Sydney: The Simulation
How 'The Matrix' Turned Australia Into A Purgatory Of Code
When The Matrix finally entered production, its producers, who were worried about taking a risk on the relatively inexperienced director team known as the Wachowskis, had one major stipulation: the film had to be shot in Australia. But what might have been an imposition turned into one of the film’s great blessings, through the ingenuity and skill of its creative team — and its location scouts.
The road to that first day of production was a winding, difficult one. The Wachowskis were, after all, an unknown proposition. The sibling directors had written for comics for years, honing their craft as storytellers of the outlandish and the strange, but they were unproven when it came to their real love — filmmaking.
Since childhood, they had wanted to use the camera to craft their narratives of outsiders reckoning with the great, crushing machinery of everyday life. But movies are expensive, and no production company was willing to take the risk on a pair of aliens and the one story they had spent their lives ready to tell: a harsh and immaterial world ruled by robots, known as the Matrix.
So The Wachowskis directed a kind of test run, a low-budget and high-stakes thriller called Bound. Scraping together the mere six million budget from whoever they could, the pair crafted a cinematic calling card, filled with sapphic desire and stylishly directed action.
Bound stands as its own object, a surprisingly moving take on the forces of attraction and the snaking risks of desire. But the Wachowskis were meant for bigger things — a broader canvas; a more populous kind of storytelling, filled with misfits and strangers — and their cinematic debut proved it.
But it wasn’t quite enough. Bound made it clear that The Wachowskis knew how to point a camera — that they had mastered, in one lean 90-minute film, the balancing act required to tell a story rich with subtext without getting lost in the weeds. And yet the ambition of The Matrix, the spec script that they had been sitting on for years, still scared investors. It was so strange; so heady; drew on so many references. The Wachowskis wanted to make a martial arts epic that contained ideas pulled from French philosophy, from those who had probed the very nature of existence itself. How willing audiences would be to accept such a level of deconstruction was still an unproven proposition.
It was Warner Brothers’ Lorenzo di Bonaventura who saw the promise in the sibling filmmakers and decided, against the odds, that The Matrix could be a hit. But he was not without his reservations. In order to stop the budget from spiralling out of control, it was di Bonaventura who stipulated that the sci-fi oddity be filmed in Australia.
Such a decision was far from without precedent. Hollywood productions had been interested in Australia as a place to shoot since the ‘70s, when the Ozploitation boom had proven the possibilities of the country’s cinematic community. Australian crews were talented; scrappy; and, perhaps most importantly of all, utterly unattached to the so-called “tradition” of filmmaking. They were innovators, freed from the weight of the rules and regulations that had led to sprawling budgets and ineffective, disorganised crews in the States.
But there was still a weight to the decision to film The Matrix in Australia — its $60 million dollar budget, and huge emphasis on both practical and burgeoning CGI effects, made it one of the most ambitious films to ever be produced in the country. Fox Studios, the film and television studio that would make its name with the film, had only been the site of three productions up until that point — a Power Rangers movie, the neo-noir sci-fi brain-melter Dark City, and George Miller’s oddball masterpiece Babe: Pig In The City. The Matrix was a different kind of proposition entirely, a sprawling mosaic of influences that would push local crews to their limit.
In order to further soothe the worried investors, The Wachowskis decided to make their vision as explicit as possible. They produced a 600-page storyboard for the film, one that pored over its every angle in intense detail, and they constructed their very own reading list; a kind of primer on the history of Continental philosophy, with Jean Baudrillard’s deconstruction of the very heart of reality, Simulacra and Simulation, at its centre. The cast and crew — most notably Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, once dominant Hollywood megastars who both desperately needed a hit — were required to wrap their heads around not just the strange, innovative special effects that the script called for, but also an entirely new way of looking at the world, one that sifted through dreams and reality, imagination and the artificial.
Shooting in Australia also provided its own distinct challenge. The world of The Matrix was written to look as nondescript as possible. The Wachowskis were telling a story of universal themes — of the complex, dream-destroying machinery that underpins life everywhere, not in any one particular country — and so looked to use Australian locations that wouldn’t be easily identifiable as Australia. They shied away from particularity; chose streets and backdrops that had the sheen of metropolises everywhere.
Thus, location scouting became one of the cornerstones of the production. Local crews searched Sydney streets for a specific look, one that would feel both modern, yet peculiarly out-of-place; lived-in and real without gesturing to any preconceived notions that would pull audiences out of the film.
Indeed, so determined was production to make sure that the world of The Matrix could be any world — that filmgoers could step out of their cinema, alive and their eyes opened, and see the robots that ruled their lives on every street corner — that CGI effects were used to remove key Australian landmarks in post-production. The Opera House was edited out; distinguishing marks were smoothed off.
Sydneysiders who watch the film will, of course, notice their neighbourhood, shot in strange and beautiful ways: in the famous and climactic chopper sequence, right towards the end of the film, the Australian institution UTS is clearly visible in the background. But The Matrix proved that Australia could serve as a stand-in for anywhere; that with the right scouting, and the inspired vision of filmmakers like The Wachowskis, the country could be transformed.
When The Matrix wrapped, after 118 challenging but deeply fulfilling days, the cinematic landscape was forever changed. There are few films that had such an immediate and profound impact on the culture — parodies and homages to the world that The Wachowskis had built circulated for years. The Matrix revealed something; peeled back the surface layer of an entire way of living, with all the precision and viciousness of a scalpel. What had been seen could not be unseen.
But the film also had a local impact. Australia was, in a new way, deeply enticing to foreign productions; a place where the status quo could be tested, and fresh ways of telling stories, without being tied to any particular place, could be unraveled. In the years after the film was released, a host of Hollywood productions descended upon Fox Studios, with everything from the Star Wars prequels to the glossy comic book megahit Superman Returns shot in the country.
The Wachowskis saw in this country what few filmmakers had seen before — a sense of opportunity, and purpose, and astonishingly free-wheeling vision. They had pointed their camera at a Sydney street and had turned it into anywhere; into a string of code; into an illusion that had all the power and horror of the dreams that stay with you for the rest of your life. They were the first to do that. But they were far from the last.