How we reinvented The Matrix(also published as a longer version (by ~2,000 words) under the title 'Rage Against the Machines)
Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne take Mark Salisbury on a tour of the Australian and American sets of the year's most eagerly-awaited film
Keanu Reeves is screaming. Standing at the bottom of a 20-foot crater - all that remains of a sidewalk torn apart during a battle between two superpowerful foes - and drenched by four sprinklers that dump 10 tons of water on him per minute, the star of this year's most eagerly-awaited film lets out a disturbing, bowel-loosening cry. It echoes around Stage 2 at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, for what seems like an eternity and, give or take a few consonants, can be transcribed thus: AAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHH!
"Sometimes it's to raise my energy, and sometimes it's frustration," Reeves will explain almost a year later in Los Angeles. "It's a way of venting, expressing my frustration, at myself and at not being able to realise the event. This exclusively happens when I'm dealing with the action sequences, because I want to make it super-perfect."
In 1999's The Matrix, Reeves' Neo awoke to the fact that the world as he knew it was a computer-generated illusion designed to keep humanity blissfully unaware that it was being used as an energy source for a race of evil machines. By the end of the film, he had become The One, the long-awaited saviour expected to liberate mankind from The Matrix.
In The Matrix Reloaded (out this week), his abilities have transformed. "He's self-actualising inside The Matrix," says visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, who won an Oscar for the original. "He's superpowerful because he believes he is."
It's day 141 out of an eventual 270 in the 18-month production, during which both Reloaded and the final film The Matrix Revolutions are being shot. Reeves, in a black, full-length coat, is again facing Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the besuited machine-man. Today's scene (no. 764) forms part of the fierce fight at the climax of Revolutions.
For now, Reeves is just required to come into frame and utter four words - "Because I choose to" - his attitude implacable, his face impassive. And chiselled: training and a strict diet (including red meat if he were fighting; fish, rice and vegetables if not) have left him lean and seeming taller than his six feet.
Time and again he delivers the line with differing intonation, until writer-director brothers Larry Wachowski, 37, and Andy, 35, are satisfied not only with his performance but with the way the rain and lightning effects combine with it.
Between takes, Reeves confers with the filmmakers who sit slightly apart from the crew under a black-tented viewing station that houses their video monitors. Or else he stands alone beneath a heater, towel around his shoulders, a Do Not Disturb sign hung on his face. Occasionally he will disappear to a hot tub in which he sits, in costume, and tries to warm up.
As the day progresses, Reeves gets wetter still. Gallons of water continue to rain down (filtered out of the set through a drains in the floor, it will be treated and reused), and he is hit by a jet of thick orange liquid which simulates the effect of Smith coming up out of the ground.
It's while shooting this rather sticky session that Reeves' primal scream erupts - and who can blame him? They've been filming this sequence for a fortnight and still have a week or so to go. Every nuance, every emotion, every drop of water must be to the Wachowskis' liking. The sprinklers have even been fitted with nozzles to produce "chubby rain", fatter than normal drops, which, photographed in a certain way, will look like the dripping code of The Matrix.
"There's no extraneous movement, gesture, behaviour," Reeves says. "It's very pure. What they do in their films is like a samurai strike with a sword - one perfect gesture concentrated in that one moment. I got very familiar with what super-perfect meant."
Created by the Wachowskis, Chicago comic-book writers whose only previous movie was a lesbian film noir called Bound, The Matrix reinvented the sci-fi wheel in much the same way that Blade Runner, Star Wars and Metropolis had done before it.
"It was the first film to deliver on what comic books have always promised," says Laurence Fishburne, who returns as Morpheus, the rebel leader. The Matrix borrowed from Lewis Carroll, Greek mythology, Eastern religion, computer games, superhero comics, Peckinpah westerns and Japanese animation to create something unique.
"They took the best elements of all the things they liked and used them in such a way that it's not disrespectful," he says. "They live in the modern world, so they're taking all of the old stuff and trying to present it in a modern context."
Released a month before the much-hyped Phantom Menace, The Matrix made the Star Wars prequel look outdated. The Wachowskis' script captured the paranoia of the impending millennium and toyed with our notions of reality; they revelled in computer technology, creating gravity-defying stunts and the ground-breaking "bullet time" effect, all of which raised the bar on what action films could and should be.
