Interview with James McTeigue (1st Assistant Director) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin July 13th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with James McTeigue from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: Principal photography is over for RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS!

JAMES: Yes, last time we talked we were probably two weeks into pre-production in California, and now it’s nearly two years and we’re finished. Both films are in the can.

MATRIX: How does it feel to be “free”?

JAMES: Emancipation was a long time coming, so it feels good. When you finish a job though, and especially a job like this, which was a completely extraordinary experience, you’re relieved to be finished, but you’re also sad that it’s finished. You’re sad that you probably won’t get the opportunity again for a long time to work on something with extraordinary scripts, and with extraordinary people involved across the board.

MATRIX: Is every film you work on different?

JAMES: Yes, every film has its different elements that you have to contend with. The thing I’d say about these films is that they had every element that I’ve had to contend with on another film and many times bigger than anything that you normally have to contend with. These films have everything – great scripts, stunts, wirework, special effects – everything that makes it challenging nearly every day. And also the visual effects element, which makes it quite challenging, but they’re doing some work that’s really at the forefront of that technology, so I’m really glad that I’ve been in on the ground level of all of that.

MATRIX: On First Unit you were the voice to the masses, the ringleader; is that the way a First AD generally works?

JAMES: Yes, although different directors work in different ways. With Larry and Andy [Wachowski, Writers / Directors] I’m definitely like the voice on set, but they’re also very generous in the information that they give you, so it makes my job much easier, so I can say that this is what’s coming up. They’re very diligent, always asking if something is happening and have you thought about that? They’re a great double-check for myself as well. The ringleader bit just comes naturally to you after a while – we started off with some pretty big scenes like the stunt car chase in Alameda, and that made it a lot easier because we did a lot of really hard scenes first.

MATRIX: And you had to get what the Directors needed from nine hundred extras in the Zion Temple.

JAMES: Yes, that was like a rock concert actually. That was one of the highlights of the film – all those people there in the Temple. Everyone was listening to really inspirational speeches from the principal actors, and the way that the way the extras embraced it, the way all the actors embraced it, and then all the dancing and the thumping music was pretty extraordinary.

We’ve done some pretty extraordinary things on this film, I’d have to say, starting with the car chase sequence and then the Temple and the Park fight. And then we’ve done the Super Burly Brawl, which is the penultimate fight at the end that is masses of blue screen and rain and guys punching each other, and hundreds and hundreds of Smiths everywhere. We’ve run the gamut.

MATRIX: What do you expect your reaction will be when you finally see the films?

JAMES: When you see films for the very first time, it’s hard to take yourself out of the day that you shot it; it’s hard to become part of the cinema audience. I can tell what the film will be like, but more often than not, all I can remember is the day we were doing that. But I think when I see it I’ll be amazed, and if doing films has shown me anything it’s that if you’ve got a decent script, you’ll have a decent film. If you’ve got a bad script you’ll have a bad film more often that not, all the visual effects or special effects or stunts can’t make up for a bad story.

MATRIX: How has the working relationship with Larry and Andy evolved?

JAMES: I think I’d say that on the first film we were all very green. Essentially they’d done one film beforehand [Bound], and then they had this massive concept project that everyone believed in, but no one really knew what it would be like. THE MATRIX was very nascent; right at the start everyone was feeling each other out, and then everyone worked really hard and it turned out to be a great film. I was just getting to know those guys, but we formed a relationship over that film, and now I’ve been with those guys fifteen hours a day for two years. I think I know how they work and that we have a pretty good rapport and an extraordinary working relationship. They’re two incredible human beings, and what they’ve managed to do with these films will be extraordinary.

MATRIX: Have you ever felt that you knew what you were going to be doing before you actually did it?

JAMES: Yes, you kind of get an inkling for that sometimes, but if I learnt something very early on it was to never try and second-guess those guys, because if you try to second-guess them they’d probably willfully try and stump you there. They’d do it in good humor… but they would do it. You get into a flow and think that you’ve seen something shot lots of times now, so you think you know the size lens they’re going to use. But it’s never the same twice; they make sure it’s never the same twice.

MATRIX: Did the challenges increase throughout filming?

