Wired (US), November 2003
The Wachowski Brothers FAQ
by Mark Miller
They may be famously untalkative, but Larry and Andy Wachowski sure know how to generate a lot of noise. With the November 5 release of The Matrix Revolutions, the final film in the epic trilogy, the media hype is once again deafening. The movies have transformed the brothers from small-time carpenters to fabulously wealthy and powerful Hollywood players. What hasn't changed is their reticence. If anything, the Wachowski brothers have become more reclusive since the first Matrix came out in 1999. They haven't given an interview in four years, and under an unusual deal with Warner Bros., they never have to talk to the press. Anyone who works on a film with them is made to sign a nondisclosure agreement. "They just want to stay as incognito as possible," says their manager, Lawrence Mattis. When I told him I was writing a story, he chuckled: "Good luck going down the rabbit hole. There's no map."
Maybe not, but the brothers Wachowski have dropped a few bread crumbs along the way. Wired followed the path.
> Why so much intrigue?
Almost from the beginning of their Hollywood careers, the Wachowskis have cultivated an air of mysterious anonymity. Joel Silver, the producer of the trilogy, told an interviewer that the brothers simply "don't want to talk about themselves. They feel uncomfortable and embarrassed." The official production notes for the original Matrix said only that the two "have been working together for more than 30 years. Little else is known about them." Such reclusiveness no doubt adds to their mystique. But it's also true that there are matters they would prefer not to discuss. For starters: nasty tabloid stories about gender bending and a dominatrix named Ilsa Strix.
It's complicated. Let's start at the beginning.
> Where do they come from?
South Chicago, where they lived with their two sisters and parents - Lynne, a nurse, and Ronald, a businessman. Larry and Andy graduated from Whitney Young High, a public magnet school known for its performing arts and science curriculum, in 1983 and '85, respectively. They didn't particularly stand out at Whitney Young - no clever yearbook entries, no scandalous student films - but they weren't loners, either. Classmates remember both playing Dungeons & Dragons and working in the school's theater and TV program, but always on the tech side, behind the scenes. Andy went to Emerson College in Boston. (He was a top student in his introductory film class - even though he "botched a quiz," says his former professor, Claire Andrade-Watkins.) Larry went to Bard in upstate New York. Both dropped out after two years and returned to Chicago, eventually setting up a house-painting and construction business and writing for Marvel Comics. Chicago references are sprinkled throughout the Matrix scripts.
> How did they go from housepainters to the pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking?
Their "Rosebud" moment came after they read a book by B-movie master Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That inspired them to write a script called Carnivore, about wealthy people being eaten by cannibals. That movie hasn't been made (yet), but the script did get them noticed. In 1995, Warner Bros. bought a script from them called Assassins. Mel Gibson said he was interested in directing, but he opted to make Braveheart instead. Director Richard Donner signed on, ordered extensive rewrites, and turned the film into a big-budget vehicle for Sylvester Stallone. Larry likened the process to an abortion and tried unsuccessfully to have their names removed from the credits. Not surprisingly, the movie flopped.
While the Wachowskis were battling Warner Bros. over Assassins, they showed Silver, its producer, the script they'd written for a sci-fi serial set inside a computer. "The minute I started reading the script for The Matrix, I wanted to see it," Silver says. "But then the guys said, 'And we want to direct it.' That was going to be tough." Instead of green-lighting the movie, Silver gave his blessing to a small, independent film they had written, Bound, a noirish crime drama about two lesbians stealing from the mob. Critics loved it, and it retains a certain cult following. In essence, it was a $6 million test to see whether they could write and direct. They could.
> So then Warner Bros. handed over $70 million to make The Matrix?
Not quite. The suits still needed more convincing. So the Wachowskis hired underground comic book artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce to draw a 600-page, shot-by-shot storyboard.
> And they got the creative control they wanted?
Almost. Warner Bros. retained control of the casting. For the pivotal role of Neo, the studio decided on Keanu Reeves. (Also seriously considered: Kevin Costner.) Reeves had done poorly with Johnny Mnemonic, but the studio was high on his demographic appeal. The brothers were skeptical. "They were like, 'Keanu Reeves? Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure? Can he do what we need?'" one friend recalls. "Now they feel so grateful they have him." The Matrix went on to generate more than $440 million in worldwide ticket sales.
> What's it like on a Wachowski set?
Buttoned-down. Actors and crew who have worked with them say there is almost no ad-libbing and very little rewriting once the cameras start rolling. They do not deviate from the storyboard, except to cut during the editing process. "They are really self-contained," says Susie Bright, who had a cameo in Bound. "They are not into giving acting lessons. None of that. It was like, 'Let's go.'" She recalls that when one of the brothers wanted an actress to convey a bit more attitude, all he said was "Give it a little bit more mustard."
