The Matrix Resurrections was one of our favorite films of 2021, an auteur franchise film thoroughly unafraid to plunge down the rabbit hole of Lana Wachowski’s imagination—simultaneously deconstructing The Matrix’s monumental impact, expanding the dense lore of its sequels, taking wry metafictional potshots at life, art, and capitalism in the 21st century, and telling a disarmingly personal story of an artist’s relationship to work, self, and reality. Not least among these idiosyncrasies is the handpicked writing team who assisted Lana in developing its script: two novelists better-known for their award-winning fiction than action-packed Hollywood fare.
Enter Aleksandar Hemon: Bosnian-born writer, frequent New Yorker contributor, Princeton professor of creative writing, and author of three novels––each noticeably devoid of airships, robots, and kung fu. Though this background would hardly suggest him for such a position, his decade-spanning friendship and collaboration with the Wachowskis led him to join Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell in developing the instantly polarizing counter-blockbuster––as they had previously with Netflix’s Sense8.
We sat down with Prof. Hemon to speak at length about his work with the Wachowskis, priorities of page vs. screen, the creative process underlying Resurrections‘ story and symbols, and the simple, human narrative beneath it all.
The Film Stage: Unlike the typical Hollywood screenwriter, you’ve come from an established place in the literary world to work on original film and television projects—not only that, but projects that differ considerably in style and genre from your fiction work. You’ve written about it before in The New Yorker, but for the sake of refreshment: how did you come to be involved with the Wachowskis and Hollywood?
Aleksandar Hemon: It’s a long story, and I’m a storyteller! But I’ll try to make it short. We lived in Chicago, the Wachowskis and I, and some time in 2009 I met them while they were interviewing people for a project that, let’s say, had things to say about the Bush years and the Bush regime. And because I had published a book called The Lazarus Project, someone suggested it to them and they read it and loved it, and so we met up for this interview and became friends quickly. Their studio in Chicago was only a few blocks away from where I lived, so our friendship developed and our families became friends as well. They create communities, the Wachowskis—their parents did, and they do too—and we became part of their community.
So at some point they started adapting the novel Cloud Atlas, whose author David Mitchell I had met briefly before at some literary event. There had been very few texts before about the Wachoswkis—they had a clause in their Warner Bros. contract not to do press junkets and interviews—so I talked The New Yorker into letting me write about it and and I talked [the Wachowskis] into letting me sit in at meetings and watch the production. So I spent some time with them while they were writing and shooting and planning that film, and I met David again.
[A few years later], after the first season of Sense8, Lilly decided not to continue [with that show]. And I don’t know if this was causally related, but David and I were invited to help develop the second season. We sat in the writers’ room for a week or two and developed the plot and did some scenes, [so] we’re credited as consultants in the second season. We were supposed to write the third season, which was canceled, so we wrote the finale, as well as a spec project while we were waiting for the finale to be approved. That’s when Lana decided to make The Matrix Resurrections, so she called us and we said yes!
What, if anything, do you see as a fundamental creative difference between screenwriting and fiction?
Well, the main difference is that scripts do not rely on language—in fact, language kind of provides noise. It has to be specific and precise and only refer to what is going to be on the screen. Screenwriting is a very hard thing to teach for me because, as a writer, you easily slip into these language traps, describing things incessantly. A script is all a structure. The audience is an audience of one—maybe two, right? You write it for someone to approve the film, effectively! [Laughs] So it’s not for a readership.
You can find, as you know, any script online, because once the movie’s made they have no value at all. There’s no copyright liability or anything like that. I love that aspect of screenwriting, because I am obsessed with language in my own work, and that sometimes creates… not problems, but sometimes I’m too obsessed! [Laughs] But with a structure, to understand how the narrative works you have to understand the positioning of elements, how an event on the first page or fourth page affects something a hundred pages later, and so on. That’s a different way of creating a narrative, in some ways—of course you can structure a novel or short story, but it comes from language and the story could be structured around language, whereas here it’s… well, what happens happens.
