Before Matthew Modine became an actor and starred in movies like Vision Quest and Memphis Belle, he dreamed of becoming a painter. It was the back-up career he never needed after a solid 30-year career of memorable roles on film, television, and the Broadway stage. But he never lost his artistic eye, which proved useful in other creative pursuits, beginning with his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. Modine documented that complicated production experience with still photography, and working with the esteemed director of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange inspired him to try his own hand behind the camera.
Modine has directed about a dozen short films, several of which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Six of his favorites are part of a new collection from the Short Movie Channel, The Short Films of Matthew Modine, which becomes available for download tomorrow. The shorts, which were made between 1993 and 2011, include collaborations with director Todd Field (Little Children) and writer David Sedaris, and as a collection, they present a very personal insight into the worldview of the artist. “I like the way they fit together,” says Modine. “There’s a progression as a filmmaker, stylistically, and strength of cinematic storytelling. And if there’s something about them, it is about forgiveness and acceptance. That’s the one common thread that runs through each of them.”
Modine, who worked with Christopher Nolan on last year’s The Dark Knight Rises and co-stars opposite Ashton Kutcher on the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic Jobs, is currently working to bring the 1961 Civil War novel, Walk Like a Man, to the big screen. He recently chatted with EW about his short films.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember from your diary about the making of Full Metal Jacket that you were passionate about photography. Did you make your own short films growing up, or did that interest grow out of your appreciation for still-photography?
MATTHEW MODINE: It began with that first one, When I Was a Boy. I was working with Robert Altman at the time on a film called Short Cuts. Altman kind of famously didn’t pay actors a lot of money to work on his films, so I decided to take the salary that I had and rent a house on the beach and just make a summer vacation for my family. I invited lots of friends that I knew in Los Angeles to come and visit and one of those people was a man named Todd Field, who’s become quite a wonderful director — In the Bedroom and Little Children. Todd and I knew each other years before; we worked together on a movie called Gross Anatomy.
What I’d learned from Stanley Kubrick was that you don’t need all of those trucks and all of those things to make a movie, and what I’d learned from Altman was you needed a good actor to tell a story. So with this argument, I convinced Todd and a friend of mine from acting school that we should make a film right there on the beach. When you’re writing things, you’re only a few degrees of separation from writing about things that are personal to you. And when I was a boy, the kids teased and abused me. I moved about 15 times in my childhood, and I’m the youngest of seven kids, so there was a lot of fighting, always being the new kid in school. So I wrote the story about this guy who was abused, and that’s how that came about.
That other friend from acting school is Philip Forman? He starred in When I Was a Boy and Smoking, your David Sedaris short. I can’t say I recognized him. Is he still an actor?
I don’t know what’s become of Phillip. He babysat for us once, and my wife told him the one thing he can’t do is take Boman, my son, to any R-rated movies. And he took him to see The Blair Witch Project. My son was like 9 years old. It completely freaked him out. My wife came down so hard on Philip that he just disappeared. [Philip Forman called EW and pointed out that Boman was 13 years 8 months old at the time of the release of The Blair Witch Project, not 9 years old. According to press announcements of Boman’s birth in 1985, Forman is correct.]
This year at Sundance, I saw a film called C.O.G., which was the first feature based on a story from David Sedaris. But you beat everyone to adapting his work with Smoking, which you made in 1995. How did you connect with Sedaris and get his approval?
I was listening to NPR and I heard David on the radio. And I said, “Wow, this sounds like one of my short films, When I Was a Boy.” So I just called and tracked David down, showed him When I Was a Boy — which had played at Sundance and then went to the Museum of Modern Art. So David said, “Yeah, I loved When I Was a Boy. Go ahead.”
When I met David, he was still cleaning apartments for a living in New York. Which he found really stimulating because it was that kind of white-noise work that allowed him to creatively think about what he wanted to write about. He really loved cleaning apartments. David and I met in New York. He was really friendly, a very kind man. And that was it.
The narrator in Smoking, voiced by Sedaris himself, is a smoking addict who doesn’t appreciate his freedom to light up being infringed by others. I assume you are or were a smoker as well?
I did smoke, yeah. I’ve given that up now. When you start drama school, that starts lots of bad habits that took a long time to break. Because you’re trying to do your best James Dean, drinking lots of coffee and smoking cigarettes. Life is so full of drama when you’re 18 years old in drama school.
