Interview with David Ellis (Director, 2nd Unit, USA) from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin March 2nd, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with David Ellis from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: What does being a Second Unit Director entail?

DAVID: A Second Unit Director is needed when you have a separate filming unit. The Directors of the film, Larry and Andy [Wachowski] hired me to direct a separate unit that goes around and kind of cleans upafter sequences they have done. On a lot of films you do mostly big action sequences, but on THE MATRIX we’ve been involved in doing everything from action sequences, to visual effects shots like we’re doing today, to inserts, to dialogue with actors. So it’s pretty much anything they tell us to do we do. A Second Assistant Director, on the other hand, works under the First Assistant Director to run the set, and the First AD works for me, the Second Unit Director. The First AD is my lieutenant, and the Second AD works under him.

MATRIX: How did you get into this kind of work?

DAVID: I started when I was younger, 25 years ago, as a stunt man, and had a great career as a stunt man and a Stunt Coordinator. Early on I knew I wanted to do more, and started working as a Second Unit Director in episodic TV. My first big feature was Gorky Park, I was a Stunt Coordinator on that and got to do a little bit of Second Unit Directing, and liked it. I loved the adrenaline rush of doing stunts, but directing was a little bit more creative. Then I moved on to becoming a pure Second Unit Director, and it’s been great.

MATRIX: What was your first feature as a pure Second Unit Director?

DAVID: I’ve done a lot of big features as both Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator. I think Patriot Games was the first where I kind of broke away. I did Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, I did three films with Phillip Noyce, the Director, and Harrison Ford, then went on to just keep working. I did Waterworld and got into a whole water Second Unit thing for a while – I did Waterworld and Sphere and a movie for Renny Harlin called Deep Blue Sea. Then I got into action, doing a movie called Soldier, then The Negotiator, and then I worked with Ang Lee on Ride with the Devil. Recently I did The Perfect Storm with Wolfgang Petersen, and from there did Exit Wounds to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now we’re on THE MATRIX sequels. I’ve been blessed; I’ve had a great career.

MATRIX: These sets are very big, is Second Unit doing more than would ordinarily be done?

DAVID: It depends. On most of the films I go on they have big Second Units because, logistically, they’re very complicated shows, and it takes time. The Directors have certain sequences they want to focus on and spend their time on, and because of either actor availability or location availability etc, they have to give up some work to a Second Unit Director. Larry and Andy would much rather do all the work themselves if they could, unfortunately they don’t have the time to do that, so they’ve given us a big responsibility in executing some of the work for them.

MATRIX: Describe the shot that’s going on behind you.

DAVID: That’s for the freeway. When the twins get blown up in their car they try to attack Morpheus, he slices their car in half, and they roll their car. Then Morpheus shoots their car and it explodes and there’s a shot of the twins inside of the explosion as they fly up into the air – this is the visual effects explosion element for that.

MATRIX: Have you worked Second Unit on all three of the large sets?

DAVID: No, the Park set was all First Unit, although we did a couple of blue screen things for that, and then we did the freeway sequence. The rest of it was mostly blue screen for a lot of different pieces within the movie. Larry and Andy are filming all the Temple themselves. They did the Park set and the Temple set so we could spend more time on the freeway sequence.

MATRIX: What have been some of the more challenging things on this shoot?

DAVID: It’s all challenging; they have some very, very creative shots and big expectations. The freeway sequence was very involved with a lot of stunt guys, and a lot of intricate action, but it’s all fun.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction when you saw the freeway?

DAVID: Awesome! I’ve done a lot of big action sequences with cars in the past, but never had the ability to have our own freeway. I think it’s the first time in film that anyone has built a freeway for a movie, and it was great. The logistics of getting access to freeways is tough and you have to work around peak traffic hours, weekends, etc. It was great that we got to film 35 days in a row on our own freeway unrestricted; we could blow it up and damage it, do whatever we wanted with it.

MATRIX: How long have you been on the production?

DAVID: I’ve been on it since early February [2001], so about 5 months.

MATRIX: The freeway would have still been being constructed at that point.

DAVID: Yes, when we started it was in pre-production. We were having meetings and storyboard meetings, planning out the film, and they were still building the freeway when we came here.

MATRIX: Is how extensive the storyboards are for this film typical?

DAVID: Yes, different Directors are real extensive with their storyboards, and that’s just having a really clear vision of what you want, being prepared and doing your homework. The brothers are right there with that, they were very prepared, they knew exactly what they wanted. So it was easy for me because they just gave us the boards and we would execute that.

