Keanu Reeves: Behind The Scenes Of "The Matrix Reloaded"

  Justin Timberlake Interviews Jada Pinkett Smith and Carrie-Anne Moss

— by Kurt Loder

I had long assumed that William Gibson was pulling in fat and frequent checks from the Wachowski brothers. After all, their "Matrix" movies — the marvelous original; the oddly not-great "Reloaded"; and the eagerly-awaited-anyway "Revolutions," due out November 5 — may draw upon Japanese anime and Hong Kong kung-fu features for their action style, but some of the films' key concepts (and at least one character) seem clearly borrowed from Gibson's celebrated "Sprawl" novels: "Neuromancer" (1984), "Count Zero" (1986) and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988).

Gibson began publishing in small science-fiction magazines in 1977. Some of his early stories, like "Burning Chrome" and "Johnny Mnemonic" (made into a 1995 movie starring ... Keanu Reeves), were already set in the Sprawl, a grim, post-apocalyptic urban wasteland stretching from Boston to Atlanta (a place similar in tone to the exotically squalid future-world created by film director Ridley Scott in his 1982 SF classic, "Blade Runner").

 Photos from "The Matrix Reloaded"
The Sprawl was richly elaborated in "Neuromancer," Gibson's first novel. Here was an intricately imagined world populated by "computer cowboys" who were able to project their "disembodied consciousness" into "cyberspace" (a term coined by Gibson), where they soared through the "matrix," described variously as "a consensual hallucination," "a 3-D chessboard" and "an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems." In the matrix, endless fields of highly prized digital data — corporate, governmental, military — glimmered behind walls of protective programs called "ice." It was the cowboys' job to breach these defenses, with ever-evolving "icebreaker" programs of their own, and to steal the choicest data for retailing on various illicit markets. Wonderfully awful events ensued.

The complex plot-weave of "Neuromancer" features a Rasta space colony called Zion and a black-leather-clad warrior girl named Molly (introduced in "Johnny Mnemonic" as Molly Millions). Molly is a "street samurai" whose formidable bionic enhancements include retractable razors installed beneath her fingernails and big, surgically inset mirror lenses that cover her eyes. A burned-out computer cowboy named Case is the book's nominal protagonist, the embodiment of Gibson's hard-boiled, cyber-noir sensibility; but the unforgettable Molly is a more vivid character — one of the most complexly realized female heroes in the generally male-envisioned field of science fiction. It's difficult not to see her as the source of the black-clad warrior girl Trinity in the "Matrix" movies.

"Neuromancer" begins with a famously great opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." "Count Zero," the second Sprawl novel, whose world-weary cowboy character is called Turner, also kicks off in memorable style, but with an electrifying rush:
"They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

"He didn't see it coming ..."
"Count Zero" introduces a young computer punk named Bobby Newmark — "Count Zero" is his cyber-handle — who gets drawn deeper and deeper into the matrix and ultimately, in "Mona Lisa Overdrive," evolves into a transformational character not entirely unlike, uh, Neo, in "The Matrix."

There are other interesting points of convergence between Gibson's Sprawl books and the "Matrix" movies. In "Count Zero," Turner, in need of instructions for flying a plane, downloads them directly into his head, something that Trinity also does in the first film. And "Neuromancer" introduces two profoundly powerful artificial intelligences, or AIs, that long to break free of the cyber-shackles in which they're bound by their human creators (an SF concept that also figures in the Wachowskis' anime collection, "The Animatrix").

True, in the Sprawl books, the matrix is a beckoning virtual territory that humans seek to enter; in the "Matrix" movies, it's a sinister, machine-generated construct that those few humans aware of its real nature seek to flee. Still, it's surprising to learn that William Gibson does not, in fact, make even a courtesy buck from the "Matrix" franchise, which — counting ticket sales, DVD profits, video games and other ancillary artifacts — will ultimately generate more than a billion dollars in revenue. Quite likely way more.

Injustice is nothing new to most writers, of course — just ask them. Even Philip K. Dick, the legendary, amphetamine-fueled author whose deeply twisted SF stories actually have been made into movies ("Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "Minority Report"), never got to fully savor his big cash-in: "Blade Runner," the first of those films, was released the year he died.

So Gibson has remained philosophical, and, of course, quite successful. Following the Sprawl trilogy, he wrote three more linked books — "Virtual Light," "Idoru" and "All Tomorrow's Parties." Earlier this year, he made The New York Times best-seller list with his eighth novel, "Pattern Recognition," a book that, for the first time, he set in the present day. He wrote the screenplay for "Johnny Mnemonic" (although not for the 1998 film "New Rose Hotel," based on another of his early Sprawl stories). He co-wrote two episodes of the "X-Files" TV series, and turned out one early version of a script for the abominable 1992 horror flick "Alien 3." (A movie that eight other screenwriters had to be called upon to really screw up.) If you scour the Web, you can also find what's purported to be an actual Gibson script for "Neuromancer."

