Their last directorial effort, The Matrix Revolutions, left theaters over three years ago. Their next, a big-screen adaptation of Speed Racer, won’t arrive until May 2008. But if you look carefully on Aug. 17, you’ll see a new Wachowski brothers movie on screens across the country. Sort of.
The credited director of The Invasion is Oliver Hirschbiegel, the German filmmaker whose art-house hit Downfall — a brooding, claustrophobic portrait of Adolf Hitler — earned an Oscar nomination a few years back. And to be fair, Hirschbiegel did direct most of this latest retelling of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as Washington, D.C.-based doctors battling an emotion-draining extraterrestrial virus. Still, sources close to the production say the Wachowskis were brought in last year to rewrite some 30 percent of the movie after Hirschbiegel’s original cut failed to wow the studio. The brothers’ longtime protégé James McTeigue — first assistant director on all three Matrix movies as well as director of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta — was also dispatched to oversee 17 days of extra shooting in Los Angeles last winter that added some $10 million to the film’s final $65 million budget. While their names are nowhere on the credits or in Warner Bros.’ promotional materials, the Wachowskis’ fingerprints are hard to miss on the film’s extra-crunchy car-chase scenes and trippy time-warping jump cuts.
Of course, plenty of films get scenes reshot after principal photography is done. But the fact that it was the Wachowskis making the changes is highly unusual — after all, not every picture gets to be retouched by the cinematic maestros who made gunplay into high art and turned Keanu Reeves into an action icon. Hirschbiegel doesn’t seem all that upset about their tampering with his creation. ”We had them come in and look at it with an original eye,” he says. ”And they came up with some surprisingly smart suggestions that went further in my direction. Some of their suggestions pissed me off because the pages were just better than what I had shot.” But Invasion producer Joel Silver downplays the brothers’ input: ”Larry and Andy didn’t do more then help conceive and envision some action elements to the story and how to proceed with them. We all work together on these movies. It’s collaborative. There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas and a lot of things to say. It’s hard to dissect any one idea of any point in any movie.”
Hard, but not impossible. When Silver, Hirschbiegel, and screenwriter David Kajganich sat down for a press conference in the fall of 2005 to announce the start of production, the film they described — then called The Visiting — was part thriller, part political allegory. A ”deeply scary and deeply meaningful” exploration of the nature of fear is how Kajganich put it. One of the reasons the project attracted such lofty talent — Kidman was going to do The Brave One, now starring Jodie Foster, before signing up for this film — was buzz over Kajganich’s original draft, said to be the sort of taut, twisty tale Hollywood hadn’t seen in years. Certainly there was no indication that Warner Bros. was thinking differently, at least not during the 45-day shoot in Baltimore. ”[Hirschbiegel was making] an eerie, very real, documentary-style thriller,” says stunt coordinator Keith Adams, who wasn’t involved in the reshoots. ”His choices were unconventional, but it was great. Did it not work? Was it disjointed? Was it out of focus? I didn’t get any memo.”
At some point after wrapping, though, feelings about the film began to change at the studio. Rumors that Invasion was poorly received at an early test screening may have had something to do with it, although Silver denies that was the problem. ”We saw the movie, it didn’t work the way we wanted, so we added some stuff to it,” he says. The original release date — August 2006 — was pushed back a year, and Silver (who also produced the Matrix movies) brought in the Wachowski team for those 17 days of reshoots. At the time, the filming of additional footage was kept secret, including the part about the Wachowskis being involved. (The Wachowskis declined comment.) According to Hirschbiegel, the publicity-shy brothers declined to take any credit: ”I asked them and they said, ‘No, no — we like to keep the ball low here.’ They always said, ‘It’s your movie anyway.”’ But then Kidman made headlines when a chase sequence gone awry sent her to the hospital, and word started dribbling out — especially since the star’s accident was caught on film by a third party and ended up on TMZ.com. Of the director switch, Kidman says simply, ”I’ve never done that before on a film, no…. I showed up and we shot three and a half weeks?it just is what it is.”
For all the offscreen drama, Silver may have been right about the film needing the reshoots: The Invasion is said to be testing well in its current incarnation. Hollywood has had some luck in recent years hiring art-house names to direct big commercial tentpoles; before Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings, he made edgy fare like Heavenly Creatures, just as Alfonso Cuarón and Bryan Singer had indie careers before making the Harry Potter and X-Men movies. Even James Bond is getting into the act: Finding Neverland director Marc Forster will direct the next 007 installment. In this case, mixing Hirschbiegel’s dark Germanic aesthetic with the Wachowskis’ balletic approach to mayhem may turn out to be a better recipe for a movie that’s as much about aliens as it is about paranoia and politics. ”It works out well sometimes, like with Chris Nolan and Batman, ” says one Warner insider. ”But [the studios] are often picking people who come from other cultures and are less likely to deliver what they want. They get excited about the hot new indie director and then they get upset when they don’t deliver the thing they want, which is spectacle, tension, and fast-paced action.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s the Wachowskis who taught Hollywood that action and art aren’t mutually exclusive — on the contrary, they can gross billions together — and who’ve made edgy filmmakers like Hirschbiegel so desirable to the studios. Silver, meanwhile, is just happy with the end result. ”I wasn’t intending to make a little art film,” he says. ”I tend to make commercial, mainstream movies. [The Invasion] just needed a little help.”
— Additional reporting by Karen Valby
Nicole Kidman at the Box Office
Opening-weekend stats for the star’s recent wide releases
Cold Mountain (2003): $14.6
The Stepford Wives (2004): $21.4
The Interpreter (2005): $22.8
Bewitched (2005): $20.1
Happy Feet (2006): $41.5