Birth of a Messiah
FLYING HIGH AS NEO, KEANU REEVES SEEKS SALVATION FOR THE HUMAN INHABITANTS OF THE MATRIX.
by Ian Spelling
Neo (Keanu Reeves) must live up to the expectations of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the people of Zion. Reeves feels obligated to please Andy and Larry Wachowski, the writer-directors of the Matrix trilogy. "I'm trying to realize their dream," he explains. "That was the pressure: to be able to do what they wanted me to do."
And that was no easy task. The brothers sought to build on The Matrix, which was a box office smash, a cultural phenomenon and a groundbreaker on the visual FX front. So the directing duo gathered cast and crew in locales ranging from Sydney to San Francisco and embarked on making two films, back-to-back, over the course of a full year. And the extensive pre- and post-production only extended the total amount of time and effort expended on The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Reeves spent months in advance of the actual shoot prepping for the physical aspects of the gig, and then, when the cameras rolled, he dived headlong into the action.
"Reloaded and Revolutions were much harder," Reeves says. "It took more time. There was much more involved. It demanded a lot more. In the first one, I could do most of [the action]. In the second one, if you take out the CGI aspect of my battle with Smith [Hugo Weaving], I probably did 92 percent of my fighting. Not the landings, the wall stuff or crashes, but the fighting. And there was a ton of stuff with the weapons. I was like, 'I wish I could have been better. I wish I could have done this move...' because the more I did it, the more [Yuen] Woo-Ping and the brothers would go, 'Well, how about this?' There was still plenty of that, but we didn't have enough time. It was harder to get, it was harder to do and it was harder to come back. Some days, I would finish a fight, get new choreography and then [practice] fighting on weekends so that I could film on Tuesday. I did five fights in the second one, and I have more moves in that scene with the Smiths than I did in the whole first movie, probably twice over."
Fishburne commented that he chose not to come to the set for one particular fight, simply because he felt Reeves was too hard on himself. Reeves raises an eyebrow at that remark. "I can be," he admits. "But I don't think I need any therapy or anything. I'm not so out of my mind. It was a [physical] aspect of the piece that we worked hard on to get right, as we did the emotional [content]. There's something about symmetry and having those scenes so that you believe in them. If I do something and I don't hit it right or it doesn't look right, I instantly feel it and see it and say, 'Aw, aw.' I don't want that. I want it to be perfect."
Some moviegoers felt that there was too much of a good thing in The Matrix Reloaded, that the Wachowskis staged too many fights. Reeves disagrees, and points out the balance between the action and contemplative talk in the Matrix saga. "There's much more dialogue in Reloaded," he says. "What I think is one of the unique things that the brothers have found a way to do is that they'll give you an intense scene of dialogue-say between Neo and the Architect [Helmut Bakaitis] - and then they'll give you a fight scene. Then they'll give you a scene with Lambert Wilson, the Merovingian, talking about the power of why and cause and effect. And then they'll have a 14-minute car chase. I remember Andy would say - and this is his perspective – 'Oftentimes with movies you sit through bad dialogue to see the spectacle, so you can sit through good dialogue.' I agree with that. Reloaded is a very ambitious film, but I think the brothers pulled it off."
Now that Reloaded has been in theaters for several weeks, it's safe to discuss the plot specifics. In the sequel, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are in a race against time to save Zion and its 250,000 inhabitants from an unrelenting swarm of Sentinels that are boring through the Earth in order to carry out the machines' plan to wipe out mankind's last free people. Neo knows that he is the One, but he wears that crown uncomfortably. He would prefer to spend his time with Trinity, with whom he has begun a romantic relationship. Neo is also occupied honing his prodigious powers, which now include the ability to fly. He struggles to sort through the myriad religious, spiritual, political, sociological and scientific options, possibilities, theories and manifestos thrown at him by Morpheus, the Architect, the Merovingian, Counselor Hamman (Anthony Zerbe), the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster), Seraph (Collin Chou) and Persephone (Monica Bellucci).
"It's the development of the birth of a messiah and the identity of a man," Reeves says of Neo's character arc from The Matrix to Reloaded. "In the beginning of Reloaded, Neo is full of fear about what he has to do and the responsibilities that the community [expects from him]. But I don't think that he's a reluctant hero. He has accepted it, but I don't think he has accepted it without question. Neo is trying to find out, 'What is my life?' He's not just taking it as, 'Oh, OK, I'm going to have to make this choice.' He says, 'What if I fail?' Then Zion will fall. And it's kind of cool what happens later on. Didn't you think it was neat, the Architect scene? That's interesting, isn't it? What Neo finds out about being the One. I love that!"
As for the biblical references - such as Neo rising from the dead - Reeves smiles and says, "It's Apollo and Dionysian, nature, form, something man-made, something from the psyche, the kind of relationship between that and 'Your life is the sum of an unequal equation.'"
