Wired (US), Mar 29, 2019
How The Matrix Built a Bullet-Proof Legacy
by Brian Raftery
Before its release, audiences had never seen anything like the Wachowskis' sci-fi action flick—and they were about to be blown away
One day in 1992, Lawrence Mattis opened up his mail to find an unsolicited screenplay from two unknown writers. It was a dark, nasty, almost defiantly uncommercial tale of cannibalism and class warfare—the type of story that few execs in Hollywood would want to tell. Yet it was exactly the kind of movie Mattis was looking for.
Only a few years earlier, Mattis, in his late twenties, had abandoned a promising legal career to start a talent company, Circle of Confusion, with the aim of discovering new writers to represent. He'd set up shop in New York City, despite being told repeatedly that his best hope for finding talent was to be in Los Angeles. Before that strange script showed up, Mattis was starting to wonder if those naysayers had been right. "I'd only sold a few options that paid about five hundred dollars each," Mattis says. "I was starting to think about going back to law. Then I get this letter from these two kids, saying 'Could you please read our script?'"
The screenplay, titled Carnivore, was a horror tale set in a soup kitchen, where the bodies of the rich are used to feed the poor. "It was funny, it was visceral, and it made it clear that whoever wrote it really knew movies," Mattis says. Its writers were Lilly and Lana Wachowski, two self-described "schmoes from Chicago" who, in later years, would be referred to by many colleagues and admirers simply as "the Wachowskis."
By the time they contacted Mattis, the Wachowskis had been collaborating for years, having spent their childhood creating radio plays, comic books, and their own role-playing game. They'd been raised in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side by their mother, a nurse and artist, and their father, a businessman. Growing up, their parents had encouraged them to discover art, especially film. "We saw every single, solitary movie that was out," said Lana. "I would go through the newspaper and circle them, and I would figure out a plan on how I would see them all."
The Wachowskis loved morally murky '50s classics such as Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train, as well as such '60s and '70s thrillers as Repulsion and The Conversation. But one notably tough-to-replicate big-screen experience occurred in 1982, when the teenage siblings took in repeated screenings of Blade Runner—a grim, grimy future noir that was exiled from theaters almost as soon as it opened. "Everyone hated Blade Runner, except for us," Lana said.
Lana and Lilly would both eventually drop out of college; afterward, they worked at a construction company they'd cofounded, while also writing comic books and screenplays. Much of their early filmmaking knowledge was divined from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, the memoir/handbook by famed indie filmmaker Roger Corman, the director of such B movies as 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors. "We were inspired," Lana said. "We wanted to try to make a low-budget horror movie." After finishing their Carnivore script, they found Mattis by picking his name out of an agency guide. It was a good time to shop around a movie idea, no matter how outré, as the market for original scripts had exploded, turning screenwriters into superstars. In 1990, Joe Eszterhas had earned a reported $3 million for Basic Instinct; that same year, Lethal Weapon creator Shane Black had wound up as the subject of a lengthy Los Angeles Times profile after receiving nearly $2 million for his action comedy The Last Boy Scout. "Hollywood deals started showing up in the mainstream press," says Mattis. "And people were selling scripts for crazy amounts of money every day."
Mattis signed the Wachowskis shortly after reading Carnivore. The script's gnarly eat-the-rich storyline all but guaranteed it wouldn't get made, but it attracted enough interest in the siblings that their next effort—a dark tale of dueling contract killers titled Assassins—would sell for $1 million. At the time of the deal, the Wachowskis were renovating their parents' home. Not long after, they left the construction business for good.
The big-screen version of Assassins—starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, directed by Lethal Weapon's Richard Donner, and released by Warner Bros.—would be a shock to the Wachowskis. Their script was rewritten, prompting Lana to describe the film as "our abortion." The siblings took greater control of their next film, Bound, a pulse-racing thriller starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as lovers who swindle a mob goon out of his millions. Bound would be the siblings' directorial debut, and they made it clear from the beginning who was in charge. On one version of the film's screenplay, they wrote the warning "This is the sex scene, and we're not cutting it."
