by Bill Florence
It's back into the virtual universe for cyber-adventures that promise to change cinema & revolutionize reality
The year of The Matrix is at hand. Not one but two sequels to the 1999 cyberpunk tour de force - plus a video game and nine animated short films-are set to dominate the pop culture scene of 2003. Even the movies' website has contributed to the blitz: The first teaser trailer for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions was downloaded more than two million times in its first 72 hours of release on TheMatrix.com That astonishing rate, according to Warner Bros., topped records previously set by websites for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
"The boys always had the idea to tell the story in multiple media," says producer Joel Silver. referring to Matrix writer-director siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski. The brothers shirk media interviews (though they did talk in STARLOG #262) and prefer to let Silver speak on their behalf - a task he clearly enjoys. "They felt that if they could make the Matrix available in other ways, the fan base could seek out and find this other material that would add to the enjoyment of the future movies. If fans don't see [the other material], it won't harm their appreciation of the films."
Warner Bros. certainly hopes that Silver is right on that last point. Multimedia Matrix avalanche notwithstanding, it is Reloaded and Revolutions that drive the rest, both for the studio - which is spending more than $300 million on the sequels - and for the Brothers Wachowski, who know then must somehow top their ingenious cinematic effort of 1999.
"Nobody knew what the hell we were doing on the first movie," Silver attests. "We had these two screwy brothers from Chicago with an idea, and they did the best that they could with a limited budget. The script that I read [for the first movie] continued past the film's ending; we actually saw Zion. We couldn't do that because we didn't have the time or money. The point is, the boys had the whole story then.
"They had a year and a half to prep this picture," continues Silver, who tends to think of Reloaded and Revolutions as one movie because they were shot that way. "We had a facility in Venice, California, [where] the movie came together on paper. The boys drew everything-every shot, every visual effect - so that there wouldn't be any frantic hysteria on the sets. They know what they're doing, every day. And computers are letting us make movies in an environment where anything is possible. Once you have that ability, and you know how you're going to do it, it's just a question of getting through it. Unfortunately, for the visual effects crew, the most complicated sequence in the entire movie will not start shooting for two or three weeks. It's a 14-minute sequence that is the most complicated ever put on film."
Filmed mostly at Fox Studios Australia, Reloaded and Revolutions carry on the story of Neo and the rebel leaders, who seek to free humanity from a cyber-slumber induced by malevolent, sentient machines. In Reloaded (premiering May 15), the rebels must deal with the machines' discovery of Zion, the last city of free humans, hidden deep within the Earth. Most of the film takes place inside the green-tinted Matrix, including a car chase to end all car chases. That sequence, filmed at a decommissioned naval base in California, was the first to be shot, and comprises Reloaded's climax. The cliffhanger ending leads directly to Revolutions, due in theaters November 7. Revolutions offers a long, hard look at the scorched real world as humans battle the machines for control of the planet. Along the way, the sequels explore the developing relationships between Neo and Trinity, as well as Morpheus and his former lover Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Besides Silver, most of the cast is on the set today, including original Matrix veterans Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity) and Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith). Three newcomers are also available to talk about Reloaded and Revolutions: Harold Perrineau, who plays Link, a crew member of the Nebuchadnezzar; Nona Gaye, who plays Link's wife, Zion resident Zee; and Pinkett Smith. All are dressed in black except Fishburne, who stands out in a purple suit and pale green tie.
Despite the well-chronicled rigors of the physical training and wirework required of the actors (with Yuen Woo-Ping back as martial arts choreographer), no one's in traction today. In fact, there's nary a limp or a bruise to be seen. That doesn't mean accidents haven't happened over the first 210 days of lensing. "Carrie-Anne and I were injured during the beginning stages of our training for these new films," Fishburne reveals. "Keanu was recovering from surgery on the first movie, and Hugo was injured on the first one a couple of times. Some people don't understand how incredibly physically taxing all this work is. The amount of time and the hours that we are required to train are the kind of hours that professional athletes deal with. When we're working on wires, we come down and we're bruised. When we fight with each other, we're often making contact and walking away bruised. You get nicks, cuts, sprains."
"I think that we're more prepared for [the physical stuff] this time, though," Weaving asserts. "On the first movie, we were all pretty shocked at how difficult and percussive the training was. I certainly enjoyed the training this time around, whereas on the first one, I didn't appreciate the training. I had to force myself to get through it."