In addition, it's worth noting that Gibson co-wrote a song called "Dog Star Girl" for a 1993 Deborah Harry album, Debravation. Coincidentally, perhaps, Dog Star is also the name of a sometime band whose bass player happens to be ... Keanu Reeves.

But why was "Neuromancer" never made into a movie? It's a natural, right? Actually, at one point, it looked as if Gibson had found the perfect director for the job: video auteur Chris Cunningham, widely admired for his innovative work with Aphex Twin (the scary-weird "Come to Daddy" video, 1997) and Madonna (the hallucinatory "Frozen," 1998). But the project never came together. Which isn't to say it never will, although the "Matrix" movies have clearly co-opted the market for stylish dystopias somewhat.

How does Gibson feel about all this? Let's find out. A Virginia native who relocated to Canada during the Vietnam War protest years of the 1960s, he's now 55 years old and lives in Vancouver. We contacted him by e-mail to ask about the "Matrix" situation, among other things. He had (what else?) some interesting thoughts.

Kurt Loder: Why was a "Neuromancer" movie never made?

William Gibson: "Neuromancer" 's history is so long and so complex, not to mention tedious, that I could scarcely tell you myself. It does have a sort of weird half-life, though. Ask me next year! "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" both worked through options and sold outright, but I've heard nothing about either for years.

Loder: Was the "Neuromancer" script that's posted all over the Internet actually written by you?

Gibson: No, I didn't write that. I don't remember who did. I believe there have been at least two screenplays for "Neuromancer." The only script of mine available on the Net is "Alien 3" (usually in a truncated version, for some reason).

Because there is a market of sorts for scripts supposedly by me, script-pirates often staple faked title-pages to scripts based on my work. There are a number of these around, all commissioned at various times, from various screenwriters, in abortive attempts to make feature films. I only know about these misattributed versions because people bring them to be signed, and then I have to refuse.

Loder: Were the three Sprawl books originally conceived as a trilogy?

Gibson: No, quite the opposite, actually. I loathed the tendency, in genre SF, to think in terms of sequels, series, braid mega-novels. Then, somehow, I sort of backed into it anyway. And then I did it again, with three more books.

Loder: Would you ever consider returning to that world and those characters?

Gibson: Going back and asset-stripping a 20-year-old successful first novel would be a deeply distasteful proposition, for me. So if you ever see me doing it, I guess you'll know I must need the money really badly.

Loder: What writers have most influenced you?

Gibson: I believe the most important aspect of having artistic influences is getting over them. That's what they're there for, really.

Loder: I know there's a general assumption that "Blade Runner" was an inspiration for "Neuromancer" ...

Gibson: "Blade Runner" was released when I was about a third of the way through "Neuromancer," and it worried me that it looked so much like the pictures in my head. And then it worried me that it didn't do particularly well. Years later I met Ridley Scott and discovered we'd had inspiration in common: French SF comics, mainly.

Loder: How do you feel about the "Matrix" movies appropriating so many of your concepts?

Gibson: All pop, and perhaps particularly the greatest pop, is inherently recombinant. Genre itself is a recombinant mechanism. "Neuromancer" was a very consciously, very eclectically recombinant work. I didn't invent computers, AI or the black vinyl cat suit. I thought "The Matrix," which I quite liked, was more like a Phil Dick piece in some sort of cyber-noir drag than like my own work. My friend Roger dragged me to see it, because he liked it and I'd been reluctant to see it. I still haven't seen "Reloaded," because word of mouth leads me to assume it's got a case of the middles. That trilogy thing, again.

Loder: I wonder how you feel about the fact that the entire texts of your three Sprawl novels, and several stories, are available online; and how you feel about the intellectual-property issue in general ...

Gibson: In terms of lost revenue, I doubt it has much effect on me. To whatever extent it does, I regard it as a tax on fame. It's probably closer to being free advertising. But that's because there isn't a really good digital platform for book-reading. Yet.

Loder: What about peer-to-peer downloading of music? Do you think we may be witnessing the end of the record industry as we've known it?

Gibson: I suspect we're at the end of an 80-year technological window during which it was possible for quite a lot of people to make quite a lot of money selling recorded music.

Loder: You've said that you weren't really a computer adept when you started writing "Neuromancer." Have you since become expert?

Gibson: Hardly anyone was a computer adept in 1982. Today I use e-mail, Google constantly, have a Web site ( and love eBay. I'm too lazy to download music, though; I still buy CDs.

Loder: Any speculations about where the mushrooming wealth of digital technology is taking us?

Gibson: Where's it taking us? Well ... somewhere else, that's for sure.

And for more Hollywood happenings, check out MTV's Movie House and our Feature Interviews.

E-Mail this story to a friend

What do you think of this feature? You Tell Us...
Photo: Karen Markowitz