Scene Spotlight: The Matrix

Scene Spotlight is our new series that examines scenes from movies with the writer in mind.

The Matrix: How to Write Action

The phrase, “screenwriting is a storytelling competition, not a writing competition” holds true in many aspects of this craft. Clarity is prized over flowery prose — especially when writing action.

But that doesn’t mean you can neglect the writing aspect of screenwriting. The opening scene of The Matrix shows that clarity and fantastic writing should be used in tandem to create the most engaging story possible.

Here are some aspects of the scene that stood out:

Description. The setting of the Chase Hotel is described as “abandoned after a fire licked its way across the polyester carpeting…leaving patterns of permanent shadow.” Strong verbs and great selection of detail immediately register an image in our head within a single sentence. There are no long-winded paragrpahs describing the color of the wallpaper or the positioning of the furniture. The Wachowskis provide only the details that are necessary for you to visualize the scene.

Pacing. It’s the screenwriter’s job to control the eyes of the reader. This even means writing sentences in different lengths so that you control even the speed the reader reads at. The Wachowskis did a masterful job of this, and the sentence structure begins with complex and compound sentences, then moves into choppy simple sentences, and then as Trinity’s situation becomes more dire, we get breathless, comma-ridden sentences like this one:

“She falls, arms covering her head as —

The whole world seems to spin on its axis —

And she crashes with an EXPLOSION of GLASS and WOOD, then falls onto a back stairwell, tumbling, bouncing down stairs bleeding, broken–

But still alive.”

Notice that the use of the double dashes here push the reader along at a breakneck pace. When you read these lines in the actual script, you can see how the structure of these lines propel you along. You are not going to put down the script in the middle of this sequence, that’s for sure.

The selection of details. In the script, bullets whistle and trains screech. Heads explode and windpipes are crushed. Sights, sounds — every description is visceral and highly cinematic. Strong verbs do wonders for action sequences — do not neglect them!

Make the audience want something. By the end of this scene, we want Trinity to make it to the phone booth. It’s been about three minutes since the movie has started, and we’ve just met this character. But we’re still emotionally invested. Why? Because we align ourselves with the characters who are struggling to achieve something on the screen. We all want something in our own lives, and when we see someone fighting to the death for something they want — in Trinity’s case, it’s an escape — then we relate to that character. In this scene, the audience is Trinity. We like being underestimated. We like having cool skills that the cops declare “impossible.” But, most of all, we want to survive. This is why we’re drawn in. This is why the movie captures us from the first scene.

Now it’s your turn! Watch the scene, read the script, and come up with your own reason why this iconic movie was crafted so well.

The Scene

The Script

INT. CHASE HOTEL - NIGHT 
The hotel was abandoned after a fire licked its way across the polyester carpeting, destroying several rooms as it spooled soot up the walls and ceiling leaving patterns of permanent shadow.

We FOLLOW four armed POLICE officers using flashlights as they creep down the blackened hall and ready themselves on either side of room 303.

The biggest of them violently kicks in the door --

The other cops pour in behind him, guns thrust before them.

BIG COP Police!  Freeze!

The room is almost devoid of furniture.  There is a fold-up table and chair with a phone, a modern, and a powerbook computer. The only light in the room is the glow of the computer.

Sitting there, her hands still on the keyboard, is TRINITY; a woman in black leather.

BIG COP Get your hands behind your head!

Trinity rises.

BIG COP Hands behind your head!  Now!  Do it!

She slowly puts her hands behind her head.

 EXT. CHASE HOTEL - NIGHT 
A black sedan with tinted windows glides in through the police cruisers.

AGENT SMITH and AGENT BROWN get out of the car.

They wear dark suits and sunglasses even at night.  They are also always hardwired; small Secret Service earphones in one ear, its cord coiling back into their shirt collars.

 AGENT SMITH 	Lieutenant?

 LIEUTENANT Oh shit.

 AGENT SMITH 	Lieutenant, you were given specific orders --

 LIEUTENANT 	I'm just doing my job.  You gimme that Juris-my dick-tion and you can cran it up your ass.

 AGENT SMITH 	The orders were for your protection.

The Lieutenant laughs.

 LIEUTENANT 	I think we can handle one little girl.

Agent Smith nods to Agent Brown as they start toward the hotel.

 LIEUTENANT 	I sent two units.  They're bringing her down now.

 AGENT SMITH 	No, Lieutenant, your men are dead.

 INT. CHASE HOTEL 
The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuff and Trinity moves --

It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly fast.