Pinkett Smith says that training is just the beginning. "I have one fight scene in the movie; Keanu, Hugo, Carrie-Anne and Laurence have tons of fight scenes. I had two days of work in Oakland with Keanu, and I saw him in this little swimming pool full of ice. I thought, 'Why is Keanu in that tub of ice?' After those two days [of fighting], I got off the wires and said, 'Thank you, Lord, that I don't have to get on wires tomorrow!' I couldn't move my body, I was so swollen and sore. And then I got it. I got the ice! I have so much respect for these actors. Training, that's the easy part. When you have to get up and do 25 takes of those kicks on wires, and do it all day long for two weeks, that's hardcore. Keanu is the man."
Reeves admits that he's in better shape today than ever before. "We all are," he says. "I'm on a very strict diet with rigorous training. During the course of these sequels, I've tried to maintain about 7.5 percent body fat." The conditioning helps, he notes, when it comes to wielding various weaponry against multiple Agent Smiths and other adversaries in the new films. "Laurence has some weapons as well, and Carrie-Anne gets to do some [stunt] driving," Reeves adds. "Ms. Pinkett Smith has to do some kicking and wire work. As for Mr. Weaving, he and I have just been fighting and fighting."
Neo, "the One" destined to lead mankind to freedom, is more in control of his Matrix-transcending powers in the sequels. "That's true, but the brothers have put up some great obstacles to test those powers," Reeves reveals with a laugh. "The story goes outside the Matrix and starts concerning itself with the machines and Zion, so what Neo can do in the Matrix isn't enough. Also, Neo is still on the path of discovery. It's not so much about being born [anymore]. Before, he wanted to find out who he was. Now, he knows who he is, or he thinks he does... and that's one of his lessons, I guess. He's told by the Oracle that he has some choices to make - choices that will affect the survival of the human race. These are hard choices."
Reeves' preparation for Reloaded and Revolutions included some heady research into the films' philosophical tenets. He says that the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and others were as important to him as all the physical training. "In terms of the specifics of how this [philosophy] relates to my character, I don't know how to encapsulate it. I think it's all synthesized into how to be the kind of character Neo is, in terms of how he views the world and how he asks questions. He's searching for his life. He doesn't want an external philosophy. He rejects fate; he does not want someone else's destiny. Neo wants his own life and his own thoughts, and he wants to see the truth for himself. In the end, my character is looking for peace."
Early on, Fishburne immersed himself in some of the anime films that influenced the Wachowski Brothers, including Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Ninja Scroll. "When I had my first meeting with the Wachowskis, I asked them what they wanted to do," Fishburne relates. "They said, 'We want to make sort of a "Japanimation" film, but we want to do it live.' I thought that was a brilliant idea, and I was excited to be part of it. But since those three films, I haven't seen many of the new anime that have come out, because I've been so busy. Besides, you don't want to overload on that stuff. Our job is to concentrate on our characters and tell the story in the way we're supposed to."
His note about the Wachowskis provides a rare, albeit brief, glimpse at the mysterious duo behind the curtain. Poking fun at the brothers' media reticence, Fishburne recites the line that's repeated on the Matrix website, in the studio production notes and elsewhere: "Little is known about the Wachowski Brothers." He laughs, then provides a few clues. "They're very bright, and there's a shorthand that exists between them. They're not very verbal, but they're incredibly trusting of who we are and what we bring [to the project]. It's very interesting to be on set with them when they're creating these wonderful shots. There's a mysterious thing that happens: Larry generally will take the [camera's] viewfinder, and Andy will stand by the monitor. And they'll just kind of float around with the camera and talk about it. It's almost as if the scene is already in their heads, and it's inconvenient that they actually have to do it physically," Fishburne muses.
The physical requirements for Moss, as Trinity, are less inconvenient this time around. Not only has she done it all before in the first Matrix, but the wardrobe department has learned a few tricks, too. "[Costume designer] Kym Barrett has taken the movie to another level," Moss enthuses. "The costumes are more extreme, more dramatic. What I find wonderful about my costume is that as soon as I slip into my Trinity outfit, I'm her. The costume gives me a big part of my character, and that's something I really appreciate in a movie like this. I have a pair of pants [with several different versions], each with a different cut. One is a beauty fit, for standing and looking as good as I can. One is an action fit, so I can have flexibility and move and kick and run. Then there's the really big pair, so I can put a wire underneath. I'm never really uncomfortable... or maybe I'm just used to it by now," she says with a chuckle.
Fans will find that Trinity, while still a fighter, has softened a bit around the edges. "She definitely goes through a transformation during these two films," Moss affirms. "She's more vulnerable, I hope. She's still as strong and committed as before, and she believes in Neo with everything she has. Trinity is committed to the fight of saving the world and making a difference. But she goes to many other places, too. I can't get too specific, because we're trying to allow you to have a new experience when you watch the films."
