Rage Against the Machines(also published as a shorter version (by ~2,000 words) under the title 'How we reinvented The Matrix)
An exclusive report from the set of the Matrix sequels, where the latest weapons in the battle for mankind's deliverance are a sexy temptress, a multiplying villain, and some mind-blowing special effects.
by Mark Salisbury
Keanu Reeves is primal-screaming. Standing at the bottom of a crater set some 20 feet deep—all that remains of a sidewalk that’s been torn apart by two superpowerful entities doing battle in the skies overhead before crashing to the ground—and drenched by four massive sprinklers that, during the wide shots, dump between seven and ten tons of water per minute on him, the star of this year’s most anticipated sequels lets out the kind of deep, disturbing, bowel-loosening cry that would terrify small children, nervous animals, and any visiting journalist. Lasting no more than two seconds, it echoes around Stage 2 at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, for what seems like an eternity and, give or take afew consonants, can be transcribed thus: AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!
“Sometimes it’s to raise my energy, and sometimes it’s frustration,” Reeves explains almost a year later, sitting in the lounge at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. “It’s a way of venting, expressing my frustration, at myself and at not being able to realize 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’s character, Neo, awoke to the fact that the world as he knew it was a computer-generated construct designed to keep humanity blissfully unaware of its status as energy source for a race of sentient machines. By the movie’s end, he’d been transformed into The One, mankind’s prophesied savior and key to its freedom from the Matrix, flying up past the camera like some kind of comic-book superhero ready to wage war against the machines. Now, in the sequels The Matrix Reloaded (due May 15) and The Matrix Revolutions (November 7), his abilities have developed in ways fans of the first film will be drooling about for years. “He’s self-actualizing inside the Matrix,” says visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, who won an Oscar for his work on the original. “He’s superpowerful because he believes he is. He has the ability to knock down many more obstacles.”
It’s day 141 out of an eventual 270 in the 18-month-long production, during which both sequels are being shot. As rain lashes down inside and out (Sydney is experiencing what’s tantamount to a monsoon), Reeves, dressed in a black, full-length, high-collared coat, is once again facing off against Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the besuited übervillain who, despite having been blown apart at the end of The Matrix, has become Lex Luthor to Neo’s Superman. Today’s scene (number 764) forms part of the Superbrawl, a thunderous fight at the climax of Revolutions in which the enemies duke it out in and above the megacity that is the Matrix, before reducing an intersection (the same one Neo took off from at the end of the original) to rubble.
For now, however, Reeves is required simply to come up into frame and utter four words—“Because I choose to”—his attitude implacable, his face impassive. And chiseled: Months of training and a special diet (including red meat if he would be fighting; fish, rice, and vegetables if not) have left him ultralean, giving the impression that he is several inches taller than his six feet. Time and time again he delivers the line with differing intonation, until writer-director siblings 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, whose dress sense and demeanor owe much to the excellent Bill and Ted, and 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 outside to where the production has set up a hot tub in which he sits, in costume, and tries to warm up.
As the day proceeds, Reeves gets wetter still. Gallons of water continue to rain down (filtered out of the set through an elaborate drainage system in the floor, it will be treated and used again by the production), and he is pelted by a jet of thick orange liquid and chunks of gray foam, which simulate the effect of Smith coming up out of the ground. It’s while shooting this particularly sticky session that Reeves’s primal scream erupts, and to be honest, who can blame him? They’ve been filming this sequence for the past couple of weeks 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 special nozzles to produce “chubby rain,” fatter than normal drops, which, when photographed in a certain way, will look like the dripping code of the Matrix. “There’s no extraneous movement, gesture, behavior,” Reeves says. “It’s very pure. What they do in their films is like a samurai strike with a sword—one perfect gesture all concentrated in that one moment. I got very familiar with what super-perfect meant.”
