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Cadillac stars in 'Matrix'

GM, other automakers make big splash onscreen in this summer's blockbusters

By Ann Job / Special to The Detroit News

BURBANK, Calif. -- Cadillac was in a quandary.

Just over two years ago, the CTS sedan was still a year away from production, and there were only two prototypes of the Escalade EXT sport utility. But General Motors Corp's luxury unit needed a bevy of both vehicles in California to film a high-tech chase scene for the Warner Bros. movie "The Matrix Reloaded."

Cadillac wound up pulling CTS prototypes that had been designated for internal engineering tests and piecing together EXTs from components and mock-ups of EXT sister vehicles -- the original Escalade and the Chevrolet Avalanche.

Bill Deem, a former GM dealership mechanic who now has a vehicle prep business and is a stunt driver, got the job of removing rear-end parts from Escalades and replacing them with rear-end parts from Avalanches. It was all done in a Detroit area warehouse, with help from suppliers who custom-fabricated some sheet metal components.

On Jan 22, 2001, Cadillac shipped 14 CTS prototypes, four CTS interiors, 10 EXT prototypes and two EXT interiors to California for use on a 1.6-mile freeway custom built for "The Matrix Reloaded" at an old naval base in California's Bay area.

Cadillac's inventiveness could pay off big. As the much-anticipated summer movie season approaches, the betting in Hollywood is that Cadillac has the best seat in the house.

The CTS and the Escalade EXT are the featured vehicles in a freeway chase in the "The Matrix Reloaded," the second in a trilogy of Matrix movies. The film opens nationwide Thursday, with sneak preview late shows tonight at select Metro Detroit theaters. It stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss.

Movie industry insiders say the unusually lengthy pursuit -- more than 14 minutes -- used 90 stunt drivers and is destined to join the chase scenes from "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" as one of the most memorable in movie history.

Best of all for Cadillac, the first Matrix film, released in 1999, was a $450 million blockbuster that attracted a hip, young audience fascinated by detailed visual effects that set new standards for action filmmaking. Cadillac is trying to boost its image among young car buyers.

"I believe it will be a great connection for Cadillac," Matrix producer Joel Silver said in an interview on Warner Bros.' Burbank lot.

"You are seeing, on one hand, some of the most spectacular car chase footage ever put on film because of the amount of control we were able to bring by actually building our own freeway. And, on top of that, you have the most spectacular visual effects sequence inside this car chase -- it's very intense."

The complicated scene features a silver CTS driven by Moss, who is being pursued by bad guys in a black EXT. After watching it, Silver said, audiences "sit there, sort of stunned."

Mazda, BMW shine

GM isn't the only automaker whose vehicles figure prominently in early summer movies.

The new Mazda RX-8 is showcased in "X2: X-Men United," the sequel to "X-Men," the 2000 blockbuster hit about mutant superheroes. The RX-8 X-Men car is painted "mutant blue," and sports an X-shaped grille.

BMW Minis take to the silver screen in a modern rendition of "The Italian Job" from Paramount Pictures. The movie is adapted from the 1969 classic that showed police in Alfa Romeos struggling to catch robbers piloting the original, inimitable Minis. The new version depicts crooks trying to escape in modern Minis amid the worst Los Angeles traffic jam ever.

In the movie, Minis -- the smallest car sold in America -- careen down stairs, drive on sidewalks and weave through subway tunnels.

"The car is obviously integral to the film," said Michael McHale, Mini spokesman. "They couldn't make the film with another car. It would be heresy."

McHale said the only cost to Mini was providing 32 cars. Moviegoers, however, are likely to recognize only three of them -- one red, one white, one blue.

Early next month, Mitsubishi's Eclipse Spyder and Lancer cars race into theaters in Universal Picture's street-racing pic, "2Fast 2Furious," the sequel to "The Fast and the Furious." "The Fast and The Furious" was released in 2001 and became a cult film among young drivers, called "tuners," who customize their vehicles and are into the tuner scene.

"Universal Pictures came and knocked on our door and said, 'We want you guys in our movie,' " said Greg Stahl, advertising director for Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s North American unit. "They were very interested in our brand because of our very young demographics and because we're very well known in the tuner crowd and we're a multicultural brand."

Mitsubishi provided 12 cars for shooting, including four Lancer Evolutions that were patched-together models, not true Evolution VIIIs, which went on sale in the United States only this year.

Product placement

"The Matrix Reloaded" is Cadillac's largest product placement effort ever, requiring more than 24 vehicles. Besides the CTS and EXT models, Cadillac gave filmmakers another 50 GM cars and trucks for background vehicles, and CTS and EXT engineering specs, math data and sheet metal dimensions to help stunt coordinators.

Cadillac came to the attention of Warner Bros. and Matrix producers because of a longstanding marketing agreement between GM and the studio that allows the automaker to signal its interest in participating in an upcoming film.

"We looked at Matrix as a brand, and it was very edgy, very bold and very unexpected," said Susan Docherty, Escalade marketing director. "It clearly had the ability to separate itself (from other films) and was able to develop a cult-like following. From a timing standpoint, we knew our product assault would be at its height."

The CTS and Escalade EXT appearances are intended to demonstrate Cadillac's "renaissance," as well as show how the vehicles perform, Docherty said.

Because reality is suspended in the Matrix universe, however, filmgoers will see one character jump from one car to another, among other feats, while the cars are barreling along at a freeway-like 60 mph. Adding to the drama is a close-quarters fight between driver and intruder inside the vehicle.

Hollywood car chases tend to be a lot shorter than the Matrix's 14-plus minutes. But the film's creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski, insisted the scene run in its entirety, Silver said.

"It's a situation where the car is a character (too)."

Ann Job is a California-based free-lance writer.
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