Interview: Matthew Modine on Kubrick and His 'Full Metal Jacket' App
by Jeremy Kirk
February 19, 2013
Few would truly argue that Full Metal Jacket is the greatest film about the Vietnam War. Some would say Platoon. Others Apocalypse Now. But Stanley Kubrick and his war film from 1987 showed audiences the preparation for war as it was under the draft, hard conditions that broke men down into heartless, sometimes mindless, killers. The star of that film, actor Matthew Modine, has made an iPad App that serves as a behind-the-scenes look on how Full Metal Jacket got made and how Kubrick, one of the great filmmakers of all time (not arguably), pulled it together. You can download the app from the App Store now.
Modine's Full Metal Jacket Diary is an interactive, digital version of his own autobiography about the making of the film (more info here). The app includes over 400 high-res photos from the set, five chapters from Modine's book, and a four-hour audio experience that takes you through the production, beginning to end. The actor spent nearly two years on the film, and it was Kubrick's idea to have him shoot so many candid shots of the set, something that was extremely rare for Kubrick. It's a fascinating experience for any lovers of the filmmaking process, particularly that of such an outstanding film made by a master filmmaker.
I was fortunate enough to ask Mr. Modine a few questions via email regarding the filmmaking experience, working with Stanley Kubrick, and a number of elements found in the Full Metal Jacket Diary app. Enjoy:
Going back to how the photos and journal came to be, you said that Stanley Kubrick encouraged you to take and keep them. Was this to help you get in the mindset of a war journalist, and how did that experience help you get into the character of Private Joker?
Matthew Modine: I have no idea why Stanley Kubrick allowed me to take photos. I know he didn't care much for my Rolleiflex camera. He said if I was going to take pictures that I should use a new model Minolta camera that had just come out. The Minolta was a camera with auto-everything and I didn't care much for it. Stanley was very specific about what lenses I should purchase, what type, and speed film to use. Even the type of camera bag. But I loved the feel and the mechanics of my Rollei. I preferred the square, 2 1/4" x 2 1/4" frame to that of a 35mm camera. I'm dyslexic and I believe that part of the reason I leaned toward and preferred the Rollei was because when you peer into the viewfinder - the images appear backward - or normal for a person who sees the world backward.
As far as my characterization of Joker, I think keeping my on-set diary was much more of a tool for understanding Joker as a combat journalist than taking photos. I'd say keeping a good diary and working in the creative realm of photography had a positive impact on both my characterization of Joker and my personal life-long growth as an artist.
Of the directors you've worked with (Kubrick, Robert Altman, Alan Parker, Oliver Stone, Christopher Nolan; all great filmmakers) was there something you noticed that set Kubrick apart from the rest in the way he worked or handled the material or actors? Or is there a similarity in how great filmmakers work?
MM: Stanley was the first director I worked with that found a way around perhaps the greatest obstacle a filmmaker faces; time. How does an artist create an environment for creativity - in an art form that demands a filmmaker to work like a factory worker on an assembly line? For Stanley, it meant living in and working in a place where he could stop, or at least slow down, the clock. I can't speak for the size of productions he had on his other films, but on FMJ we had a crew smaller than many small budget independents I have worked on. He also owned much of the camera equipment we used on the film. We worked in locations that were very affordable, thus alleviating high production costs and allowing him more time to film in them. Because he was Stanley Kubrick, crew members and actors would work for reduced salaries for the chance to work with a master filmmaker. Each of these things have the effect of giving a filmmaker more time. Time allows the filmmaker to discover his film and the story he is telling. It allows them not to compromise. Arliss Howard, who played Cowboy told me a story a few years ago. On the final day of filming Stanley said to Arliss, "you're going to miss me." "Yeah. Of course I'll miss you" said Arliss. "No. You're going to miss me on every film you make after this one" said Stanley. "You're going to be working on a film and the director is going to say, 'Cut! We got it. Lets move on' and you're going to miss me. You're going to miss me because you're going to know that he didn't get it as good as it could be. And you're going to miss me." Arliss said he hadn't worked on a film since then where he didn't miss Stanley for the reason he stated. Stanley created an environment where he could create a film, not shoot a schedule. Which is a massive achievement.
For those who don't know, talk a little about the time the production of Full Metal Jacket took; how long it took, what that experience of waiting was like, how your personal life changed in that time.
MM: I was in London for nearly two years. I can't say exactly how many days of filming there were. I just know how long I was in England. While the experience was amazing and a great reward, it was, to speak in metaphor, like going to sea and getting lost along the journey. Stanley being the captain of the ship, we all had to have faith in his seamanship. Everyone had to pitch in and keep the ship seaworthy and we all did our share of bailing water out of the boat. The script was like the stars in the night sky. We all knew where we started and where we had to get to. There were so many nights when clouds made it impossible to chart our course. Then there were storms. Thankfully, Stanley brought us to shore and delivered the goods. Thankfully my "Full Metal Jacket Diary" app tells the story without metaphor. In it, you can go on the journey I went on and discover through the eyes of a young actor what it was like to work with the genius, Stanley Kubrick.
