A People with Passion correspondence
Interview conducted March 2011
Matthew Modine’s acting career has spanned three decades and over forty films, allowing him to work with such directing talents as Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, James Ivory, and Oliver Stone. But it was his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket” that immortalized Modine in cinematic history.
Now producing a new iPad app of his piercing, insightful “Full Metal Jacket Diary,” the 52 year-old actor spoke with me via email about the creation of the diary, his experience on Full Metal Jacket, and the ongoing influence of Stanley Kubrick.
SILVERSTEIN: The first item I want to discuss is the creation of the book itself. Some sections are true diary entries, while others describe action scenarios in present tense that obviously could not have been written as they happened. You also have several sections that do not take place during the Full Metal Jacket shoot, like the one in your childhood as you and your family watch Vietnam.
MODINE: There are entries in the book which were written while on the film set, in the little diary I carry throughout the film. Then there are entries from my personal diary. These are distinguished as “Observational Diary,” which is from my personal diary, and the other entries are clearly on the film set. I used the personal diary to set a place, time, and location for the reader, to give a sense on where I was in my life and career, but also where I was emotionally and intellectually as a young man. The entries are mostly straight from the diaries I kept. I have only elaborated when it was not clear to a reader where or when an event was taking place.
SILVERSTEIN: At what point were these non-diary sections written?
MODINE: During the editing process. There was a period of assembling and putting together the separate diaries – my personal diary and the one I kept on set.
SILVERSTEIN: Was that your original plan when you decided to keep the diary?
MODINE: I had no plan. I was just keeping a diary, keeping notes. As I was portraying a journalist, it was something I started doing, as my character, on the film set. I keep a personal diary, so it wasn’t unusual or unnatural to do this at work.
Years later, I decided to do something with the photos I had taken during filming. The publisher wanted me to write something to accompany the photos. I told him about the diary I kept during filming and thus became the book.
SILVERSTEIN: You allude to craft and structure decisions in your comments about editor Tom Folsom (“joyously arguing with me about my use of words”) in the acknowledgements – please describe the formation of the book’s structure.
MODINE: The discussions with Tom Folsom were about things that I wanted to remove from the published diary. Things which I felt were too personal. Some of these were personal, and others were about participants involved in the filming process. I wanted to edit out items that were important to me when I wrote them down, but would presently be harmful to the character of the individuals I wrote about at the time. Tom felt strongly that I should divulge everything from my diary. I of course would not. But Tom would, on occasion, win with strong logic. He would make his case as to why certain uncomfortable stories were important to remain in the diary. This is why I gave him credit for “joyously arguing with me about my use of words.”
SILVERSTEIN: Stanley obviously put a lot of thought into form. But one of the insights I loved in your book is your description of Kubrick as “strange and unorganized,” since the perpetuated notion on Kubrick is as “perfectionist.” Can you discuss the difference between your experience with Kubrick and the rumors and images that persist about him?
MODINE: I recently visited my great friend, Leon Vitali. We were talking about all sorts of things and, as it always seems to happen, our thoughts drifted back to 25 years ago and our time on Full Metal Jacket and Stanley. He said something about Stanley which I had always felt. He said it passionately and fiercely and, mind you, Leon worked with Stanley for three decades (from Barry Lyndon to Eyes Wide Shut).
We were discussing [Kubrick project turned Spielberg film] A-I, and all the whoop-la surrounding the release of the film. Stanley thought premiers were, above all, a big waste of energy and money. A-I had a huge premier in NYC and I was there. THE questions that EVERYONE asked was, “What would Kubrick have done?” “How would Stanley have shot it?” As Leon and I talked, he sat bolt upright and said, “Well no one could EVER KNOW what Stanley would have done! And Stanley could not have told ANYONE or described HOW he WOULD have shot it or WHAT he would have done! Because Stanley NEVER knew exactly what he was doing until he SAW the actors in the environment and the scene REHEARSED.” This was certainly the experience I had on our film. The continual discovery of what the scene was about. He did exhaustive work preparing the sets and rehearsing the subject and then he was free to discover the best way to expose the truth of the moment. Not anticipating or having preconceived notions. In the moment.
As a diary entry, for me to write “strange and unorganized,” is based on previous experiences with directors who have decided what they are doing BEFORE arriving on the film set and seeing and hearing what the actors and the location provides. Stanley was an artist who appreciated the artistic process of DISCOVERY. That is not to discount his unbelievable preparation (like Hitchcock or Welles). Stanley’s sense of form and structure; Precision. Or my belief that he really wished actors could sometimes be more like machines. Precise. Less vulnerable to emotion. Let’s say a perfect actor for him might be an actor with emotional precision.
SILVERSTEIN: Your mental and emotional evolution during the shoot is remarkable, for two reasons. One, it seems in retrospect so manipulated by Kubrick, and two, during the boot camp sequence Kubrick seems to superimpose upon you the experience of being Joker and to D’Onofrio the experience of being Pyle, with Kubrick becoming Hartman. We’ve got Kubrick using Ermey to punish you for “The Mistake” by implementing multiple takes of Ermey slapping you, (though it’s possible he was always planning this in order to use Ermey as a physical tool against you to break you, the actor, down); regardless, the result is the same. We’ve got Kubrick’s use of “cunt.” We’ve got the tension between you and D’Onofrio and the way that builds, and the way the film’s plot then rolls into your fight with him – the soap beating, etc. – and then later, the way Kubrick seems to lead you to stating the film’s ending. It’s all pretty amazing.
MODINE: Well said. Interesting analysis. Maybe. Interesting. I gotta think about all that!
