The Matrix by Lana & Lilly Wachowski
Numbered Shooting Script. 133 pages. Dated March 1998
The action spectacular that needs no introduction (but let’s give it one anyway, just to be polite). A genre mashup that combines the color-shifted visual stylings of the Wachowskis and the gravity bending action sequences of a great anime. The reluctant hero, the thumping soundtrack, the bullet-time effect; The Matrix redefined action movies as we exited the 20th century. For anyone that wants to write action, reading this was a no-brainer. So, what do we get?
The PDF I read claims to be the shooting script. Comparing it to the final product, I believe it. The dialogue, the action, everything lines up perfectly with the theatrical release (of course, it could have been cleaned up after the fact). Only one plotline was cut as far as I could tell (which we’ll get to later). Since the Wachowskis were writing AND directing the film, this isn’t a huge surprise. They had a clear vision and it shows on the page.
Right off the bat, the vivid descriptions stand out. Letters on a screen are “shimmering like green electric rivers.”
They employ a couple other techniques to pull you in early. Mystery (who are these characters?), Tension (what is this “trace” countdown about?) and the introduction of the villain before we even meet our hero.
The Lieutenant laughs.
I think we can handle one little girl.
Agent Smith nods to Agent Brown as they start toward the hotel.
I sent two units. They’re bringing her down now.
No, Lieutenant, your men are already dead.
I came to The Matrix for action and it does not disappoint. Blood is shed on page 4. Importantly, not every beat is written, just the broad strokes. There’s no blow by blow fight sequence. Instead we get “flashlights sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a leather-clad ghost.” Concise, easy to visualize. They clearly know exactly how the sequence is going to go down, and it shows. If they only had a vague understanding of the action, I’m confident I would have stumbled as a reader. Lesson: Figure out how the action is going to unfold, even if you have to act it out with a friend and an uncooperative dog as the villain.
The feature in the script that I wasn’t looking forward to was the melodramatic tone of the dialogue. Speeches instead of conversations. Every statement is a proclamation. It takes itself so seriously. Where’s the fun? But you know what? It works. In the context of the film, with the actors’ intonations, it all just works. It’s heavy handed but you buy into it because the actors are all in. The tone works for the material, and that’s all that matters.
In fact, there are several points at which lighter and more playful dialogue is used ineffectively. It comes across as trite. It kills the tension. One of the few characters in the film whose dialogue is not stilted or serious is Cypher. He’s contrasted with the good guys who do take this whole thing seriously.
One advantage (both for fun and as a writer) of reading a shooting script to a film you know quite well is spotting the little differences that didn’t make it to the final product:
- Parts of dialogue that aren’t needed. This is a big help to me when it comes to rewriting. What bits of dialogue or description (or even whole scenes) aren’t really necessary? In fact, which ones might actually make things worse? For example:
Is it so hard to believe? Your clothes are different, the plugs in your arms and head are gone. Look at your hair, you were bald a moment ago.
Neo touches his head.
The final film cuts “you were bald a moment ago.” Let Neo (and the audience) figure it out. Not everything needs to be spelled out.
- When Neo tries the jump program and fails, the script has him landing like a cartoon character on a trampoline. He even laughs. It sucks all of the seriousness out of that scene and Trinity’s disappointed/confused reaction that follows. Another smart cut.
- Neo is more of a petulant child and less zen than the film version. The transformation into hero still works, but he’s “teenager who doesn’t know why he has to pay attention to the artwork on this museum fieldtrip” annoying. I’m betting a combination of Keanu Reeves’ acting and some additional thoughts on tone by the Wachowskis fixed this.
- The other Ones. The script (and the Animatrix) make it clear that there were at least 5 other guys that Morpheus considered to be the One. They all died horribly. Lines referencing them are peppered throughout the script. This was likely to give Neo even more doubt, give Morpheus a problem (wanting it too badly), and give Trinity some comparison for her feelings (she only loves this One, not those other suckers). While it may work for all those characters, it probably wouldn’t have done as well with the audience. It makes Neo less special and adds some confusion to the mix (what the hell qualifies someone as the One anyhow?).
I read The Matrix for action. For quick lines like this:
INT. STAIRS – DAY
Morpheus stops as Mouse’s SCREAM is drowned out by the report of MACHINE GUN FIRE.
INT. ROOM 1313 – DAY
Mouse sails backwards as BULLETS POUND him against the blood-spattered brick window.
INT. MAIN DECK
Mouse’s body thrashes against its harness, blood coughing from his mouth in one final spasm, then lying perfectly still. The flatline ALARM softly cries out from the life MONITOR.
INT. STAIRWELL – DAY
Flying downstairs, Morpheus stops, hearing POLICE SWARMING below.
INT. HALL – DAY
He turns and rushes down the hall of the eighth floor. At the end of it, he finds the bricked-up windows.
That’s what they changed. We’re trapped. There’s no way out.
Short lines, capitalized sounds, quick cuts.
The Wachowskis don’t decribe many specific moves or hits in their action. They use “general onslaught” rather than describing where every bullet or punch lands. They also don’t slow down from scene to scene. The stakes are always increasing. It’s really well done.
And how can you not love directors who turn this:
INT. GOVERNMENT BUILDING – DAY
In long black coats, Trinity and Neo push through the revolving doors.
Neo is carrying a duffel bag. Trinity has a large metal suitcase. They cut across the lobby to the security station, drawing nervous glances.
Dark glasses, game faces.
Neo calmly passes through the METAL DETECTOR which begins to WAIL immediately. A SECURITY GUARD moves over toward Neo, raising his metal detection wand.
Would you please remove any metallic items you are carrying: keys, loose change --
Neo slowly sets down his duffel bag and throws open his coat, revealing an arsenal of guns, knives and grenades slung from a climbing harness.
Holy shit --
Neo is a blur of motion. In a split second, three guards are dead before they hit the ground.
A fourth guard dives for cover, clutching his radio.
Backup! Send in the backup!
He looks up as Trinity sets off the metal detector. It is the last thing he sees.
The backup arrives. A wave of soldiers blocking the elevators. The concrete cavern of the lobby becomes a white noise ROAR of GUNFIRE.
Slate walls and pillars pock, crack, and crater under a hail storm of EXPLOSIVE-tipped BULLETS.
They are met by the quivering spit of a SUB-HAND MACHINE GUN and the RAZORED WHISTLE of throwing knives. Weapons like extensions of their bodies, are used with the same deadly precision as their feet and their fists.
Bodies slump down to the marbled floor while Neo and Trinity hardly even break their stride.
Keep the descriptions tight. Use — to go to next bit of description.
Don’t use NIGHT or DAY unless necessary. Slows things down.
You can describe a piece of equipment in the room to tell you everything you need to know about it.
Simile. If it’s something the reader hasn’t seen before, relate it to something they have. This will often be the case in sci-fi or fantasy.
His head peeks up over the partition. At the elevator, he sees Agent Smith, Agent Brown and Agent Jones leading a group of cops. A female employee turns and points out Neo’s cubicle.