Interview: The Matrix Resurrections production designer Hugh Bateup on working with The Wachowskis and executing their unique vision

Are you ready for another trip down the rabbit hole?

The Matrix Resurrections (you can read our review here) is returning such iconic characters as Neo and Trinity to the technological fray, with visionary director Lana Wachowski further suspending her audience’s perception of reality.

With such intricate and expansive design sprawled across the screen, Wachowski knew she need to assemble her own team of creatives to execute such a vision.  Having worked with her on the majority of her films, Wachowski turned to production designer Hugh Bateup to assist in recreating the world they were both so familiar with, yet update it just so for a new generation.

To coincide with the film’s release, Peter Gray spoke with Hugh about first being introduced to the concept of The Matrix, the working relationship with The Wachowskis, and if he had experienced his own red pill/blue pill moment of critical choice in his career.

I was fortunate to speak with several cast members and I spoke about how ahead of its time the original Matrix was in terms of its treatment of people of colour and women.  From a technical aspect too there was so much in that film we just hadn’t seen. You worked on the original film. Can you remember how you felt seeing the Wachowski’s vision? I imagine it could have been quite terrifying…

I was one of the two art directors on that film.  Myself and Michelle McGahey, and the production designer was Owen Paterson.  The Wachowskis showed up in Australia with two folders of concepts, and various artists had done the “real world” and “the Matrix world” concepts, and two folders of storyboards.  Owen’s job was to try and make all of that (material) fit, to somehow do this in Australia as it looked like generic American cities across the storyboards.  It was a very daunting task to start with, but one thing I learned from Owen is that you don’t have to finish the movie on the first day.  The three of us just sat in a little office in East Sydney going through storyboards and breaking the script down.  By the time we did that, Owen had formulated a plan with myself and Michelle and off we went, really.

Up to that point you had worked on Australian films that had been more modest in their scope.  Did that leap into the Matrix kind of give you a sense of “well if I can handle this, I can handle anything”.

I think after we finished it it probably gave us that idea.  It was a big film for Australia and a very complex movie.  The Wachowskis are very methodical in the way they do things.  Owen would just liaise with them, and Michelle and I got an art department construction team and we just started that process.  It wasn’t until after we finished the movie and saw it that we were like “Oh, well there you go. We did that!”

You’ve worked with the Wachowskis on the majority of their films.  What is it about them as filmmakers, as collaborators, that you enjoy so much?

I think that once we started working with them and had a team around them, we became a film family, more than anything else.  (The Wachowskis) really like art departments.  They’re very supportive of the art.  Lana and Lilly are both artists at heart.

This new Matrix film ties itself in to the previous films, especially the original, whilst still maintaining its own identity.  I feel like visually this is a much brighter looking film. Did you feel the need to revisit the previous films for any references or did you almost take this on as its own production?

This is very much its own production.  It has its roots in (the original film) but Lana definitely wanted to move it along visually.  Whereas the first film was very graphic in every frame, Lana wanted to incorporate a style she developed on the show Sense8…she wanted to be the camera and move within the actors, so that interaction was the most important thing.  The Matrix Resurrections is (set) 60 years on and has had a reboot, and (Lana) wanted to reboot with colours.  It’s visually different but it’s grounded in the Matrix world.

You just have to look at the way Morpheus is presented here.  His colourful suits are such a contrast to the black attire from the original.  It really is a beautiful looking film.

Yes, much more.  They all have their look but…yes, beautiful is probably the best way to describe it.  The costumes in (Resurrections) are quite stunning.  There’s a lot of hidden subtext in the choice of Morpheus’ costume.  Lana just wanted to give the film a different look.  Even when in the Matrix there’s not a lot of hue to it, but in the real world there’s some blue overtones.  Similar but not the same.

I believe this film began production just before COVID disrupted the industry in early 2020 and it was halted for a number of months. When had you started your role on the film and were you ever worried it wouldn’t see the light of day when it was shut down?

No. Peter Walpole is a set decorator I’ve worked with over the years, and Lana wanted he and I to design the film.  We got together in 2019 in around June with our art department coordinator and around 13 other artists.  We were together on the 28th floor of a building in San Francisco where we started our 5 months of concept work.  At the end of that there was small rumblings of COVID just starting, so we had a small break, the concept artists went home, and when we came back we managed to start a lot of our pre-production.  Peter oversaw much of San Francisco and I went to Berlin to start the sets for the rest of the story.  Just as they had finished shooting in San Francisco and arrived in Berlin, Warner Bros. shut us down because everything had gone crazy.  The whole world shut down.  As much as we tried to stay positive and wanted to keep going, Warner just had to send us home.

Luckily, Germany was handling (COVID) quite well and was open enough for us (to shoot).  We set up COVID protocols – plexiglass around every desk and staying so many metres apart – but we managed to get everything ready by the time shooting resumed.  We were very lucky.  And then towards the end Lana ramped up production because COVID was getting its head above water again.  That last 4 weeks we worked very hard.  Lana pushed everything she could to just get the film finished.

It’s been really interesting to see how the industry has reacted to COVID.  I’m such a stickler for the cinematic experience, so I’m very happy that this film was completed and has been given the chance to be seen on the big screen, where something like The Matrix deserves to be seen.  Do you change your approach to films now with streaming being an option now, or you film for the screen as intended?

This was made for the big screen.  The action alone and Lana’s scale just has to be seen on the big screen.  I would say to anybody “Go to the movies to see this, don’t wait to watch this on a streaming service” because, like a lot of films, this is a cinematic event.  That’s where the entertainment takes over, the immersion.  That’s been our experience all the way through making these films.  Streaming’s OK, but not for me.  I don’t think cinema will die.

When it comes to your career, have you ever had your own blue pill/red pill moment of choosing one project over another at any critical moment?

The Matrix was that.  When Owen rang me to ask if I wanted to come to Sydney to work on The Matrix I was due to start work as an art director on a kids series in Melbourne.  I came home and spoke to my wife and a few friends, and when I was asked about (The Matrix) I didn’t know what to say.  I just said that it’s these two filmmakers from Chicago who want to make a science fiction movie in Sydney…and I said I think I should go and do that.  That obviously changed the way I ended up working.  That was 24 years ago and I have done every Wachowski movie since.

The Matrix Resurrections is scheduled for a release in Australian theatres from December 26th, 2021.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.