You think the Wachowski brothers had it tough?
Sure, they brought us one of best action sci-fi films of the 1990s. It came from nowhere and blew critics and cinemagoers away with its blend of pseudo-philosophy on the nature of existence and black leather-clad martial arts.
It set a seemingly insurmountable challenge for them — to make the two-part sequel worthy of the original and the esteem generation of sci-fi, anime and kung fu fans. Feelings on Reloaded and Revolutions remain mixed and history has judged the world’s most famous anime fanboys pretty harshly, but they still had it easy compared to Eric Matthies and Josh Oreck.
As the producer and director respectively in charge of documenting the Matrix backstory, Matthies and Orbeck produced the original DVD, the Matrix Revisited making-of release, both single releases of the sequels and the current ten-disc box set.
From the time almost eight years ago before the Wachowskis even picked up a camera until early this year, Matthies and Orbeck lived and breathed The Matrix.
‘It’s very similar to producing a documentary,’ Matthies says while taking his first major holiday in years from his Los Angeles home, ‘although there are so many different angles and so many different products we’re responsible for.
‘We were the sole providers for everything on all three films; everything from the publicity to the post production. You also have to understand the needs home video will have down the line, for the current release as well as the earlier ones.’
‘Eric also lugged heavy cases to Australia when we first went over,’ Orbeck adds, ‘He was there to pick up the keys to our apartment. He incurred a heavy personal debt while we were waiting to get paid on the first films, so there’s always little things you don’t hear about.’
Inside the Looking Glass
Try to imagine coordinating a task like documenting the making of the entire Matrix series — while the production units on the films themselves were distinct and in constant motion, Orbeck and his filming units had to be all over the action wherever it was taking place.
And if you’re talking about a trio of movies that used some of the most elaborate sets, special effects, stunts and cinematic artistry in movie history, that’s quite a job.
‘Josh would be with crews covering the main unit,’ Matthies sums up, ‘and we might have other crews covering the second or even third unit. And at the same time there was stuff being rehearsed or whatever so my job was to stay a week or a month ahead, talking to department heads about what they had coming up — where we might need special permission to get in a helicopter or what have you.
As both Matthies and Orbeck remember, their brief from the main players was pretty simple. ‘When the Wachowskis hired me in November 1997, they just wanted me to go in and shoot as much as I possibly could get,’ Orbeck explains, ‘which I have to say was one part of my job I did well — in the end we ended up with a little over 1100 hours of footage.
‘And the only brief I got was from [Matrix producer] Joel Silver the one time I met him was ‘do a good job.”
‘We got told to get everything and stay out of the way,’ Matthies adds dryly.
‘But we had a lot of freedom,’ Orbeck continues, ‘and after a couple of months everyone was comfortable with us filming them every minute and that carried through for five more years.’
‘Also,’ Matthies expands, ‘especially on Reloaded and Revolutions, people in every department were so enthusiastic about what they were doing because of the success of the first film they were encouraged by us being there. We had department heads coming to us saying ‘hey we’re doing this revolutionary stuff over here, it’d be great if you guys could come over and cover it while we’re figuring it out’.’
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
But surely, in films the size of the Matrix series (especially after budgets and production sizes ballooned for Reloaded and Revolutions) it must have been impossible to stay out of the way of technicians crawling all over the set?
‘We were pretty well integrated,’ Matthies remembers. ‘From day one on the first movie we made ourselves such a presence we just faded into the woodwork. People were more aware if we weren’t around and we’d get phone calls saying ‘hey, we’re about to film, where are you guys?”
Deeper Into the Hole
And just like the Matrix itself revolutionised moviemaking, so too the medium revolutionised the job the producer/director duo had to do.
‘One of the mot interesting things about the project is that when we started, there really were no DVDs,’ Orbeck says. ‘We’ve been able to grow up with the medium and push every boundary as it comes up. So we had to keep our options open while we were shooting because the technology and therefore the storytelling options were getting better and better as time went by.
And Matthies believes that what we see on DVDs so far has barely scratched the surface; that for films like The Matrix with multiple themes or relevance, there’s no limit to how deep you can explore.
‘DVDs can go further even than they do today,’ he says, ‘we still have to wait for the audience and the technology in people’s homes to catch up to what’s really possible.
‘We tried to go beyond just making do with the material — we’ve gone and talked to 80 different philosophers and scientists about artificial intelligence, robotics and philosophy. The movies are just a launching point for that stuff, so we’re able to show you more than just how a scene is shot and get into why it was shot or written.’
Both are avid DVD collectors; to Orbeck, it’s important to stay on top of what’s happening in the medium and see how other directors approach both the movies and the extras.
‘Although,’ Matthies interrupts at this point, ‘I’ve got to say I’ve spent a lot more time on a surfboard or a bike than I have in front of a screen since we finished this.’
After a task bigger than the Matrix itself, both Matthies and Orbeck deserve it. And even if you were among those who thought the whole series started great and went badly downhill from there, there’s a whole lot more Matrix to sift through.