After debuting at Sundance in January 1996, the lusty, grisly Bound was released that fall, becoming a minor hit—especially at the offices of Warner Bros. The studio had just watched its own erotic revenge thriller, an expensive remake of the '50s French stunner Diabolique, fail to turn on viewers. According to Lorenzo di Bonaventura, then a top development executive at the studio, Warner Bros. cochairman Terry Semel saw Bound and exclaimed, "Goddamnit—this thing probably cost a fraction of our picture, and it's so much more interesting."
Di Bonaventura already knew what film the Wachowskis wanted to make as their follow-up. In fact, he'd already bought the screenplay— one that had stumped nearly everyone who encountered it. The Wachowskis' new story was so audacious, so future-forging, that all you could do was read it and wonder: What is the Matrix?
For much of the early '90s, when they weren't writing spec scripts or building elevator shafts, the Wachowskis fantasized about creating a sci-fi comic book that would allow them to sample all of their cultural obsessions. "We were interested in a lot of things," said Lilly, reeling off a list of the siblings' shared pursuits: "making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life." They were also into Hong Kong action movies; early film fixations such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 French sci-fi noir Alphaville; the power of the still ascending internet; and Homer's The Odyssey, which each sibling had read multiple times.
Writing by hand, the Wachowskis filled up multiple notebooks with ideas for what they called The Matrix, their creative sessions soundtracked by the aggro-rock white noise of Rage Against the Machine and Ministry. Eventually they scrapped the comic book concept and decided to download years' worth of concepts and sketches into a screenplay. Their elaborate script for The Matrix follows a bored young office worker who moonlights as a hacker named Neo. One night, Neo meets Morpheus, a cryptic sage who reveals that we're all living in an evil computer-run simulation called the Matrix. Morpheus offers Neo a choice: He can swallow a blue pill and return to his dull office job, living happily (and obliviously) ever after in a fake reality. Or he can swallow a red pill and set off on a conscious-shifting transformation, acquiring all sorts of new powers before taking down the Matrix for good—and fulfilling his prophecy as "the One." Neo chooses the red pill, and as he begins his journey toward becoming a gun-wielding, kung fu–fighting supersoldier, his reaction is relatably real: "Whoa."
Mattis, who had studied philosophy in college, recognized similarities between The Matrix and the ideas of René Descartes, the 17th-century French thinker who wrote about man's inability to know what is truly reality. "When I first read the script, I called them and said, 'This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes! But how do I sell this thing?'" Mattis began circulating their script in 1995, right around the time that the internet—once the dial-up domain of academics, hackers, and military employees—was on its way to becoming a broadband phenomenon. Online, reality was becoming bendable. From the moment users picked a screen handle or even an email address, they were getting the chance to rewrite their own existence and create a whole new version of themselves—new name, new gender, new hometown, new anything. People were stepping into their own virtual worlds every day, and the Wachowskis' script for The Matrix had a question for them: Now that we can create as many realities as we want, how do we know which one is actually "real"?
It was a timely query, one wrapped in an otherwise action-filled script, full of twists, chases, endless gunplay, and even a helicopter slamming into the side of a skyscraper. Yet there was no pill that could convince most studio execs to see The Matrix as a viable movie. The only company to show any real interest was Warner Bros., which had already bought the script for The Matrix years earlier, and then let it languish while the duo worked on Bound.
"Nobody understood it," says di Bonaventura, who, along with producer Joel Silver, was an early supporter of the movie. "They would go, 'How does this work? I’m sitting in a room, but I'm actually living in a machine? What the fuck are we doing?'" Di Bonaventura asked the Wachowskis to pare down the screenplay—which had enough ideas for three movies—and suggested they go off and make Bound, in order to prove they could direct. But even after that movie's success, the heads of Warner Bros. needed more convincing. So the Wachowskis enlisted the hyperdetailed comics artist Geof Darrow to design much of the foreboding technology of The Matrix, including the Sentinel, a war machine that resembles an electric, spermlike insect, and the body-harvesting Power Plant. The Wachowskis also hired artist Steve Skroce to draw nearly 600 detailed storyboards, breaking down the movie shot by shot.