The Matrix was a sleeper hit that became a phenomenon. Created by the Wachowskis, Chicago natives who graduated from writing comic books to screenplays and whose only previous film as writer-directors, the lesbian neo-noir Bound, had them pegged as the next Coen brothers, 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 captain of one of the rebel humans’ ships and the man who plucked Neo from the Matrix. As influenced by Lewis Carroll and cyberpunk guru William Gibson as it was by Greek mythology and Eastern religion, The Matrix borrowed also from computer games, superhero comics, Peckinpah westerns, Hong Kong chopsocky cinema, 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,” Fishburne 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 and a half before the much-hyped Episode I—The Phantom Menace, it made that Star Wars prequel look outdated. While their script captured the paranoia of the impending millennium and toyed with the nature of accepted reality, the Wachowskis reveled in the possibilities afforded by the advances in computer technology, creating a series of highly stylized action sequences, gravity-defying stunts, and the ground-breaking “bullet time” effect, all of which raised the bar on what action movies could and should be. “I’ve been involved in several that have helped redefine the genre,” says Matrix producer Joel Silver, whose arsenal of action hits includes 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 worldwide (making it Warner Bros.’ biggest hit until Harry Potter came along) 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. (In fact, the resulting multimedia vision now includes the Enter the Matrix video game, which the brothers directed alongside the sequels, and nine animes. Their complementary story lines expand on the movies’ events and characters.) “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 to return. “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’s 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 realize their dream.” Fishburne, like Reeves, signed on without reading a script. “ ’Cause I have faith in Larry and Andy,” he says. “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 Carrie-Anne Moss, who reprises her role as the 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,” he says. “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 involved in the projects, tends to think of Reloaded and Revolutions as one film split into two. “It’s the cost of one and a half giant movies. That’s why it’s happening. If it was a staggering amount, we wouldn’t be making it in this day and age.” Reeves’s salary, he says, followed a similar financial model. Yet no one seems to be sure just how much the movies will end up costing. Back in February 2002, Silver and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Warner’s then executive vice-president of worldwide production—who green-lighted all three films—put the cost at around $250 million. By November that had grown to $300 million–plus, including $100 million for visual effects. While Silver won’t discuss the overages, he says, “We’re finding out how much the first one cost as we finish, and there are big areas of savings, seven to eight million on one sequence, because it wasn’t as complicated as we thought.” Even so, Reeves gave up some of his back-end profits to help defray the rising costs.
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. “I have a feeling they weren’t saying the truth about when it would end,” Moss says. “I think it was more of a positive thinking tool. It just ended when it ended.” Silver says the movie was “not that much over on the schedule. A lot of that was second unit toward the end, stuff with the stunt guys and green screen.” Executive producer Grant Hill says they went 15 days over and that longer breaks at Christmas 2001 and Easter 2002 accounted for the difference between the planned stop date and the ultimate one. Whatever the reason, Fishburne had been there before. “Apocalypse Now prepared me for this,” he says, smiling.
Though the sequels delve further into the architecture of the Matrix and the artificial intelligence behind it, as well as the Real World and the machine city, Reloaded concerns itself mainly with the titular computer system. It begins with Zion—the last human city deep down near the Earth’s core, a place mentioned but not seen in the original film—under attack from an army of machines, boring down on top of them. “The underlying story is the defense 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, and Morpheus, aided by Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), an ex-flame of Morpheus’s and captain of the Logos, a hovercraft like Morpheus’s Nebuchadnezzar, reenter 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, who can walk through walls and dematerialize at will. “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. “They took these pale, blond, blue-eyed English lads and gave them fucking 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 realized to a tee.” (One casting casualty was Jet Li, for whom the brothers wrote the role of Seraph, a sparring program designed to fight Neo. When Li bowed out, Michelle Yeoh was briefly considered before the role went to Lung Yun Chow.)
Then there’s Agent Smith, who has managed to multiply himself in the Matrix, much 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 of the Matrix with himself.” In mute testament to this plot twist, 18 life-size Agent Smith dummies (not including the headless one lying in a box on the floor) are lined up in rows around the Sydney soundstage. They’re a disconcerting sight for anyone, not least of all Weaving. “The first thing I thought was, ‘I haven’t lost that much hair, have I?’ ” he says with a laugh. “I’m quite glad I’m short-sighted on set because I see these figures in suits rather than lots of me. But it’s pretty weird.”
Over the course of the sequels we will discover who or what exactly the Oracle is, as several new characters (or programs, to continue the Matrix-as-computer-system analogy) make themselves known, some on the side of the machines, others the humans. “You meet the God figure,” Weaving says. While his identity remains a secret, he could well 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.” (As with other characters in the Matrix films, her name derives from Greek mythology: Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of fertility; she was kidnapped by the god of the underworld, Hades, to be his queen.)