And for those who think that the Architect is Satan lying to Neo and trying to lead him astray, Reeves offers this: "Satan isn't the builder of the universe. But it's a [valid] question. Personally, I don't think so, because the brothers don't generally lie. Everyone is sort of self-declared and says, 'Here's my hand.' But maybe not. I don't believe that there's any manipulation, though. I could probably make a list, but then I would be doing something that the brothers don't want people to do: 'Here's my literal thing.' But I don't believe the Architect is Satan. The brothers don't propose a finality to [anything]. They don't say, 'Here's the answer.' They don't do that, except they do… come to something in Revolutions. I think it sounds really goofy, but The Matrix is about love."
The Matrix Reloaded isn't all about action and ideas. Neo is a horny One when it comes to Trinity. In a long, wild and carnal scene, the Wachowskis cut back and forth between Neo and Trinity making passionate love and the citizens of Zion partying with equal passion after a rousing Morpheus oration. "It's great," Reeves says. "It's one of my favorite parts of the piece, because I get to love and be loved by someone and share that. The relationship [scenes] between Neo and Trinity were some of my favorite days, working with Carrie-Anne, just because we love and trust each other and like working together. It's so enjoyable to feel that. It's great to be able to give that loving feeling, that kind of respect and appreciation for somebody else.
"The Wachowskis are interested in emotions and the flesh and blood of life, and I think they exalt in it. They like showing that exaltation, that strength of feeling, the strength of a community dancing, that kind of beauty and power of union and the strength of that union, whether it's individuals or individuals coming into a community. When the camera goes above the people in Zion, they're like 'Yeow!' The kids that came out to shoot those scenes [were so into it].
"Some days there were like 700 of them, and there was one day where it was close to a thousand," Reeves recalls. "Those kids just came out with so much affection. They had a male and a female tent, but that went out the window. There were kids doing drum circles, people dancing in the middle of the sand. And all this in the Oakland heat. People were hanging out everywhere, and when they shot those scenes it was insane. They put the music on and the kids [went crazy]. We were just going, 'God. Laurence came out to start his speech as Morpheus, and there was a three-minute scream. Laurence didn't even start. He just stood there. Anthony came out and said, 'And here is Morpheus,' and the kids were screaming 'Yeow!' for three minutes. Laurence was like, 'Yeah!' It was good, primal energy. And I think the brothers celebrate that. It's nice that that's such a strong point of the movie, that there's beauty in the world."
Since completing The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, Reeves has moved on to several new projects. He's wrapped an as-yet untitled comedy in which he co-stars with Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton and Amanda Peet, and is working on Thumbsucker with Elijah Wood and Scarlett Johannson. And, if all goes according to plan, Reeves will soon portray supernatural investigator John Constantine in a film adaptation of DC-Vertigo's Hellblazer (to be titled Constantine to avoid confusion with the Hellraiser movies).
"I've read a few of the comics, and I really like the character of Constantine," Reeves says. "I like his ambivalence, his vitality, his darkness and his anger. I also appreciate his underlying grace and love for humanity. And I love him as a figure who is sort of the ultimate [example] of the existential 'God is dead' [argument]. Hellblazer literalizes a kind of Heaven and Hell and that type of Catholic background, and Constantine's saying, 'The nine deities, the nine devils, all of you get out of here. Just leave us alone.' He's the ultimate man without all of the other kinds of entities. I love the dialogue, because he finds out something else in his quest. He finds out something about himself and his humanity."
Not unlike Neo, actually. Neo will return to action a few months from now - and don't forget The Animatrix anime anthology or the Enter the Matrix video game - when The Matrix Revolutions closes out the trilogy November 5. Asked what he has learned from Neo and what Neo has learned from him, Reeves is silent for a moment. "It's not an easy question," he says. "That's like asking 'What has your mother learned from you and what have you learned from your mother?' I really believe that Neo is a beautiful man. I admire his ethics and his morals and his search for his authentic life and how he deals with people and himself. It's like, 'Can you live up to that? Can you live up to the best part of yourself every day, all the time?' I think that's a really great question. It's hard. I try, and I think it's something the films ask."
The best side of Reeves came out when he rewarded some of the Matrix stuntmen with a truckload of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. "There's a fight where Smith confronts Neo," Reeves remarks. "And I basically intensely worked with 12 stuntmen for about three weeks, going through the fight. Then we filmed every day for almost a month. And these guys, every time I said let's do it again... there's this one moment where Neo is grabbed by two agents and I do a backflip and kick two guys in the head, then I flip back and the two guys are thrown back. Well, those two guys got pulled to the floor 21 times. And every time I said I would like to do it again. I was like, 'Tim, you OK?' He would say, 'Yeah, man. Let's go. And we would just go through the fight every day, the three stages of the fight, and everyone was so supportive and helpful.
"During the first part of that sequence, they often used a Steadicam," Keanu Reeves continues. "They did a 180-degree turn, and in some of those sequences I did 25, 30 moves, hitting eight guys. So they all had to be in the right spot to sell every hit. They would come here and then go there and we all had to adjust. So we were all involved in this thing for months, and we had also trained together beforehand. I wanted to somehow - besides just saying 'Thank you' - give a bigger thank you to all those guys who helped me make this one of the great movie fights in the history of cinema. I worked it out with Bartell's, and they put these bikes together for me. I had them brought up in a truck and I got to give 'em all a Harley! That was hot. That made me smile for months! I would be in bed and be like, 'Ha, ha, ha!'"