Caddy Gets into "Matrix"
The inside story of Hollywood’s hottest car chase.
by Paul A. Eisenstein
A new lease on sportscar life for GM’s rapid social climber.
Bullets fly, cars launch into the air, and in the audience, hearts pound during what’s being described as the most intense car chase scene ever filmed. The nearly 15-minute pursuit may be the most memorable part of Matrix: Reloaded, the Summer blockbuster and sequel to the cult classic 1999 sci-fi adventure.
Part two in a planned trilogy, Reloaded is a computer-generated extravaganza, featuring the latest in digital special effects. Yet when it comes to the chase, the filmmakers chose to do things the old-fashioned way. More than 400 very human extras, along with 56 stunt men and women took to the highway during the carefully choreographed filming. By the time they were done, 54 vehicles were being carted off to the junkyard.
As Neo, Morpheus and the rest of the characters in Reloaded realize, nothing is what it seems in the Matrix, a world created by evil, artificial intelligence to keep humanity enslaved. But the same can be said for the film itself.
Enter the Matrix
Take the freeway where much of the big chase takes place. It actually was created by walling in a 1.5-mile section of the runway at Alameda Naval Base, across the bay from San Francisco. Designed to simulate an inner-city highway, it was surrounded by 19-foot walls. There were two working overpasses. (And if you look closely at the signs on the freeway, you’ll see that the upcoming “exits” are named for family and friends of Larry and Andy Wachowski, the two brothers who wrote and directed the Matrix trilogy.)
Hollywood producers know there’s always a big risk when you invest in an unknown. So, when planning work began for Matrix: Reloaded, they made sure to stock the film with some bankable talent, including the original movie’s biggest stars: Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss. But in an effort to give the film a slightly futuristic frame, they put out a casting call that also netted a new star.
When filming began in 2000, the edgy Cadillac CTS sedan was still a year away from introduction. But the car’s knife-sharp design fit the image the brothers Wachowski had in mind. Cadillac, meanwhile, was looking for a way to shift its image from seniors pro golf to something more young and hip. So it offered the filmmakers 24 cars for primary stunt work, including 14 CTS prototypes and 10 big Escalade SUVs. GM came up with another 50 vehicles for background use.
The car’s the star
It’s not unusual for an automaker to seek out a high-profile presence in a major film. Most manufacturers employ special agents to peddle their wares to the film industry. Indeed, as the blockbusters hit the silver screen this summer, it’s starting to look the cars are often the real stars. The all-new Mazda RX-8 comes to the rescue of Wolverine and his mutant pals in another summer smash, X2. Videogame heroine Lara Croft drove a Land Rover in her original screen showing. Now she’s back with a Jeep Wrangler, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator sequel makes prominent use of a Toyota pickup. But none of those films boasts anything to match the Matrix chase.
Since Cadillac was still hoping to maintain some secrecy about its new car, stuntwoman Debby Evans didn’t get to check out the CTS she’d be driving until the morning film work began, when she’d have to launch one out of a downtown Oakland, Calif., parking structure – the scene that starts the pulse-pounding chase.
To play it safe, the special effects director said “We’ll fix it in the computer,” stunt driving coordinator Rocky Capella recalls. “That was a slap in the face. We said we’d do it” the way it was supposed to look. And so Evans launched her car off a ramp, flying several feet into the air, before slamming into the street, yanking the wheel and taking off through downtown Oakland.
To make it easier to film – and to keep things safe – most chase scenes are shot at speeds of only 30 or 40 miles per hour, notes Evans, one of Hollywood’s top women stunt drivers and, in the Reloaded chase, the double for Carrie-Anne Moss. But for the Matrix, speeds got up to 80 mph, creating some serious risks when you’re slamming cars into one another and launching others into the air.
“All the crashes were real,” Evans says, clearly proud of the challenge. Not only were they real, but the cautious Wachowski brothers insisted that every single scene be filmed twice, a process that ultimately took three months to complete.
Over the years, both Evans and Capella concede they have each suffered a variety of real wounds while creating cinematic special effects. A former Olympic boxing hopeful, Capella quickly runs down a list of injuries large and small, including a vertebrae in his back that still sticks out sideways. But needless risk is not something stunt drivers willing accept. So the cars involved in the stunts were equipped with a variety of safety devices, ranging from rollover cages to leak-resistant fuel tanks.
This isn’t bumper cars, and there’s no way to be absolutely safe. At one point, a broken mirror flew in through the window of the CTS Evans was driving, hitting her in the face. In another scene, her car was rammed by an Escalade so hard, “I saw stars for awhile.” Still, while “There were some bumps and bruises,” Capella boasts, “nobody spent any hospital time.”
The 15-minute sequence was choreographed with the care of a ballet, critical when you have as many as a dozen cars flipping over almost simultaneously in one scene.
Behind the magic
While virtually everything you see is real, it does take plenty of Hollywood magic to send cars spinning through the air, peel a roof off of a CTS as it races down the road, or simply blast bullet holes into a fender.
Special “cannons” underneath stunt cars were used to blast those vehicles into the air. And holes were drilled ahead of time into the CTS’s sheet metal, then filled with explosive “squibs,” and set off by remote control to simulate the effect of a machine gun.
Complicating the “shoot” was the presence of several key cast members during the filming of the stunts. Fishburne was in the passenger seat during a number of driving scenes. (He was accompanied by a cameraman using handheld gear for in-car close-ups.) Meanwhile, Moss had to do some of her own driving, including the scene when she exits the freeway and screeches the CTS to a halt, no easy task with blown-out tires.
About halfway through the chase, Moss’s character is forced to abandon the heavily damaged Cadillac. She then takes her charge, the man known as the “Keymaster,” on an equally harrowing motorcycle ride. That was actually the easy part for stuntwoman Evans. She began racing motorcycles at the age of eight, eventually landing a regular gig in Hollywood.
Capella began his stunt career a bit later, after being knocked out of the Olympic boxing trials 20 years ago. He may be one of the best stunt drivers in Hollywood, but that’s only made him more nervous about what he drives home at the end of the day. He admits he will try to schedule his stunts so it gives him time to be at home whenever his kids have to go somewhere. “I won’t let anyone else drive them,” Capella says.
One son already hints he’d like to follow in his father’s footsteps – or tire tracks, if you prefer. “I’m trying to encourage him to do something else,” Capella, says with a sigh.