One of the people Wachowski met that night was among L.A.'s highest-profile dominatrixes, a tall, imposing blonde with a traffic-stopping figure who used the nom de kink Ilsa Strix. Inflicting extreme pain seemed to be Strix's specialty: "My greatest accomplishment in some ways," she once said, "[was] putting 333 needles into a single penis." Strix cracked a bullwhip on her slaves like no other. She ran the Dungeon with her handsome and strapping partner Buck Angel, a partial female-to-male transsexual known today in the porn world as "The Dude With a Pussy."
In the weeks following their first encounter, Larry Wachowski returned to the Dungeon to see Mistress Strix. Boundaries fell swiftly, stunning the Los Angeles bondage community, which prides itself on the fact that mistresses keep their submissives at arm's length. The relationship between Larry and Ilsa, both in their thirties, would eventually destroy two marriages and possibly alter the creative course of one of the most influential movie trilogies of the past quarter-century, co-created with his brother, Andy: the original Matrix, released in 1999, and its two inferior sequels, which both hit theaters, six months apart, in 2003. Once hailed as the kings of geek-chic Hollywood, the Wachowski brothers disappeared from the scene, becoming virtual recluses. Both turned down interview requests for this story.
The brothers are now planning to re-emerge -- professionally, anyway. March will see the release of V for Vendetta, carrying the vaunted Wachowski imprint, this time as screenwriters and producers. Based on a well-known graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd about vigilantism in a fascist state, the material is reportedly a searing indictment of Bush administration policies. Though the brothers did not direct Vendetta, a project that has been in the works since the Matrix days, the picture feels like a Wachowski film: dark and dangerous, according to those who have seen it. The online film-geek community is eagerly buzzing after some carefully orchestrated sneak screenings. And in an early review, Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff called the film "spectacular and exhilarating." But the $50 million-plus film was also originally planned as one of Warner Bros.' big fall '05 movies. It was pushed back from its initial, blockbuster-friendly November release date into March, traditionally a dumping ground for troubled films. Ironically, that's also the month The Matrix was released. It is the first Wachowski brothers film in three years, and there isn't another one in sight.
The performance of Vendetta is sure to be watched closely by fans and industry observers alike. What is the future of the most successful and visionary moviemaking team in recent history? Where did they go? And what on earth happened to Larry Wachowski?
* * *
When The Matrix premiered in 1999, viewers were floored by the new world the Wachowskis had conjured. The genius of the movie was that it married an old idea -- that humans inhabit an alternate universe controlled by machines -- with spectacular fight scenes and visionary special effects. Besides borrowing from Hong Kong martial-arts movies and Japanese anime, The Matrix alluded to events in the Bible and mythology and addressed the ever-popular concept of artificial intelligence -- something for every sci-fi fan. It was Star Wars for the brightly twisted.
Nothing in the Wachowski brothers' past suggested that they were on the verge of becoming the new nerd titans of Hollywood. Their only previous credit, the kinky $4 million lesbian noir thriller Bound, featured some of the steamiest girl-girl action ever seen in a studio film but didn't find a wide audience. What Bound did signal, however, were themes that became recurring Wachowski obsessions: how easily and naturally, in a rigid world, social and sexual identities can shift.
During their Bound period, the brothers struck friends and colleagues as inveterate jokesters, refreshingly open. After a lifetime of striving for film success -- first as comic-book-obsessed kids, then as neophyte screenwriters -- the Midwesterners seemed unaffected by the seductive trappings of the movie business. "Larry and Andy were the kinds of guys you'd want to have a beer with," says a film writer who spent time with them during the Bound press tour. "Very approachable. Very normal."