Finally the Wachowskis laid out all of their Matrix materials for Warner Bros. cochairmen Semel and Bob Daly. "It was an unusual show," says di Bonaventura. "One of the Wachowskis was explaining the story, and the other was making sound effect noises." Afterward, di Bonaventura remembers, Semel asked the exec if the company was going to make money on The Matrix. "I thought for half a second and said, 'We're not going to lose any money.'" The Matrix's budget was estimated at around $60 million, a huge investment in an idea that couldn't be distilled to a single-sentence pitch. But that amount was far less than what Warner Bros. had spent on Batman & Robin, a disastrously overpriced franchise entry that would be all but scoffed out of existence before 1997 was over. Warner Bros., like the rest of the major studios, had watched moviegoers grow increasingly tired of unsolicited remakes and retreads. They wanted new adventures, new ideas. "Sequels were faltering," says di Bonaventura. "And a lot of genres were dying: action-comedy movies, buddy-cop movies. We knew we needed to do something different."
His bosses agreed. The Wachowskis would get their $60 million budget—as long as they filmed in Australia, where it would be cheaper. After years of waiting, the schmoes from Chicago would finally be able to construct the Matrix. Now they just had to find the One.
Finding the One
By the late '90s, it was possible to sum up Keanu Reeves’s acting career in a single word: woe. The decade had begun promisingly enough, with Reeves playing an undercover surf cop in Point Break, a time-traveling metal head in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, and a soft-spoken male hustler in My Own Private Idaho—all in 1991 alone. A few years later, in 1994, the success of the high-velocity thriller Speed had promised to turn Reeves into the next die-hard action hero. Instead, he had steered his movie career from one strange, stupefying destination to the next. There was a drippy period romance (A Walk in the Clouds) and a dippy modern romance (Feeling Minnesota), not to mention a few bogus action efforts, such as the cyberpunk adventure Johnny Mnemonic. As the decade came to a close, Reeves—who was in his early thirties—had begun to fret a bit about where he fit into Hollywood. Oh, my God, have I disappeared? he remembered wondering. Will a studio want to see me?
His fears weren't misplaced. Reeves had recently completed the trashterpiece Devil's Advocate for Warner Bros., starring as a lawyer who goes up against Satan. That movie would be a modest hit upon release late in 1997, but at the time of the Matrix casting, Reeves wasn't high on the studio's wish list for Neo. According to di Bonaventura, the role had been passed on by Will Smith (who wanted to make Wild Wild West), Brad Pitt (who'd just been through Seven Years in Tibet), and Leonardo DiCaprio (who didn't want to do another special effects movie after Titanic). "It got to the point where we offered it to Sandra Bullock and said we'd change Neo to a girl." She too said no.
In early 1997, Reeves found himself at Warner Bros.' headquarters in Burbank, California. He'd arrived at the lot for his first meeting with the Wachowskis, who'd recently sent the actor their screenplay of The Matrix. "When I first read that script," Reeves said, "it made my blood happy." That day, the siblings showed Reeves some of their designs, and as the conversation continued, it became clear that it wouldn't be their last. "They told me they wanted [me] to train for four months prior to filming," Reeves recalled. "And I got a big grin on my face and said, 'Yes.'" Noted Lana Wachowski, "We knew it would take a maniacal commitment from someone, and Keanu was our maniac."
Reeves was also a lover of sci-fi and philosophy, one who didn't flinch when the Wachowskis asked him to prepare by reading such treatises as Jean Baudrillard's perception-bending 1981 Simulacra and Simulation. "One of the great misunderstandings about Keanu is that people don't think he's smart," says di Bonaventura. "Maybe it’s because of the Bill & Ted movies. But Keanu gives me books I cannot make heads nor tails of. And in Keanu, the Wachowskis found somebody who was an intellectual searcher."
The hunt to find who would play Morpheus, Neo's calm, clinical guide to the Matrix, would be even more drawn out. Warner Bros. offered the role to such stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas, who both declined. The Wachowskis, meanwhile, were pushing for Laurence Fishburne, who as a teenager had starred in Francis Ford Coppola's carnage-filled Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now and had earned an Oscar nomination as the abusive Ike Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do with It. They'd met the actor in Las Vegas in the summer of 1997, at the boxing match in which Mike Tyson had bit the ear of Evander Holyfield. "I had a dream about a man who wore mirrored sunglasses and spoke in riddles," Lana Wachowski would later tell Fishburne, "and when I met you and heard your voice I knew that you were that guy."
