Before its release I knew exactly three things about The Matrix: it was an original science fiction film, from the writer/director siblings whose Bound had so obsessed my lesbian friends and, most importantly, my uncle Bernie was in it.
Fast-forward to an opening weekend screening: those soon-to-be-iconic phosphorescent characters stream down the screen and there he is, a cop in the opening scene, kicking down a door. Cuffs in hand, he gingerly approaches a mysterious PVC-clad woman, but she turns, grabs and breaks his arm, then leaps into the air with impossible slow-motion grace, the camera suddenly cut loose from time and space in our first amazing encounter with Bullet Time.
Okay, she then kicks him clean across the room, killing him before the first three minutes of The Matrix are over, but I was no less affected: framed by Trinity’s face and arm, all I could see as Big Cop advanced were the eyes of my grandfather, mother, and uncle.
Bernie Ledger emigrated from England to Australia in the mid-1970s, forging a career in the TV and film industry as an actor, stunt coordinator and stunt performer which includes credits in landmark soap Prisoner: Cell Block H, Jackie Chan’s Police Story 4: First Strike, P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan and new wave Aussie horror Wolf Creek, but his role as Big Cop in Sydney-shot The Matrix is hugely significant, including as it does the first fully-realised example of the Bullet Time technique which has so profoundly influenced the visual language of modern action film.
Living on opposite sides of the world means we don’t see each other terribly often, but the twentieth anniversary of The Matrix was the perfect excuse to pick up the phone for a chat about his role in this revolutionary moment in cinema.
So, I guess we ought to start at the beginning: how did you get the part?
I was called into a casting in the middle of Sydney and there was whole group of other stunt performers looking for parts as the police: I went in after a guy called Grant Page. They asked what I could do, so I did a big flip and landed flat on my back in front of the camera on the stage. They all jumped up and down and said “Wow, that was good!” and as I walked out the next guy coming in, Brian, said “How the hell am I supposed to follow that?” He actually got a part, but not the main part of Big Cop I did.
My copy of the script doesn’t explicitly mention the use of Bullet Time in the scene, was it always something you knew you’d be doing?
Well, I never actually got a full copy of the script, but it wasn’t mentioned, I don’t think. We were the test-bed, basically: if it didn’t work they wouldn’t get the budget, but I didn’t know anything about it until after we’d shot the first scene with Carrie-Anne Moss and the jerk back already.
Let’s talk about that a little, because it’s a series of conventional gags surrounding this state-of-the-art visual effect, really grounding the movie in familiar action imagery which gives the Bullet Time even more impact.
Yes, and we shot it in very simple sections. First I say “Freeze, police!” – there was a bit of a contest over who was going to say the lines – and walk up to Trinity, and for the next shot I’m wearing a prosthetic. My real arm is actually behind my back and this other arm has a hinge so it breaks when she hits it. Then it’s her palm heel strike on my nose and I throw my head back, followed by the jerk back into the wall.
Which is where it gets dangerous and the stunt players really earn their money.
Right! We did this about eight times and the first time was hysterical. The rig was a large pneumatic ram that develops about two and a half tonnes of pressure, running around a pulley up near the ceiling directly to my harness: if it’s at the same height you are it actually pulls you into the ground, and they didn’t want that. Brian Ellison was about eight feet behind me with his own ram, and the idea was that my ram would be activated, I’d fly back and hit him, then his ram would be activated and we’d both fly back together into the wall. In that first take, on “Action!” Brian shoots back onto the wall and a split-second later I coming flying back and smack into him. I was fine, but Brian collapsed and couldn’t breathe. We got to him and pulled his shirt open to see how his ribs were, only to find the cross he was wearing had shattered, leaving a great big imprint on his chest!
In the final edit, it almost looks like he’s there to cushion your impact into the wall.
He was on that first take! It took him a good half hour before we could go again, although I thought that first one was fabulous. It was a big hit and I certainly felt it the next day, but it worked really well.
So it was a single day specifically shooting that stunt?
We did Trinity running around the wall as well, but mine was the main attraction that day. I think they did a couple more shots the next day of the other cops getting killed. I was only on set for about a week. Seven days for all of this!
