Through the Lens of Matthew Modine
Matthew Modine (TCFF 2006, 2011) is a Golden Globe Award-winning actor, as well as a writer, producer, and director, who over the course of decades, has with some of cinema’s biggest talent.
Having films in the Traverse City Film Festival for the third time, Matthew is an actor and producer on the film “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” as well as “Merry Xmas,” directed by his son, Boman Modine. Look out for Boman’s interview to be posted on our blog tomorrow!
And after immediately selling out during Friends ticketing, we’ve added another screening of “The Brainwashing of My Dad” by popular demand on Saturday, August 1 at 12 noon.
You’ve worked on movies as grand a scale as “The Dark Night Rises” and “Full Metal Jacket”, but also on television, in theater, independent, and short films – what is your method for determining which projects you choose to become involved with?
I try to find interesting projects, things that give you opportunities to learn about things you’re curious about. Generally those types of subjects that you’re curious about will be in the hands of interesting filmmakers, directors, because they’re also using the medium to investigate and tell stories about things that we don’t know about or things that we’re trying to understand.
You’re notable as a director, writer, producer, but you’re best recognized as an actor. How do you compare working in film in front of the camera, compared to behind the scenes?
You know, there’s a long history of directors who are also actors, whether we go back to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, or to today with Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen. You learn that you’re coming up whatever your curiosity is – like with Woody Allen it was comedy and acting, there’s a certain kind of thing you want to accomplish, a vision that you have as an artist – that maybe somebody else doesn’t see things the way that you do. And so the only way to fulfill that goal is to be the person who places the camera.
If we think of the camera as your eye, your lens, and your brain is the celluloid, or today the chip, the way that you see things, the way that you imagine a scene to take place is where your lens is – so you see things differently based on the experiences you’ve had in your life. If ten directors were given a screenplay, they’d have ten different points of view. They would place the camera in different places, they would move the camera in different times, and they would edit the film in different ways. That’s the art of filmmaking and directing. What’s interesting is when somebody has a different ways of the seeing things based on the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I think it’s why it’s very interesting the filmmakers we’re being exposed to in America now – from South America, from Scandinavia, from Eastern Europe – their films are compelling because they’re different points of view that we’re not accustomed to, so it makes their films very interesting. Probably what’s happened in America is that we have a lot of people basing their view of the world on experiences that they’ve had not from living life but from watching film or television. What happens when you get a mirror and face it to a mirror is that you get a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. We shouldn’t base our point of view on watching television shows or other people’s films, but we should tell stories that come from experiences that we’ve had in our own personal lives so that we can tell an audience what it feels like to be slapped across the face, to be insulted, to have your heart broken – that you’re telling it from an organic experience rather than a regurgitation of other films. And I think that you can find that in a lot of American cinema.
You’ve worked with so many directors with such distinct methods and styles – Robert Altman, Kubrick, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan – the list goes on. How has this impacted you as an actor and a filmmaker?
Well, the one thing they share and have in common as filmmakers is the unique point of view, a perspective, a need to tell a story, not just a desire to be a filmmaker. The stories that they tell, it’s very important just for an actor but for a director to have the need to tell the story – whether or not there’s an audience for that story, you of course hope that there’s a shared interest in the things that you’re interested in. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. But there has to be that need, that drive to tell the story. I feel that very strongly from someone like Oliver Stone that the stories that he wants to tell are really burning inside of belly, that he wants to expose something and investigate something and share that with an audience and I find that very attractive.
Can you talk a bit about your evolution as an actor with the roles you’ve chosen to pursue and where you started, compared to where you are today?
In the beginning I did three Vietnam films – “Streamers,” “Birdy,” and “Full Metal Jacket.” Because I’d grown up watching the Vietnam War sort of abstractly from my television and my oldest brother Mark was drafted and my brother Michael and my sister Elizabeth joined the Navy, so the war came home. It became something that was no longer abstract but I was participating in vicariously through the news, with Walter Cronkite giving scores of how many of them vs. how many of ours had died… It’s important to have things that you’re curious about in your life and that you want to try to understand, and the Vietnam War was something that I was trying to understand, so the reason I say that is when the opportunity presents itself as an actor to be in a film that shares your curiosity, in this case Vietnam War, you’ve been preparing for it. You’ve already been doing your homework. So when you go into the audition, you’re prepared in a way somebody else isn’t. Because you’ve been curious about it, you’ve been investigating it, you’ve been trying to understand it.