Do you see yourself pursuing further screenwriting projects on your own, or only in conjunction with the Wachowskis?
I have written a script on my own and have collaborated with other people, but I don’t have the sort of burning desire to be a part of the film industry—certainly not after the experiences of making films with other people. [Laughs] It’s too difficult. Not because of Wachowski! The studios and all that, there’s too much drama… although David and I, we’re protected from the suits. I’ve never met anyone from Warner Bros. in my life. I would do it with friends, certainly; with Lana and David, or Jasmila Žbanić—I wrote a script with her. It does interest me to write scripts, but also I don’t have the need or ambition to break into the industry. If I have a script or story that I want to tell, I might do it, but I’m not, you know, entirely changing the track of my career.
How fleshed out was Matrix Resurrections’ concept and script at the time you joined the project? What changed the most between the draft stages and the final cut?
Well, Lana had a pretty good idea about the concept when she called us, including the opening scene and the [idea of] the Matrix games, what obsesses and torments Thomas Anderson. Beyond that we had to develop a story. Because we didn’t really work on it in drafts—we just worked on it until it was done and passed on to Warner Bros.—I can’t remember the stages of changes, as it were. I know that one of the things we had to change was… for a long time, in the script, the machines were talking and we were trying to develop them into characters. It wasn’t easy for me, because I don’t come from a sci-fi background and tradition; I had a hard time imagining machines talking! But we did write pages where machines had dialogue and would be sidekicks in certain scenes, and Morpheus was going to fight a very big machine, the Animalium, when he’s going to release Trinity; but it turned out it would have been far too expensive to CGI the talking animal [robots] and the big machine.
One thing about scripts is—you don’t really have to worry about the cost of your novel; it really doesn’t matter. Writing a novel costs the same [whether the plot] all happens in two hours at a coffee shop or spans centuries with whole armies clashing. Whereas with screenwriting, you have to take cost into account. When I was covering Cloud Atlas, it was an independent production but very expensive, so it added the cost of insurance and lawyers and whatnot. It’s always precarious financially, an independent movie—all movies, really—and so I would watch them tear out pages of the script to reduce the projected cost of production, and then see if the script could survive those pages being taken out. I don’t have a full sense, you know, because I’ve never read through a full movie budget, but I understood that we had to cut things because they would have been too expensive.
So with Resurrections, right from the start, it was a certainty that The Matrix was going to exist within the Matrix?
Right, that was always the case. And the concept was always that Trinity and Neo would be close, but not close enough, and that the driving energy of this Matrix is their desire to be fulfilled, and the miscalculation of the Matrix and the Analyst is that they can be kept apart. In that sense, it’s kind of a basic love story! [Laughs] It’s love and obstacles, that’s what it is. Which I love.
It’s a good engine for a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
Yeah, I hope so! But you have to sign on, as it were, to their love story. The love story was crucial to the trilogy, obviously, but there were all these other things—whereas in this movie the core, the center, the narrative engine is their love and whether they’re going to make it or not. I think in one of the drafts, a late draft even, in the “Simulatte” scene at the end Trinity was supposed to signal her consent by taking the red pill, and there’s a whole scuffle with the pill being passed around in the mayhem. [Ultimately], though, Lana made the decision—and I think it was correct—to eliminate the pill, because at that point the pill is only a Macguffin: it really is about Trinity’s consent, and if she says “yes” we’re on. I love that: under all that conflict buildup and CGI, it’s really very simple.
On the subject of Warner Bros., was there any idea that they specifically put the kibosh on?
Well, as I said, I’ve never actually met anyone from Warner Bros. in person—never shook hands, anyway, let alone received notes—because one of the, I guess, modalities of our collaboration is that Lana protects us and deals with studios directly. Or she certainly dealt with Warner Bros. So we would discuss the script, but we never had to worry about the notes. I don’t remember there being any major issues. After we turned in the script and Lana started pre-production—naturally, the script changes in pre-production, and so Lana would consult us, but at some point it would be too slow to ask us about these decisions.