> Sounds like they're all business.
Apparently not. Those who have worked with them say they're not standoffish. "They've got a dry Midwestern sense of humor," Bright says. "They don't have big egos or pretensions. They are just comfortable and fun. They are easy, easy people and both funny." Movie after movie, the Wachowskis work with the same tight-knit posse, nearly all of whom decline to talk about them. Those who will go on the record are effusive with praise. Says sound designer Dane A. Davis, who's toiled on all three Matrix films: "I was in heaven. An exhausting heaven, but heaven nonetheless. It ended with a degree of creative satisfaction and peer recognition that I had never experienced."
> Who's the boss?
They write together, swapping script pages on yellow legal pads. They both offer occasional direction to the actors and are most comfortable sitting behind the monitor, observing the action onscreen. Andy is a burly, beer-drinking, sci-fi fan, while Larry enjoys a good restaurant meal and has more of an appreciation for philosophy. Davis says, "They're very intellectual and academic in a way, in terms of the research they do and the ways they conceive of and write things, but on set they have this kind of regular-guys-with-baseball-hats thing. Every other thing out of their mouth is just hilarious. They are deliberately letting the gas out of it, saying something that makes it clear that ultimately it's just a movie. Especially Andy. He's just a riot. He could be a stand-up comedian."
> Who has influenced them?
Stanley Kubrick, Herman Hesse, Homer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, John Huston, John Woo, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Fritz Lang, and Cornel West.
> Cornel West?
Yes, Princeton University professor Cornel West, the author and philosopher. Larry called up West one day to tell him that his wide-ranging explorations of race, religion, and identity politics had significant influence on their scripts. "That blew my mind," West says. "Then Larry said, 'We've written a part for you in Matrix 2.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding, man!'" On set to film his small role as a counselor of Zion, West fell into a lengthy philosophical discussion with the brothers. "Incredible," he says of their talk about reality versus perception, truth versus untruth. "They have a kind of insatiable perplexity, deeper than insatiable curiosity, that makes them profoundly Socratic. It's not just bookish. These folks are in love with the life of the mind."
> OK. But what about the dominatrix?
We're back to those sleazy tabloid stories. Ilsa Strix, whose real name is Karin Winslow, is well-known in the West Coast sadomasochism scene. In 1996, she told Sexuality.org that her German mother was a "Nazi love child, a product of World War II." Winslow's resume notes that she teaches, acts, and directs. Her classes include everything from "piercing and sterile technique" to "the fundamentals of flogging." In 2000, she both starred in and directed Trans Sex Slave, a video "with four transsexual beauties," and her video Fetish FAQ 1 was nominated for an adult Oscar in the Best Bondage category. It was Winslow who accompanied Larry to the premiere of The Matrix Reloaded last May.
> Is Larry really planning to undergo a sex change operation?
Probably not, although that doesn't make the reality any less strange. At the Reloaded premiere, Larry, who once favored jeans, flannel shirts, and Chicago Bulls caps, sported a floppy knit beret, delicate earrings, plucked eyebrows, and what appeared to be full makeup. Afterward, Jake Miller, Winslow's estranged husband and himself a female-to-male transsexual (try to keep up now), popped up in the London tabloids to explain that Larry had stolen his wife after the two met in Winslow's dungeon. Furthermore, Miller claimed, Larry was taking female hormones in preparation for a sex change operation. Now living in New Orleans, Miller admits he has no firsthand knowledge that Larry is planning to go through with the surgery and concedes he was paid for his story. "I lost everything," he says of his breakup with Winslow.
One source who knows the couple and the scene dismisses the sex change rumor, explaining that Larry is merely a cross-dresser, not a transsexual. "But what people don't get," he says, "is that Larry and Karin are genuinely in love - they're the perfect match."
> How did Larry's wife react to all this?
Thea Bloom is suing for divorce. A statement she filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court the day before the Reloaded opening reveals that the pair decided to split for reasons "based on very intimate circumstances, concerning which I do not elaborate at this time for reasons of his personal privacy." In the filing, Bloom alleges that her estranged husband is "hiding information from me regarding our financial affairs" and asks the court to block her husband from buying a $2.7 million house in San Francisco for himself and Winslow. In response, the judge issued a freeze order on the assets of "Laurence Wachowski, aka Laurenca Wachowski."
> What's next?
Like everything else about the brothers, their future is shrouded in mystery. Two Wachowski scripts are floating around Hollywood. One, a fanciful retelling of the Guy Fawkes story set in a postapocalyptic Britain, is an adaptation of V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The other, Plastic Man, is based on the old DC Comics character. Plastic Man has long been rumored to be the Wachowskis' next film, but, of course, there's no official word.