Q&Amp;A: 'There Were No Easy Shots'

The writing and directing team behind "The Matrix," Larry and Andy Wachowski, have made four films in their short career--and Bill Pope has served as their cinematographer on every one of them. It's a match made in heaven.

Pope got his start serving on "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi's early cult classics "Darkman" (1990) and "Army of Darkness" (1993)--a pair of stylishly outrageous action movies that, like the "Matrix" saga, draw heavily from the visual conventions of comic books. When Pope and the Wachowskis teamed up for the brothers' first film, the 1996 lesbian film-noir "Bound," the three men found that they spoke an almost identical visual language. After shooting all three "Matrix" movies, Pope is currently working with his original boss, Raimi, on the "Spider-Man" sequel due out in the summer of 2004. During his brief rest between blockbusters, the gifted cinematographer sat down in Los Angeles for an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK's Devin Gordon.

NEWSWEEK: Where do the "Matrix" sequels rank in the hierarchy of opportunities for a cinematographer?

Bill Pope: I don't think you get any higher. I'll never be here again. I was walking around the sets with the gaffer during the last week of shooting, and we had a conversation about how we don't think it'll ever get this monumental again, this complicated. I don't think I've ever seen any director as strong as those two guys [Larry and Andy Wachowski]. Maybe that "Lord of the Rings" guy--the one who basically owns his own country. You need an Orson Welles-size person to do what these two guys can do.

When you read the scripts for the new movies, were there any scenes that jumped out at you as especially challenging?

Every scene. Every scene. Have you seen the freeway sequence? When I first read that it in the script, I just laughed. On almost every movie, you might work up to one climactic scene. In a really complicated movie, there might be two. In "Reloaded" and "Revolutions," every single scene--without exception--was as hard as you can get. There were no easy shots. It was hours and hours and hours of 25 people sitting around a big table, staring at the storyboards, saying, "How the hell are we gonna do this?"

How did you hold up? Was it demoralizing?

I thought I was stronger than I was, actually. I knew it was going to be the hardest thing I'd ever done. But like everything else on the movie, it was just harder than I thought. The first movie sort of rolled off our fingers. Nobody was watching us. We didn't care. Warner Brothers was silly enough to give us 60 million of their dollars. And we were going to give them an audience of ... hundreds. [Laughs] We all thought no one would see it, and I would be working in that video store over there across the street. We used to make jokes about what we were going to call our little stores in the Valley. I was gonna sell cigars and ammo and call it Smoke 'Em. This time, there were all these things that just strike body blows to you. One of your new actresses [Aaliyah] dies in a plane crash. One of your most beloved actresses [Gloria Foster] has a heart attack and dies in her apartment, right in the middle of shooting her role. It was like that all the way through. It was so difficult.

Tell me about the differences between the two Wachowski brothers. They often get described as sort of a two-headed monster--but is that accurate?

No, they're very different, actually. Andy is outgoing, funny, deferential. There's a lot of give and take with Andy. Larry is like a fierce jihad warrior. They are their own 9-year-old audience. They really are that kid. They love each other and respect each other. They are each others' best friend. It's a weird thing to see brothers like that. It reminds you how rare that is. They laugh at each others' jokes. Even on the final day, when we were f--king exhausted and everybody was sick of each other, Larry and Andy were still sitting behind those monitors making each other laugh.

Are they hard to please?

Yes. When they like something, they both stick out their lower lip and nod. That's about the highest praise you get from them. That means the take is good and you can move on. But you need both of them--you need two lower lips and two nods. If I only get one, I know I'm gonna have to do it over again.

The visual language of "The Matrix" has become iconic. Did you and the Wachowskis ever discuss what you wanted to achieve?

On the first movie, we talked a lot about black. I was a big fan of film noir and Frank Miller's "Sin City" series, which is a comic drawn entirely in black and white. You focus the audience's eye by blacking out portions of the frame. You start from black, from darkness. Then we tried to figure out, what does a computer-generated world look like? We wanted to convey a sickness, a decadence, a reality that didn't quite look right. Green seemed like the best idea. Plus we loved the color of the green cursor--and that sound, that "tink, tink"--on early computer screens.

From a cinematographer's perspective, how are the sequels different from the original? Are there any noticeable changes?

In the first one, you saw the Matrix and you saw the real world. But the real world was only the old sewer lines and the inside of the Nebuchadnezzar. That was it. That's all you saw. And in the Matrix, you're in this slightly green, computerized construct. In the new movies, there's many more worlds you go to. You go to Zion [the last human city]. There's also many different constructs. And each construct has a different look. It's computer generated, but it doesn't have to be the Matrix, it can be something else entirely. For the two movies, we had over 180 sets.

How many were there on the first "Matrix"?

About 40.

If there's one recurring criticism of "The Matrix," it's that its originality is overstated, that it's really just a pastiche of visual and textual influences. What do you think about that?

Once you filter an influence through yourself, it's not the same thing anymore--if you really filter it. If you really take a thing and make it yours, understand the reasons why it was done, and use it in a different way. Larry and Andy's use of John Woo's gun ballet is a great example. John Woo's a great director, but he uses it in an entirely different way. It has an entirely separate meaning. Same vocabulary, same shot sometimes, but an entirely different meaning. So I don't know, is that stealing? Is it pastiche? Maybe, but I think you misunderstand art when you say things like that. There is nobody out there who didn't live on the people before them.