And writers, you know—once it’s written it’s written. So there were perhaps some changes that were made based on Warner Bros.’ notes, and some of the changes were made in editing with scenes recut for more clarity and energy and so on. But I did not have to take into account any Warner Bros. note that I can remember while we were writing the script.
Were there any individual scenes or aspects of the script with which you had particularly direct involvement?
Well, we do it together, it’s really like a team. I often cannot remember whether I did a lot in a particular scene or whether we talked a lot about a scene. So I can’t really isolate my contribution, as such. But I know we talked a lot about the scene where [Neo and Trinity] have coffee for the first time at Simulatte; when she decides to sit down with Thomas Anderson and they have that talk. That was a crucial scene, because the strength of their attraction had to be established on this subconscious level, for Trinity especially at this point. We worked on that a lot. In early versions of the script there was more physical contact between the two of them, but Lana I think at some point had the idea of using their memories of the original trilogy in that scene, so that Thomas Anderson, Neo, has flashbacks to his previous life and Trinity’s place in that life.
Were there any scenes that you personally really liked that didn’t end up making it?
Honestly, I can’t remember. I would have really liked that big fight between Morpheus and the giant machine. We were sitting around imagining what kind of fight it would be, so I was really looking forward to that. But then, not only would it have been too expensive, we had to restructure the whole narrative theme of saving Trinity in some ways for it, too. So it’s not certain that it would’ve necessarily been better with that scene, but I was looking forward to it as spectacle.
Moving on a bit to the more subtextual aspects of the film: this is maybe the most brazenly metafictional Hollywood blockbuster I’ve ever seen. It contains a lot of musings about the meaning and purpose of the original Matrix films, how they were received by the culture at large, and seemingly about the Wachowskis’ own artistic process and feelings about their creation as artists. What was it like to step into this kind of semiotically sealed world as someone who’d watched the original movies, rather than created them? Were you encouraged to bring your own thematic readings of The Matrix to the table, or was there a strong thesis Lana set forward that you were following?
Well, I watched the Matrix movies as they were coming out originally, so I knew them well, and we all rewatched them to discuss issues and themes. I think we decided early on that love—Neo and Trinity’s love—was the spine of the movie. But I would also say that The Matrix, the trilogy, has been interpreted so much, and in so many different ways… my screenwriting students can use phrases from The Matrix without having even seen the movie! Red pill, blue pill, the Matrix itself—it’s been absorbed by the entire culture in ways that do not even require seeing the movie, let alone knowing the intricacies of the discourse and the mythology and all that. One of the things that was present in the original movie and in the trilogy is that “the Matrix” is movies—cinema is the Matrix! It’s always been self-referential.
The whole trilogy in some ways is about cinema, and the making of reality by way of cinema. It was always metafictional, it was always self-referential. The cinema of The Matrix was about the Matrix of cinema. It was not easy to fall back into this kind of self-referentiality because it was always part of the mythology and the discourse and the thought system in The Matrix. It was also decided earlier that it would be kind of… I don’t know, I thought that there was value in acknowledging the presence of The Matrix in the so-called “real” world: what it means, the red pill, blue pill, the whole discourse, the whole industry of interpretation, the people who think they own the narrative by way of interpreting it incessantly, so then they’re disappointed when this movie or the second or third parts of the trilogy did not comply with their interpretation.
So we thought this was an interesting thing and acknowledging it was a way to own the narrative, rather than pretending that nothing happened and starting all over again. It could be that, in literature, it’s hard to imagine new narratives—you always have a sense of the field of books that have been written before yours. Or at least I do. Any narrative refers to other narratives, let alone a narrative in a series of narratives that belong to the same story or mythology, like The Matrix. So I don’t think there was an extensive discussion as far as whether we were going to do it or not; we were always going to acknowledge that The Matrix existed, and what it means in the world, and that by virtue of being cinema it’s been absorbed into the larger Matrix of Hollywood.