The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and the nose explodes, blood erupting.  The cop is dead before he begins to fall.

And Trinity is moving again --

Seizing a wrist, misdirecting a gun, as a startled cop FIRES -- 
A head explodes.
In blind panic, another airs his gun, the barrel, a fixed black hole --

And FIRES --

Trinity twists out of the way, the bullet missing as she reverses into a roundhouse kick, knocking the gun away.

The cop begins to scream when a jump kick crushes his windpipe, killing the scream as he falls to the ground.

She looks at the four bodies.

 TRINITY Shit.

 EXT. CHASE HOTEL 
Agent Brown enters the hotel, while Agent Smith heads for the alley.

 INT. CHASE HOTEL 
Trinity is on the phone, pacing.  The other end is answered.

 MAN (V.O.) 	Operator.

 TRINITY Morpheus!  The link was traced!  I don't know how.

 MORPHEUS (V.O.) I know.  Stay calm.

 TRINITY Are there any agents?

 MORPHEUS (V.O.) Yes.

 TRINITY Goddamnit!

 MORPHEUS (V.O.) You have to focus.  There is a phone.  Wells and Laxe.  You can make it.
She takes a deep breath, centering herself.

 TRINITY All right --

 MORPHEUS (V.O.) Go.

She drops the phone.

 INT. HALL 
She bursts out of the room as Agent Brown enters the hall, leading another unit of police.
Trinity races to the opposite end, exiting through a broken window onto the fire escape.

 EXT. FIRE E5CAPE 
In the alley below, Trinity sees Agent Smith staring at her.  She can only go up.

 EXT. ROOF 
On the roof, Trinity is running as Agent Brown rises over the parapet, leading the cops in pursuit.

Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump, contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.

Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.

The METAL SCREAM of an EL TRAIN is heard and Trinity turns to it, racing for the back of the building.

The edge falls away into a wide back alley.  The next building is over 40 feet away, but Trinity's face is perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other roof.

The cops slow, realizing they are about to see something ugly as Trinity drives at the edge, launching herself into the air.

From above, the ground seems to flow beneath her as she hangs in flight

Then hitting, somersaulting up, still running hard.

 COP 	Motherfucker -- that's impossible!

They stare, slack-jawed, as Agent Brown duplicates the move exactly, landing, rolling over a shoulder, up onto one knee.

Just below the building are the runbling tracks of riveted steel.
The TRAIN SCREECHES beneath her, a rattling blur of gray metal.  Trinity junps, landing easily.

She looks back just as Agent Brown hurls through the air barely reaching the last car

Agent Brown stands, yanking out a gun.

Trinity is running hard as BULLETS WHISTLE past her head.

Ahead she sees her only chance, 50 feet beyond the point where the train has begun to turn, there is --

A window; a yellow glow in the midst of a dark brick building.

Trinity zeroes in on it, running as hard as she can, her speed compounded by the train.  The SCREAM of the STEEL rises as she nears
the edge where the train rocks into the turn.

Trinity hurtles into the empty night space, her body leveling into a dive.  She falls, arms covering her head as --

The whole world seems to spin on its axis --

And she crashes with an EXPLOSION of GLASS and WOOD, then falls onto a back stairwell, tumbling, bouncing downstairs bleeding, broken --

But still alive.

Through the smashed window, she glimpses Agent Brown, still on the train, his tie and coat whipping in the wind; stone-faced, he touches his ear piece as the train slides him past the window.

Trinity tries to move.  Everything hurts.

 TRINITY Get up, Trinity.  You're fine. Get up -- just get up!

She stands and limps down the rest of the stairs.

 EXT. STREET 
Trinity emerges from the shadows of an alley and, at the end of the block, in a pool of white street light, she sees it.

The telephone booth.

Obviously hurt, she starts down the concrete walk, focusing in completely, her pace quickening, as the PHONE begins to RING.

Across the street, a garbage truck suddenly u-turns, its TIRES SCREAMING as it accelerates.

Trinity sees the headlights on the truck arcing at the telephone booth as if taking aim.

Gritting through the pain, she races the truck --

Slamming into the booth, the headlights blindingly bright, bearing down on the box of Plexiglas just as --

She answers the phone.

There is a frozen instant of silence before the hulking mass of dark metal lurches up onto the sidewalk --

Barreling through the booth, bulldozing it into a brick wall, smashing it to Plexiglas pulp.

After a moment, a black loafer steps down from the cab of the garbage truck.  Agent Smith inspects the wreckage. There is no body.
Trinity is gone.

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