JAMES: The Third Unit was in some ways brought in at my instigation. I knew that the film had to finish at some point, obviously the studio wouldn’t let us go on forever, and there were a lot of complex visual effects shots that had to be done for the Siege. So it seemed prudent to form a unit that could handle that, and take a lot of pressure and exacting detail oriented work away. All our sets were coming to an end in a natural cycle, and Second Unit were doing their thing and we had to wind it up, so with all three units I think we did a pretty good job.

A film this long does get hard on a psychological level, so you like to keep everybody’s spirits going. I’m not saying it’s me that keeps them going, just that it’s hard for everybody. Even though you’re doing really interesting work day after day, they’re long days and you have to concentrate a lot. A lot goes into making each day, and to have work at that high intensity level over a long period of time gets tricky sometimes.

MATRIX: Which sets were a challenge for maneuverability?

JAMES: There are sets that kind of stand out in your memory, like the Matrix City Street set is a really good example. There were lots of Agent Smiths lined down one side of the street, and there are two guys fighting for days on end in the pouring rain. In that set we sometimes did fifty or sixty takes because the rain would be pouring down and it was hard for the actors to maneuver. We also did a set called the Hel Coat Check, which is where Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph come down to try and get to a nightclub. We’re in a small set which is essentially an ante room to the Hel Night Club, and the set has all these pillars, and there’s lots of gunfire and people running on the roof upside down, so there are lots of wires everywhere.

Some of the sets took an extraordinary amount of pre-production and thought to make sure that once you got in there you didn’t get completely bamboozled. The Gimbal is another good example: you’re up there and they’re flying somewhere so there have to be lots of lights to give you different environments, the actors are ten feet up in the air and it’s essentially like a bucking bronco. We had towers built all around it to get the shots, or you’re back on a techno crane.

MATRIX: How much energy does your job take on a day to day basis; particularly days where there are 900 extras?

JAMES: It takes a lot of energy sometimes, especially if you come in and you’re not feeling like you want to like get right in there and get everyone else motivated when you’re having trouble motivating yourself. But that is also my job, that’s one of the things I have to do. Even though there may be a lot of people, it just comes naturally after a while. It’s kind of weird, like you have this alter ego who gets out there and starts saying things. Sometimes I think, oh God, did I just say that? The good thing about Australian crews is they’ll level you out pretty quickly if they think you’re getting a bit above yourself.

MATRIX: Has it been difficult to cope with two different studio systems – the US and Australia?

JAMES: I was surprised at how similar they were to tell you the truth. There are some different things about it, but obviously the filmmaking discipline is the same the world over. Both countries have very competent technicians and people. The only thing I’d say is that in America they have more history, and with more history comes more experience. It doesn’t make it any better than working with an Australian crew, but there are certain things they just know how to do because someone has had to do it before on another film. Whereas here the crew tends to be more inventive if it hasn’t been done before.

I remember reading a call sheet from Alameda when we were on the Freeway and were doing a big stunt sequence and, I kid you not, there were about twenty-five Rondells in the list, and R.A. Rondell is our Stunt Coordinator. The Rondells are a huge stunt family, just a big family full of stunt people. You would never get that in Australia because the industry is so new. You would never see a father and a son on an Australian film – I’m sure that’ll come, but not yet.

MATRIX: How much are you involved in the communication between all the departments and the orchestration of what they have to do?

JAMES: You don’t actually have to deal with a lot of people; you usually deal with a small number of people from those departments, and then within their departments they deal it out. I would generally deal with the heads of departments, or their second in charge. But if I wasn’t available to do something I’d ask Claire [Richardson], who is the Key 2nd Assistant Director, to go and ask them about that, or she’d go to off set meetings that I couldn’t attend, and then she’d come back and ask me about things. It’s a pretty organic process, but it has very set rules about it as well, in the way things need to be achieved. It’s always about prepping. You always need to have so much preparation to make things work; when you’re not prepared, that’s when they fall apart.

MATRIX: Would you say these films had more preparation time than ordinary?