Then came The Matrix. Made for $70 million, from a script that blew away producer Joel Silver on first reading, the first film in the series was the definition of a modern cult classic. It took in $470 million in worldwide ticket sales and won four Academy Awards, as hundreds of devoted fan sites fueled a Matrix mania that would last for years. A video game based on the film, Enter the Matrix, sold 1 million copies in the first eighteen days of its release, becoming the fastest-selling movie-based video game in history. The DVD version of the film was the first disc to sell 1 million copies. The entire franchise would eventually bring in more than $1 billion to Warner Bros. And it did something else: It introduced viewers to a private, never-before-seen universe -- weirdly asexual but also awash in references to androgyny, leather and S&M.
In addition to their lucrative salaries as directors, Larry and Andy earned millions as screenwriters and also received a share of the gross profits and royalties on the video game. It was an incredible cash infusion for two former house painters from Chicago, who cut their teeth in the entertainment industry as writers for Marvel Comics and who studied Roger Corman's 1990 trash biography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, as a primer for success. The Wachowski brothers, in fact, had never finished college. Larry dropped out of Bard College, in upstate New York, and younger brother Andy left Emerson College, in Boston, without graduating.
They made an odd pair. Larry drank wine and collected antiquarian books. Andy, the stockier of the two, preferred beer and professional sports, and liked to dress like a biker. They wrote their scripts together, longhand, on yellow legal pads, and rarely argued. "In my time with them, there might have been three diverging positions out of 3,856,293 creative issues on four movies," says sound designer Dane A. Davis, who has worked with the brothers since Bound and won an Oscar for his work on The Matrix. "I guess it would be impossible otherwise."
In 2000, flush with cash from the unexpected success of the first Matrix, Larry and his college sweetheart turned wife Thea Bloom, bought a $1.9 million home on the beach in Venice, California, with a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean. The brothers moved their production company, Anarchos Entertainment, into a cavernous building a few minutes from Larry and Thea's place, with vague but ambitious plans to produce a slate of movies that would bring their skewed visions to the world.
Along the way, the Wachowski brothers put away their chummy attitudes and carefully cloaked themselves in a veil of mystery. They gave fewer and fewer interviews and eventually stopped talking to the press altogether. "Larry and Andy Wachowski have been working together for thirty-two years," reads one of their official bios, in its entirety. "Little else is known about them."
Still, in elitist Hollywood, the brothers emerged as working-class heroes. The Wachowskis did things their way. They didn't rant or scream or break furniture. They cast, shot and edited their films the way they wanted. Confident in their vision, they never wavered from it. They worked with the same tightknit crew on all three Matrix movies and rewarded the loyalty of their team with holiday gifts and even a generous cut of game profits. "It's impossible not to like Larry," says Davis. "Just when it seems that preciousness or self-seriousness will push us over the edge [on set], Larry's humor pops out of the plasma and back into the land of mere humans making a mere movie."
But sometimes, the mood on the set took a darker tone. "Larry and Andy were always into the concept of suppression, of suppressing oneself," says Marcus Chong, who played Tank, the driver of Morpheus' ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, in the first Matrix film. "One of their big directorial notes was 'Be stoic. Never show your true self.'"
* * *
Born Karin Ingrid Winslow in 1967 in Connecticut, a teenage punk rocker and a runaway whose mother died when she was a young girl, Mistress Strix virtually willed herself to become a superstar in the world of BDSM. Besides running the Dungeon, where she established a wide following among Hollywood's power elite, Ilsa gave advanced piercing classes to aspiring dominants, or masters, and stood at the forefront of a vigorous effort to spread the BDSM philosophy around not only Los Angeles but the world, via the Internet. A Web site she founded, Pro-domination.com, allocates a portion of subscriber dues to a legal defense fund that benefits professional dominants who run afoul of law enforcement. "Ilsa became the blond bombshell of domination," says former porn star Porsche Lynn, who has worked as a dominatrix for many years in Los Angeles and Phoenix. "Very respected. Very experienced. Very knowledgeable."
Ilsa arrived in Los Angeles around 1997, having risen through the bondage communities of San Francisco and New York. "I started playing with BDSM from my very first intimate relationships, just after high school," she said in a 2001 interview with the BDSM Web site DickieVirgin.com. "It took me until my early twenties to understand that sadomasochism was an integral part of who I was, and define myself as part of the leather community." In a 1996 interview, Ilsa described one particular client: "I wrestle [with him]. We enact scenes from Hong Kong videos where women throw men around."
