The Wachowski Brothers: Hollywood's latest directorial siblings

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A terrorist advocating the merits of blowing up buildings is the unlikely hero of V for Vendetta, a big budget adaptation of the popular Alan Moore-scripted graphic novel. Set in Britain in the not so distant future, our hero announces on TV that he's going to blow up Parliament on 5 November.

On the surface, the incendiary politics makes it a bizarre career move for Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers behind The Matrix, but then again their reputation was built on a trilogy that demanded audiences challenge conventional beliefs. Movie studios are not in the business of spending $100m on a script that might alienate the American masses. The penultimate scene of V involves the blowing up of an Underground station and, after 7 July, Warner Brothers scrambled to postpone the film's release from last November's 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes's failed attempt to blow up Parliament.

There have been many aborted attempts to bring V to the big screen, but the difference this time was that the Wachowski brothers wanted it made - a fact that overrode any concerns Warner Brothers executives may have had over the unsavoury protagonist. So why were the Wachowski brothers so keen to make V? Since they never do interviews it's impossible to ask them directly. In fact, their desire to steer clear of media attention saw them appoint long-time collaborator James McTeigue, an assistant director on the Matrix films, to direct. Scratch beneath the surface and their story takes us into an underground world. A world suggesting the reason the Wachowskis were interested in doing V was not an attempt to undermine the foreign policy of the Bush administration, but that V is an anti-hero who hides his identity behind a porcelain mask and a Cleopatra wig.

Larry is two years older than Andy. They were raised with their two sisters in South Chicago. Their mother is a nurse and father a businessman. They graduated from Whitney Young High School in 1983 and 1985 respectively. Neither was a stand-out student but they enjoyed working on the technical side of the school's theatrical department. Larry went to Bard in upstate New York and Andy to Emerson College in Boston. Both dropped out after two years, returning to Chicago where they set up a painting and construction business. They also began writing for Marvel comics.

The brothers were inspired to write movie screenplays after reading the Roger Corman's How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. In 1995, they sold Warner Brothers a script called Assassins. Richard Donner, the director, ordered extensive rewrites and made it a big-budget action vehicle for Sylvester Stallone. Larry tried unsuccessfully to have the Wachowskis' names removed from the credits.

Assassins introduced the brothers to the producer Joel Silver. Silver loved the script, but was disheartened when the brothers said they wanted to direct it themselves. Silver suggested they direct something smaller first and they made Bound, a crime thriller about two lesbians stealing from the Mob. It was a critical hit and the brothers had passed their $6m test to see whether they could write and direct.

The Matrix established the brothers as the hottest directors in Hollywood. With the introduction of the super slo-mo bullet time the brothers rewrote cinematic grammar and turned Keanu Reeves into a leading man. Audiences were so obsessed that The Matrix became a $1bn cottage industry and fans sat through two dire sequels that mixed-up the theories of a patchwork of Sixties philosophers.

What was largely overlooked in all the commotion was that this world was asexual and awash with references to androgyny, bondage and S&M and the Wachowski brothers had an unusual deal with Warner Brothers that they would never have to talk about their work to the press.

It was during the making of the Matrix sequels that rumours about Larry's liking to cross-dress began to surface. A divorce from his wife of nine years soon followed and internet message boards ran riot with information that Larry had fallen in love with an LA dominatrix called Ilsa Strix. Fuel was added to the fire when the brothers replaced their photographs on the Internet Movie Database with pictures of a dominatrix. The brothers turned the speculation into a game. Warner Brothers, eager to protect their prize directors, prohibited all visitors to the set of V for Vendetta from writing about the brothers. In a Vanity Fair article last month, the writer Michael Wolff skirted around the subject, even suggesting that the brothers were made up, and McTeigue, who had also put up a dominatrix photo, was an alias.

McTeigue laughed off this assertion, stating, "It's just funny. The writer wrote what would serve his story." The director's demeanour quickly changed when asked about a Rolling Stone article that told in detail the story of how Larry now uses the alias Laurenca. He stated, "I don't comment on people's private lives and in terms of the Rolling Stone article, there is better journalism out there."

The adaptation of V has also altered all the references to sex in the film. In the graphic novel Evey is working as a prostitute when we meet her and sleeps with an older acquaintance. In the film she is out after curfew and her confidante, played by Stephen Fry, is a gay who has a secret collection of bondage gear.

Natasha Wightman, the British actress who appears in V, quipped, "Can I still be cut from the film?" when asked about the brothers. Before adding, "Everything was so secretive. Both of them were extraordinary film-makers."

But for now the Wachowskis are living in a self-imposed exile, toying with the curiosity of their fans. Larry has become the JT Leroy of the cinema world. But as long as the brothers are making films with huge profits, or unless they decide to speak, their true identities will remain as much a mystery as their latest hero, V.

V For Vendetta opens on 17 March