'The Matrix' Composer Reveals Secrets From His Score, 20 Years Later

Don Davis plugs back in to recall the one scene that was cut and the lengths he took to satisfy the Wachowskis' exacting vision.
Photofest; Inset: Getty Images
1999's 'The Matrix' (Inset: composer Don Davis)

Twenty years ago, The Matrix blew audiences away with its ground-breaking, generation-defining style. That was in tandem with substantive themes that were esoteric yet accessible. For every Hong Kong-styled wire fight, there was an equally engaging reference to Plato. 

One integral component to the success of the Wachowski’s series was the music of Don Davis. Davis brought complicated, sophisticated and tailored musical concepts to match what the siblings were doing onscreen.

The film opened on March 31, 1999, and is a high watermark for Davis, and for film scores of the era. The barrage of French horns, lush string work, piano, percussion and waterphone amplified the heady concepts and dizzying action that the Wachowskis offered audiences.

Davis first met the filmmakers through his friend (and The Matrix editor) Zach Staenberg. During the scoring process, he got more direction and backstory from discussions with Staenberg than the Wachowskis, with whom he had previously collaborated on for the 1996 feature Bound.

“They are very intelligent people and very creative, but they had such a dynamic working relationship with each other that they would literally finish each other’s sentences," Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Because of that, sometimes they thought they were communicating ideas or giving direction to other people when they really weren’t.”

For many involved, The Matrix was life-changing. But many scores are the result and product of previous works. Were there not Alan Silvestri's Romancing the Stone, there would be no Back to the Future. As such, it feels that without Bound (jazz cues aside), we might not have The Matrix.

Bound has a number of instruments in common with The Matrix, but the Wachowskis resonated with Davis’ "pile driver." Its use in their 1996 film had used a manipulated recording of an actual pile driver.

“It was very rhythmic and they loved those slams," says Davis. "They were very happy with my approach to compose the score in a very minimalist and post-modern way. As an aside, they really didn't like the Gamelan or any other kind of bell-like texture for that matter. I could never quite understand that.”

Minutes into the film, we see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) leaping rooftops to escape pursuing agents. She leaps, twisting through the air, and crashes through a window, immediately tumbling down a flight of stairs, landing, guns drawn, on her back. 

It’s a pulse-pounding scene which set the tone for the entire movie. When spotting that sequence, the Wachowskis told Davis to give the scene a big action cue. But when they heard it, they asked him to scale it back considerably.

“The action is intense, and the music needed to be as well, but they wanted the audience to be able to take note of the police sirens from the street below, so the music had to make room for those sound effects," says Davis.

The film itself is cyclical in nature. There are philosophical representations, to say nothing of the religious connotations (the death and resurrection of Jesus being the biggest), but also physical ones.

Take note of the very first set piece — in the Heart O’ the City Hotel — where Trinity confronts police officers in the first bullet-time sequence. That is the same location, the same room even, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) attempts to exit The Matrix. Davis picked up on that immediately, and those narrative devices helped serve as inspiration for his compositions.

Then you have a trio of central characters (including one named Trinity) and Davis used triads in his cues (this was used even more in the sequel). 

“It was a very long and intense production, but there certainly was fun to be had in the creative process. The film is full of number and word games, and it’s also very cryptic. That’s one of the big reasons I was so excited to work on this," says Davis.

If you scan the track titles and key in on “Exit Mr. Hat,” That’s an anagram for The Matrix. Also, the track “Ontological Shock” references the state of being forced to question one's worldview. Translation: Neo learning he’s not The One, only to later die and become The One. 

“It’s not often you get to make a movie based on Plato or Jean-Paul Sartre," says Davis. "The whole movie is essentially a new take on Plato’s The Cave, and it really raised consciousness in audiences.”

Further, one interesting thing to happen in the creative process relates to the character Switch (Belinda McClory).

“The original intent had her switch genders between The Matrix and the real world. On the Nebuchadnezzar, Switch would be female, and in The Matrix, male," says Davis. "It didn’t quite make it into the film, but the fact that the character was androgynous kind of got the message across.” 

