David Mitchell on Co-writing a Matrix Sequel Where Neo Never Fires a Gun

A nice coffee meeting. Photo: Warner Bros.

This post contains spoilers for the plot of The Matrix Resurrections.

David Mitchell is best known as a genre-defying novelist, but over the last decade, he’s also pursued a side career as a member of one of Hollywood’s more eclectic screenwriting trios, writing the next installment of the Matrix series, Matrix Resurrections, alongside Lana Wachowski and the Bosnian American author Aleksandar Hemon. The three of them refer to their collaborative process as “the Pit.” Their work together began roughly in the making of Cloud Atlas, Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s film adaptation of Mitchell’s time-hopping novel. They remained close and, when Lilly stepped away from working on the Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8, Mitchell and Hemon subbed in as consultants, eventually writing the script for the series’s movie-length finale.

And once Lana had an idea for a way to return to the Matrix, “I instantly said yes,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t agonize about it long and hard at all.” With the film out in theaters and on HBO Max, Mitchell talked through the details of the Pit’s writing process, the meta-commentary the film makes on the original, and why Neo doesn’t fire a gun this time around.

You three had written together before, but when did you first discuss doing a Matrix movie?
It would have been in the fall of 2018. Lana had a couple of issues in her personal life. Her parents had both died, and this put her into a different headspace. The idea for the film had its origins in that. Obviously, I can’t speak for her. But as a result of that headspace shift, Lana contacted Aleksandar and myself. Lilly, for reasons of her own, chose not to be involved. Lana let me know the way she was thinking about working on a fourth movie, and I instantly said yes.

What was that kernel of an idea?
It’s a two-pronged answer. As a thematic answer: Maybe love is stronger than death. With the loss of her parents, that was an idea that she wanted the film to have in its beating heart. The other idea that affected me was the way the trilogy is used in the fourth movie, almost as an artifact. It wouldn’t be a reboot where it’s just one more in a row. What came before is encased inside what’s happening now. The characters, the actors, and screenwriters don’t pretend that the last 20 years haven’t happened. In the world of the Matrix, things don’t look like they did at the end of the ’90s. When they do, at the intro, that’s misdirection to make you think we’re back there, but then quickly the 21st century asserts itself.

Once you had those basic premises, how did you actually start breaking the story?
The first step was to immerse ourselves in that universe. Watch the trilogy, and then have a crash course from Lana about everything that’s the iceberg underneath the tip that you see in the trilogy. How the Matrix came to be, the lore, the canon — much of which isn’t available in the public realm. Then we had to start to think about the future of the universe. Lana had some strong ideas already. Basically, we sit down at a table and talk. It was like constructing a car journey where you know you’re leaving from A, B, and C, which was the Modal Matrix scene where the film begins. And then we had a few other beats at K, and N, S, W. But we had to figure out how to get from here to there. In that process, the shape of the plot formed, and the notion that Trinity wouldn’t be in the female side role, but that she should be in the foreground as much as Neo. That seemed appropriate to the changes in the status of women over the last 20 years. To Trinity-ize the film seemed like a good direction.

We have a nice chemistry. We throw out a half-baked idea and the other two will find the things in it that are working, and amplify them and reshuffle them a bit, and slowly in the Pit, a strong scene emerges. Like the coffee-shop scene, which is one of my favorites in the whole of this action movie. A quiet, static scene where the two principals are just speaking to each other, mostly Trinity doing the talking, and Neo listening.

That’s the scene where Neo first meets her and thinks that she’s this woman named Tiffany and they have that moment of recognition?
She’s just speaking about how her life hasn’t gone the way she wished it had. That scene was once just an idea: Why don’t we have them meet in a coffee shop and just talk? It doesn’t sound like much, but after constructing a scene around that idea, and by the other two working on it, it builds up to something worthwhile.

How did you arrive at the idea that Neo would be in this new version of the Matrix where the Matrix movies themselves exist as a video-game series that Neo/Thomas Anderson has become famous for designing?
Well, it just arrived to Lana in the middle of the night. Sometimes we slowly multiply a stem cell of an idea into something that strong; other times it just arrives in the middle of the night fully formed from the brow of Zeus. That one was Lana’s, pure and simple.

There’s also a line that Jonathan Groff’s business partner says to him, about how their “parent company” Warner Bros. wants them to make another The Matrix game, or will go forward without him, which is a very meta wink for a reboot. Where did that come from?
I guess we were having a bit of fun and being a little impish. Let it not be said that Warner Bros. doesn’t have a sense of humor. But clearly, it’s also on record that at various points in the last 20 years, Warner Bros. has asked the Wachowskis to revisit the universe, and they never wanted to until Lana had this idea. And in the interim, Warner Bros. had approached other directors and made soundings of how viable a fourth film would be. So, maybe, a few of those echoes crept into that line.