But studio execs worried that Fishburne, despite having won both an Emmy and a Tony, wasn't well enough known overseas for the role. Their choice was Val Kilmer, who'd recently played the Dark Knight in 1995's hit Batman Forever but who'd earned a reputation as a not-worth-the-drama nuisance during the filming of a recent remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau (quite a feat, considering that his costar was the legendarily impossible Marlon Brando, who spent part of the Moreau shoot waddling around with an ice bucket on his head). "The Wachowskis had heard all the stories about Val," says di Bonaventura, "and I said, 'Yeah, but it gets the movie made.' So we have a meeting with him at the Bel-Air Hotel, where he proceeds to pitch why Morpheus should be the lead of the movie. I knew within two minutes of the meeting we were dead." Kilmer was soon out of contention, and the job went to Fishburne, who said he had always thought of Morpheus as "Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one—and maybe some Yoda."
The third major Matrix role to fill was Trinity, a high-flying, fast-kicking operative who assists Morpheus aboard their underground ship, the Nebuchadnezzar. Jada Pinkett Smith auditioned for the part, "but Keanu and I didn't click," she said. "We just didn't have any chemistry." The Wachowskis ultimately went with Carrie-Anne Moss, a Canadian-born actor who'd starred in such '90s TV dramas as Models Inc. and F/X: The Series. (She'd also performed in a Canadian fantasy series called Matrix.) As part of her days-long screen test, Moss sparred and practiced with stunt performers. Afterward, she said, "I couldn't walk for days." The Wachowskis wanted the actors to do most of their own physical work so the camera wouldn't have to cut away to stunt performers. Still, Moss said, "I remember thinking, 'They don’t really think I'm gonna do this stuff, like jumping from one building to another. Of course I'm not going to do that!'"
In the fall of 1997, before filming began, the Matrix team spent months in a massive, frills-free warehouse in Burbank, where the film's cast endured daily training sessions overseen by Yuen Woo-ping, a legendary Chinese director and martial arts choreographer who'd steered such overseas hits as Drunken Master, Jackie Chan's 1978 kung fu breakthrough. Working with Yuen's team of stunt technicians, the actors stretched, kicked, and sparred for hours on end. Sometimes they were strapped to wires and flung through the air—the stars of a high-tech, high-ambition action film hovering over a pile of dinky mattresses. "After the first day, I was so shattered and so shocked," said actor Hugo Weaving, who'd been hired to play Agent Smith, Neo's obsessive nemesis. "I realized I was so unfit." (Not long into training, Weaving injured his femur, requiring him to walk on crutches until he could heal.)
Reeves also had to be handled delicately. In the late '90s, the actor learned he'd done some serious damage to his spine: "I was falling over in the shower in the morning, because you lose your sense of balance," he said. He eventually discovered that two of his vertebrae were fusing together. "Keanu's doctor told him that he had to have this operation, or he'd become a quadriplegic," says Barrie M. Osborne, a Matrix executive producer. Reeves underwent surgery before filming, and once he arrived in Burbank for training, he wore a neck brace and was forbidden to kick for several months. Luckily, there were other ways to prepare: During preproduction and filming, the actor said, "kung fu dojos" were set up, in which the cast members could "stretch and watch kung fu movies."
The Wachowskis weren't subjected to the same brutal regimen, as writing and directing a multimillion-dollar movie was taxing enough. Still, they were always nearby during the months-long training and easy to spot. For the Wachowskis, there'd be "none of that Hollywood thing," Moss said around the time of filming. "They're from Chicago. They wear shorts. They wear baseball caps. They watch basketball games."