"I've been involved in several that have helped redefine the genre," says Matrix producer Joel Silver, whose action hits include the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series, "but they all pale compared to The Matrix. The Matrix changed the way we see things."
The film grossed $460 million (£284 million) worldwide, making it Warner Bros' biggest hit until Harry Potter, and became the first DVD to sell a million units, so a sequel - or rather sequels, since the Wachowskis had always conceived of The Matrix as a trilogy - became inevitable.
"We were talking about the other movies when we were making the first," Silver says. "There was never a question of 'Would we make it?'. It was, 'How would we make it?' How much would it cost? Where would we do it?"
Still, the Wachowskis took some convincing. "There were a lot of conditions," Silver recalls. "They had been through a lot of difficult times on the first movie and wanted to not have those times again." While he won't specify what exactly, it has been reported that the brothers insisted on a no-press clause in their sequels contract.
The actors needed less persuasion. "I find the brothers to be extraordinary visionaries, and the material is something I'm in love with," Reeves says. "It made it very easy to go to work, to realise their dream."
Fishburne, like Reeves, signed up without reading a script: "I have faith in Larry and Andy. Morpheus could die in the first five minutes, and it would still be worthwhile. Because if he did, he'd go out in some way that was really smart, cool and different."
"All of us sort of embody at the core of our characters who we are as people," says Canadian actress Carrie-Anne Moss, who reprises her role as PVC-clad, kickass wonder woman Trinity. "I don't think there's any coincidence about that. Keanu's not quick to believe in anything. He has to go there intellectually, which I always used to tease him about, being very much like Neo. Whereas Trinity believes. That's me."
Reeves agrees: "There is something in the story of our lives that relates to the story of the film. I know when I met the brothers, they were seeking someone who related to the story they wanted to tell. I think they looked for that with everyone."
The decision to film both sequels simultaneously was an economic as well as creative one, saving money not only on the physical production but on salaries. "It's a very expensive movie, but by no means the cost of two giant movies," says Silver, who, like most of those involved, tends to think of Reloaded and Revolutions as one film split into two.
No one seems to be sure just how much the movies will actually cost. Back in February 2002, Silver put it at around $250 million. By November that had grown to $300 million-plus, including $100 million for visual effects.
Part of the reason for the increased budget was the extended shooting time. Due to finish at the end of May 2002, principal photography continued until August 21. Fishburne had been there before. "Apocalypse Now prepared me for this," he says, recalling his role in the Coppola classic aged 15.
When Reloaded begins, Zion - the last human city down near the Earth's core, mentioned but not seen in the original film - is under attack. "The underlying story is the defence of Zion," Weaving says, "and whether you protect it by fighting on the boundaries against the machines or whether you go out and discover what is behind it all." And so Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), re-enter The Matrix in pursuit of the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who holds the system passwords.
Along the way they encounter new foes, including the silver-clad albino duo known as Twin One and Twin Two, played by English actors Neil and Adrian Rayment, both Shotokan black belts. "They're your worst nightmare," says costume designer Kym Barrett. "They're extremely evil." Extremely cool, too. If ever a pair of villains were destined to become iconic, it's these guys. Their first feature film is a long way from their more familiar roles as DIY experts on ITV's Better Homes.
"They took these pale, blond, blue-eyed English lads and gave them dreadlocks and western motifs," Reeves says with delight. "They are outlaws of sorts, and they come across with this kind of rock 'n' roll feeling, which I think they realised to a T."
"We love being bad guys," says Neil. "All the bad guys get the best stuff - fast cars, neat clothes and great-looking girls... but we didn't get girls this time."
Then there's Agent Smith, who has managed to multiply himself like a virulent computer virus. "He's a free agent, if you like," says Weaving. "He's unplugged himself and is hiding in The Matrix the same way the Oracle is. His ego's growing, and with that comes the ability to multiply. I think by the end of the third film, he is meant to have populated the whole Matrix with himself."