SILVERSTEIN: You don’t reveal in the text a stated awareness of Stanley’s true intentions in his interaction with his actors, though you do suggest the possibilities in a few places. The “Order. Disorder” speech on page 177. “Did he know what I was going to say?” on page 206. And then of course a big one in the afterword, discussing your reasons for being grateful that of all the great Vietnam movies, you were happy to be in Full Metal Jacket: “The last reason is, of course, because of Stanley. But I can’t tell you any more than I already have. That would be showing my hand.”
MODINE: Because I don’t know for sure what those intentions would be. They would be opinion. I have my opinions today. But I would never say for sure that THIS or THAT is what he was doing or what his intentions might have been. That is what I enjoy about the diary. It is a young man’s experience, his observations, on working with an, arguable, genius of his craft.
Keeping some things personal is important. We live in, especially today, a world where everyone shares everything. Tweets. Facebook. Oprah. Reality TV. As I get older it is clearer to me why guys like J.D. Salinger just want to be left alone. Why Stanley just wanted his movies to, open well and above all, be seen by as many people as possible! His personal life was personal. His art was what he wanted to share and have people think and talk about. He loved films with big ideas. Or at least, ideas. I’d say from my time with him he also loved beauty, awe, and the mystery of unanswerable questions.
SILVERSTEIN: So let me ask you: at what point did you realize Kubrick’s intentions and technique, the precision in his interactions with you and the other actors to achieve his vision? Describe your evolution in understanding Stanley, and what that has meant in your life and continued evolution outside of him.
MODINE: Too complicated to answer. I will quote something that Stanley said to Arliss Howard (he played the character Cowboy) upon completion of Full Metal Jacket. “You’re going to miss me.” Arliss replied, “Yes. Of course I’m going to miss you!” Stanley repeated, “No, you’re going to miss me.” Arliss said that Stanley got a little bit closer. Spoke a little bit softer. “You’re going to miss me. You’re going to be on a film set and the director is going to say, “Cut. We got it. Let’s move on.” and you’re going to miss me. You’re going to miss me because you’re going to know, you didn’t get it. And the director is going to move on.”
When Arliss told me that story he said, “And god dammit if he wasn’t right! There hasn’t been a film I’ve done since where the director has said, “Cut. We got it. Let’s move on” and I know we didn’t get it. Stanley never quit until he got it.
SILVERSTEIN: Going along with that, I am interested in hearing you expand on a comment you made about acting in a Kubrick film: “Stanley’s actors have to react as unconsciously as an eye blinks.” As your career continued, what kind of an effect from working with Kubrick did you see in your approach to subsequent films? And was there any effect on areas of your life outside of acting?
MODINE: I miss Stanley and his process all the time. I learned so much. I love that he was such a great producer and created an environment on his sets for exploration. That doesn’t happen on any movie set today. We basically shoot schedules today.
I read a book upon completion of the film, THE SOCIETY OF MIND by Marvin Minsky. The way Minsky wrote and described the inner workings of our thought process, our physical abilities and how we learn to use our bodies, was a revelation to me. The process Minsky described was how, I felt, Kubrick felt about acting, learning, and making films.
23 years later, I met Minsky at a screening of 2001. It was during the Tribeca Film Festival. I told him about how I had read his book and why I thought his ideas about brain functions and how we learn were very much like how Kubrick hoped actors would prepare for roles and acting. And guess what, Minsky knew Kubrick! Minsky was the guy that first coined the phrase “A-I,” and he was Kubrick’s friend! While I thought that was amazing, it didn’t surprise me that Kubrick would be friends with a great thinker like Minsky. Amazing.
SILVERSTEIN: One of the most memorable and involving sequences in the book is the birth of your first child, a son named Boman. There are so many layers to the storytelling here. The ‘first child’ experience; birth complications; job/career complications; and all of that coming to a head with you needing to threaten to slice yourself to get sent to a hospital to then be with your wife, which is probably among the most bizarre impingements ever to a man seeing his wife give birth. I was struck by the idea that you had to threaten violence upon yourself to see your wife give birth, and then that you experienced this violent birth, (“It pulls her belly violently apart to make room for the baby.”) … and then that you had to return to this increasingly violent movie set that pushing you to emotional limits, capped off with needing to “kill the sniper.” How did the total experience with your wife and new son affect what you brought to Joker?
MODINE: Yes, it was a very emotional time and he definitely pushed me to a limit that I had never before found myself. There was a sense of madness to his not wanting me to go to the hospital and his cold, logical argument against my going. There is a photo in the book, a close-up shot, lying in bed. The caption reads, “Stanley thinks I’m crazy.” I think I took this photo during this difficult time. In the photo, I think you can see my torment and how I had, or was becoming, overwhelmed by the whole experience.
Then, to top it off, Chernobyl happened. Radiation was falling all over Europe and there was real danger of it poisoning people, and especially nursing children, which my son was. And then, on top of that, there was the asbestos and the blue chemical of Becton and the trailer toilets which I describe in my diary. I felt that everything was imploding and exploding. Everywhere and everything pointed toward environmental disaster. Hard days they were.
SILVERSTEIN: There is so much great material in this book, and so many more areas we could discuss, but for now, let me wrap up by asking you this: When you look at your total experience with Full Metal Jacket, what do you see as the film’s largest legacy on your life? Was it career-based? Family-based? Life outlook-based? Something else?
MODINE: Something else. And all of them.
* Want to help make the FMJ Diary iPad app a reality? Donate at Modine’s Kickstarter page.
* All photos used in this article were taken by and copyrighted by Matthew Modine, all rights reserved. More photos from the book can be found in this interview with Modine for TakeGreatPictures.com.
* Want more Kubrick material from Jack M Silverstein? Start here.