“It’s like she’s a vampire,” says Bellucci, who also appears in the Enter the Matrix video game sharing a kiss with Niobe. (“A very sexy one, I must admit,” says Pinkett Smith.) “She doesn’t have feelings anymore because she comes from an old Matrix, but as soon as she touches someone she can feel everything you have inside. That’s why she’s very dangerous. 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,” Reeves says. “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 bed down with Neo. “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 that you’d expect to hear from a film’s director, espousing his or her reasons for taking on a project, or perhaps the joys of working with a certain actor. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis, in a manner redolent of the late Stanley Kubrick, refuse to talk to the media or be photographed for publicity purposes. Instead the brothers, or “the boys” as Silver calls them (Reeves, unique among the cast and crew, refers to the younger Wachowski as Andrew rather than Andy), 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 on earth. “They want the audience to accept it for what it is.”
“The brothers are men of few words. But of great opinion,” says Barrett, one of a core group—including Gaeta, director of photography Bill Pope, production designer Owen Paterson, and film editor Zach Staenberg—who’ve worked on all three films. “The only thing they don’t do or enjoy is press. Which of course makes everyone want to know more about them.”
This resulted in an unprecedented level of paranoia and secrecy on the set. Passes to the Fox lot read “The Burly Man,” the title of the wrestling screenplay that John Turturro’s character writes in Barton Fink. 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 group of 1,500. When I asked one member of the production team when it was that he first met the Wachowskis, he became visibly troubled and refused to answer, lest he reveal too personal a detail. And forget about talking or saying hello to the brothers; while on set you are not even allowed to stand near them—between 20 and 30 feet is considered a “safe” viewing distance—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, who’d originally tried out for Trinity; the role of Niobe was written for her. “Andy seemed always to be in a serious mood, ready to get the work done. But they’re both very different in how they flow. 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 [Fishburne] 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 and fight training in a converted hangar at a Santa Monica airport under the guidance of Yuen Wo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the acclaimed Hong Kong director–fight coordinator responsible for the exhilarating martial arts choreography and wirework in the original. (The rest of the principal cast, save Pinkett Smith, who had just given birth, joined training a month in.) As before, the Wachowskis expected their actors to do as many of the fight scenes as possible. “The brothers don’t want the stunt people to do anything unless it’s really dangerous,” says Moss, who broke her right leg during 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 maneuver.
Once filming began, on March 26, 2001, the actors were encouraged to come to the set every day, including weekends, even when they weren’t filming, to continue to train. “There’s definitely a higher level of demand,” Moss says on the set. “I should be training right now, because I have five new fights to learn. For next week.” Says Reeves, who has seven fights across both sequels, more intensive and complex than the original’s in terms of the moves, number of opponents, and weaponry involved: “The first one was like walking, the second one’s gymnastics.” And unlike the original Matrix, where all the fights were choreographed prior to principal photography, only one sequence was worked out in advance. “There were so many of them that four months wasn’t enough time,” he says, “which is astounding but true. There was so much action.” Indeed, Moss says there were moments when she was concerned about Reeves’s 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.”
The most complicated fight sequence in Reloaded is the Burly Brawl, which features Neo battling 100 Agent Smiths. It took almost a month to film and involved a huge amount of wirework for Reeves. “I’m told I have 52 wire events. Yeah, baby!” he says, mimicking Austin Powers. After the shoot, says Pinkett Smith, he bought each of the stuntmen involved a Harley-Davidson.
For one component of the Superbrawl, the climactic fight in Revolutions, Reeves and Weaving kicked, punched, and blocked their way through 72 takes before the Wachowskis were satisfied. “On ‘action’ we would start this sequence that for me was, like, 12 moves,” recalls Reeves, reenacting all 12 as he talks. “By the time I finished with my last movement—a punch to Smith—it had to be at the same time as a lightning strike. With all those elements, you’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle. So we kept trying to get it.” When the brothers saw the dailies the next day, the angle on the shutter wasn’t to their liking, meaning the rain didn’t look right. “Another 19 takes,” Reeves says. “Which was great for me because I got better at it.” So good that Pinkett Smith speculates, “I wonder if Keanu thinks he can fight on the street now. You really think about that when you see this cat fight, ’cause he can kick some ass. And I’ve seen him without the special effects. Without the bells and whistles. That’s the difference. That takes talent.”