As much as those directors chose me, Robert Altman with “Streamers” or Alan Parker with “Birdy,” or Stanley Kubrick with “Full Metal Jacket,” I chose them because this was something I was trying to understand. Why did America go to war, what were we trying to accomplish, what are we doing there? After having done three films about the Vietnam War, I still don’t know. I don’t know that anyone will ever know.
Its important to have things that you’re trying to understand because then that material will be something that you relate to and something that you have an understanding of that no other actor will. As I’m older now and looking at material, I look at it differently. Sometimes you do things because it’s going to be fun and there are some interesting people involved and it’s nothing more than that. I love to go see Star Wars and some action films like everyone else, but I also like to have – I think of those films as kind of dessert – it’s always fun to have dessert, but it’s important to nourish your body with a good meal. When I think about that, I think about theater and foreign films, coming from different places.
You’ve devoted an impressive amount of time, patience, and energy into perfecting the craft of storytelling on stage and screen. When did you know that you wanted this as your life’s work, and is it that importance of understanding that keeps this passion going?
Yes! My father was a drive-in theater manager and from a very early age, the drive-ins were far away from communities because it had to be very dark and it had to be on land that was cheaper outside of town. Our house was always next to the drive-in. We moved around a lot because they were tearing the drive-ins down, and because the land was becoming worth more than the drive-ins. I moved a dozen times from when I was born through the time I graduated from high school.
But what I saw was that people would come to my father, his work, to watch these movies. As a young person, you don’t separate your father from the work that they do. And I thought that my father was this amazingly powerful person that all these people came to see and like a church, he was the preacher, and he’d play these movies and impact people’s lives. Sometimes they were silly movies, Cowboy and Indian movies, or soft-core porn, swinging stewardess movies. And then there would be something amazing that had tremendous impact on my life. I think one of the biggest ones was when I was living in Utah and going to school with Native Americans was “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway. It had a tremendous impact on my life because it turned the camera around. Instead of the cowboys being attacked by Indians it was the Indians being attacked by the Calvary, and it was obscene and it was a movie that had a tremendous impact on my consciousness.
My father’s work had a tremendous impact on my life and I saw how movies could affect people’s lives, positively and negatively and I wanted to be a part of that.
We’re showing a cut of “The Brainwashing of My Dad” at this year’s festival. How did you become involved with the film?
I think it was a Kickstarter campaign. My producing partner Adam Rackoff and I read about it and thought it was an important film. So we contacted Jen Senko, the director, and said if there was anything we could do to help her out we’d love to be involved. And we helped with the financing and I offered to do any voiceover work… What we’ve learned is that it’s better that it be a single point of view, that you never lose the fact that it’s a story about Jen and her father. So a lot of the voiceover work from me has been removed from the film because I felt I missed the person who was telling the story.
It’s very interesting because in school we grow up reading Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “1984” and we saw how in WWII how propaganda was propagated whether it was through the Leni Riefenstahl films – or American war films, [such as] Rosie the Riveter, we see how film or television can have an impact on people’s psyches, manipulating and creating fears that may not be justified. One of the subjects of the film is Fox News and how it’s used to disseminate information, create fear, generate irrational thinking. And do something that’s even more dangerous – not reporting the news, but giving an opinion about what is happening. Because when the news is presented as fact but it’s opinion, that’s not really news, is it?
You’re also an actor in the short “Merry Xmas,” directed by your son Boman – was this your first time working with him in charge, and can you tell me a bit about that experience?
He made a student film when he was in New York… He made a zombie movie and he wanted me to be a victim of one of the zombies, so I was in that! But this is first film he made with me where I was actually a speaking character. And it was terrific. I brought him to film sets when he was a boy, and he always had an opinion about how things were being done. What I said before about the lens, the personal perspective, he’s always had a very strong perspective on life and how he sees things. He studied Religion and History in college. There was always talk about directing movies and when he chose to study those two subjects, I thought it was wonderful because what better background could a director have, because it tells the story of Civilizations. There’s so much drama in religion, and so much that we can learn from our history.
This will be your third time having a film at our festival, so I have to ask, what do you like best?
It’s such a beautiful film festival. I’m on the board of a couple other film festivals and I’ve given them advice about how the Traverse City Film Festival functions and why it’s successful and why it’s unique from other film festivals in the U.S. I think one of the most important things… is that the sponsors of the festival have to be people from the state or from the community. I think that Michael Moore recognizes that when you invite a big corporate sponsor to come to the festival, the character of the festival changes. What my experience in Traverse was that all of volunteers, the organizers, the whole thing was so intimate and so local – that was what separates it from all the other festivals I’ve been to.
Katy Gwizdala is a Michigan native who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her arguing with friends, colleagues, and her cat about all things pop culture. Follow on Twitter @katygwizdala.