“A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.”
Reading The Matrix was the beginning of my weekly screenplay-reading ritual, and it was a fascinating piece of art to absorb. I first saw the film in elementary school at a sleepover. Since it was against the rules to watch an R-rated movie, I soaked in every minute of it. Reading the screenplay was a similar experience, like reading that vertical matrix code.
5 lessons learned from The Matrix are:
- Clarity of vision is essential to selling obscure stories.
- A strong focus on characters hits the audience harder.
- Embedded spirituality brings purpose and weight to storytelling.
- How to write explosive action.
- How to use imagery and symbolism to convey meaning.
After reading the screenplay, I now understand why they were given the opportunity to bring it to life. It is apparent that the screenplay is constructed with love, care, and attention to detail. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, but not because of how it’s written but because they are playing with very big ideas in spiritual, groundbreaking ways as well as implementing never-before-seen visual concepts.
The first thing I noticed was that the characters are alive and the vision is abundantly clear. The focus isn’t on the gunfights and the spoon-bending — though those are exceptional elements — the focus is clearly on the goals of the characters, the plot, and the world-building. With a film of this scope, which introduces complex concepts to the audience, exposition is required. However, one thing I learned is how to add purposeful visual elements to make the exposition feel natural, necessary, and even inviting, as if the viewer is learning something. Quentin Tarantino said in an interview that it is important for the writer to understand the mythology of the world they’re creating, even aspects that are never communicated directly to the audience. That sense of digging, of asking question after question to understand their own creation, is clear with the Wachowskis and their screenplay for The Matrix.
Their use of language and visual symbolism are elements of the screenplay that go hand in hand. They use language that is appropriate, descriptive, and has a certain magnetism that is difficult to place one’s finger on. From using mouthpieces of phones as transitional elements (also how the characters move in and out of the matrix) to establishing clear spiritual perspectives without coming off as preachy (with heavy references to shamanism), the screenplay itself feels like a trip down the rabbit hole (also referenced):
Morpheus opens his hands. In the right is a red pill. In the left, a blue pill.
This is your last chance. After this,
there is no going back. You take
the blue pill and the story ends.
You wake in your bed and you
believe whatever you want to
The pills in his open hands are reflected in the glasses.
You take the red pill and you
stay in Wonderland and I show you
how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Simple, succinct descriptions using colors and reflections speak volumes. When intertwined with the ultimatum given by a character who is both mysterious and charismatic, the audience is drawn in with a determination to understand, to dive into the unknown with Neo.
One other thing I noticed as I read were moments, lines, and scenes that were written into the screenplay and never made it to the final film. As I read, I naturally analyzed why this might have happened in each case. Some lines were changed and became much more fluid, more succinct and balanced in the final cut. My assumption was that the actors had asked if they could alter the wording a bit to make it work for them. Then I thought that perhaps the Wachowskis created enough of a collaborative environment where the lead actors felt comfortable making lines their own (as long as they stayed on the same track); this is a wonderful web to weave, in my opinion. Collaboration at its finest.
As for the action moments that were altered, there were not many of them and it was quite amazing to see how well the Wachowskis described their vision for the explosive action. The moments that were changed may have played well on the page but would have been over the top on screen. For example, in the screenplay, when the three agents are interrogating Morpheus, there is a moment when the sprinklers begin showering the room and “Agent Smith smashes a table.” Then it cuts away to Neo and Trinity. The table-smashing was removed entirely and I can see why; it’s wholly unnecessary and the transition works well without it.
Overall, from reading The Matrix screenplay, I learned how to communicate complex concepts in a straightforward, simple manner that can often be boiled down to visual elements. Supplementing these visuals with pithy dialogue adds to the feeling that we are in good hands.
Come back next week for Voice-overs Or Visuals?