I was intrigued by the decision to represent The Matrix within The Matrix not as films, but as video games. I’m guessing—and this could be totally off-base—but I’m guessing that you and David are not as familiar with that medium as Lana might be.
I think David might be, but I’m not. The last game I played was, like, FIFA 2002. [Laughs] And I wasn’t good at it either. The whole worldbuilding of games… I have intellectual appreciation for that, and I watch other people play, but my hand-eye coordination ends with a pen. At the same time, I think of narratives as a decision-making system: when I talk to my screenwriting students, I draw these decision trees, which is how algorithms are built and how games are made. The general idea in screenplay storytelling, for me, is that you want to strive toward putting your character into a moment where a decision from them is required or expected. This is what happens in games! Do you go left, or do you go right? If you go right, they kill you; if you go left, you get more weapons.
So games, to my mind, have this basic narrative structure of decision-making, only you are the one making the decisions, with your joystick or whatever. Probably no one’s used the word “joystick” for twenty years… goes to show how much I know. Anyway, that was always part of it, but I didn’t have to import it from games because that decision-making narrative engine is what I believe in and what I try to affect when I write scripts or stories.
That actually kind of reminds me: last year I read one of Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, some of his early stories—they’re sort of quasi-journalistic, based on his service in the Crimean War. They’re written in second-person—obviously I read them translated into English, so I don’t know exactly how that reflects the Russian, but in the translation I read they’re written as a second-person address. And the style of writing, to me as a younger reader filtering it through the media I’ve consumed in my life, struck me as almost like a meeting point between a movie script and a video game design document: “You open your eyes, you see the lights of Sevastopol on the horizon! You’re rowing on the icy bay, you dock, you walk in… if you take a left, you will enter a bar where you encounter this grizzled man telling tales from the front…” It addresses “you”—the reader, the “viewer,” the “player”—using the most immediate sensory language of storytelling at that time, laying out that decision tree for you, in the interest of total immersion.
I think that’s extremely interesting. I also think that we have a biological necessity to come up with narratives, and we did that before cinema… although, I read an article suggesting that ancient cave paintings were done in such a manner that they could flicker by the fire and look like they’re moving! But let’s just argue that cinema is a recent invention. So our narrative templates are mainly locked in language. But for newer generations… even I, who am older than you considerably, have been raised in a digital society. Nevertheless, because we use language every day and because that’s how our brains are set up, we come up with narrative templates and models of language and then apply them elsewhere. So that also means that narrative ideas of cinema owe some things to literature, and I mean the literature of the 19th century, and not just right now with, say, collaborations between writers and streaming television, you know.
I read a scholarly paper, I can’t remember where and when, about the connection between Dickensian cliffhangers at the end of chapters and the structures of soap operas. Because it’s the same thing! Dickens would publish a chapter in the newspaper, and [the readers] had to wait until next week to buy the paper and get the next chapter. So on top of the whole cliffhanger thing, another trope that’s particularly useful in long-form television is the presence of multiple characters operating within simultaneous narratives which can then overlap. All of War and Peace, since we’re talking about Tolstoy—that’s what it is! It’s a fucking TV show! With a lot of characters and storylines operating at different levels.
Yeah, I think there actually was a TV miniseries—one of several!—adapted from it that I’ve heard a lot of positive things about recently. But yeah, it seems like that particular kind of structure is much easier for visual storytelling media to do in something long-form like television as opposed to feature films—even though novels more often get adapted to films than television.
So, going back to The Matrix: the previous films had a very arch, mythical feel in the vein of, like, George Lucas or Frank Herbert, with a great deal of religious symbolism worked in. This one feels, by contrast, a lot more down-to-earth, personal, humorous, self-effacing—secular. Was that a conscious thesis laid out in the writing process, or was that just sort of the way it evolved?
