Bizarre things on the Matrix movie sets

A single, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster represents the sum total of thousands of man hours of work, endless rehearsals, and hushed conversations between actors, producers and directors about the direction of the film. This of course means that statistically, some pretty interesting stuff happens behind the scenes of most films that we, the public, never really get to hear about. Join us as we take a look at the filming of The Matrix franchise to discuss some of the more unusual things that happened when the cameras weren't rolling. 

Members of the cast had to be able to explain 'The Matrix'

One of the key inspirations for The Matrix was a book by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called Simulacra and Simulation. In fact, if you look closely the hollowed out book Neo hides that mysterious disk in during the first movie is a copy of this very tome as a nod to its influence on the film.

Without boring you about the details of the book, which amongst other things discusses the idea of any sufficiently realistic simulation being indistinguishable from reality, it's considered an important, yet fairly dense piece of postmodern philosophy. It was also "suggested" reading for much of the principle cast who were expected by the writers/directors Wachowskis to be able to explain the plot of The Matrix to show that they understood it. 

Keanu Reeves probably got off worst though because he had to read Simulacra and Simulation, along with a book on the impact of machinery on the real world called Out of Control, and a textbook about evolutionary psychology, before he was even allowed to open the script.

Three months of research went into the exploding helicopter scene

There's a scene in The Matrix where a fully laden attack helicopter explodes into the side of a building in super slow-motion, causing the ripple of an explosion to travel across the front of the sheer glass building before it all shatters simultaneously. The Wachowskis wanted to make that scene the "definitive action scene" and tasked their special effects team with studying everything from the physics of fluid dynamics to how various glass reacts to being exploded by a helicopter to make it look as accurate and awesome as possible.

This research took, according to a behind the scenes featurette, about three months and was so cost and labor intensive Warner Bros. initially tried to have the entire scene excised from the move. However, the Wachowskis' passion shone through and the studio relented and the scene was eventually realized using almost every kind of special effect available at the time.

The Wachowskis commissioned a 600-page comic

Prior to the release of The Matrix, the Wachowskis were an unproven directing duo with only two real writing/directing credits to their name, a crappy Sylvester Stallone vehicle they tried to have their name removed from because it was so awful and a cult noir film about a lesbian crime duo robbing the mafia. However, the critical success of the latter did convince Warner Bros. to give the Wachowskis a chance to pitch them on a sci-fi movie concept.

So the pair went to comic artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce and asked them to turn the script into a shot-for-shot storyboard of the entire film. The Wachowskis then presented this 600-page proof-of-concept to Warner Brothers executives, who were impressed enough to hand them a check for $60 million. The only proviso from the studio was that they got to pick the star, eventually settling on Keanu Reeves, a decision the directing duo first scoffed at because they couldn't see the star of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure slapping impeccably dressed computer simulations to death in a subway station. 

All the white shirts were dyed green

If you watch any film in The Matrix trilogy you may notice that every scene set inside the eponymous computer simulation has a weird green tint to it. That is no accident and was a deliberate decision on behalf of both the Wachowskis and costume designer Kym Barrett to give the Matrix a sterile, artificial feel. For this reason, scenes set outside of the Matrix generally eschew this color scheme and tend to show more color, both in the environment and skin tone of characters. 

To this end, Barrett in her role as costume designer completely removed the color blue from the costumes of every main character and set about giving every piece of regular clothing a subtle green tinge. While this could have easily been accomplished with a filter in post-production, Barrett instead put every lighter colored piece of clothing worn by a cast member, like the white shirts of the Agents, through a green wash to give them a slight, but noticeable greenish tint.

Laurence Fishburne insists those dumb glasses never fell off

Although the customs of the various characters in the franchise vary when they decided to enter the Matrix and flip-kick people through windows, they almost all include a pair of stylish sunglasses in a painfully transparent attempt to look cool. Perhaps the most unusual fashion choice of any character in the film though is that of Laurence Fishburne's character, Morpheus. Specifically, his decision to wear a pair of tiny glasses precariously clipped to the bridge of his nose that look like they only stay on his face through sheer force of will.

Despite looking like they could be knocked off his face by a stiff breeze, let alone survive the guy wearing them headbutting his way through a concrete wall, Fishburne insists that at no point during filming did the glasses ever fall off. This understandably left a lot of incredulous fans, one of whom asked the actor how on Earth they possibly stayed on his face at all times in a 2003 interview. Fishburne's answer? "You just gotta be really cool when you wear them."

Keanu Reeves signed away millions of dollars, just to be a nice guy

A popular fact that swirls around the internet from time to time is that during the production of The Matrix: Reloaded, Keanu Reeves gave away the bulk of his salary to the special effects crew. The amount given away varies with the source although it doesn't really matter because it's not quite true. As nice a guy as Reeves is (and he's a pretty freaking nice guy) he never handed the special effects team of The Matrix trilogy personal checks for millions.

In actuality Reeves didn't hand out any money, but instead signed away his rights to some residual payments so producers could funnel that money back into production. It isn't clear exactly how much money was involved, though it's estimated he likely signed away millions of dollars and all just so the special effects crew could enjoy some job security for the production of the final two movies. 

This is somehow nicer than simply giving away a bulk amount of cash in one go because it means Reeves signed away the potential to earn money from the film forever. Good guy, Keanu!

Nobody was allowed to kick or punch each other

In order to get in shape for the action scenes in The Matrix every member of the principle cast was required to train for about four months with legendary fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping and his stunt team. The grueling training consisted of endless drills and every cast member was given a fighting style representative of their character. Hugo Weaving, for example, was trained to use a very straightforward fighting style consisting of heavy, deliberate punches to represent how his character, Agent Smith, was a machine who fought in the most efficient manner possible. 

