Matthew Modine: The Long View

Matthew Modine may not have starred in a blockbuster movie yet. That's just the luck of the draw. But he has managed to work with some of the best film-makers in the business. That's not just luck. Here, Modine talks about the pleasures and pains of working with talents like Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Demme, Robert Altman, Alan Parker, Alan J. Pakula, and now, on Pacific Heights, John Schlesinger.

"Yeah...I've never been in a big hit, have I?" mulls Matthew Modine, rather as if it's the first time he's ever thought about this. The actor pats his slicked back hair and slumps down in his seat as he surveys the room. His metal-gray eyes are lit with a blend of wariness and grudging good humor. The scraggly stubble of his blond goatee is a nice counterpoint to the hip, baggy, celery-colored suit he's dressed in.

He's given some terrific performances, but no, he hasn't had a big hit. Not Baby, It's You (1983). Not Streamers (1983). Not The Hotel New Hampshire, or Mrs. Soffel (released in 1984). Not Birdy (1984), despite its critical acclaim and cult following, or Vision Quest (1985). Not even Full Metal Jacket (1987), another respected film and a re¬spectable box office performer too, but no blockbuster. Certainly not Orphans (1987). And not Married to the Mob (1988) or last year's Gross Anatomy, either.

Maybe one of his new ones, Memphis Belle or Pacific Heights, will catch fire with the public, but at the moment, all his considerable gifts notwithstanding, Matthew Modine remains a step or two in back of box office draws like Cruise, Gibson, Costner, or even Alec Baldwin. As well-known as he is, you could still call him a well-kept secret.

The thing is, though, it's a very good secret. And some of the best directors in Hollywood are in on it. Here are some of the directors Modine's worked with: John Sayles, Robert Altman, Tony Richardson, Alan Parker, Gillian Armstrong, Stanley Kubrick, Alan F. Pakula, Jonathan Demme. The median level of talent on this list suggests that Modine is a respected actor who gets tapped regularly for classy projects. It also suggests that Modine himself opts in favor of pro¬jects connected to first-rate filmmakers, that he has, like Jack Nicholson after Easy Rider, plotted a career course, for better or worse, by way of quality directors.

"It doesn't bother me that I haven't had a big hit at the box office," says the actor. "They've all made a profit. I haven't embarrassed anybody. What I look for in a film are things that are related to my concerns. It's my life experience that gravitates me to a role. That's why I want to work with good directors, people that I think have good sensibilities, because otherwise you feel you can't trust them."

Modine ought to know the difference between a good director and a bad one: He was raised at the movies. Literally. His father managed decaying drive-in theaters all over the state of Utah. "We were an itinerant family," Modine says, speaking in his halting style, a not altogether willing delivery. "We moved around so much because they were destroying the drive-ins, tearing them down. The real estate was too valuable. And, of course, the gas crisis hap¬pened and the cars started getting smaller and people couldn't use the drive-ins for what they used them for. They couldn't get into the backseat anymore."

Modine's very first picture was directed by the highly regarded, if marginally commercial, filmmaker John Sayles, who was himself making his first studio picture, Baby, It's You. Sayles gave Modine his break before the young actor had been in New York all that long doing the acting lessons/wait-on-tables routine.

"Margery Simkin, who was the casting director, was like the director of that movie for me," says Modine. "I read for her. She said, 'That was good. Now could you try it this way?' And it was the first time a casting director ever asked me for adjustments. Then she told me she wanted me to meet Sayles and the producers, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, and they said, 'Great, we're going to use you.' It's still one of my favorites, maybe because it was the first time I'd ever worked on a film, and I must have used every note from every acting class I'd ever had. I was so precise and so specific. I did not make one gesture or movement that did not have a purpose."

Perhaps it is Modine's sense of purpose that's been the key factor in his dealings with the sequence of gifted and demanding directors he's encountered, starting with Sayles. He doesn't appear to allow himself to be easily daunted. "You always want to make them feel like they're a little bit more on the ball than you are," he says of directors in general.

Asked about Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger specifically, Modine echoes back, "John Schlesinger?", then falls silent. "John," he finally says, after a long pause. "He's a clever boy...It's only been a few months since I worked with him, so it's hard to say exactly what I thought."

Modine gives his undivided attention to a blank wall. The hum of an air conditioner helps the time to pass.

"Filmmaking is never easy," he begins again. "It sounds so trivial to say, 'Oh, it was such a wonderful production. We all got along so well.' It sounds like bullshit. And it is. It wasn't an easy shoot. John was very sick during the first weeks of production, which put us under tremendous budget and time constraints. He had to play catch-up."

"And," Modine continues, "filmmaking has changed. There used to be a comradery in people working together. We all felt we were creating something magical and mystical. John is probably the oldest filmmaker I've ever worked with, and he regrets that the industry has changed and become a business, that the production company insists that he deliver the film in a certain number of weeks, and that the film be under a certain number of minutes."

Did Modine get along with Schlesinger?

"Ahhh," sighs Modine. "John." Pause. "Yes and no." End of subject.