Once we focused on the human element of Neo and Trinity’s love story, everything else fell into place, as it were. To start a new mythology, you need more than one movie. The trilogy was always written as such; it’s not like they wrote the first Matrix and then tacked on the second and third. It was always going to be this elaborate mythology with the redemption of The One, sabotaging but also affirming a kind of religious narrative. With Neo’s sacrifice at the end, it was complete. So when we decided to make a new film, we knew that rehashing the old mythology was not interesting. I think Sense8 was an important step: Lana believed in that, and when we worked on it we really thought a lot about this connection and community of people organized around love. It sounds sentimental the way I’m simplifying it, but it’s really in some ways kind of a militant idea—particularly at the level of a blockbuster.
By comparison, I’m not a big fan of the Marvel cycle; they’re always saving the fucking world, right? They always have to take the whole planet into account, and little lives, human lives, those don’t really matter. They’ll just tear through downtown Manhattan or destroy whole cities or countries that remain nameless to save the world. So I liked the idea (and this is probably at least partly to blame for the bad reviews) of this commitment to human connection at the heart of it all. It really is about Trinity saying yes or no.
That moment of decision is what everything hinges on, and it’s basic and human: Do you love me? Who among us has not wanted to know if another person is willing to commit to the love between them? The whole narrative storyline and the whole structure, everything with Bugs’s crew, it all hinges on that one purpose of getting Trinity to a decision. I think that’s so simple in such a complex system that perhaps to some people it kind of escaped, or they saw it and thought, “We want more mythology, we want more video games.”
Yeah. If you’ll allow me another small tangent: as far as the Marvel films, I’m also pretty disillusioned with a lot of the more recent Disney-produced, mechanical stuff that Scorsese got a lot of heat for railing against. Not so long ago, though, I actually went back and watched Ang Lee’s Hulk and found it surprisingly fun. It’s about a guy struggling to cope with his emotional state who just so happens to be a Marvel Comics character.
Yeah, I remember seeing that! I mean, I’ve seen a few individual Marvel movies, but I’ve never, like, systematically watched them all to absorb… I don’t have that much patience. I watched all of The Avengers, and… [exhausted hand gesture]
[Laughs] I stopped after the first one.
I watched them all, and it was a mistake. [Laughs] I mean, it’s not a mistake. It’s good to learn, and you can see the investment. But I remember that Hulk because it centered around this basic human dilemma. I’ve had anger-control problems, particularly when I was playing soccer. [Laughs] But it’s easy there to understand the continuity between your human experience and the experience of the superhero. When that’s cut off, I lose interest. Maybe I’m an old 20th-century guy; I like to see people in everything.
What we were always committed to doing was to let life be in it. I mean, a lot of it hinges on coffee! Drinking coffee together, a character asking for cortado as an important step in their development. We were very conscious of paying attention to details. I can’t honestly say that we—that is, David and I—brought that into the project, because Lana does it too and did it on Sense8 a lot, but on this project our frequencies were entirely matched in terms of loving the human aspects of the story.
I definitely think that makes it more interesting than your typical blockbuster. Somewhat related to that, what was the thought process behind making the archvillain and master of the new Matrix a psychotherapist?
Well, I guess if the driving force is the feeling of love, then the counterforce would have to be someone who is in the business of managing emotions, controlling them, and using them to control other people. In the trilogy, obviously, the antagonist was the Architect: because the Matrix was a system, it had to be designed by a supreme intelligence, and that’s the Architect. But here, if the central concept is love, an attraction that has to overcome obstacles, then a logical antagonist is the Analyst: someone who’s in the business of giving Neo or Thomas Anderson language to suppress his own emotions, to find interpretations of his own reality by way of the language that is fed to him.