Prior to the Australian leg of the shoot, the production took over a former naval base in Alameda, California, to film three major sequences: the Burly Brawl, together with scenes involving the enigmatic and all-knowing Oracle; a freeway chase; and a celebration scene in the smoldering environs of Zion. Although the majority of Zion would be filmed in Sydney, around a thousand extras were brought in for the Alameda segment. Because of the revealing nature of their clothing (it’s hot down there near the Earth’s core), male and female areas were set up, but, says Reeves, the divisions weren’t exactly adhered to as filming turned into a party on and off the set. “People were in circles, dancing, playing drums on fucking water crates, all sorts of shit,” he says with a grin. “I’m sure there were people who got married.”
For Reloaded’s climactic chase, the production built a two-mile stretch of freeway on the base at a cost of $1 million (much less expensive, says executive producer Hill, than if they’d used an existing location). Based on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles and designed by Paterson with high sides to evoke a subterranean feel, “kind of like walls of death,” it featured one and a half miles of usable roadway as well as real overpasses and runoffs. 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. All of which takes place in the Matrix, meaning 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 in the original film? 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. “We’re trying to augment real pyrotechnics in ways that make it totally bizarre, and we’re making false pyrotechnics so that we can move it around in interesting ways. You take phenomena like flame or water and you inverse its properties with something else, so that flame acts like water and water acts like gas.”
Part of the freeway chase involves Trinity and the Keymaker on a motorcycle, being pursued by agents unleashing spectacular speed traps. The agents also leap in and out of bodies in the vehicles. “They can take over any person in the Matrix,” Gaeta says. “They can be in any car at any time.”
The scene required Moss to ride a high-performance sports motorcycle, designed for one, against oncoming traffic at 40 miles per hour, without a helmet and with an actor (Duk Kim) on the back. For Moss, who doesn’t like motorcycles, it 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 over breakfast in a coffee shop near her Los Angeles home nearly two years later. “If I fuck up on that bike, I’m dead. The guy on the back is dead. It wasn’t even about me. It was about him.”
The choreography of the scene—the speed and placement of the cars and bike—was worked out in advance using computer previsualizations. But as late as the day before the shoot, Moss wasn’t sure she could go through with it. “I said to R.A. [Rondell], our stunt coordinator, ‘I’ll let you know on the day,’ because I didn’t want to feel pressured,” 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.”
“She did what she had to do, and bravo,” Reeves says. “It’s one of those challenges that are a part of our lives. And glorious that she did it.”
With the freeway chase in the can, the production shut down during the summer of 2001 to allow the brothers to edit the Alameda sequences before turning them over to Gaeta for visual-effects work. In August and September, three tragedies shook the production: the deaths of 22-year-old singer-actress Aaliyah, who had been cast as Zee, a home-grown inhabitant of Zion, in a plane crash, and of 64-year-old Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle, of diabetes; and the events of September 11. “To lose Aaliyah so young tests everything you think about life,” says Moss. “Then for September 11 to happen. Then Gloria. It took me over the edge.”
From a purely practical standpoint, Aaliyah’s death didn’t affect filming greatly because she had been in only a handful of scenes in Alameda; the majority of her work was due to take place when production resumed in Sydney on September 24. “It’s more personally troubling than anything else,” says Silver, who produced her debut film, Romeo Must Die, and prevailed upon the brothers to cast her. (The role was later recast with Nona Gaye.) Foster, meanwhile, had finished her work on Reloaded. And while her death was devastating to all, it allowed for a narrative switch that had been discussed even before her passing: The brothers had considered altering the Oracle’s form for Revolutions because the machines find out about her in Reloaded, but had discounted the idea. “We said, ‘How do we do that to Gloria?’ ” Silver says. “Then it happened.”