Modine did get along with Stanley Kubrick, his director on Full Metal Jacket, unequivocably. He also gave Kubrick a first-rate performance. Modine's portrayal of Pvt. Joker, the film's narrator/observer, hangs just right on him. With Kubrick as his collaborator, Modine created a character as ambiguous as the Vietnam war itself, and that characterization became the spine of the film.

"People think there is not much humanity in Stanley's movies," says Modine, jabbing an angry finger into the air. "But I find that his films are more passionate and humane than any other filmmaker making movies. He shows a darker side of human emotion. He's not afraid to lead the camera where things are unpleasant.

"I was privileged in that Stanley and I spent a lot of time rewriting the script, trying to find the best way of saying it. Some contemporaries shove things down your throat and force you to react to something. Stanley leaves the option open, and lets you make the decision for yourself. Television has influenced people so much they don't know how to react to things anymore. They want to be told what's good or bad. I don't want to be responsible for tell¬ing anyone how to think or what's right or what's wrong, nor does Stanley. It's not my job as an artist, or Stanley's."

Modine gets cranked up on the topic of Kubrick. He seems to have found in this man his idea of the perfect director. "The only time I've ever had a problem on a movie," he says, "is when a director sits down the night before and imagines a particular shot with a camera floating around the sound stage. Then, the next morning, there are tape marks on the floor telling us that we have to move from here to there when the person opposite us says such and such. Just because it works for the camera. For no reason. Just because the director thinks it's a clever shot. Kubrick is extraordinary because he knows the camera is the storyteller. He is always searching for a way to frame the information that he's trying to capture. He is always frustrated, lying down on the floor with a viewfinder, trying to find an angle that would best show the madness of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or the sniper in Full Metal Jacket, so that it is most haunting and most exciting."

The role that put Modine in a position to star in a Kubrick film was his turn as a shell-shocked Vietnam soldier in Alan Parker's 1984 Birdy. His performance in that film has such integrity--it is free of anything resem¬bling an actor's embroidery--it's difficult to believe he'd been making films only a couple of years. With a lesser performance, Parker's film could have been laughable--Modine was, after all, playing a guy who thought he was, quite literally, a bird.

"Alan Parker?" The actor grimaces at the mention of the name. "Alan is a very frustrated, very angry artist when he's working. When he's not working he's very sweet and very kind, but once you start filming, its a war. He becomes this little general who knows he doesn't have much time to get the very best from every element of his crew--which I consider an actor to be part of. Everyone bears the brunt of his anger. My feeling is that Alan has to do that in order to be who he is and make the films he does. I mean, Vincent Van Gogh was a mad fool running around chopping his ear off, drink¬ing turpentine, and eating paint, but he produced some¬thing that was incredible.

"I didn't put up with him, I just laughed at him. Don't get me wrong. I don't want a director who's going to say do whatever you want. I want somebody who is going to force me out, because that's when it gets scary and interesting. Maybe that was what Alan was doing with all his ranting and raving."

It's fairly evident that Modine doesn't shrink from wrangling with his directors. His experience on Alan J. Pakula's film adaptation of the Lyle Kessler play Orphans, in which he got to open out as a violent, emotionally confused kid who keeps his younger brother (Kevin Anderson) under lock and key and holds Albert Finney hostage, is a good example. Pakula has remarked on his casting of Modine that, at first, "there was 1 in 20 chances of his getting the role," largely because Modine had shown only the more innocent side of his range so far on screen. But, "when Modine came in to discuss the film, he had a shaved head and was very tall, so he looked intimidating, and he made me laugh a lot. I saw colors that were not in the other roles he'd done."

Pakula continued seeing other actors for the role, but he was haunted by Modine. "I don't think I'd ever cast anyone before and had less of an idea of what he was going to do with the role. I've always had one rule--when in doubt, go with talent."

Pakula got talent, and he got willfulness too. On the first day of shooting, says Modine, "there was a huge conflict over what I thought were the right clothes for the character and what the costume people and Alan J. Pakula thought. They had me dressing in a preppy look. I said, 'No fucking way. This guy would dress up like all the movies he'd ever seen. His jackets would be double-breasted, he'd wear tie clasps and pinkie rings and gold chains around his neck.' We had a big fight about it. Alan said neither Dustin Hoffman nor Robert Redford had ever spoken to him like that. He said, 'Nobody calls the costume people and makes a decision over my head. I'm the captain of this ship and any decision or changes are going to go through the captain.' He was right."

But who won the fight?

"I did. Sometimes you've got to fight. This battle happened on the first day of shooting. It got everybody's blood going. If you don't stand up for what you believe in, then it's certainly easier for them to win the argument the next time."

Orphans probably never had much chance for broad box office appeal, but it stands up nicely to the test of repeated viewings. The same could be said of Robert Altman's film adaptation of David Rabe's play Streamers, which Modine had starred in earlier in his career. But Altman was a very different sort of director, one who played a little freer in a manner obviously to Modine's liking. "Altman would ask what I wanted to do, then one of the other actors would say what he wanted to do, and Altman would say, 'Okay,' then ask his director of photography how he wanted to shoot it. So everybody had the opportunity to say what they thought the scene was about in a brief amount of time. It was very improvisational, everybody was contributing. It was an extraordinary experience."

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