Twenty years after the Wachowskis introduced the world to The Matrix, Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are back. Well, sort of. The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment in the franchise, is certainly about The Matrix. But it’s also about The Matrix, the seminal sci-fi/action/cyberpunk movie. Resurrections, you see, is a very meta sequel. But it’s also a very pointed and personal film, and a romantic and exciting one, as well.
This is the first Matrix movie that Lana Wachowski has made without her sister, Lilly. To tackle the screenplay, Lana enlisted the services of two long-time collaborators: journalist and writer Aleksandar Hemon and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell. Both worked with Lana previously on the Netflix series Sense8, bringing the sensibility of their tight-knit screenwriting collective they affectionately refer to as “The Pit.”
To answer the question “What is The Matrix?” in 2021, Wachowski, Hemon, and Mitchell had to look at what The Matrix has meant over the last 20 years—and perhaps, what it will mean 20 years from now. The A.V. Club spoke to Hemon and Mitchell about writing The Matrix Resurrections, how they ended up in “The Pit,” and why they don’t discuss anything with Nazis or fascists.
The A.V. Club: The movie is much more satirical and personal than The Matrix trilogy. It feels like a singular voice but is the culmination of a decade-long working relationship. How did you two end up working with the Wachowskis?
Aleksandar Hemon: I joined them because I was writing a piece for the New Yorker about the making of Cloud Atlas. I was doing it because I was already friends with Lana and Lilly and became friends with [Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer], too. So I was lingering on the fringes of the production, as it were.
I loved them, as I do now. This filmmaking spirit that Lana, Lilly, and Tom projected on the set—I was not involved in the making of Cloud Atlas, obviously, but I was watching it all very closely, and it was so beautiful and appealing. And watching it included a phase when they were still looking for financing, so I read several versions of the script before they had all the money to start making it. I could see how it worked and was fascinated by it because I was new to the whole film thing. How they had to cut some pages when some financing fell through. The whole perpetual drama of filmmaking was entirely fascinating.
I admired their patience and persistence in trying to make the movie. By the time David and I joined Sense8, I was well aware of how Lana and Tom, who was also involved in Sense8, worked.
David Mitchell: [Aleksandar] does know the Wachowskis from his Chicago days, so a lot longer than I have. I wasn’t in the writing of Cloud Atlas, but I saw an early draft and met the Wachowskis and Tom probably towards the end of the pre-film script life. So the first time I saw the script it was pretty much what the film looked like.
That really was my introduction to the world of film and screenwriting and sets. Sense8 season two and the show finale was an extension of that. Working on Matrix with Lana and [Aleksandar] was the third immersion into this world, and the deepest and warmest.
AVC: Aleksandar, The New Yorker piece that you wrote in 2017, “The Transformative Experience Of Writing For Sense8,” talked about the collaboration in screenwriting and writing in a group. How did that relationship evolve on The Matrix Resurrections?
AH: It was similar except we were more familiar with each other and it was a somewhat different project. It was smaller in that there were fewer people involved working on the script than in the second season of Sense8. There was a room full of people on Sense8, mostly directors and [J. Michael Straczynski], who was one of the writers and showrunners of the first two seasons.
Lana called us to work on The Matrix in West Cork, Ireland, where Mr. Mitchell lives. We spent some wonderful weeks developing and writing a draft. A few weeks later, we reconvened in San Francisco, and Keanu Reeves came over to see one of the drafts and give us notes. It was streamlined and faster.
The thing with “The Pit,” which is what we call our screenwriting operation, is that we developed a vocabulary and a kind of language, so there was very little to learn about one another working in that situation because, apart from all the things that were produced, we had written a couple of spec projects. So we wrote quite a few pages together.
AVC: The movie is very interested in the individual, personalized matrices that we create for ourselves, a scenario that is no doubt familiar to everyone living through the pandemic. What impact, if any, did COVID have on the writing?
DM: All of the writing is pre-pandemic. However, it was one of the first big operations to go into action under the new pandemic rules. Once Lana started shooting, she would’ve encountered things that needed some modification, or happy accidents that come along with the script. So those would’ve happened under pandemic conditions.
AH: The experience of the pandemic is inscribed in the movie because they shot locations in San Francisco and then went to Berlin, and it wasn’t more than a week of shooting in Berlin before everything was shut down. This would’ve been in March 2020. Then there was a break in the shoot until July, and Germany instituted some protocols that allowed for the continuation of shooting, so they were shooting from July until it was all shot. It was one of the few movies that was continuously produced around that time. They had very few stoppages because of the pandemic.