Mistress Ilsa could be harsh, even cruel. "If her submissive said, 'I don't really think I'm interested in needles,' she might just come up and, boom, put a couple of needles under their fingernails," says Mistress Jenna King, an L.A. dominatrix. "She had the ability to bring a true submissive or slave to levels that they never thought they could reach. She expanded their limits, and they were happy about that. It was a power exchange." Ilsa made a number of videos, including Transsexual Extreme 2, Hellcats in High Heels 3, Behind the Whip and Queen of Pain -- all best sellers in the BDSM world, and all showing Ilsa having her way with both male and female slaves.
Part of the master/slave playbook -- a hard-and-fast rule of conduct in this parallel universe of trust and surrender -- is the concept of boundaries, limiting the bondage encounter solely to mind-fucking. Consequently, no sexual intercourse is supposed to take place and no dating outside of a "session." Ilsa Strix strictly adhered to these basic rules, even to the point of being aloof to most clients. "She attracted a certain type of guy who objectified her as this distant figure," says Mistress Nicolette, an L.A. dominatrix and a close friend at the time. "They like that unattainability. And she had this regal, cold demeanor."
Ilsa's domestic life was as unconventional as her professional life. She had been married since 1998 to Buck Angel, a female-to-male transsexual, a woman who had turned to surgeons to have her breasts removed and had her chest expanded, via testosterone injections, to the size of a muscular man's. From below the waist, however, Buck remained female.
Ilsa and Buck Angel shared a compact house in the then-gritty L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz. Buck spent his days as Ilsa's assistant, tending to her Web site and her marketing, when he wasn't running the Dungeon or working out at the gym, four or five times a week. Every two weeks, he gave himself another testosterone shot to keep his muscles growing.
As a young girl, Buck had never felt like one. Instead of obsessing over clothes and makeup, she hung out with guys, drank beer and worked on cars. Ilsa and Buck married two years after Buck, then in his midtwenties, had the $6,000 surgeries that transitioned him. His forearms are massive, his head bald, his entire body inked with tattoos. Also an avid "player" in the S&M underground, Buck is partial to leather jackets, cowboy hats, aviator sunglasses and good cigars.
"Ilsa never got excited about her clients," says Buck. "She would see politicians and powerful men, and it was never a big deal; it was just a job. But then one night, she said, 'Oh, my God, you're not going to believe who's in this room -- the director of The Matrix!'"
A fan of the first Matrix movie, Buck walked into the room and exchanged pleasantries with its co-director and screenwriter. "I saw Larry dressed in panties, nylons and a wig, with full-blown makeup," Buck recalls. "He was lying there very much at peace, looking very, very happy.
"In the beginning, I didn't consider Ilsa and Larry's relationship to be sexual, because I understood the dynamics there," he claims. "Larry is a cross-dresser, and his wife was not comfortable with him dressing as a woman. I trusted Larry to be just a client, and Ilsa to be just a dominatrix." Sources in the Los Angeles BDSM community say Ilsa Strix was not the first "pro dom" that Larry Wachowski visited.
Psychiatrists disagree about what forces are at work in men who cross-dress and take the ultimate step of having gender-reassignment surgery. One camp considers men of this type to have a "gender-identity disorder," to be "women trapped in men's bodies." In recent years, another group of doctors labeled some men who demonstrate these tendencies to be autogynephiles -- straight men who are essentially sexual fetishists, aroused by the thought or image of themselves as women.
J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the author of The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, is a vocal proponent of the science behind autogynephilia, and although he declined to comment about Larry Wachowski, he did describe typical autogynephilic behaviors. "Autogynephiles frequently mention having a longing to be a girl that begins in childhood," says Bailey. "But the first outward manifestation of it usually crops up in early adolescence, when they discover that it turns them on to wear women's clothing. What you do not see, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is evidence that these folks were notably feminine in childhood."