The sign on the door of Stage 1 reads: KEEP CLOSED. WIND + EGG = NO GOOD. Inside is a massive blue screen measuring 120 feet high, 150 feet across, of a blue so intense it’s hard to look at for long, crisscrossed by positioning lines and fluorescent orange balls used to triangulate the position of the camera in relation to what’s being filmed. This is the Egg, the result of much R&D by the visual-effects, stunt, and martial arts departments, 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 that are producing more than 2,000 shots for both movies (the first Matrix had just over 400), and who says they’re spending less money per shot than before, despite the massively increased visual-effects budget. “There’s a couple of scenes in Mary Poppins that are about as good as some of the flying you may have seen in a film in the last five years. That’s how much it’s advanced.” Yet with more than two years’ prep time, Gaeta was up to the challenge, even hiring a zero-gravity NASA aircraft (the infamous Vomit Comet) and taking to the air with Yuen Wo-ping’s martial arts team and a camera crew to see what weightless kung fu looked like. “The Hong Kong dudes were up there trying to kick each other to death, but it was a little difficult to fight,” he says. Still, “we based the look of one climactic scene off of the material we shot up there.” They also created a special harness, like a ring inside of a ring worn around the waist, which allows for more natural body motion and near-total movement, in terms of turning and spinning. This harness is connected both to wires and to a 30-foot pole with which an operator can raise or lower the person wearing it.
For the past couple of days, it’s been Reeves’s and Weaving’s stunt doubles (Chad Stahelski and Dave Leitch)—raised up 20 feet in front of the blue screen, which is itself well above the soundstage floor—who have been put through their superhero paces. The Wachowskis, who have supervised every detail of the fight, are relaying their instructions via microphone and loudspeaker. “Can we have more of a downer on the uppercut there?” Andy calls out after Smith flies toward Neo and connects with a punch, causing Neo to spin out of control and away from him. The brothers want more punch to the punch. “Hit him,” Larry calls to Leitch. “It’s your birthday. What’s he going to do?”
They go again.
“Yeah, the hit looks good,” says Larry. “But don’t spin,” adds Andy. “You guys are pretty small in the frame. It’s all about body language.”
Off to one side, Gaeta and part of his effects crew are producing a rough edit of the sequence as it’s being shot, which is fed through to the brothers and all the monitors around the set. As Gaeta explains, the stuntmen’s movements will be used to drive the actions of computer-generated versions of Neo and Smith, which will zoom away from the virtual camera at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour before coming back into the shot. After two days of this, it’s time for the real Neo and Smith to be brought on. As soon as Reeves and Weaving take their positions in front of the blue screen, the sprinklers are turned on. Another downpour. (The crew all wear rain protection—macs or the Australian equivalent, Driza-bone.) Take after take, Smith and Neo run through their practiced moves, Weaving blocking four of Reeves’s punches before landing an uppercut that sends him shooting off into the distance.
“Go just a little smoother and easier,” Andy tells Reeves.
“Not the attitude,” Larry clarifies.
One problem with the Egg harness is that it constricts the blood to the legs; the actors must flip themselves upside down once in a while to get the flow and the feeling back. “It would collect in your legs because of the binding,” Reeves says. “Hugo and I would hang upside down and then, when we would come together, we’d fix each other’s hair. We’d watch out for each other after putting the blood back into our heads.”
Reeves, who can be rather reserved in interviews, is visibly passionate about anything having to do with the Wachowskis or The Matrix. He can and does talk at great length about the philosophy behind the series and the minutiae of the characters, searching for the truth behind the illusion in the same way Neo does. His voice rises regularly to underline his points; often, he answers a question with several of his own. Yet there is another part of him for which these films are simply about having fun. Lots of fun. Having once turned his back on the action-hero mantle that Hollywood was so eager to bestow upon him after the success of 1994’s Speed, Reeves has, with the Matrix trilogy, become the ultimate comic-book superhero made flesh.
For one flying sequence, he recalls being strapped into a harness, suspended 20 to 30 feet in the air, before being propelled forward, just like Superman. “It was about a 40-foot travel, horizontal, into a 15- to 20-foot descent at a 35-degree angle, traveling probably about five miles an hour into a dead stop, with a camera dollying in to a close-up. Yeeeeaaahhh!!!” He grins wildly. “It was a fucking good day!” In the moment before they called action, Reeves says, he would look down from his perch and remember 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 alleyways, that weightlessness, that physical joy.”
But every superhero must come down to earth—and in the Matrix sequels, that point usually came sooner rather than later. “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 may have always been the demand, but for Reeves and everyone else involved in making these movies, it was a price well worth paying.