The pandemic has exacerbated tendencies in society in many ways, including isolation. It’s not that people weren’t isolated before, but we could not escape isolation for a few months after that. The amazing thing about film production is that you’re isolated as a group making a movie. It was sort of joyous isolation.
AVC: Resurrections is so much more specific in its aims. It’s certainly a very personal film, given that it’s about the creator of “The Matrix Trilogy” and the pressures and expectations that come with that. But you can see other specific current events showing up in the movie, including Cambridge Analytica, precursors to the “Metaverse,” social media radicalization, etc. Were these things you were talking about while writing the film?
AH: We were aware because you bring it into The Pit, all that’s happening in the world, so we talked about specific things. Things like the Red Pill/Blue Pill trope or meme and how it was kidnapped by the right-wing. The verb “to red pill” and so on. So one thing we were mindful of is how to reclaim that trope. To renew the meaning of Red Pill/Blue Pill.
Obviously, we weren’t involved, but the first Matrix was so present in the world while also being ahead of its time. So with this movie, too, we were deeply embedded in the time, early 2019, but also we were thinking about the future. I had to catch up with them on that.
AVC: The scenes with the Analyst were especially pointed. He’s using some of the terminology of right-wing radicalization like the conservative retort “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Was it empowering to write a rebuttal to the weaponization of Lana and Lilly’s work?
DM: I suppose the short answer is yes. I don’t see myself as a frontline fighter in the culture war, but you also want your work to mean something, to have an ethical edge. One of the many reasons I’m proud of Resurrections is it does have that. What I’m trying to say is, I think the film has integrity, and perhaps that’s the source of the integrity.
AH: I concur. There is a bit of a difference between my and Mr. Mitchell’s situation in that. Well, he’s a kinder person so he doesn’t get angry as much. But largely because I live in the United States. The Pit is a kind and warm space. We don’t argue or get angry with each other. But I am infused with a need to confront some of the things that are taking place in this country. That was the case before and after.
But we did not set out to get into arguments with right-wingers. I think, at some point, there was a joke about Red Pill and Blue Pill, and Lana decided that she did not want to give any credence to that position, even a semblance of dialogue with that. There’s nothing to talk about with that.
AVC: It’s like having debates with creationists. By inviting them to the podium, it’s a tacit endorsement that the idea is up for debate.
AH: My personal position is I don’t discuss things with Nazis and fascists. There’s nothing to talk about. One of us is just going to be left standing, and I want it to be me and my people.
AVC: The scenes in the “real world,” where humans and machines are working together and growing strawberries, is a nice new wrinkle. Were there any personal favorite ideas like the strawberries that were close to making it into the movie but ended up cut?
AH: I think the most exciting thing that we had to give up because it was too expensive was the machines were supposed to be speaking and they were supposed to be communicating. But the CGI would’ve been very expensive for that.
There was also a very elaborate and aggressive machine in the Machine City, and we had a name for that machine: “Animalium.” Morpheus was supposed to fight this big mechanical monster, so the good machines and the bad machines were supposed to have more prominence, but it was too cost-prohibitive. I know this because I was writing dialogue for those machines, and there was a point where I couldn’t convince myself that machines would be saying the same things that humans would. So the dialogue was lousy. So I had to realize that I couldn’t write machine dialogue. Well, I couldn’t then. Maybe I could now. Next time.
AVC: What were the differences between writing the action scenes of Sense8 and writing them for the world of The Matrix, which has a very well-known action vocabulary?
DH: In Sense8 there wasn’t much to write. “Sun fights Moon in the cemetery in Seoul,” and you break it up at certain points to exchange lines. But the nature of the action in Sense8 kind of wasn’t the writer’s business. In Matrix it was. It did need more thought. It did occupy more pages, and the combat scenes had to do more things. They had to have real character, push the story forward, contribute to world-building, as well as be real combat scenes. More complex.
AH: With Sense8 and The Matrix, we always wanted the fight and action scenes to be connected to the human narrative of this. It needs logic. They don’t just break into fights like a song in a musical just because it’s time for it. Every fight and every action scene was earned.
At one point, Lana told us how much [money] a page of action scenes might be. It was exciting because it was considerably more than people exchanging lines. So we would break up to write our pages, and I would come back and say, “I just wrote $10 million.”