The Matrix Maestro
Composer Don Davis discusses the upcoming Revolutions DVD, working with publicity-shy directors and the franchise’s ambitious Internet plans.
by Ian Spelling
Don Davis was bound to hook up with The Matrix trilogy. The respected composer already had a working relationship with film editor Zach Staenberg. So, when Larry and Andy Wachowski hired Staenberg to cut Bound, he arranged a meeting between Davis and the brothers.
Davis and the Wachowskis hit all the right notes on Bound, leading the filmmaking brothers to tap Davis for The Matrix. “It seemed clear that Larry and Andy were looking to assemble a creative team that they could rely on,” Davis recalls. “And when The Matrix was green-lit, they brought along everyone from Bound who had made essential contributions, including Zach, Bill Pope (the cinematographer) and myself.”
The Wachowskis told Davis that they wanted the music in The Matrix to be as creative as the script and added they were looking for something that would be as different from other scores as the film’s visuals were from previous sci-fi efforts. “I could see that those were not idle words,” Davis says. “That’s because the script was the most creative effort I had ever seen for a film.”
Sure enough, The Matrix went on to become a worldwide hit and, more to the point, a pop culture icon, with Davis lauded for his layered, powerful and memorable score. Following his effort on The Matrix, Davis went on to score other projects such as House on Haunted Hill, AntiTrust, Valentine, Jurassic Park III, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and, of course, The Animatrix.
The Animatrix DVD, a collection of short animated films set within the Matrix universe, paved the way for the big screen sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The latter arrives on DVD on April 6 from Warner Home Entertainment and thereby served as the impetus for our recent conversation with Davis.
“When I scored The Matrix, I felt that I had really gone all out in terms of intensity,” the composer notes. “Then when Reloaded came along, my instructions were to increase the intensity exponentially, which seemed impossible. And then, after I did increase the intensity for Reloaded, I was told to increase it again for Revolutions.”
“Fortunately, Revolutions provided me with two incredibly intense set pieces, in which the heightened intensity of the score fit the film nicely,” he adds. “There was also the idea that all the thematic musical material that was used in each film needed to be referred to, developed more, and reach a conclusion in Revolutions, which was also no small task.”
Out of the three Matrix films, Davis is happiest with the outcome of Revolutions, due to the use of the choir in the climatic battle between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Smith (Hugo Weaving). “We used excerpts from the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit as text for the choir to sing,” he explains. “That literary accompaniment to the visuals lent an amazing relevance that the score alone could never have provided.”
Davis goes on to explain that he considered each Matrix score a single movement in a three-movement symphony. In a way, the first part of the text for the choir in Revolutions reads as something of a synopsis for each movie: from delusion lead me to truth; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to immortality.
“Those words certainly mark Neo's journey through each film, and in a way they describe my journey as well, although I'm not yet able to fly, or dodge bullets,” Davis jokes. “The score for The Matrix was about 90 minutes long; the score for Reloaded was about 100 minutes; and the score for Revolutions was about 110 minutes.”
It’s not exactly a secret that the back-to-back sequels, which were released within six months of each other in 2003, connected far less intimately with audiences and critics than did The Matrix. Davis describes the situation as “very complicated” and one that requires a “very complicated answer, which I'm afraid can only be seen as inadequate in the context of an interview like this.” Nevertheless, he attempts to address a “few of the things that I think went awry” in the release of the two films.
“The departure of Lorenzo di Bonaventura at a very unfortunate time for us, I think, put us at something of a disadvantage,” he suggests. “He was instrumental in shepherding the trilogy through Warner Brothers, from the initial discussions about casting to the final marketing decisions.”
“I believe that had Lorenzo still been at Warners when Reloaded and Revolutions were released, his presence would have resulted in a much more focused and relevant marketing campaign,” Davis adds. “As it turned out, the campaign for Reloaded was oversaturated, which resulted in a huge audience that was expecting something that they weren't going to get.”
“Then the marketing department overcompensated in the opposite direction when Revolutions was released, resulting in a lack of audience awareness. It's my contention that Lorenzo's understanding of the project and his personal stake in its outcome would have inspired a much more sensible marketing strategy.”
Although Davis believes the Wachowskis’ refusal to do any interviews with the press stems from a deeply held conviction that it is unseemly for artists to promote their own work, he feels this decision was misunderstood by many of the journalists who covered the franchise. “There were people in the press who were personally insulted by that stance, and I believe that those bad feelings colored many of the reviews and coverage,” he insists.
“And lastly, it seems that as madly as the press likes to build their heroes beyond any human possibility, they just as demonically like to tear them down, and the elusive and mysterious Wachowski brothers were prime targets for just that sort of bloodlust,” he says. “In the long run, it is my belief that Larry and Andy's achievements will bear themselves out, as their work truly does speak for itself.”
The Matrix will likely not end with Revolutions. Though there’s little chance of another Matrix feature, special edition DVDs and Internet components are around the corner. And look for Davis to be on hand.
“I'm going to be involved with The Matrix Online, which is a subscription-served interactive video game on the Internet that will move the Matrix storyline forward in an incredibly innovative way,” Davis says. “It's being developed by Monolith in conjunction with Warner Brothers' video game department, and they already have several months’ worth of story material that Larry and Andy have rubber-stamped. It will be ready by the end of this year, and I believe it will invigorate the Matrix legacy for many years to come.”
So, if someone only just discovered Davis through his Matrix connection, what other scores of his would he suggest people check out, and why?
“Although the film didn't reach a large audience, the score from Warriors of Virtue shows a more melodic and traditional aspect to my work, which might surprise some of those who are only aware of my work on The Matrix trilogy,” he replies. “Similarly, the score from Jurassic Park III shows what I can do when I'm trying to continue the legacy of a master composer's previous work. And Bound might be a revelation to anyone who might want to see what everyone involved in The Matrix did when presenting a lesbian thriller.”
Given his many years in the composing game, Davis can wax practical about the purpose of scores. Music, he stresses, serves myriad functions. “Its most basic function is to provide an emotional framework on which to hang the human elements of any particular storyline,” concludes Davis, who’s currently working on an opera called Río de Sangre, excerpts of which will be presented by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in November of 2005.
“But scores also enable suspensions of disbelief, provide intensity to fights and chases, inform the audience about unseen plot elements, provide a sense of time and place, and give the film an immediate aural identity,” he adds. “Just to point out a few of the basics.”