In mute testament to this, 18 life-size Agent Smith dummies are lined up in rows around the Sydney soundstage. It's a disconcerting sight, not least for Weaving. "The first thing I thought was, 'I haven't lost that much hair, have I?"' he laughs. Over the course of the sequels we will discover who or what exactly the Oracle is. (Tragically the original Oracle, 64-year-old actress Gloria Foster, died of diabetes shortly after finishing her scenes for Reloaded.) We also meet the God figure. While his identity remains a secret, he could be Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), husband of the mysterious Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who, according to Silver, was created by the machines to "tempt Neo from his path".
"It's like she's a vampire," says Bellucci, who also appears in the Enter The Matrix video game sharing a kiss with Niobe that Pinkett Smith describes as "very sexy". "Persephone doesn't have feelings any more because she comes from an old Matrix, but it's impossible to lie to her because as soon as she touches you, she feels exactly what you feel."
All of which causes problems for Neo. "There's a scene where she asks of him something very personal," says Reeves, who was kissed by Bellucci in Dracula. "I don't want to give anything away, but she has a desire to experience a feeling she hasn't had, which involves the aspect of love or affection."
"There's a lot of love in this film," says Moss, whose character finally gets to go to bed with Neo in Reloaded. "I see it as a war film with a great deal of heart. You know, I'm not a girl who's real crazy about action. I'm more into love stories." It's normally around this point in a feature that you'd expect to hear from a film's director, but the Wachowskis refuse to talk to the media or be photographed for publicity purposes. Instead the brothers wish their work to speak for itself. "They don't want to explain or substantiate what they've done or how they've done it," says Silver, who has become their appointed voice. "They want the audience to accept it for what it is."
This resulted in unprecedented secrecy on the set. The walls of Gaeta's office were hastily covered with sheets of paper prior to my visit to conceal designs and drawings. Only about 120 key cast and crew members received a copy of the script, out of a total of 1,500. When I asked one member of the production team when he first met the Wachowskis, he became visibly troubled and refused to answer, lest he reveal anything personal. And forget about talking or saying hello to the brothers; while on set you are not even allowed to stand within 30 feet of them, or look at their monitors. "Larry and Andy, as people, are extremely shy," says Fishburne.
"For me Larry was the easiest to communicate with," says Pinkett Smith, Will Smith's wife, who had originally tried out for Trinity. "Andy seemed always to be in a serious mood, ready to get the work done. Andy could describe what he needed in the scene in a way most people would understand. Larry would describe things in sounds, like he'd go, 'When you walk into the room I need you to look like' (she imitates the sound of two explosions). I got that because I love comic books and Japanese animation; I knew what his language was. Whereas Laurence might look at him like, 'I don't get it; you've got to explain it to me more.'" For Reeves and Moss, work began back in October 2000 with six months of physical training in a converted aircraft hangar in Santa Monica, California, under the eye of Yuen Wo Ping, the acclaimed Hong Kong director and fight coordinator who choreographed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The rest of the main cast, save Pinkett Smith, who had just had a baby, joined training a month in. As before, the Wachowskis expected their actors to do most of the fight scenes. "The brothers don't want the stunt people to do anything unless it's really dangerous," says Moss, who broke her right leg in the second week of training. "I was on the wire and I had a bad landing. But it healed well. I had eight weeks to recover from that."
She wasn't the only one injured: Fishburne hurt a wrist and Weaving suffered whiplash when he didn't tuck his head properly during a wire manoeuvre.
Once filming began, on March 26, 2001, the actors were encouraged to go to the set every day, even when they weren't filming, to continue to train. Reeves, who has seven fights in the sequels, says: "The first film was like walking, the second one's gymnastics." Indeed, Moss was concerned about Reeves' well-being: "The pressure was on him. He pushed himself beyond pushing himself."
"I didn't suffer," Reeves insists. "Yeah, there's bruising and blood and kicks and concussions and you can't sleep because your legs ache and you cry when you're stretching and you're in ice baths and you're lonely and you miss your friends and your family and you're trying to keep it together and you're trying to live and fight and create for the next day. It's like going out to sea, man, you don't know where you are and how you are, but you want to keep going, you want to be alive."