And some experts believe that men who want to be women also tend to be what Larry Wachowski appears to be: a guy with a jones for technology. In 1974, Donald Laub, a plastic surgeon, and Norman Fisk, a psychiatrist, conducted a study at the Stanford University School of Medicine of 769 patients considering sex reassignment. Of the male patients, Laub and Fisk discovered an interesting predisposition: "Observation of the male-to-female group showed them . . . to be interested in mathematics and computer sciences."
Larry sent Ilsa elaborate bouquets of flowers and bought her books, clothes and shoes. Ilsa would stay up late at night, researching Larry's history on the Internet. According to Buck, Ilsa offered Larry free bondage sessions that would sometimes last overnight, forgoing thousands of dollars in income and raising Buck's ire and suspicions. Within two weeks of meeting Larry, friends say, Ilsa seemed a changed woman.
In time, she flew to Australia, in first class, to be with Larry on location for the two Matrix sequels, for weeks at a time. "Larry would pick her up at the airport dressed as 'Lana,'" a friend recalls. "He would get depressed and moody when he had to go to the set dressed as a man."
Around the Los Angeles bondage scene, news of Larry Wachowski's relationship with Ilsa Strix spread swiftly. Surely, the cynics reasoned, Ilsa, as smart a businesswoman as she was, had hooked up with Larry purely because of his money. To her, Larry must have represented the ultimate sugar daddy. Why else, they wondered, had Ilsa suddenly decided not to play by the BDSM rules? "Everyone in the community referred to it as the Six Million Dollar Session," says Mistress Jenna King. "People made jokes about it."
By the time Larry and Ilsa first appeared in public, at the L.A. premiere of Matrix Reloaded in 2003, the Wachowski brothers were running into the first critical drubbing of their career. Though Reloaded was one of 2003's highest-grossing movies, with $281 million in ticket sales, it cost $150 million to make and contained one of the most widely derided sequences in recent movie history, the so-called rave scene, in which hundreds of dancers writhe interminably, as if in a soft-core porn film, and Keanu Reeves bares his ass. Matrix Revolutions, also a $150 million picture, took in only $138 million and sacrificed crisp fight scenes for overblown CG effects and sentimental religiosity. Wrote Manohla Dargis in The Los Angeles Times, "Neo has left the Matrix only to land in an episode of Touched by an Angel. How did something that started out so cool get so dorky?"
Some in Hollywood put all this down to sophomore slump. Others saw a different reason: Larry Wachowski's mind was elsewhere. Says a bondage-world source, "Larry was totally concentrating on Ilsa."
* * *
In denial at first, Buck Angel demanded some answers. Ilsa arranged for Larry and her to meet Buck at a transsexual club on Santa Monica Boulevard one Friday night in early 2001 to talk things over. At midnight, in walked two tall blondes wearing almost identical wigs, fur jackets and high-heeled shoes. It was Larry and Ilsa, but Larry was virtually unrecognizable.
Buck Angel cooled his heels at the bar, while his wife and Larry Wachowski took a turn on the dance floor. "When they came over to me, Larry would not look me in the eye," Buck recalls. "In the shoes, he's, like, six foot three, a big, tall drag queen. I tried to talk to Larry, but he wouldn't talk to me. His wig was over his eyes, and I told him, 'Man, you should pull your wig up, because you look like a dude in a dress.'"
Soon afterward, Buck kicked Ilsa out of the home they shared on Kenmore Avenue and later filed for divorce. "Let Larry take care of you," he told her. When their meager property was divided up, Ilsa got the PlayStation and silverware, while Buck received the gas grille, a Cape Cod etching and "all remaining kitchen supplies." A Ford truck, on which the couple owed $17,000, went back to the dealer. Buck Angel left Los Angeles for New Orleans.