In the prologue to Ecce Pirate, the short you filmed while you were making Cutthroat Island, you mention you originally envisioned it as a comedy.
I guess I thought it would be funny to make a story about a boy who gets kidnapped by pirates. And as I was making it, I realized there was nothing funny about being raped by a bunch of men on a pirate ship. So I don’t know why I thought that would be funny. [Laughs]
Oh, c’mon, it’s hilarious!
Right, I thought they’d be rolling in the aisles! But then I realized I was making a film about the acceptance of death and the inevitability of losing my father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer at the time. It’s interesting because I also mention it in my Full Metal Jacket Diary, about being. One of the most difficult journeys for a human being, especially for an artist, is to be. To accept who you are and not to try to please somebody else or to succeed for somebody else. Ecce Pirate was a big story because of the situation that I was in, that we can’t worry about the past and we can’t worry about the future. There’s only now. There’s only this moment. The movie was kind of big revelation for me, an acceptance of who I am. It was that day when I made that film that began my journey of not worrying about what other people think and accepting who I am in life.
Forgive me for pulling at the darkest threads, but I couldn’t help but see Ecco Pirate also as a Hollywood metaphor, about an actor “kidnapped” by the machine to make movies against his will…
I think that you’re right. I had said yes to a script [for Cutthroat Island] that Michael Douglas had said yes to. It was about a guy and a girl, but when I arrived in Malta, it [had become] about a girl and her journey. I can’t speak for Michael Douglas, but one of the reasons perhaps why he got out of the film was that he realized that Renny [Harlin] was making a movie about his wife [Geena Davis]. That’s not what Michael had signed up for, so he got out of it. And then I found myself in the situation where they didn’t give me the [new] script. They gave me the script that Michael had said yes to. And it was really wonderful. It was an unbelievably powerful story. It was really really fun. I was looking forward to such a great adventure, being in a pirate movie. And I’m still very pleased with the movie. I think that the movie was terribly harshly criticized. It’s a pirate movie! And it was attacked as though we tried to remake Gone With the Wind or something. It’s a really fun movie. It’s funny, when people go, like, “Cutthroat Island was such a disaster.” I say, “Did you see the film?” And nine times out of 10, they haven’t seen the film.
The most recent short film in this collection is titled Jesus Was a Commie, which asks people to reconsider their preconceived notions and the very meaning of certain trigger words in our political culture. I’m guessing it proved difficult for some people to get past the title.
It was very hard for a lot of people, but the people who it’s hard to get past it were the people obviously that I’d made the film for — to try to open up their minds and get their blinders off. It’s insulting to say that Jesus was a commie, because it confuses people. It gets them angry because they immediately think of perhaps the hundreds of millions of people who’ve died under communist rule. But the concept is a utopian ideal that will never exist because of man’s greed. If I could’ve called the film something else, I would’ve. We really struggled with it, but I couldn’t divorce myself from the title. If I called it Jesus Was a Nice Guy, who would go see it?
All of these shorts have a very hopeful, contrarian streak that runs through them. You seem like a very idealistic and optimistic person.
I am an optimist, and I won’t give up on it. I think that we live in a very pessimistic time, a very judgmental time, a very unforgiving time. A time where people don’t reflect. This happened to me personally where I was doing a play on Broadway, The Miracle Worker, and I was talking about how the play’s about something much bigger: It was about all of us being deaf and blind and [mute]. There’s this inability to hear and see other people, to have the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and try to see the world from their perspective. So I was doing this interview on CNN and I was saying this, and I said, “Imagine if we could sit down with somebody who doesn’t see our point of view, imagine if we could sit down with” — and it probably was too strong of an example — but I said, “Imagine if we could sit down with Osama bin Laden and say, ‘Hey man, why are you so angry? Why would you have people fly airplanes into buildings? Why would you cause such horror throughout the world?’ Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could sit down with our enemies and speak to them?” And I got so attacked for having said that, I thought that while I was doing the play on Broadway, someone was going to shoot me — that someone was going to come out of the audience and just kill me. This is the age that we live in. You say something like that, and somebody hears it a certain way. And they blog about it or they tweet about it and what they interpreted me to have said becomes the truth. In fact, all I said was, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could sit down with our enemies?” I said to a friend of mine, “Did I say anything different than what Gandhi said or Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ [said]?” And he said, “No, but look what happened to them.” [Laughs]