JAMES: Yes, but for the scale of the film that it was I don’t know whether – even if you had three years – you’d ever be prepared. At some point you just have to start filming you know. When we were in America we essentially prepped for the American part of the shoot, which was sixty-seven days, and then when we came out here we knew it would be a lot of shoot days, but it worked out to be two hundred and three days. We touched on the Australian part of the shoot when we were in America, but probably not as much as we should have, but that’s in hindsight. It was hard to see beyond that sixty-seven days in Alameda – that’s the size of a normal film. I think it would drive you insane if you laid out the two hundred and seventy days and said that you have to be fully prepared for that. It was strange doing a schedule for that long.

MATRIX: You must have had to try projecting some kind of schedule back in the beginning.

JAMES: Yes, I did. We ended up shooting for two hundred and seventy days, and my first pass on the schedule was two hundred and sixty five days, so I wasn’t too far off.

MATRIX: How instrumental are the storyboards and the pre-visualizations in helping you create that schedule, and on a day to day basis while you’re filming?

JAMES: They’re great. The thing about the storyboards is that they don’t ever tell you exactly what you’re going to shoot. They never go, here’s the master, then here’s the two shot, then here’s a single and a single – not that we cover every scene like that. What the storyboards and the conceptuals do, which is incredible, is give you a really good clear image in your head as to how things could be and what you’ll need. And some of the shots you do are exactly the storyboards, even down to lighting the negative space that you see in some of the storyboards. It’ll be hard to go to another film where it’s not completely storyboarded.

MATRIX: Directors have different styles of coverage; how plugged into that do you need to be to do the preliminary schedule?

JAMES: It’s an overview. We had a set called the Sub Metro Access Alley where all the ships’ captains meet, and when I initially scheduled that I didn’t know what the shots were going to be, but I’ll look at who is talking and know that if they’re talking they’re going to get a single shot, and you’re probably going to do a complicated master which will bring a bunch of people in, and you’ll have to get them round a table. You also have to think about whether they’re all from different ships, and then you’re probably going to want to cover them in a three shot or a four shot. You sort of work it all out in your head, and even though I don’t know how much there’s going to be, I can get a pretty good feel for how complicated something is going to be.

MATRIX: How varied does that go from director to director?

JAMES: It definitely varies, but if I know anything about these guys [Larry & Andy Wachowski] it’s that they know exactly what they want, and you don’t get that from a lot of directors. These guys are very focused and they know exactly what they’re going to go in there and achieve. It’s like going in with two people who are going to make your job much easier to get through.

MATRIX: Did the end of filming sneak up on you over the last couple of months?

JAMES: We could see the schedule and see what was there and what we had to achieve, but I don’t think people thought it would ever end. After we came back after the last break I think people were in denial. Probably the turning point that totally changed people’s mindset was when we put the Third Unit on; that was when people knew we were serious about getting the films done. I remember having a meeting with the Directors and the Second and Third Unit Directors and the ADs and we said, okay this is it, this is the stop date. Five minutes later everybody on the Fox Lot knew we were going to stop and when. You could hear this collective sigh of relief, and then everyone worked towards getting it finished, which was really good because it changed everyone’s perspective on it, yeah.

MATRIX: And of course the final shot of any production is always a big deal.

JAMES: Still to this day I am amazed that Keanu held it together in that last shot. Everyone hears that it’s the last shot, and I think there were nine hundred people on the payroll at that time, so there were eight hundred and ninety nine people in on the stage with us. For Neo it was the big face off at the end of the films where he’s imparting a lot of important information, but the hum in the studio was incredible. It was everything I could do to keep everyone quiet, and I had to clear people back behind the curtains around the set so that he could get some kind of space to work in. He’s pretty focused so he can blank all that out, but I didn’t envy his position in that.

I remember Larry suggesting instead of saying cut, how about if we wrap forever? It was a very poignant moment. I was surprised that I hadn’t thought about that moment more, but as we got into doing the last takes I suddenly realized that was going to be it.

MATRIX: On this film you worked with a couple of actors who weren’t actors, such as Cornel West as Councillor West. Did you do your job any differently in order to accommodate the fact that he wasn’t used to being on a film set?