Thea Bloom, furious, had also had enough. In July 2002, she separated from Larry and sought to end their nine-year marriage. Amid charges by Bloom that Larry had secreted away millions of dollars earned from various Matrix projects, a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court, in May 2003, ordered a freeze on Larry's considerable assets, just as Matrix Reloaded was being released. "Larry has been extremely dishonest with me in our personal life, and I believe he is hiding information from me regarding our financial affairs," said Bloom in an affidavit. The split, she said, was "based on very intimate circumstances, concerning which I do not elaborate at this time for reasons of his personal privacy."
Papers filed by Bloom, however, do provide a glimpse into Larry Wachowski's secretive world. Bloom alleged that the Wachowski brothers received $16 million for Reloaded and Revisited alone, including $5 million for scripts, $2.2 million for preproduction services and $6.6 million to be disbursed while principal photography was under way. In addition to half of Larry's money, she requested $29,819 per month in expenses.
At the Cannes Film Festival that year, when Larry and Ilsa appeared together on the red carpet, Ilsa looked stunning, like a movie star -- perfect skin, blond hair falling to her shoulders, white teeth gleaming. Larry Wachowski did not look like Larry Wachowski. His face looked feminized; his eyebrows were plucked, he wore large teardrop earrings, and a knit cap covered his head. His fingernails were manicured. Both Larry and Ilsa seemed ecstatic. The press, including columnist Liz Smith, reported that Larry might be taking female hormones, in anticipation of sex-change surgery. Leaving Los Angeles, he and Ilsa moved into a $2.7 million home in San Francisco, on a steep hill in the Castro, with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. (As of last month, work was still under way on an expensive addition to the house, and a sparkling new red Lexus was parked in the indoor garage.)
On the transfer deed for the Castro home, the name Laurence Wachowski does not appear. Instead, it's "Laurenca" Wachowski. And in a judge's order, filed in the divorce proceeding, he is similarly identified as Laurence Wachowski, a.k.a. Laurenca Wachowski.
That same year, Larry, together with his brother, reluctantly showed up at the Screen Actors Guild building on Wilshire Boulevard to testify at a SAG arbitration hearing. Marcus Chong, whose character of Tank had been written out of the sequels after a bitter dispute over money, claimed he had been unfairly treated during salary negotiations for the Matrix sequels.
For the hearing, Larry dressed entirely in black and was constantly shadowed by a team of four beefy, stone-faced, black-clad bodyguards, because Chong had allegedly made threats against the brothers. "They created their own movie set," one observer recalled, who remembered the arbitrator, an old SAG hand, shaking his head at all the drama.
The Larry Wachowski who appeared that day shocked Chong: a decidedly feminine-looking man, with porcelain skin and rosy cheeks, a far cry from the balding, masculine six-footer from Chicago he'd known on the set in Australia. "His face looked like it was melting," says Chong, "and he had a head of hair like Raquel Welch." Noting Larry's frequent trips to the bathroom, Chong's lawyer, Sean Erenstoft, asked Wachowski if he was under the influence of drugs. Larry denied it, under oath.
Larry testified for four hours. "Sometimes he was mouthy and rude," says Erenstoft. "Sometimes he was clear and linear, other times he was amorphous and foggy." Wachowski left the SAG building with his goon squad and disappeared again. The outcome of the hearing was never publicly disclosed.
* * *
An anonymous apartment complex, in a blue-collar neighborhood in Sherman Oaks, California, on a sweltering afternoon in late August. Bald head perspiring, Tom Moore opens the door to the dungeon operated by his partner, Mistress Nicolette. Moore, a former professional dominant, now makes transsexual porn movies, while Nicolette travels the world to meet with eager clients. They knew Ilsa Strix for years and feel that she betrayed the BDSM community in order to be with Larry Wachowski.
"Ilsa had nothing to do with anything that didn't make her money," Nicolette says. She is a curvy blonde, with a gym-toned body, a dominatrix who also enjoys BDSM in her personal life. Nicolette picks up a bullwhip and, with a flick of her wrist, cuts a neat line in a yellow Post-It stuck on the back of the front door. Target practice.