Was there a moment during the production of Full Metal Jacket where you remember thinking you couldn't take much more of it, and, if not, how did you keep your mind focused on getting through such a rigorous production?
MM: Kubrick told me in the early days of production, "The person who gets the most rest wins." I assumed when he said this that he wanted to be sure I was in bed at reasonable hours and not out partying and then showing up to work with my ass hanging out and blood shot eyes. The fact of the matter was, after 14 hour shooting days you couldn't wait to get home and get some sleep. I don't know how Stanley managed because during filming he never seemed to get any rest.
From the excerpts, it sounds like Vincent D'Onofrio (above) went through something of the same transition as his character, Pvt. 'Gomer Pyle' Lawrence, though obviously not as extreme. Was that the method actor in him, or did Kubrick's direction push him that way?
MM: I can't speak for Vince. The funny thing about acting is, your body doesn't know it's "acting." Mentally, consciously, an actor makes choices about what to do, how to do it, how to say it, what not to do, and dozens of other things. He or she makes all these decisions and then shows up on set or on stage and then has to - kind of forget them all - and "be" the character. The actor has arrived full of all the choices they've come up with. At that point, the emotions the actor feels - anger, hatred, love, passion, empathy, fear, desire, loneliness, hopefulness, doubt, and a thousand more nouns become real - to the body. The actor doesn't act perspiration. He sweats. He doesn't act an accelerated heart rate, his heart actually beats faster. His fears and adrenaline are real - to the body. The actors imagination engages the physical functions of the body and the body responds. This is what happens when an actor commits to the demands of the role or character they are "playing." For Vince, portraying the innocent Pyle who is then beaten into becoming a broken and damaged human being, well, lets just say sometimes roles take their toll on the actor playing them.
Between takes, when the camera wasn't running, what was your interaction on set with R. Lee Ermey, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, like? Did he stay in character?
MM: In my opinion, Lee wasn't acting. He was who he is in life. He was basically the same guy off camera as he was on camera. Only when the cameras weren't running, he was more of a barking man instead of a shouting DI. I have seen Lee in other films where I feel he was acting, and acting well - Mississippi Burning and Dead Man Walking are two examples. But I don't think Lee has any burning ambition to play Hamlet.
How do you and the other actors from Full Metal Jacket remember the production when it comes up in conversation? Not wanting to minimize actual war, but would you think it's akin to remembering the "time in the trenches"?
MM: I'd say we are all happy to have worked on a film that transcends time. It is not a film that no longer has relevance. It is a film that plays as well - or even better - today as it did upon its release date. It is rare when a film accomplishes this. FMJ actually gets better with time. In Gus Hasford's book, The Short-Timers, which is the inspiration for FMJ, Hasford talks about a phenomena soldiers and Marines experience after long tours of combat. They call it the "thousand yard stare." The people that worked on FMJ have something similar. Not a thousand yard stare, perhaps it's only nine hundred. Or Seventy-five. But it's a look. And then it's always followed with a smile. Smiling because we know we survived something really hard and we know we worked on and created something great.
I need to ask about the whole Mickey Mouse element to the film, because it's not just the soldiers singing at the end. There are at least two other references to Mickey Mouse in Full Metal Jacket. Was this Kubrick's blatant commentary on the Vietnam War in general, and was this ever anything he discussed during production?
MM: Stanley and I never directly discussed it. Michael Herr, who wrote the screenplay and the definitive book about war and in particular the Vietnam War, often referred to Vietnam as Disneyland and all the political and military aspects that made no logical sense as "Mickey Mouse." This was often followed by "bullshit," or preceded by, "fucking." "I cannot wait to get outta this fucking Disneyland. It's all such fucking Mickey Mouse bullshit." I think lines like this slipped from the lips of tens of thousands of young men and woman participating in a war that will never be fully understood or completely explainable or ever justifiable.
If you take the words from the song and put them in the context of capitalism or globalization, disguised or camouflaged in a cloak called democracy, the lyrics become eerie and evil. "Who is marching coast to coast and far across the sea? Who's the leader of the gang that's made for you and me?" It's just as eerie as "You are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker" from The Shining or Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb to his death with "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when" over the end credits. Fatalistic endings of Kubrick films? Or clarion calls from a great humanist, a realist, a man who sees humankind's folly and presents it to an audience - begging us all to see us as we are - and hoping we recognize the urgency to be better, to do better. This is the hope of a real humanist. A man who begged humankind to look in the mirror and see ourselves as we really are and to work, not just aspire, to be and do better. If we don't, we are little more than the early man that beat another early man to death with an animal's bone. That is the dream of the man that I knew and worked with.
If you're interested, you can download"Matthew Modine's Full Metal Jacket Diary for iPad in the App Store. It includes many more reflections and stories from the set of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket just like those found here. Thank you to Matthew Modine for taking the time and answering our questions in such detail.