With the elevation of Trinity’s character, the movie also revises the idea of Neo being “the One.” It suggests that it’s not necessarily he or Trinity who is the One, but that the connection powering their abilities is. What made you three want to explore that idea?
I guess it’s just where we are in life. It’s how we think. The themes at the heart of Sense8 as well are that love is a kind of superpower, and if that sounds a bit trippy-hippie, then yes, it does. But I’m in San Francisco, and that’s okay here! That’s my best answer. It’s who we are. Films can be wonderful in a technical dimension, but if they have no themes and ideas, that’s an important vitamin to lack.

Did you notice that Neo never actually picks up a gun and shoots anybody with it? He redirects other people’s bullets once they are shot. But in the fourth film in this franchise, one of whose most iconic lines is “guns, lots of guns,” something’s changed.

Did you all talk through that change or other elements of the original trilogy you wanted to revise?
We needed to work out the history, and in the conference room in a windy Irish hotel where we worked through much of the first draft, I remember timelines on the walls: what happened between the end of the trilogy and now. Only a fraction of that gets into the film, but you have to know. But in that history, the machines had factionalized, and that’s why Io [the new human home city] looks so different to Zion. Not only is cooperation and love a superpower within human beings, but it can work on an interspecies level. So there’s many more shades of gray in this one. But speaking of gray, it’s a beautifully lit film and Lana as a filmmaker incorporated the chaos and unpredictability of natural light in a way that isn’t in the trilogy at all.

The original Matrix trilogy has a lot of buried queer metaphors, especially about gender identity, and the new film feels more explicit: Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character seems to have a female partner, Brian J. Smith’s character talks about being attracted to Neo. Was that something you talked about intentionally as you were writing?
Yes, you picked up the major beats. What was a little bit more in the background in the trilogy, in respect to the queer themes, are foregrounded in the fourth. They’ve obviously been foregrounded in Lana’s life, and Aleksandar and myself, we’re close friends. So if it’s important in her life, it’s important in our life, and naturally it finds a home in the script as well.

Do you have a division of labor between the three of you as you write?
Inevitably, yes, we do in the first draft. The principle is that if you feel attracted to a scene, then you bag it — as we say in England — and stake a claim to be the initial writer of that. I’m a dialogue geek. I love the shifting nuances of language. Lana is the visionary. Sasha [Aleksandar’s nickname] is, to drastically oversimplify, the logic-checker. We call him the tire-kicker. If you give someone a free car, and instead of saying, “Oh, what a great free car,” they kick the tires to see what kind of car it is. If an idea gets past Sasha, then it’s probably really seaworthy, to mix my transport metaphors. Then, after the first draft, we polish and read it through and read it together. By the time it comes out the other end, you no longer remember who wrote what. If you’re writing together, you have to be egoless about it.

If you’re writing a film like this, you also have to deliver on the audience’s expectations for it, and in a Matrix movie, that probably means the action scenes. As you’re writing the script, you’re not actually choreographing those scenes, so how do you start thinking about the basic premises of how they’re going to work, or where they’re going to take place?
A Matrix movie wouldn’t be a Matrix movie without kick-ass action scenes, hopefully showing some things you haven’t seen before. This isn’t my speciality. I’m a quiet novelist. It’s not my job to describe an action scene, but the structure and architecture is certainly my job. It’s a bit of a holiday for a novelist, because if I have a fight in my novels, I have to describe it blow-by-blow, so it’s kind of a relief to be able to write “a fight” in the script and then it’s someone else’s job. I think the vast team has done a lovely job. The swarm mode [where the Matrix activates people to switch into killing machines to attack Neo and Trinity in the last chase scene] is fun, isn’t it?

That was one of those fixed points back at the beginning, when we were talking about the road trip of the movie. It was having a scene where a man wakes up in bed with his wife next to him and his eyes change and the Matrix is weaponizing him. The machine weaponizes individuals. It wasn’t that he was a secret bomb all along. He was a human being. He had a rich inner life, so he thought, but this machine is so brutal and uninterested in negotiating that it will just flip a switch and someone’s husband or father is launched out of a window as a block of flesh on the off chance that it might hit the adversary. It’s an arresting thing to watch, but it also validates the credentials of the villainy of the machine. If you get enough beats like that, then you have your chase scene.

The film ends with the Analyst handing over control to Neo and Trinity, saying, well, you have this world of simulation, but you also now have the responsibility to run it. I thought that was interesting because it’s both a victory for them and raises a larger question: How do you design a good society within the terms of this universe?
The three of us like endings that have a bit of ambiguity to them. An ending that has the spark of a beginning — I also like that about the trilogy. It starts off black-and-white, but once you discover that programs love their children too [at the start of Matrix Revolutions], things get more nuanced and trickier. A former enemy becomes an ally, against Agent Smith. I think Resurrections honors that courage to build complexity into the world. There’s simplicity, but also complexity, like reality.

In which one character watches a simulation of the original Matrix opening sequence.
David Mitchell: Neo Fires No Guns in Matrix Resurrections