The siblings’ love of their hometown Chicago Bulls was so strong, they'd arranged for Warner Bros. to provide a satellite TV on set so they could watch the 1998 NBA Finals. They'd also insisted on bringing along many of their Bound collaborators, including cinematographer Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg, and Joe Pantoliano, whom the siblings cast as Cypher, the teammate of Morpheus and Trinity. Cypher is the most skeptical inhabitant of the Matrix—and, in some ways, its most relatable one. After years of living in the techno-shithole of the real world, he ultimately sells out his friends in order to escape to the blue-pill life of the Matrix.
Pantoliano had played pragmatic weasels for years, most famously in '80s hits such as The Goonies and Risky Business, the latter of which found him tormenting Tom Cruise as Guido, the Killer Pimp. Yet he'd never prepared for a movie quite as strenuously as he did for The Matrix. "They wanted me to be in the best shape of my life," says the actor, who was in his mid-forties at the time of filming. "No drinking, eating steamed vegetables, working out at a gym. I'm a fucking character actor! This trainer they hired said to me, 'You can do three thousand sit-ups a day, but that ain't going nowhere.' So I talk to my buddy, a plastic surgeon, and decide I'm going to get an $8,000 liposuction procedure." Pantoliano sent the bill for the surgery to the studio, claiming that the liposuction counted as "research and development." (He says he was never reimbursed.)
After the Matrix team finished rewiring their bodies in Burbank, they'd be shuttled off to Sydney, where the Wachowskis would be filming their ambitious sci-fi tale. They'd spent years fantasizing about what The Matrix could look like and had planned its production as carefully as possible: Months of physical training. Pages of detailed storyboards. Hours of explanatory meetings. Yet one of the most exhausting challenges of making The Matrix was also one of its biggest revelations: bullet-time.
The term itself appears toward the end of the Matrix screenplay, during a scene in which Neo is under attack on a skyscraper rooftop. A Matrix operative named Agent Jones fires at him from close range—but by now Neo has spent so much time in the Matrix, he's learned to manipulate it. Here's how the moment is described in the film's shooting script, from August 1998:
[Jones's] gun booms as we enter the liquid space of— Bullet-time.
The air sizzles with wads of lead like angry flies as Neo twists, bends, ducks just between them . . . Neo bent impossibly back, one hand on the ground as a spiraling gray ball shears open his shoulder.
The Wachowskis' description of the scene was brief, excitable—and totally puzzling. "Liquid space"? What did that even mean? And how was Keanu Reeves—a guy who'd just undergone neck surgery—going to bend "impossibly back"? For a long time, no one was quite sure how "bullet-time" would play out on the screen—including the Wachowskis themselves. "People would say, 'Well, how are you gonna do that?'" remembered Lana. "And we were like, 'We're working on it.'"
The idea behind bullet-time was that the camera would move at regular speed but capture movement in slow motion. That would create the "liquid space" in which it felt as though the all-seeing camera could move anywhere, picking up every detail. What the Wachowskis wanted, Lana said, was for the visuals to "push at the boundaries of reality." But the realities of filmmaking pushed back. The siblings initially toyed with the idea of putting a slow-motion camera on a high-speed rocketlike device—an idea that was nixed for various reasons of safety and practicality. Instead, bullet-time would have to be created with digital effects, which in recent years had allowed filmmakers not only to mint new creatures and galaxies, but also to refurbish the world we already knew.
For decades, the visual effects field had been dominated by Industrial Light & Magic, the San Francisco–based firm George Lucas had founded in the mid-'70s, in order to make the first Star Wars film. But the surge in '90s CGI had launched several scrappy visual effects companies, including Mass Illusions (later renamed Manex Visual Effects). The company's breakthrough effort, the 1998 Robin Williams drama What Dreams May Come, took place inside a sumptuous, digitally created afterlife that earned Manex an Academy Award for visual effects. But by the end of the decade, the company was still working out of an old building at Naval Air Station Alameda, a decommissioned federal base on the San Francisco Bay. The run-down industrial facility was filled with empty weapons-testing areas and the remains of charred computers—what Manex VP of technology Kim Libreri describes as "a weird techno-garden of blacked-out electronics." To work at Alameda was to be reminded that the institutions that were supposed to protect us—and the technologies that kept them running—were just as fallible as we were. Sometimes, they could even turn against us. In Manex's headquarters, "if you blew your nose, black stuff would come out," says Libreri. "It was like we were being eaten by something."