After the most complicated fight sequence, says Pinkett Smith, Reeves bought each of the stuntmen involved a Harley-Davidson. Prior to the Australian leg of the shoot, the team took over a former naval base in Alameda, California, to film three major sequences. For Reloaded's climactic chase, the studio built a two-mile stretch of freeway on the base at a cost of $1 million. For almost five weeks the main unit shot what Fishburne calls "the car chase to end all car chases", involving several hundred cars, trucks, agents, police, Neo in the air, and kung fu in and on top of moving vehicles. This takes place in The Matrix - the usual physical laws don't apply.
Remember the way the glass rippled on the side of the skyscraper when the helicopter crashed into it? Expect more of that trippy stuff this time, especially in Revolutions, when The Matrix is in decay. "We spent a lot of time trying to develop a unique look for destruction," says Gaeta.
The freeway chase required Moss to ride a high-performance motorcycle against on-coming traffic at 40 miles per hour without a helmet and with Duk Kim on the back. Moss, who doesn't like motorcycles, took months to get there, working up from small models to a Ducatti 996. "I still get stressed out when I think about it," she says nearly two years later. "If I mess up on that bike, I'm dead and the guy on the back is dead." Even the day before the shoot, Moss wasn't sure she could do it. She recalls: "My lawyer, my family, were saying, 'This is ridiculous, you've got no helmet. That's crazy. What if you fall off? What if you die?' It took everything I had to do it. I've never been so scared in my life."
In Sydney the focus of the tech team is a massive blue screen measuring 120 feet high, 150 feet across, crisscrossed by positioning lines and fluorescent orange balls used to triangulate the position of the camera in relation to what is being filmed. This is the Egg, designed to produce the Holy Grail of visual effects: believable flying.
"It's the hardest thing ever," says Gaeta, who is supervising six effects houses producing more than 2,000 shots for both movies (the first film had just over 400). Gaeta even hired a zero-gravity NASA aircraft (the infamous Vomit Comet) and took to the air with Wo Ping's martial arts team and a camera crew to see what weightless kung fu looked like.
Although it doesn't look like it as he is being drenched yet again in the Egg, for Reeves these films are, on one level, about boyhood dreams come true. He has, with the Matrix trilogy, become the ultimate comic-book hero made flesh.
For one flying sequence, he recalls being strapped into a harness, suspended 30 feet in the air, before being propelled forward, just like Superman. "Yeah. It was a f**king good day," he grins wildly, remembering what it was like to be a kid "jumping off of garage roofs with umbrellas to see if I could float, jumping from roof to roof across alley-ways, that weightlessness, that physical joy."
But every superhero must come down to earth. "Do I think I had a bit of that physical joy? Yeah, I did," says Reeves. "Then, of course" - he affects the Wachowski brothers' singular voice – "'You didn't land quite right'. I would wake up from my dream and come to the harsh realities of the demands of flying in a movie."
Super-perfection doesn't come easy.
The Bullet Ballet
For Reloaded the Wachowski brothers didn't want Neo to fight a single adversary, writes Ron Magid. They expected him to take on 100. The original bullet-time process employed 120 Nikon still cameras firing in sequence, with lots of digital interpolation to simulate the missing frames. But John Gaeta soon realised that was too "labour intensive" for Reloaded.
"We had all these characters doing layered, complex, and absolutely impossible choreography, which required virtual humans," he says.
To create them, Gaeta and Kim Libreri, the visual-effects supervisor at ESC, built a gigantic motion-capture stage, then let Yuen Wo Ping go wild, pitting Reeves against Weaving and 11 stuntmen. This was then edited and multiplied. "We created this ultimate clip-and-paste library," Gaeta says, "then assembled the bits into layers of action with Neo as the epicentre."
Next, Libreri's team put five Sony 900 HD cameras in a semicircle round each actor's face to capture every grimace from every angle, then mapped those real expressions on to computer-generated doppelgangers. "People speak about it like it's the end of the actor," Reeves says. "But they're not scanning someone else to be Neo, they're scanning me. So you're still acting."
With these CG characters placed in a digital environment, ESC's artists could circle a virtual camera around the virtual action at supersonic speed and with incredible precision, in ways that never could have been achieved with bullet time. A fist impacts a face, then the point of view whips impossibly to capture a body whizzing headlong from the fray.
"It's the first time you're going to see what virtual reality looks like," says Gaeta.