MATRIX: Being involved in some of the pre-production, what is your take on Owen Paterson the Production Designer, and Zach Staenberg the Editor?

DAVID: They’re awesome. Owen is a great Production Designer, he’s done an awesome job here and he’s got his work cut out for him in Australia. Zach I have a lot of respect for as an Editor, he is blessed with having two great Directors who are providing him with incredible footage, so he’s got a good job, not an easy job, but a good job because he’s got unreal footage to pull from to edit. Zach does a rough assemblage of the sequence and then the brothers come in and fine-tune it. They’ve got a lot of great people on this film; Bill Pope is a great DP [Director of Photography], really good, really talented, really creative and works well with the brothers. The Art Department, the Grips, they’re all incredible crews, both the First and Second Unit crews.

MATRIX: Do you have a dedicated DP on second unit as well?

DAVID: We have an entire crew; we could make our own movie. In a way we’re shooting a movie, but we’re shooting their movie. The main thing with Second Unit is making sure you’re not shooting your own movie, that you’re shooting the brothers’ movie, you’re executing it the way they would do it if they were doing it.

MATRIX: What is the process of give and take with the Directors after a shot is done?

DAVID: You definitely hear it if they don’t like it, and that’s what it’s all about. Our job is to give them the shot that they want, and we’ve only re-shot a couple of shots the entire time, which is good, the ratio has been really, really good. Your job, as a Second Unit, is to execute the shot the way they wanted it, then if you can see additional pieces they didn’t anticipate in the storyboards or pre-production, or when a situation presents itself and you see a cool shot, then that’s gravy – if you can get that shot as well as the work you’re there to get for them.

There are situations that present themselves that we didn’t think about, but it’s all collaboration, and it’s all really for us to execute. We get the storyboards, we know what our job is, and we know the shots we have to get. It’s up to myself and my crew to manage our time, to get our days’ work, and be prepared and plan out those shots so we can get them exactly like they want them safely, which is important. Then if there’s something that isn’t right they’ll let us know and we’ll talk about that, then we’ll go out and make sure that it’s right.

MATRIX: Are Larry and Andy very collaborative?

DAVID: Yes. They’re the bosses, they’re in charge, they let you know whether it’s good or bad. I don’t really care about getting accolades, as long as I’m still here and haven’t gotten fired, then I feel I’m doing a pretty good job. When it’s not right they’ll let you know, and if they have faith in you and you’ve got their trust, then you’re still here to work another day and go out and make it right.

MATRIX: How much freedom does Larry and Andy’s level of pre-production, versus others, give you?

DAVID: It depends on the Directors you’re working for. Recently I’ve been working with Chris Columbus on Harry Potter, Wolfgang Peterson on Perfect Storm and Andrzej Bartkowiak on Exit Wounds, all three were very, very into being prepared and extensive detail in pre-production. They all did extensive storyboards, worked with the Storyboard Artists, and they knew what they wanted. There are other Directors I’ve worked for in the past who haven’t been action Directors, Alan Pakula was one on The Devils Own, where there was a sequence I was brought in to do. He knew what he wanted out of the sequence, but he didn’t shoot a lot of action, so he allowed me to storyboard this sequence and plan out the shots to make the action work and make it exciting. Then together we’d go through those shots and talk about them and whether they worked for him and the story or not.

Most of the really, really good Directors are totally involved 150%. The brothers are involved in this movie and the third movie and the game and all sorts of things at the same time, it takes an incredible level of commitment. It’s amazing to watch them. Chris Columbus is the same way, he’s doing Harry Potter and prepping Harry Potter 2, it’s a lot of work to be a Director and to be committed. You don’t just cruise in and sit in your chair and say action or cut, you’re responsible for every little thing contributing to how a film looks. From the wardrobe to the nail polish to the makeup to the sets, to dialogue sounding right and real, and casting the right people so you’re not embarrassed when you get on set and find you have someone you can’t pull a performance out of… it’s an extreme amount of commitment.

MATRIX: Does a Second Unit Director often move on to direct their own films?