But it’s still shot impeccably: there’s that beautiful shot of you framed by Trinity’s arm as you approach which has such incredible depth of field it almost looks like it a composite.
That was a single setup in camera.
And it’s an example of the Wachowskis making use of you both as an actor and stunt performer.
That’s true, and it did require acting, it was all very serious. They’d walk up to us and say a few little things here and there. I’d never worked with two directors before, that was a first for me: normally it’s a single person and you’re shouted at by the first assistant director rather than the director! They were hands-on and they were very quietly-spoken. The whole day went very smoothly.
This was Carrie-Anne Moss’ first big stunt movie, were you keeping an eye out for her from a safety perspective?
Not really, because she was so controlled being up on the wire that I didn’t have too much to do with her: all she had to do was her action, which she’d already rehearsed. She was very nice, very easy-going.
And did you deal much with Yuen Woo-ping’s wirework team, who you’d worked with before on Police Story 4: First Strike?
No, I only saw them in the background because they weren’t on my jerk team, so I didn’t really interact with them at all while they dealt with Carrie-Anne on the wire.
That must have been tough on the stunt coordinator, dealing with two teams working two completely different kinds of gag.
Oh yes, not only that, the language difficulty between the two as well, not to mention all the other departments. It all worked in the end, and it was a very good day, to tell you the truth.
Having essentially got a complete version of the scene in the can that would work with or without Bullet Time, how did shooting the next part play out?
I was called in to this “bullet time” thing, so I walked into this small studio and there was a camera up on a crane surrounded by this semi-circle of still cameras all connected to a computer. I just had no idea what this was, and this was the first I’d heard of Bullet Time. It was quite amazing. Each camera was at a slightly different angle and consequently it could do a very quick pan and get this 3D image and it seemed to work quite well. It was rather a shock at the time.
So it was all just set up and ready to just plug you in?
Absolutely. I walked in, they said “Hello Mr Ledger, stand in the middle,” put Carrie-Anne up on the wire and got her into position, then the cameras just went “voom” and took all the pictures at the same time. I wasn’t there very long, only about two and a half hours.
It sounds kind of anticlimactic given the impact it would have, but it just shows how the magic of Bullet Time really lies in the post-production. I take it this was all a second unit shoot?
Yes, it was the visual effects unit. The Wachowskis did come in and then went away again, the stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell was there. It was almost like a non-event: they said “That was very good, we’ll do one more,” and that was it. Once you start to get into and do it, it was very interesting, but I really didn’t quite understand it until much later when I got off the set, out of costume, went back in and starting speaking to the technical boys. Then I realised exactly what we were doing.
Was there a sense on the set that this movie was going to become such a phenomenon?
Not at all. We all had no idea, it was just another job, a futuristic thing: we’d all been doing them before, we’d worked with monsters, we’d worked with creatures, it was just another thing, you know? Keanu was very nice, he was a lovely man and it was a pleasure to be there.
Wait, Keanu was around even though you weren’t sharing any scenes?
He was around all the time! He’s a big motorcycle fan and I came to the studio one day on my bike, a Honda ST1100, and he looked at it and went “Wow, what’s this?” so I asked if he wanted a ride: soon he was riding it around the studio! I believe at the end of the show he bought each head of department a Harley as a gift. He was hands-on all the time: I think he didn’t quite understand what was happening either, so the more he saw the better he understood what was going on.
It’s that peculiar way a shoot can be so compartmentalised and collaborative at the same time, making it difficult to really grasp the bigger picture. What was your reaction to the finished film?
When I first saw it I thought in the beginning, that’s interesting, where’s this going, what’s happening now, I don’t understand, and it wasn’t until you get to the end of the film that all the little dots start to connect and you begin to understand what it was all about, which was kind of unheard of. Normally you know what’s going on from the beginning: the bad guys wear black hats, the good guys wear white, but this thing was so cyclic, so split that it was very hard to follow what was actually going on. When the end came and it all came together, it was wonderful. I thought it was a very good film.