It was a fitting environment within which to create the immersive, invasive 0s and 1s world of The Matrix. Libreri and Manex’s senior visual effects supervisor, John Gaeta, first met with the Wachowskis in 1996, when the directors were still fine-tuning their script. "They were trying to understand how to manifest the things that they saw in their head," says Gaeta, who notes that the Wachowskis wanted to evoke "the feel of virtual reality—the feeling of having power over time and space—while being bound to physical cameras." The concept seemed overly ambitious, especially for two filmmakers who'd never made an effects-intensive film before. "People were super skeptical about the Wachowskis' abilities to pull off bullet-time," says Libreri. "And trying to get artists to work on The Matrix was already hard. Some of them were like, 'Keanu Reeves? Virtual reality? Are you making another Johnny Mnemonic?'"
The bullet-time technology would be needed for a handful of crucial Matrix sequences, including Reeves' rooftop showdown. On an all-green soundstage in Sydney, Reeves was connected to wires and placed amid a cascading semicircle made up of 120 still cameras. The wires pulled Reeves backward to the ground, contorting his torso to a 90-degree angle, as the still cameras went off in quick succession around him—their combined images circling the actor as he fell backward. At the same time, his backward bend was captured by a pair of motion picture cameras. Later, all of these elements were blended together with a digitally inserted background and several airborne bullets.
That single shot would take nearly two years to complete and run an estimated $750,000 in computer costs. It quickly proved to be a worthwhile investment. Libreri remembers one internal screening of Matrix footage during which Reeves—seated in the front row—began lying back in his chair, excitedly re-creating his rooftop bends. At that same session, the team previewed another key effects sequence, in which a camera swirls around Trinity as she leaps up and kicks a cop. According to Libreri, "Joel Silver got up and said, 'That’s it! This is where everybody's going to get up and scream!'"
The Manex team would create more than 400 digital shots for The Matrix, its members sometimes finding themselves in the middle of the film's extravagant action sequences. One weekend, while helping with a complicated helicopter sequence over downtown Sydney, digital effects producer Diana Giorgiutti received a call from her parents, who were nearby. "They said, 'Are you shooting, by any chance?'" Giorgiutti says. "And I'm like, 'Yeah. I'm actually cabled to a railing on the 44th floor of a building.'"
Giorgiutti became close to the Wachowskis during the shoot, hanging out in the siblings' office as they vented about studio headaches and huddling with them during filming. At one point she asked if they were interested in splitting up some of the directing duties, to save time. "We don't do that," one of the Wachowskis told her. "We work together as one."
Throughout the making of The Matrix, that unified front never wavered. Filming in Australia gave the siblings a geographic distance from Warner Bros., as well as plenty of autonomy: "It felt like we were a secret," says costume designer Kym Barrett. Yet there were still moments when they found themselves at odds with the studio. "Warners was worried about the budget," says Matrix producer Osborne, who notes that the studio had already chosen scenes it would ax if the movie started racking up costs.
It was a threat the studio tried to make good on at least once. About two-thirds of the way into filming, the Wachowskis pulled aside Matrix editor Zach Staenberg and showed him an email they'd received from a Warner Bros. exec. It said the filmmakers were running over budget and that certain scenes would need to be cut. "They shot that morning and then broke for lunch," says Staenberg. "And they did not return from lunch."
A producer eventually dispatched Staenberg to visit the siblings in their office, where they were watching a Bulls game. "They had a way of talking that was very much like twinspeak," remembers Staenberg. "And they said, in their almost offhanded way, 'If we don't have those scenes, we don't have the movie—and they can get someone else to finish it.'" After a few hours, the Wachowskis received a call from the studio, telling them not to worry about the cost overruns. "They basically played poker, feeling they had a strong hand—and they were right," says Staenberg. He adds: "The Matrix was made over-schedule and over-budget, but it was made on the Wachowskis' terms."
It helped that Staenberg had edited together a few early sequences and sent them back to Burbank, in order to calm execs' nerves. "The studio could see the movie was going to be really special," says Osborne, "and that took a lot of the heat off."