In that respect, we call him “the Analyst” but he is not unlike much of the media, especially in this country at this time, where a lot of inchoate and confusing feelings are given form by way of interpretive language that does not necessarily have to comply with reality. That’s what Fox News does, right? “The reason why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling is this,” and then they’ll tell them something like, I don’t know, it’s a difficult life for white people in this country or something. There’s a language that is disseminated, and with that language comes interpretation, and with that interpretation feelings are identified and legitimized, and that is a means of control. So that’s what the Analyst does: it’s that sort of manipulation of feeling in relation to language.
What it made me think of was the appropriation of what was formerly field-specific psychoanalytic and therapeutic language over the past half-century, but particularly over the past decade or so, by the purveyors of capital and the state and so on. For instance, that infamous CIA recruitment/PR video from last year where they have a woman talking about how, like, “I have a generalized anxiety disorder and I struggle with self-confidence, and I’m proud to work for the CIA!”
It was mocked by both the left and the right, who saw it for what it was: this cynical appropriation of seemingly more human, more approachable psychoanalytic ideas—compared to, I guess, the Architect or Agent Smith ideal of the old Matrix, which was this stern old white guy in a suit, this Old Testament, gnostic demiurge kind of person, telling us how it is, was, and will be.
Yeah, that’s an excellent observation, because what the Analyst does is to simultaneously create the emotion by giving it language and form and making it recognizable and shared, and then it legitimize it as your own: “Those are your feelings, not our feelings. We’re just the mirror of your feelings.” And this transaction legitimizes the thing as your feelings being legitimate. The Analyst says, “We don’t use the word ‘crazy’ in here.” This kind of manipulative cycle is something very interesting that we wanted to explore.
It was not in direct response to the state of things in this country, because it’s been going on for a long, long time, but we could recognize the patterns and methodologies and we talked about it. David and I, as writers, we can see the value of language, and when language is being used to reveal more complex and ever-expanding meanings versus language that reduces meaning to something that is manageable, instantly identifiable, and legitimized repeatedly in a capitalist cycle. In other words: “You are always right, but we’ll tell you what you think, and then you’ll be even more right!”
For me, that’s one of the things that makes the film most interesting as a response to, in particular, the state of common language in our culture and how that’s evolved in the time since the original Matrix came out. It seems to me like that kind of pseudo-psychoanalytic language is even more prevalent today, and at much higher levels of power in language-making and image-making institutions, than in 1999.
Absolutely. I mean… this wasn’t a reference we made deliberately, but one of the stars of the intellectual right wing is Jordan fucking Peterson, a hack therapist who’s sort of lost his mind somewhere along the way. But he uses precisely this dynamic: “I’m going to tell you what your feelings are, better than you know how to express them, and they will be thus legitimized, so you will be thus entitled to the feelings you might have and the actions you might take.”
True. And some people clearly respond powerfully to that and find a sense of purpose in it, which makes it interesting and complicated—if potentially very sinister.
So, on the flip side of that idea: taking the movie as a self-contained text—or a self-contained part of the Matrix text—many of the things Neil Patrick Harris says to Neo in the first act might seem reasonable, even compassionate, if the audience didn’t know definitively that the Matrix is a fake reality. Similarly, whether Trinity should leave her husband and children for Neo might be a troubling dilemma if we didn’t know for certain they’re computer simulations and she really belongs with Neo. I know Baudrillard critiqued the original trilogy—at least this was my understanding of his critique—essentially for presenting a clear and objective binary between the simulation and the real, whereas in his work the ambiguity and doubt brought about by our inability to distinguish the simulated from the real is sort of the key to the postmodern condition we live in. For a film that seems to take great pleasure in deconstructing binaries and pays lip service to it very frequently, was there any deliberation about offering up this clear-cut binary reality to the audience, compared to a more ambiguous alternative as seen in something like—to take another blockbuster for comparison—Total Recall?
