I AM NOT the chosen one.
I had heard whispers of “The Matrix” II and III in late winter, if a casting call posted on craigslist.org for all the Bay Area to see could be called a whisper.
The posting mentioned something about hundreds of extras needed, tribal costumes and “tattoos a plus.”
“The Matrix’ is coming,” I confided during a meeting with the bosses. “Go find it,” they confided back. Trained journalist that I am, I tried to go through legitimate channels: public relation firms, Warner Bros., city filming coordinators.
That’s the paradox of “The Matrix.” You have to go through the authorities, but they won’t let you see it. “Closed set,” they say. They deny everything. “There’s no freeway,” they say, even when a freeway ramp that goes nowhere juts out over the Bay waterfront, even when the casting call asks for extras to drive on this road, even when it makes the evening news.
Met with denial on all sides, I can only do one thing: Put it off. Immediately swamped with assignments, I put “The Matrix” aside.
I still hear whispers: It’s in downtown Oakland. It’s causing traffic jams. Whenever my thoughts turn to this hidden underworld, though, I am pelted with another assignment.
Finally, it is midsummer. Surely I can break free and get a glimpse before it picks up and leaves for Australia.
Someone passes me the project code name. “Burly Man,” she whispers. “Look for the Burly Man.” Of course, inveterate misspeller that she is, she tells me it’s “burleyman,” which I find out is a person who assists the local constable.
The day after I make my decision, I check my personal e-mail. A friend has blithely e-mailed me about shopping, and how the Webster Street/Posey Tube will be closed tonight because “The Matrix” will be filming there.
I read this e-mail on Saturday. The e-mail is dated Friday.
I grind my teeth. I will find “The Matrix.”
I stop by the library to do an Internet search for “theburlyman,” and find out fan sites already know the so-called secret project name. The Web connections stall and my time runs out.
I head to the former Alameda Naval Air Station, cruising through the unmanned gates. By now I’m determined to ferret out the hiding place in this former defense outpost. I’m not interested in spoiling plots or celebrity gossip. By now, I just want see “The Matrix,” to verify its existence. I vow to uncover this subterranean underworld, to penetrate the veil of secrecy, to crack codes and suddenly a sign rises before me. “Zion Extras Parking,” it reads.
I follow the arrows. “The Matrix,” it appears, is ridiculously easy to find. I drive past another sign that reads “Eon Production offices” too obvious. Past the umpteenth “extras” posting, I see the “Burly gym” sign. At last, code words right across a fence with a handwritten warning, “Guests must be cleared by the production offices. No ID badges.”
So much for subterfuge. It turns out that the parking lot is smack dab next to the city of Alameda’s skateboard park. I park and ask skateboarders if they know about “The Matrix.” They give me blank looks. I walk past the concrete slopes and circles and see, on the other side of a wire fence, police cars lined up in a row. At first I blank on what a police car looks like must be the wilting heat. A gray car riddled with bullet holes gives this location away.
I have found the parking lot of “The Matrix.”
It’s deserted. I loop around, trying to find an entrance that doesn’t say “No trespassing.” As I backtrack, I see a curiosity-seeker with two young sons quizzing three men who have driven inside the lot. “Are these cars going to be in The Matrix’?” the father asks.
Are the answers that easy, I ponder. It must be how you ask.
The film crew guy from Los Angeles says all the outdoor filming has been finished. The fake freeway will be torn down and the cars crushed, even the nice Toyota Tacoma. The stage crew is now on the interior set, and he gestures to some vague direction behind me.
Unseen. Invisible. “The Matrix.”
Before he leaves to jack up the gray bullet-perforated car, he tells me the best vantage point to see the faux freeway and a wreckage of cars is from aboard the Alameda ferry.
Good tip, but first, I head toward the seemingly abandoned buildings. Bells tinkle in the distance. The ice cream man! He must know the ice cream man always knows. Or is that the muffin man?
No matter. I order a vanilla sandwich. “Have you seen any of the filming here?” I ask the ice cream man. “No,” he says, and takes my money.
At the building across the street, a sign to wardrobe is plastered on the wood door. Bolted shut. I decide to get in the car, which by now is a few degrees shy of molten lava, and do a little reconnaissance. The guys in the parking lot are gone, and no one is manning the entryway booth. I can see the fake freeway, tantalizing in its proximity.
I pull in, and the cell phone rings just as I find myself thwarted by neatly arrayed orange traffic cones. As I circle around, taking the call, a man emerges from nowhere. He approaches my car window, friendly but purposeful.
“Hi, sorry, I was taking a phone call and didn’t want to be on the street,” I say cheerily, hoping he will be impressed enough with my road safety that he won’t see the silver-gray camera on the passenger seat. Very politely, he tells me that’s good, because the last person who came on this lot was arrested.
I drive off meekly and park two blocks away in front of the production offices. I note a green SUV with a Lakers sticker is empty but has its engine running, so I pull a Good Samaritan and tell someone in the office, then wander out the back. The place is eerily silent. I see a sign directing extras to wardrobe on a door, but it’s locked and the place looks deserted. Even a chair with a security guard jacket hanging off the back is unoccupied.
Garbage bags are taped over windows, but not enough to block off the ceiling lights overhead. Do I hear voices? I can’t see over the taped bags.
I’m too short for “The
I go back to the car and this time head for the ferry, if only to see the wreckage of “The Matrix’s” powerful whirlwind force. The parking karma triumphs, but not punctuality: I’ve missed the boat by 20 minutes, and the next one isn’t for two hours.
It’s hot and the sugar spike from the ice cream is plummeting. I make one more round and head back toward the tunnel, letting “The Matrix” disappear in the darkness behind me.
Vera H-C Chan is the Times events editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-977-8428.