A new special FX technique - called "virtual cinematography" - created by visual FX supervisor John Gaeta and his team, allows Agent Smith to be in 100 places at once. Of course, only one is actor Weaving; the rest are three-dimensional, photo-realistic digital copies. "Yes, Agent Smith is a bit freer now than he was in the first Matrix," Weaving says with a sly grin. "His ego has expanded. Otherwise, though, he's on the same path. If Neo exists, Smith has to exist."
Additional Agents populate Reloaded, but in keeping with the original film, none of them are female. "It was always an idea of mine that I've tried to foist on Larry, that there should be a kind of spunky female Agent," Weaving remarks. "That didn't happen, but we have some gorgeous women in the film anyway, so perhaps it actually does not matter."
One of those women is Gaye, who admits that she was intimidated when she first joined the cast. That changed quickly. "Everyone welcomed me with open arms, and I was grateful for that," she says. "They made me feel like part of the family."
Her character, Zee, lives in the subterranean city of Zion, along with several thousand other free humans. "She's a warrior, as are most of the people in Zion," Gaye explains. "Zee is very much in love with her husband, Link. That's her prime focus: Making sure that what she considers sacred - Zion and her family - is safe and taken care of."
Reloaded and Revolutions have been shot almost entirely on soundstages or in CG environments - with few exceptions - so audiences won't see much of Australia in the films. Nevertheless, the cast and crew many of whom, like Weaving, are Australian - acknowledge a palpable connection to the Land Down Under.
"I'm a proper Sydney-sider, mate," Fishburne offers in his best Aussie accent. "I have to be, living here [so much]. We got here in 1998 for the first Matrix, and we were here for nine months. We came back in August 2001, and some of us won't leave until the end of 2002. It has been great to live here and see the city change. Keanu said something about Sydney when we were doing the first movie, and it was so perfect. He said it's a 'city of the future.' These two movies are [among] the first films of the new century... the future. That's what Sydney has brought to the films, and vice versa."
Silver goes one step further. "We could not have shot these films without Australia," he confesses. "The studio said, 'We don't want you to skimp, but here's all [the money] you can have [for the original Matrix].' When we walked into this soundstage, the paint wasn't even dry. It was a brand-new facility. I've made three more movies in Australia since then: these two and Ghost Ship, which I did up in Queensland. After we first got here, Mission: Impossible 2 came, and Attack of the Clones and Moulin Rouge. It's a great place to work. These Matrix films are expensive movies. I don't know how to calculate what they would have cost if we made them somewhere else, such as California, but it would be far more."
Whatever the cost, every Matrix dollar is well spent, Silver avows. "I have been responsible for a number of dumb action pictures in my life, but The Matrix was a very smart action picture with a lot going on. If you wanted to just enjoy it as an action movie with some incredible fights, [it had that]. But the movie also dealt with the nature of reality, which is kind of a pop-psychology idea that's also a mainstay of every philosophical order. It made people think, and it was brilliantly made. The directors are really talented fellows who conceived of this whole world. I think that everyone is anxious to see the continuation of this story."
Count Fishburne among the faithful. He's confident that Reloaded and Revolutions represent the start of a new era in filmmaking. "This is the beginning," he says. "With the technology that exists, the Wachowski Brothers' vision and the studio's generous funding of this whole thing, there are so many possibilities. The Matrix seems to be a world that goes on without end. We're all aware that we're involved in something that is history-making for cinema, and it's a great honor. The things that [FX guru] John Gaeta's team are creating are really going to change the way that we're able to make films. The potential exists for the medium to change radically over the next 25 years. So, these movies will be remembered as monumental events in the history of filmmaking."
Adds Weaving: "You're talking about the role of the camera being changed enormously, and the role of the actor as well. Those two very essential elements to filmmaking are being changed dramatically by [the Matrix sequels]."
Time will tell whether the Wachowskis' multimedia approach is as trendsetting as the Matrix movies themselves. The nine animated short films - collectively referred to as The AniMatrix - began appearing on TheMatrix.com website in February. The Wachowskis personally wrote four of the segments, and approved the screenplays and designs of the rest. "The anime effort will culminate in the release of a DVD at the time of Reloaded's release," Silver says. "The last story, 'The Final Flight of the Osiris,' is essentially The Matrix 1.5. It's a really fantastic story that takes place right before Reloaded, and sets up what will happen in that movie."
The video game, Enter the Matrix, was also written by the Wachowskis, and stars Niobe, Pinkett Smith's character. "The game's story takes place in parallel with the first Matrix film," Silver explains. It features scenes that were created and shot specifically for the game.
"All this activity is going to help the audience," Joel Silver observes. "The boys are very concerned about expectations, so we have to manage how we allow people to [learn] about the new movies. The world the boys created is so fantastic and full of material that it allows us to tell more stories, and I think that's unique and exciting."