One moment that especially excited Warner Bros., even in rough form, was a wall-pulverizing shoot-out that takes place in a cavernous skyscraper lobby. It's an intensely physical scene, with Neo executing a quadruple kick, and Trinity cartwheeling off the side of a wall. Moss had been especially nervous about the lobby stunt: "The weekend before I had to do it, I was in the training center in tears, saying: 'I can't do it! I can't do it!'" she said. An hour before the cameras rolled, while practicing with her trainers, she injured her ankle and fell to the ground, moaning "Oh no, oh no,” as a team of stunt workers rubbed her back. She was able to perfect the cartwheel later that day during rehearsals but struggled once the cameras were rolling, letting out what sounded like a loud, anguished "FUCK!"
The lobby sequence found Moss and Reeves running and fighting while clad in what appeared to be impossibly tight-fitting leather get-ups. Matrix costume designer Barrett had rummaged through fabric suppliers in New York City, seeking out affordable, lightweight materials, such as vinyl, that could give the characters their cool, shiny S&M style—while also being true to the Wachowskis' story. "In the script, it talks a lot about people appearing and merging into worlds," says Barrett, who before The Matrix had worked on director Baz Luhrmann's rococo 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. "I thought, 'How can you do that and not get seen?'" The shiny black Lycra outfit worn by Trinity was a solution. "I wanted her to move like an oil slick on water," Barrett says, "with layers of reflection."
All of the Matrix outfits were intended to signify the characters’ respective journeys. Reeves' long black jacket, which he wears during the rooftop battle—donning it almost like a cape as he confronts the Matrix head-on—was designed to "have an ancient feeling, as well as a slightly ecclesiastical feeling," Barrett says. "I wanted him to change from the reluctant hero to someone who had taken on this responsibility." Barrett's Matrix work also required her to design multiple pairs of sunglasses, one for nearly every lead character—a nod to the film's bigger theme of obscured identities. "All of our lenses were reflective," she says. "You couldn't see their eyes unless we wanted you to."
Like many of the Matrix cast and crew, Barrett wound up working on the movie longer than she'd expected. Warner Bros. had allowed the shoot to extend from 90 days to 118, giving the siblings enough time to film nearly every scene they wanted. Reeves' final day of filming, in late summer 1998, found him nearly naked in a giant techno-pod, as Neo's energy is sucked away by spiderlike robots—the grim reality that awaits all of us in the Matrix. Reeves had already endured major surgery, as well as months of body-altering training, for the role. But his final day as Neo would require one last transformation: Right before filming, he’d sat in a bathtub shaving his head, eyebrows, and body.
Afterward, the newly hairless Reeves noticed that people had trouble making eye contact with him. But if they were looking at him strangely now, just wait until they got a load of The Matrix.
In the months leading up to the release of the Wachowskis' strange sci-fi fable, Warner Bros. had one major worry: The Phantom Menace. The first Star Wars movie in more than 15 years was due in the summer of 1999, right around the time Warner Bros. had planned on opening The Matrix. But an R-rated, visually dense cyberadventure was all but certain to be squashed by The Phantom Menace, which was hovering over the competition like a mega-million-dollar Death Star. The studio asked the Wachowskis to speed up the postproduction process, in order to get The Matrix ready for the spring.
Otherwise, Warner Bros. had grown increasingly confident in their more than $60 million investment. After one successful Matrix test screening, the film's creative team was called into a meeting with co-chairs Bob Daly and Terry Semel, as well as dozens of other top staffers. "Terry said, 'We love this movie,'" remembers editor Zach Staenberg. "Their only note to us was to take five to ten minutes out. We ended up taking five and a half minutes out, and they never even looked at that final cut." At that same post-screening meeting, Semel would predict the film was "going to make a lot of money." But Staenberg says that the studio's approach to filmmaking wasn't driven solely by profits. "To me, The Matrix is a studio version of an auteur film. It was handled almost the way Warner Bros. used to handle Stanley Kubrick: They'd send him the money, and then keep their distance."