"Larry decided to live the life full-time, and he had millions, so she just dropped her husband like a hot potato," says Moore, who also shoots gay porn movies in a small room off Nicolette's dungeon. "She pulled down her Web site and made it very clear to everybody that she was out of the game. Once Ilsa found Larry, she was gone." He and Nicolette have tried, unsuccessfully, to get a hold of her private number in San Francisco.
"I know she was happy," says Nicolette. "Right before she went to the Cannes Film Festival, she called me and said, 'I have my own place. I feel like a different person. I feel renewed. I'm exercising again, I'm doing yoga, I'm being healthy.'"
Later, I called Buck Angel again in New Orleans, days before floodwaters ravaged the city and forced him to flee his condo in the French Quarter. "Ilsa told me that she fell in love with Larry, and he fell in love with her -- I don't believe it," Buck said. "I think she saw a way out of doing professional domination, and a way to be taken care of. And Larry was willing to risk everything to do this."
In New Orleans, after the bitter breakup with Ilsa, Buck Angel has married a pioneering body-piercing artist, Elayne Angel -- who has pierced Lenny Kravitz's nostril and nipples -- and carved out a specific niche for himself in porn. Buck stars in transsexual movies, primarily having sex with women and gay men, and maintains a Web site, buckangel.com. In February, as part of a twelve-picture deal, he released a film called Buck's Beaver. In August, he made porn history when he filmed a scene in which he has sex with a male-to-female transsexual -- purportedly the first onscreen coupling of its type.
Many friends of Ilsa and Larry refuse to speak of them. "They want their privacy respected," says Sabrina Belladonna, a leading Los Angeles dominatrix who knew Karin Winslow for years, before hanging up the telephone. "Otherwise they would have made a public statement, don't you think?"
Hardly a word has been heard from the Wachowski camp in two years, and that remains the case even as Warner Bros. prepares for the release of V for Vendetta, directed by their protege, James McTeigue, an assistant director on the Matrix films. Why didn't the Wachowskis stay behind the camera? "They've always directed their own scripts, and this was an adaptation of somebody else's work," claims a Vendetta insider. "They didn't see this as a Wachowski Brothers Picture to follow the Matrix trilogy, although they're very involved in the picture."
Into this vacuum, more rumors fly. "Ilsa took him to a party about a year ago dressed as a woman, and he was stunning from the neck down," reports Paul Barresi, a porn director and self-styled private eye with deep contacts in the Los Angeles sexual underground. "Larry had a hood on his head, so nobody knew who he was."
Other sources in the Los Angeles BDSM community can't seem to agree on what has become of Ilsa Strix and Larry Wachowski. One swears Larry recently dumped Ilsa. Another indicates that the couple spends much of their time in London now. The Wachowskis' tightknit group remains protective. Sound designer Davis says, "Nothing about their personal lives is anybody else's fucking business. The work and working relationships aren't impacted at all, except by the distraction and disappointment in our species."
The attitude of some in Hollywood toward the brothers seems to be that they may be yesterday's news. "They're not that interested in movies right now," says Eric Feig, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. "V for Vendetta was set in motion before The Matrix. They're focusing exclusively on comic books and video games." According to Larry's own filings in his divorce from Thea Bloom, there are no new Wachowski brothers scripts in the pipeline. Another industry source, however, says the Wachowskis' enormous influence remains undiminished: "They'd be hired tomorrow by anybody."
No matter what happens with Vendetta, Larry Wachowski has again demonstrated his willingness to take risks, to make movies as dangerous and transgressive as his life. V, the film's hero, isn't a crusading law enforcer. He's a terrorist. He blows up subways and buildings. Ever the working-class heroes, the Wachowskis are still challenging the system.
But until Larry Wachowski emerges from his self-imposed exile, if he ever does, nobody will know how deeply into his own personal Matrix the director has gone. "As far as I know," says Porsche Lynn, who remains in touch with Karin Winslow, "they're living happily ever after."