The Wachowskis had a narrative canvas so dense, one might wonder if a longer or alternate cut offered drastic changes, one where Davis’ music might have taken a different creative path. But Davis explains, “There’s only one scene that, as far as I know, was cut from the film. Prior to the point where Neo meets The Oracle (Gloria Foster), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Neo stood in the hallway discussing philosophy. The scene was mostly improvised resulting in some pretty unusual dialogue. But nothing of substance was cut from the film. In the end, across all three films, the Wachowskis got what they wanted, and made the statement they had set out make. There are no alternative director’s cuts.”

The finale of the movie has two climactic events happening simultaneously: Neo running to a phone to get out of The Matrix, while Morpheus, Trinity and Tank (Marcus Chong) fight off Sentinels. In other films, the end of Return of the Jedi, for example, in which multiple action scenes happen in tandem, music is very specific to the action beats onscreen. Davis notes “that's something that film composers today tend to do a lot less of.”

When Neo walks through the metal detector of the office building, each of his footsteps is timed to Davis’ pile driver. It is, in a way, reminiscent of pantomime. Davis admits he was asked to hit moments like this a bit more than he might have done otherwise, but the Wachowskis were very specific about what they wanted and when. Another is when Neo, now The One, stops the bullets and picks one out of mid-air.

“As it and the rest of the bullets hit the carpet, the music hits each impact with a slam. That was at the Wachowskis' request," he says.

For a film taking place mostly in a digital world, and being a product of the late 1990s, one could imagine the film taking on an electronic score to represent the 0s and 1s of The Matrix. But the Wachowskis always wanted an orchestral score.

”As a composer, using an orchestra wasn’t something I had to fight for. When they wanted something electronic, it was generally handled with needle drops, electronica tracks that they had licensed," says Davis. "But they did want a choir — that wasn’t something I had anticipated using for the score.”

Sometimes, composers choose instruments to represent an element or tone of the film. Davis likes the physical nature of an instrument, but the choir, however, does have a slightly deeper meaning, even if it wasn’t at his insistence. The choir first makes itself apparent in the scene where Neo first wakes from The Matrix, emerging from his pod to find himself in the battery fields. Davis says that the choir came to represent humanity in crisis. And getting that sound has a funny story. 

“The film was shot in Sydney, Australia. While the five or six SAG actors got waivers to shoot overseas, Warner Bros. was unwilling to engage the Screen Actors Guild for Los Angeles singers, who work under a SAG contract," says Davis. "So I actually had to contract former members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and we recorded the vocal elements of the score in Salt Lake City.”

The 2003 sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, had bigger budgets than the 1999 film.

“The Wachowskis’ heads exploded with the enormous responsibility and expectations they were faced with when they shot the sequels, even though they somehow managed to actually gain more control," says Davis. "The first Matrix was in development at Warner Bros. for four or five years, yet when they followed that up with not one, but two films, they had to work out the scripts in a much shorter period of time, with little or no interference from the studio."

Davis adds with a laugh, "As a result, they became much more micromanaging in the sequels ... that’s not to underestimate their micromanaging on the first one, however."

The Wachowskis staked their claim on pop culture by telling a ground-breaking story over so many media. Spanning films, video games and animated shorts, the backstory to this universe was spread out, and Davis had to stretch an acoustic tarp over all of it.

“It is tough to maintain the core of something as a story progresses, but as things expand out in an infinite way, there is the danger of losing control. Certain parts of the series were not as cohesive as one might have preferred," says Davis. "The Animatrix had a different director for each episode, and these directors all had their own ideas. In a way, it diluted what was created for the first film.” 

When things are successful, you kind of expect to keep the creative team together. When asked why Davis and the Wachowskis parted ways, he says, “That’s kind of a long story. They actually stopped working with a lot of us. They stopped working with Zach Staenberg after Speed Racer, and they stopped working with their cinematographer, Bill Pope. I think they just kind of outgrew us.”

The series ended in 2003, but you can still feel the effects of what Davis created in modern pop culture. Nods to The Matrix have been heard in games like Ori and the Blind Forest and Shadow of the Colossus, as well as blockbuster films such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Wreck-It Ralph: Ralph Breaks the Internet.

As The Matrix offers plenty to ponder on repeat viewings, so, too, does Davis’ contributions to this film. The more times you revisit this world, the deeper you’ll find the rabbit hole goes. One thing is for sure: Two decades on, people still enjoy plugging into The Matrix