That became clear immediately upon the movie’s release on March 31, 1999. Opening on a Wednesday evening to get a jump start on Easter weekend moviegoing, The Matrix made nearly $37 million in its first five days and instantly reawakened Reeves's leading-man career. More crucially, from the moment it arrived, The Matrix inspired countless theater lobby discussions about the movie's deeper implications—talks that would spill onto the internet for months and eventually years. To some, the movie was simply a dizzying action flick, one that ended on an impossibly id-pumping final scene: Reeves, decked out in his black coat and dark shades, flying through the sky to the righteous roar of Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up."
But to others, The Matrix was itself a wake-up call, one that tried to make sense of the confusion and unease that were beginning to take hold in the late '90s, a period when things were going a bit too smoothly. "That decade was so comfortable," says Mattis, the Wachowskis' longtime manager. "The stock market was up, and people were making money. But there was a splinter in the mind's eye: Something felt wrong. In all of that comfort, people started thinking, 'There's something missing here.'"
The Matrix nudged viewers to develop their own slowed-down, omniscient, bullet-time view of the world around them: Who controls my life? Am I happy or just happily distracted? Do I even exist at all? Such existential turbulence wasn't exclusive to the '90s. But it had grown deeper during a decade in which technology had become so soothing—and so controlling. When the Wachowskis began writing The Matrix, the mainstream web was still in its modem-wheezing early days. By the time the film was released, more than a quarter of all households in the United States were connected to the internet—a number that would shoot up dramatically in the years that followed. At-home computers that had once been used for word processing, recipe storage, and playing The Oregon Trail could now support webcasts, multiuser games, avatar-cluttered message boards and comments sections, and various other time-slurping satisfactions. (Soon enough, there'd even be hours of free music to graze upon, thanks to the June 1999 debut of Napster, the song-sharing site cofounded by a Matrix-loving college student named Shawn Fanning.) When hacker turned hero Neo describes his ascent into "a world where anything is possible," he's voicing the optimism of the brave new web. "The Matrix was 10 years ahead of its time," says Run Lola Run's Tom Tykwer, who cites the film as the first to truly understand the way the online world was becoming "our second home."
But that immersion into a digital nirvana came with all sorts of troubling side effects: system-shattering viruses, an emerging ailment dubbed "internet addiction," and the pre-meltdown panic over Y2K. By the end of the 20th century, there was a lingering belief that the machines might outsmart us. Such a premise had animated sci-fi movies for decades, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator. Now, though, there was a real-world sense that mankind might be losing its edge. In 1996 and 1997, chess legend Garry Kasparov played against Deep Blue, an IBM-created supercomputer, in a series of matches that were treated like a man-versus-machine title bout. "I'm a human being," the frustrated Kasparov declared after losing one of the games. "When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I'm afraid."
The Matrix wasn't alone in augmenting that fear, as a pair of similarly future-shocked films arrived just weeks after its release. In eXistenZ, written and directed by genius sicko David Cronenberg, Jennifer Jason Leigh played a celebrity videogame designer whose latest creation drops players into a fake world so believable, she's targeted by reality-defending terrorists. And in the Blade Runner–referencing noir The Thirteenth Floor, thrill seekers are transported into a fake 1930s Los Angeles, a journey that inevitably results in real-world murders and madness.
Both films took viewers down a virtual-reality rabbit hole. But they were overshadowed by the plausible terrors—and potential empowerment—of The Matrix. It's a movie in which machines keep humans in a comforting trance, while secretly sucking away their very existence ("Be afraid of the future" advised one early Matrix tagline), while also offering a way to fight back: the truth-revealing red pill. In the Wachowskis' world, Neo's acceptance of the pill is a brain-breaking move, one that wises him up to the dystopian reality being camouflaged by the Matrix before setting him on a larger, more hazily defined search for freedom.
"This world has the Matrix all over the place," Lana Wachowski said. "People accept ways of thinking that are imposed upon them rather than working them out themselves. The free-thinking people are those who question every sort of Matrix, every system or thought or belief, be it political, religious, philosophical."
Reality was right in front of you, if you looked hard enough. The question was whether you would want to live in a world that, at times, could be well beyond anyone's understanding.
Adapted from BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery. Copyright © 2019 by Brian Raftery. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.