JAMES: Yes, Cornel is a pretty good example of someone who hasn’t been on a set before. There’s not much you can do to protect them really – the protection they get is from the Directors giving them succinct direction, or direction that can make it achievable for a non-actor to do it. All I can do is try and make him comfortable, and the other actors were really good with him, and the crew was really good with him. He’s a pretty open, interesting guy and you immediately warm to him, and he immediately took to the film set like he’d been there his whole life.

That was another great experience – meeting someone like that who has all this history that doesn’t have anything to do with film. The film experience is a really good one sometimes because of those things that you come across. Whether it be the places that you go or the people that you meet or.

MATRIX: For Cornel’s scenes, the Directors had very long takes with direction throughout; is that a traditional way of working with a non-actor?

JAMES: No, that’s not a traditional way, that’s a Wachowski-ism I’d say. I noticed them do that more with people who aren’t so confident in their acting, because you can get them to say the whole section of dialogue over and over again, or you can just go in for specific things. They know exactly how something is going to cut, so they’ll ask for the lines to be said flat, and then with a bit of sadness in it. They’ll be very specific because they know where they’re going to put the scissors in, and that will be the piece that’ll be in the film. That was their way of directing the scene to get it just how they wanted it.

With a really experienced actor you don’t often have to do that. The actor will give you what they want, or the Brothers may ask for a change in the next take – to use the same example – on that beat give to us flat, and on the next beat give it to us with a bit of sadness, and they’ll do it.

MATRIX: There are a large number of actors in the sequels; what was it like to work with so many?

JAMES: It was really good; I like actors. Anyone who can get in front of the camera and say all those lines and make it convincing and believable, and are willing to have their face projected sixty feet high in a cinema, hats off to them. The way the ground rules were set out for these films, there was never any “star” stuff that went, which is unusual for a film. I’m not saying that it happens a lot, but obviously everyone hears stories. This film never has any of that, which is really refreshing. It’s great to work on a film where you don’t have to wonder whether the actor is going to come out of their trailer. They know they’re here to do a job, they know they’re here to do it well, and everyone respects each other, so everyone is always there on time.

MATRIX: Do you feel sad that you don’t get to be involved in the editing portion of the film, having invested two years of your life in this?

JAMES: Yes I do, only from the point of view that I’m interested to know how it will evolve. This time I’ll probably take some time out and go and see all that because I want to know how it comes together with all the visual effects, because that’s where it happens. I’ve got an understanding of the editing process, but you don’t really understand it completely until someone is there and they’re doing it in front of you.

MATRIX: The anticipation for these films is immense; do you think the story that has been filmed is the next step that everyone is waiting for?

JAMES: Yes, I think so. The advantage of these films from the outset is that they’ve been envisaged as a trilogy. It’s not like they made the first one then thought they better write something more. These films are a complete cycle. The expectation is huge, but I think they’ll more than live up to it because they’re clever films with great stories. But the film business is fickle, no one knows what’s going to work, and that’s why everyone is always chasing the tail of the last success because they just want to get something into the cinema that’s going to be successful. I think these films have more integrity than that; they’re about the artistic achievement rather than like the business end of it.

Creatively they’ve more than succeeded. They’ve gone over and above anything I could have ever imagined they’d do. The first one set the goal post pretty high, and I think they’ve taken them and stuck them even higher, and there are going to be some people scrambling to get there.

MATRIX: Thank you for your time James.

Interview by REDPILL

August 2002

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1 Comment

  1. Oh my gosh, so much wonderful information and depth here. I could feel for some of what James had to share (I was 1st AD on a very small scale for a very short time) and it is such a responsibility, but a true way to know, one HAS to know, what is going on!!!! Of course it’s all team effort, but the 1st AD is one of the main leaders, and sounds like James was a great one at that (without him saying he was). 🙂

    Thanks for all your insight. I take it, with all those days of filming, it was the shooting of TWO films at once, right?, vs just one. As I thought I read somewhere that two and three were shot together. If not, still understood the time needed, as it had to be a “complicated/involved” film to be shot.

    As a result, the films were a success, so much so that other films were, and still are, patterned after the MATRIX films, the brothers’ wisedom!

    Thanks for this.

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