According to Keanu Reeves, one of the most frustrating aspects of this training was that at no point was anybody allowed to kick another person. This made it incredibly awkward when on the first day of actual filming he was asked to kick a stuntman and was unable to overcome the muscle memory instilled within him to not follow through on a hit. 

There are houses in Mexico made from destroyed Matrix movie sets

At the time of filming, some of the sets constructed for The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions were among the most ambitious ever built. Arguably the most famous example is the 1.5-mile stretch of fake highway that was built from scratch in an old naval base for the chase scene in The Matrix: Reloaded. Made from lumber and plywood styled to look like concrete, the highway could have represented a tremendous amount of waste if not for the production team making it their mission to ensure almost every piece of the set was recycled. 

This included purpose-built sets as well as the numerous cars that were written off during chase scenes, including one that was destroyed when an extra took it for a joyride and crashed it. All in all it's estimated that 97.5 percent of the materials used in the final two Matrix movies were either recycled or re-purposed to build low-income housing in Mexico. This means there's probably someone out there right now sitting in a living room made of "concrete" that Keanu Reeves threw Hugo Weaving through.

Hugo Weaving realized he was going bald when he saw extras dressed like him

There's a scene in The Matrix: Reloaded where Keanu Reeves punches endless clones of Hugo Weaving in the face as they attempt to overpower and kill him. Although some of the scene was accomplished with CGI, a sizable portion was created by simply making up a bunch of stunt actors to look just like Hugo Weaving, either with masks or makeup. 

The Burly Brawl, as it has since been dubbed, represented a considerable challenge for the crew to make seamless, but they did well. According to Weaving in a behind-the-scenes documentary, it wasn't until he came face-to-face with one of these extras made up to look exactly like him that he realized just how far his hairline had receded. Weaving noted that he, up until that point, had assumed his hair looked fine and even admired his majestic, almost regal hairline in the mirror. Perhaps something about a living mirror is harder to deny.

Some guy's car was ruined by the woman in the red dress

In The Matrix, there's a scene where Neo walks through a rudimentary Matrix simulation designed to show him that the world as he'd known it up to that point was a lie. The scene ends with Neo having a gun pointed at his face by an Agent after being distracted by an attractive woman in a red dress. The lesson? Trust nobody in the Matrix, especially super-hot women wearing cocktail dresses in the middle of a workday. 

The actress playing the woman in the red dress, Fiona Johnson, had almost the same effect on members of the crew and the public. Costume designer Kym Barrett noted during production that while filming her scenes, Johnson was constantly being ogled by the crew and, at one point, a guy was so distracted by her that he parked his car under a giant roller door which then crashed into his roof. Embarrassed, the guy tried to drive off — as you'd expect, this scratched his car all to hell.

A casting director had to search for sets of pale twins and visit a bunch of clubs

If you look closely at the image above (taken from the climax of the Agent training scene in The Matrix) you may notice something a little strange. Specifically, you'll start to notice that a lot of the extras kind of look alike. This is because for that scene dozens of sets of identical twins and triplets were used as extras. It's most noticeable with the balding man to the bottom center right, but look closely and you'll see more

Apparently this was supposed to subtly indicate that the simulation is a hastily constructed imitation of the Matrix and that they simply copy/pasted the same person over and over again to fill out the crowd. According to casting director Tim Little, casting for this scene was particularly difficult as they were looking specifically for twins with pale skin to suit the aesthetic of the film, which was an issue because it was filmed in Australia during the height of summer. 

As for finding so many extras comfortable with wearing tight leather for the various nightclub scenes, Little spent quite a bit of time trawling local adult clubs to find extras who wore outfits like that in their day-to-day life, an experience he described as "fun." 

Racial tension in Australia

Experiencing a new place, with a different culture and a different history, can reveal a lot of underlying prejudices that people might not even be aware of. When the first Matrix movie was filming in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1990s, Laurence Fishburne reported being disturbed by the racist "vibe" he experienced there, according to The Age. Fishburne said it wasn't anything violent, and he wasn't called by any slurs, but that there was an undercurrent of discomfort surrounding his skin color: He described these experiences as resembling United States culture in the 1950s, a comparison he borrowed from a coworker in the accounting department. He and his coworker weren't alone in this assessment, citing several other crew members who had the same impression.

However, Fishburne also argued that things changed a lot after the 2000 Olympic games, which brought people from all over the world to Sydney, many of whom made it their home. When the actor returned to film the second Matrix movie in 2001, he said people seemed far more comfortable with him, and he noticed a great deal more diversity in the streets. Eventually, Fishburne came to love the city, even referring to himself as a "Sydneysider."

Almost all the stars got badly injured

Considering the level of martial arts involved on the set of The Matrix, it'd be no surprise if a couple stunt performers got banged up. However, most of The Matrix cast spent almost as much time in the hospital as they did trading punches. On the first day alone, star Keanu Reeves showed up in a neck brace, according to Entertainment Weekly, having had surgery on his spine only a few weeks beforehand. Unsurprisingly, this injury made it difficult for Reeves to kick, forcing the fight scenes to be reworked. Meanwhile, the other chief combatant, Hugo Weaving, managed to bust his hip only a few days into training, eventually needing surgery. By the time the sequels rolled around, ABC News reported that Reeves had also injured his left ankle. 

These guys weren't alone, though. As the two bonded over medical horror stories, Carrie-Anne Moss was secretly hiding an ankle injury because she worried that revealing the issue might lead to her being replaced, according to the BBC. Things didn't get any easier for her during production of the Matrix sequels, where she actually broke her leg. Ouch. So yeah, everybody came away with some scars.