Heading into spring 1999, there was only one film on everyone’s lips – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. But even before the world knew what a turkey that was, its thunder had already been stolen by a smarter, bolder, upstart sci-fi blockbuster: The Matrix. From seemingly nowhere, the Wachowski siblings reinvented what a fantasy movie could be.
In a groundbreaking feature ahead of its UK release, writer John Patterson peered under the bonnet of The Matrix and exposed to the world all sorts of things we now take for granted: “bullet-time” action, mid-air fights and the undying majesty of Mr Keanu Reeves.
To mark the resumption of production in Berlin on the keenly-anticipated Matrix 4, Lilly Wachowski’s recent revelation that the original trilogy was a trans allegory and, finally, Keanu’s 56th birthday (2nd September), we proudly reprint John’s excellent story.
(This article was initially printed in 1999. Here, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s names and gender pronouns have been amended)
There it squats, a menacing Death Star at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s summer release schedule, spitting fire and ruin on all who approach it – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a movie emitting lethal box-office anti-gravity waves. Pity the fool who schedules his film to open anywhere near the oncoming behemoth.
No wonder producer Joel Silver was anxious about his effects-heavy, $60 million cyberspace thriller The Matrix. To get it the hell away from Star Wars, he spent an extra $4 million on speeding up post-production, helping his directors, sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, meet a drastically forwarded release date. It would prove a good investment.
The Matrix opened in America on 31st March. It took $27.7 million at the box-office in its opening weekend, breaking all records for Easter weekend. By the end of April, it had scooped $117.3 million. After six years’ work and 14 script drafts, and the development of techniques that would change the face of film-making, the Wachowski sisters’ Big Idea had shown that 1999’s sci-fi landscape will not be entirely based round Tunisian deserts.
Little wonder that Silver – the blockbusting executive who stretched his Lethal Weapon marque into four films – is pressurising the Wachowskis for two sequels.
Without revealing too much of The Matrix’s epic construct, the premise at the film’s heart is that life – and reality itself – is a computer illusion designed to conceal our own enslavement. Keanu Reeves is Neo, a hacker who may or may not be “The One”, for whom a team of cyber outlaws, led by Laurence Fishburne, have long been waiting.
It is “The One” who will lead humanity out of the dark – as long as he can defeat the sinister, invincible “Agents”. If Star Wars is a flag-waving alternative Creation myth, The Matrix crystallises sci-fi’s darker, dystopian tendencies with its dispiriting vision of existence.
Modern American audiences, it appears, like this idea an awful lot.
The Matrix was a gamble for everyone. When the Wachowskis talk of “rejecting any system that’s supposed to regulate thought”, they are referring as much to the conventions of sci-fi special effects as they are to the social structure that is the setting for The Matrix. Their development of an innovative slow-motion filming process called “bullet-time photography” was crucial if they were to successfully blend chop-socky kinetics, manga drama and post-William Gibson narratives on screen.
“We tried to put in every genre we could think of,” says Lana Wachowski. This meant the film’s Visual Effects Supervisor, John Gaeta, would spend two years finessing certain shots. He needed 150 cameras and a “laser-guided tracking system” to help Keanu dodge bullets and fight in mid-air.
But the end-result was worth it. As Geof Darrow, The Matrix’s Conceptual Designer, puts it: “They were the guys who were finally going to do it: put a comic book on the screen.”
The other interested parties took risks, too. Warner Brothers had to erase memories of mega-budget duffers such as The Postman and The Avengers. The film’s topline star, Reeves, once big box-office booty, had become the open-joke fronting Feeling Minnesota and, notably, wannabe-clever sci-fi flick Johnny Mnemonic.
As for the Wachowskis, they had to justify Silver’s big-bucks faith. That, and finally achieve the measure of control they had sought since their script for Assassins was defanged and castrated by star Sylvester Stallone and director Richard Donner in 1994. Donner, the sisters were always fond of reminding people, may have directed the Lethal Weapon movies, but he had also directed TV’s The Banana Splits.
The Wachowskis’ only previous experience of directing, 1995’s “lipstick lesbian noir thriller” Bound, had brought further headaches. The suits wanted Gina Gershon’s “more masculine” lesbian changed to a man. America’s film ratings board demanded cuts for what they called “hand sex”. However, Bound enjoyed some critical and commercial success.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski had developed their ideas for The Matrix while working for Marvel Comics. “Comics and movies are very similar worlds,” says Lana. “Both have very short attention spans, but at least comics aren’t afraid of ideas.” Idea-phobia dogged their early years in Hollywood. One script, Carnivore, “was about eating the rich. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to make it, because everyone in Hollywood is rich.”
After dropping out of college they began writing dialogue for the comic adaptations of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. It was there that they met Steve Skroce, who would become a key storyboard artist on The Matrix.
Drawing on their obsessives’ knowledge of comic-book art and movie iconography, from Westerns to Hong Kong action films, the Waschowskis had a team of artists “draw” their putative film from beginning to end. They presented Warner Bros with 500 storyboards.
“I did drawings for all the ‘bullet-time’ stuff,” says Skroce. “When they described Neo dodging the bullets, Lana would stand up and actually do the movement and fall back. They knew exactly where his arm would be and how his cape would move. He did it a few times so I could sketch it. Eventually they showed the boards to Keanu and said: ‘Do this…’ ”
“It was pretty much bruises and bumps every day,” says Keanu’s love interest Carrie-Anne Moss of her punishing four-month stint in martial arts training. Reeves showed up for training in a neck-brace, and chief villain Hugo Weaving – the actor-in-drag who wasn’t Guy Pearce or Terence Stamp in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert – eventually required hip surgery. Then he cracked two ribs and hurt his hand when he came back to work.
Of his Matrix character, Reeves says: “Neo is trying to figure out his life. He feels something is wrong. He doesn’t trust what’s around him, so he removes himself from the world and is seeking his answers monastically.”
When he saw the script in 1997, Keanu himself was, he says, “working on those questions”. Of course he was. But let’s not forget: Keanu took a flyer with an abstract idea about a virtual messiah posited by two unknown (in their own words) “schmoes from Chicago”. And Keanu passed on Speed 2. How dumb can he be?
In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Joel Silver and Warner Bros now have a hot franchise on their hands. The Wachowskis are beating off the hot-money investors with a bat (Carnivore has – surprise, surprise – recently been green-lighted).
Their long-planned dramatisation of Alan Moore’s all-time comic classic V For Vendetta will now be exceedingly well-funded. Carrie-Anne Moss was an also-ran two months ago; now she’s a star. This in a script that talked of technology that hadn’t yet been invented. Keanu Reeves can demand $15 million per project. And claim his dignity back.
Best of all, discerning, Star Wars-weary sci-fi fans have a smarter, cooler movie to relish.
The future’s dark, the future’s brilliant.