers read 'em," says Silver. "One of 'em was actually not that bad!")
After a year of preproduction, the two-movie shoot began in March 2001. By all accounts, it was a trial: 270 days that spanned hemispheres and the full cycles of life - weddings and breakups, births and deaths. "The Matrix is primal somehow, and I think everyone believed in the mission of making it." says Reeves. "So we were willing to go as far as it takes."
For starters, that meant four month, of martial-arts training at the hands of kung fu wirework expert Master Yuen Wo Ping, during which Moss broke her leg and Fishburne brutally hyper-extended his wrist. Then the brothers began by shooting the final act of Reloaded: the climactic 14-minute car chase that makes the lobby shoot-'em-up at the end of the first film look like Strawberry Shortcake Meets the Berrykins.
"You need about a mile and a half of freeway to shoot a good car chase," explains Silver. "We couldn't find it. So we built it." At a cost of $1 million, the freeway - complete with on-ramps, exits, and overpasses - was constructed on an old naval base in Alameda, Calif., over the course of three months. Asked what it was like to stand on this bit of home-brewed asphalt, Fishburne pauses, arches an eyebrow, and offers a wicked grin: "You like to drive?"
In exchange for some killer product placement, GM donated 220 cars for the scene. The Wachowskis wrecked half of them. (This is, by the way, only the tip of the merchandising iceberg. You've probably already seen the Powerade commercials. Expect others from Samsung and Heineken, and a flood of mouse pads, T-shirts, and assorted bric-a-brac. And that's to say nothing of the DVD collection of animated shorts, titled The Animatrix.) There's a sword fight on top of a moving semi. A motorcycle racing against traffic meticulously spaced to mimic congested highway patterns. Hand-to-hand combat in the back of a car. And crashes. Lots of crashes.
"Put it this way," says Silver, a man never prone to understatement. "A normal movie takes about 12 weeks. We shot up [in Alameda] for 12 weeks.... I always say people won't be able to copy us this time around because in the Burly Brawl, for example, some of the visual effects took two years to render. And if something takes two years to render, people can't copy it. No one is going to wait two years for a movie."
Ah, yes. The Burly Brawl. The affectionate handle for Reloaded's other action blowout. After completing the car chase, the brothers turned their attention to shooting Reeves, Weaving, and 12 stunt doubles for a scene in which Neo fights 100 Agent Smiths. So, how'd they pull it off? The simple version is that visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta and his crew developed new technology to create photo-realistic versions of Weaving, from pores to follicles. The result is a middle finger waved to everything from Shrek to Charlie's Angels; watching the scene, you can practically hear the Wachowskis and Gaeta whispering "Copy this, suckas."
For Reeves, though, it was all about following instruction from his fight master. "Wo Ping would put together a fight and put it on video, and the brothers would review it and come back with notes. They'd go back and forth until finally there was a right," says Reeves, who learned more than 500 moves for the 5 1/2-minute sequence. "It was choreographed like a dance."
After 27 days of shooting Smith and Co., the production basked in perpetual sun for a time, moving on to Sydney. Then things turned bad. First, singer Aaliyah - who was supposed to play a character named Zee - died in a plane crash. (She was replaced by Ali's Nona Gaye.) Then Gloria Foster - who played the Oracle, a rogue program within the Matrix that helps guide Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo - passed away from complications resulting from diabetes, after completing her role in Reloaded but not Revolutions.
"I was a wreck. They knew not to tell me if anything else happened. I didn't handle it well," says Moss. "We were far away from home and, well, it's a movie. And somehow when, you're doing a movie, you just don't think that those things can happen, which is ridiculous." Adds Fishburne: "The only good news is that Gloria is still in the movie. She's a great lady of the American theater and never really got her due, and she was very pleased about all the attention that she was getting as a result of The Matrix." (The Oracle will appear in Revolutions, but in a different form.)
Despite the emotional turmoil, the production carried on. No days were lost. No one stopped working. There were even moments of joy: Fishburne proposed to actress Gina Torres (who has a small role as Zee's sister), and castmate Neil Rayment designed their diamond-studded wedding bands. And through it all, the Wachowskis kept shooting what would turn out to be one of the most involved productions in Hollywood history. "I don't think there's a scene without an effects shot of some sort," says cinematographer Pope. "I mean, wires had to be removed, some door opened up to some place that didn't exist, people morphed into something else. You'll see." In the end, there were more than 1,000 effects shots in Reloaded. The first film had 412.
Even with all those fireworks, Silver says the final cost for the two sequels was a mere $300 million. "By doing them both at the same time, we saved a fortune. It breaks down to about $100 million in visual effects, $100 million in above-line costs, and $100 million in below-line costs," he says, referring to the money allocated for salaries and then for the actual production. "Those are good numbers to make two movies." Of course, it's his job to say that. Insiders claim that the budget for Reloaded and Revolutions ended up significantly higher than the studio and the producer are willing to admit.
Not that it matters, really. Sure, Joel Silver has good reason to show a journalist those tracking numbers. While there is no doubt The Matrix Reloaded is lusted after by all kinds of fans - young and old, male and female (but mostly young and male) - it is an R-rated movie, and the fact is, no R-rated movie has ever grossed more than $235 million domestically. (That would be 1984's Beverly Hills Cop.) And in Hollywood, you never know. Look at Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, which grossed $120 million less than Episode I - The Phantom Menace. For that matter, look at The Phantom Menace, an utter creative disappointment. Right?
But we're talking about The Matrix here - and the Matrix has everyone. No one doubts that Silver and Warner Bros. will make their money. Or that Reeves, Moss, and Fishburne will see their stars burn brighter. What is worth watching isn't box office, tie-ins, copycats, or Internet fansites. It's the Wachowski brothers themselves - and whether they have managed to craft something so insanely new as to alter the face of pop culture. Again.