DAVID: Yes. I directed a film already for Disney that was a kid’s film called Homeward Bound II: [Lost in San Francisco]. It’s a natural transition, especially on films like this. You’re directing a big portion of their film, and you show you can direct everything, from actors to inserts to beauty shots to aerial shots to underwater stuff to action sequences. You’re involved in pre-production and what goes into getting ready to make the film. Then you work closely with the Editor on what they need between the First Unit work, and the pieces they want to get to help tie it all up and make it look like a seamless piece of film. So I think it’s a natural transition to take Second Unit Directors into First Units. It doesn’t happen as much as with commercial Directors and video Directors for some reason, which is really interesting, because a Second Unit Director is involved in all of the filmmaking process, as opposed to just coming out and doing a commercial. I think a lot of commercial Directors feel they have a great visual style that they are trying to translate into film.

MATRIX: Did the atmosphere feel different when you directed your own film to how it does on Second Unit?

DAVID: No, because I kept the same atmosphere on First Unit that I do on Second Unit. We have a lot of fun, we do our homework and we’re prepared. I make sure it’s fun because if it’s not fun, then there’s no sense in doing it. You’re blessed to be in this business, every day is different. We have a really good time with my crew and I let everybody know how important they are, no matter what their job. I did the same thing on Homeward Bound, and we had a great time, it was a lot of fun.

MATRIX: Do you still get excited when you get a call for a certain job?

DAVID: Yes, totally, I love working.

MATRIX: How was it when you got the call for THE MATRIX 2 and 3?

DAVID: It was awesome. I was being considered for it, although I knew they didn’t really want a Second Unit, Larry and Andy wanted to direct everything themselves. I flew back from Harry Potter [to the US from England] for the interview, had a nice interview with the brothers and then went back to Harry Potter. I was working when I got a call saying they wanted me to do it, I was totally stoked.

The brothers didn’t want anybody directing their film, they wanted to direct everything themselves, so they made it clear in the interview that they didn’t really want a Second Unit Director, but they were being forced into having one just because of the circumstances. When they said they wanted to hire me to do whatever they wanted me to do, I just tried to gain their trust to show them I was shooting their film, and that I’d do it the way they wanted it done. It’s worked out well.

MATRIX: Based on your experience, is THE MATRIX pushing any envelopes?

DAVID: Yes. The brothers have a different visual style, so I’ve learned a lot here. I take something away from every film or every Director I work with. As far as being able to work on the big films and even the smaller films, I’ve worked with some of the best Directors of Photography and the best Directors. I try to take something away from each experience and put that into my repertoire, so when I’m directing my own films, I’ll be able to use all that.

MATRIX: What was your reaction when you first read the script?

DAVID: I think it’s all tough. When you talk about guys doing a fight like a MATRIX fight on top of trucks as you’re speeding down the freeway going the wrong way, and guys leaping off cars onto other cars, it’s all very intricate. It’s a combination of the practical stunts, the practical effects, and then the visual effects. The brothers have some really wild ideas – in the third script as well – they’ve got some cool stuff coming for the audience.

MATRIX: This is the last day of Second Unit filming; how does that feel?

DAVID: It’s good and it’s bad, it’s kind of sad. We have a great crew, I’ve had a lot of fun on this show. It’s been fun working with the brothers, I think they’re great filmmakers. It’s kind of a mixed bag because I’m also excited to go home and be with my family; I’ve been gone over a year and a half on three films in a row, so it’s good to be going home, but I had a great time on this.

MATRIX: Being filmed both here and in Australia, do you think that poses any extra challenges?

DAVID: Not at all, they used Alameda for what they needed. They needed a space to construct a freeway, and at the same time they needed space to build sets, so they had cover sets in case it rained and if they couldn’t work on the freeway they could go under cover and go onto the set. So this was a great place for what they wanted to do here. They also had the ability to use some of the top effects guys and top stunt men in the world, drawing those guys out of LA. There’s a lot of talent all over the world, but they had some really good people they brought in from LA. This part was great for what they wanted to do here, and now they move on to Australia and work there. There are great crews over there, they get a lot for their money, and they’ll have a good time over there.

MATRIX: Do you have any insights to how THE MATRIX 2 and 3 are going to be?

DAVID: They’re going to be huge. THE MATRIX caught people who weren’t ready for it when it first came out. There’s a visual style they established, a fighting style they established, on the first film that nobody had ever seen before, so it was huge, the impact was enormous. People have copied the brothers’ fighting style using Hong Kong wire team guys to do fights in every film that’s come out since then. They’ve raised their own bar as to what people are going to expect from them. I think with the scripts that they have and the work they’re doing, they’re definitely going to thrill people who are the fans of THE MATRIX, and then people who aren’t as well.

MATRIX: Thanks David.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2001

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