[Grins] Total Recall! I haven’t seen that in years. So the trilogy was a mythology, right? A mythology is always a created reality, and in both real life and within the movies the Matrix was effectively a mythology. Neo had to learn by moving through it what the points of that mythological system are and what would happen, and as you mentioned earlier, the pseudo-religious aspect where we have to believe in [The One] for it to be real and so on. So I don’t know if we succeeded—I think we did—but in this setup I don’t think it’s so binary. There is something about Neo—all he wants is Trinity: not through one reality or another reality.
In other words, his choice is not between one reality or another, as such, because he wants his true existence in the real world. His sole, or at least main driving force is that he wants to be with Trinity so that the old reality as memory—the footage from the original trilogy—will be confirmed as real, as his actual experience: this is what I lived, who I loved. So to him it’s not that the binary is resolved by some kind of dialectic synthesis of this binary conflict, but rather this focus on the particular human being who has to be excavated from the unreal, constructed realm of unfulfilled desire. It kind of bypasses the binary, in that respect.
So it’s sort of individualistic, you think?
I wouldn’t call it individualistic, because he cannot do it alone and doesn’t want to be alone. It is not a self-fulfillment of his individual potential by which he becomes a hero.
The Campbellian sort of thing?
Yes! Like, in The Odyssey, Ulysses has to return to being Ulysses—to his essence, to his true form. Neo doesn’t quite want to return to his true form because his true form died in the trilogy. What he wants is to be with Trinity; what he wants is connection. Again, I think it’s connected to a lot of the ideas that came out of Sense8. David likes to quote one of the actors from Sense8 who told him that he thinks of the main characters as “superheroes whose superpower is connection”. This connectivity is the only asset that we all have. Once Neo understands that he can reconnect with Trinity, that’s where it goes.
It feels like the movie is kind of returning him to mortality.
Yes. There’s no eternal life, there’s no heroic status—there’s only love or nothing.
Maybe you could call the first 40 minutes or so The Last Temptation of Neo?
[Laughs] Yes. That’s good.
We touched on this a little bit before, but audience interpretation and misinterpretation of The Matrix has been a widely discussed and controversial topic for many years, pretty much since the first ones came out. Resurrections seems to briefly allude to that in a scene during Neo’s kind of Late Capitalist Silicon Valley midlife crisis montage that, by my reading—and I’m curious to know if you disagree—seems to suggest The Matrix was ultimately a work of pure artistic self-expression, and any political readings any audience derives from it are outside the immediate responsibility or interest of the author. That struck me as a little bit strange, given the heavily political nature of many of the series’ allusions and inspirations, as well as certain statements made by the Wachowskis themselves over the years endorsing or disowning certain readings of the film. Following from that: do you feel it’s a mistake to read too much into Neo’s situation within the Matrix as an analog to Lana?
Well, I mean, it’s not for me to talk about Lilly and Lana’s relationship to their own project and story. The way I understood it when I watched it, and knowing them, is that there’s always that personal layer because they come from this tradition of cinema—particularly American, I think—where they both love comic book and popular art, pop mythologies and tropes and all that, and also authorial presence in narratives of people, whether books or movies. Like, they love both Kubrick and The Shadow—when they were kids, they produced their own radio show imitating the old one.
They’re so deeply steeped in comic books and Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy and science fiction, and also Jacques Tati and European auteur cinema. They’re comfortable with both of those—and they’re not mutually exclusive! It’s another one of those false binaries, I suppose. But it’s hard to do it when the studio is controlling the narrative and the franchise and the industry and so on. But Lilly and Lana were always in that domain, and with this one Lana made it particularly personal.
That does come across very vividly, in a way that’s kind of starkly contrasted to the older ones, which were much more exteriorized. So attaching more to the question of the psychotherapist character: what would you say if you met someone who thought they were literally in Neo’s position, that they were trapped in a literal computer Matrix and could only escape it through violence? Because there are real people like that.
Well, I don’t know what I would say to them; I’m not a psychotherapist. I mean, that’s clearly a trap. The main problem with American cinema and American culture, for my money, is a widespread belief in violence as the main means of agency in the world and in history. It’s virtually impossible to imagine Hollywood cinema without that; the hero will eventually need to engage in violence to restore or establish the order in the world and redeem himself and so on. So it comes with the business, as it were. It’s really hard, at least in blockbuster movies that come out of the tradition of heroic mythologies and all that. But we really wanted to problematize that, and so one of the things that we did that people didn’t notice—or if they did notice, they might have hated it—Neo never fires a gun in this movie. He never does it. Not once.
And so there’s this, I guess… I don’t want to say sabotaging, but questioning of his whole narrative, because everything that he does and all the fights that he goes through are for the sole purpose of overcoming obstacles to Trinity. All movies could be subject to critique – including movies I love dearly, like the Matrix series, which were problematizing the heroic status of Neo throughout the original trilogy: is he the One? Is he not the One? Do you have to believe in him? What can the hero really do? A great thing at the end of the trilogy is that the hero eliminates himself as the hero, as his most heroic act. It has that pseudo-religious quality; in some ways it’s a prophetic narrative. The prophet disappears in his or her own prophecy; it only becomes a myth, erasing his earthly body. But in this particular movie we wanted him to retain his earthly body! For him to be, not selfish necessarily, but focused on just connection, because that’s the starting preposition. Without that, everything is just systems. And so in that respect we sort of pushed him away from violence; he gets involved in it, but he never fires a gun.
But he does contemplate jumping off a building and ending his life, which is sort of inverted violence. That’s another interesting binary.
It is, and it also also relates to his scene, referenced in the first Matrix, where he has to believe in himself to jump off the building. If he jumps off and doesn’t die, then Morpheus’s proposal is functional; he is possibly the One, but also he can control the outcome through his mind and all that. So his jumping from the building also refers to that, because if he jumps and dies, then he is in fact delusional! And the fact that he’s stopped could perpetuate this dilemma.
So, wrapping up: the film seems to resolve things open-endedly, or in a way that could just as easily be continued in future films as it could be left alone. You said the original film was developed with a clear trilogy arc in mind: with this one, are there any concrete ideas about any kind of sequels or follow-up projects, or is it kind of a wait-and-see approach?
As of now, there are no other ideas for a continuation. At the premiere, when Lana was asked that question, she said no, there will be no more Matrix. Obviously, it’s not for me and David to decide; if she calls us we’re likely to come, but also I’m not lobbying for the next one. Good as it is, I’m happy with it.
One last question—from Nick Newman, our Managing Editor. He was very eager about this interview and wanted to know the genesis of the Don DeLillo quote used in the movie.
[Laughs] I don’t remember. I mean, we do know these quotes. I mean, Lana is one of the best-read people I’ve ever known; she’s read everything David and I have read, and then some. Including Don DeLillo, obviously. I can’t actually remember how it came up, but we thought it would be funny that he would be sitting on the toilet and facing this deep philosophical idea. Everything comes to a head with Trinity, but before that he has to make a decision: there are all these ambivalent moments where it seems that his decision could be pushed along, but at the same time it’s a source of doubt. So the Don DeLillo thing, it was more present in my mind when it was in the script that people like you could catch it, but it’s not something that’s obvious… it’s what they call an Easter Egg, I suppose.
I think neither Nick nor I caught it on first viewing, but then saw the attribution in the credits and went back thinking, “Oh, where was that?” [Laughs] So it took until after the official release for us to piece it together. A lot about the film, I’ve noticed, does reveal itself more evidently on second viewing.
Yeah! That’s how it should be, I think. That’s the kind of stuff I like. Nabokov said “rereading is all that counts.” I think movies you don’t have to watch more than once—they’re fine entertainment, but something about returning to the texts, I love that. I’m in the business of it. I hope that my readers return to my texts, and my viewers too. So that was always the hope.
The Matrix Resurrections is now on home video and available digitally.
Photo of Aleksandar Hemon by Velibor Božović