Matthew Modine Reflects on 'Full Metal Jacket' and the One Similarity Between Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan
Thirty-three-plus years later, Matthew Modine still can’t believe the continued interest in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, especially since the film wasn’t initially received with universal acclaim. But as is the case with several of Kubrick’s films, appreciation has only grown as time passes. In fact, whenever Modine would work with other auteur filmmakers like Robert Altman, Christopher Nolan and Oliver Stone, he could sense and anticipate their inevitable Kubrick questions before they were even asked.
Kubrick was often regarded as a perfectionist, which accounted for his tendency to ask actors to do a high number of takes until their performance felt like second nature. Many believe that David Fincher, another famously meticulous filmmaker, took a page out of Kubrick’s playbook by adopting the same approach. The Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope also stated recently that The Wachowskis used Kubrick's method during production on the Matrix sequels. While Kubrick did indeed do a lot of takes, Modine believes that there’s a misconception about his reasoning for doing so.
Heat Vision breakdown
“Stanley and I talked about that. He said that, ‘I always get blamed for doing lots of takes. You know why I have to do lots of takes? Because the actors don’t know their lines,’” Modine tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He said, ‘When I was working on Spartacus, I tried to get close to these incredible British actors that were working on the film: Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov, etc.’ And he said, ‘When I’d get close to them, they’d stop talking and say hello, but I was sure that what they were saying was, “What does this kid from the Bronx know about directing great British actors?”’ Then he said, ‘And then, one day, I was able to get close enough to hear what it was that they were doing and they were practicing their lines. They were saying their lines over and over and over again because you want to get to a place where you don’t have to think about what it is you’re saying.’”
In 2011, Modine worked with Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight Rises set, and while Nolan has stated many times that Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker in cinematic history, many people consider Nolan himself to be the Kubrick of his generation. Even though Kubrick’s influence can be felt throughout Nolan’s filmography including Interstellar and Tenet, Modine recognizes only one commonality between the two artists: their unique ability to maintain an intimate set despite the massive scale of their films.
“Sometimes on Full Metal Jacket, there weren’t more than 10 or 15 people on the set. And as big as The Dark Knight Rises was, with all of the people that were working on it and the tremendous size of the cast and crew, it got smaller and smaller and smaller as you got closer and closer to the set where you were going to be filming,” Modine explains. “So there’s a similarity between Stanley and Chris. All of the noise and all of those other things were kept far, far away from the set, and there wasn’t any reason to have a chair or a video village because for what purpose? Everybody could see what was going on. It was a quiet environment where we were making [The Dark Knight Rises].”
In a recent conversation with THR, Modine also looks back on his complicated relationship with friend and co-star Vincent D’Onofrio during filming and how their differing acting techniques created hostility between them. He also explains Mel Gibson’s surprising influence on Private Joker’s John Wayne impression.
Has your relationship to Full Metal Jacket changed over the years, or do you still feel the same way about it as the day you wrapped?
That’s a great question; I’ve never really analyzed it. I’ve been acting now for 40 years and worked with incredible directors like Robert Altman, Alan Parker, Christopher Nolan and Oliver Stone. I can see people wanting to ask another question before it’s asked, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “What was Stanley like?” Each of those directors that I just mentioned all asked that question. I guess you could say that every director makes love, but they all do it a little bit differently, right? We all make love, but we all do it a little bit differently. Obviously, Stanley did it very differently than any of those other directors that I just mentioned, and was revered by those people, as well as millions of fans around the world, for his artistry. And the thing that’s fascinating is the appreciation of his ability to have made a movie 33 years ago that is still part of the conversation. It will still elicit a conversation or solicit a conversation with someone like yourself, and it’s a movie that came out so long ago. How often does that happen? It’s just a pretty rare occurrence that a movie becomes part of the vernacular, and is so quoted that people write songs about it. From the very beginning with 2 Live Crew and the “Me So Horny” song to other people today, it’s quite extraordinary to have been a part of a film like that, to have had the extraordinary pleasure and honor of working with a director like Stanley Kubrick. So yes, it has obviously impacted my life in ways that I can’t even imagine.
Does Kubrick’s voice ever resurface in your mind when you’re working on other projects and you encounter something reminiscent of your experience together?
Yes, it’s a story that he told Arliss Howard, who played Cowboy. He said, “You know, you’re going to miss me.” When we finished filming Full Metal Jacket, he said, “You’re going to miss me,” and Arliss said, “Of course, I’m going to miss you.” And he said, “No, you’re going to be on another film set and you’re going to miss me because the director is going to say ‘cut, print, we got it, let’s move on,’ and you’re going to miss me because you’re going to know that we didn’t get it.” And Arliss says that there hasn’t been a film that he’s worked on since Full Metal Jacket where one or two times, they’ve said, “Cut, print, we got it, let’s move on,” and “I haven’t missed Stanley.” So I often think about that when I’m working on films and when I know a director, because of time constraints, has to move on. It’s just not as good as it could’ve been, but they moved on. That never happened on a Kubrick set, and it’s a testament to Stanley’s great skill at being a film producer. He created an environment for him to be able to have that kind of time and that kind of freedom to work on a scene until he knew that he was satisfied and could move on from it. There were times when we were making Full Metal Jacket, and there weren’t more than 10 or 15 people on the set, besides the recruits and the people that were working on camera. On most films, you have 60 people working on the film all the time, but Stanley just created an environment where that wasn’t the case. He didn’t need to have those people around and was able to furlough people when necessary.
In an effort to achieve authenticity, Kubrick is often credited with the approach of wearing out actors by way of an obscene number of takes. Did you need that many takes on this set since the physical toll was already conducive to authenticity?
Stanley and I talked about that. He said that, “I always get blamed for doing lots of takes. You know why I have to do lots of takes? Because the actors don’t know their lines.” He said, “When I was working on Spartacus, I tried to get close to these incredible British actors that were working on the film: Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov, etc.” And he said, “When I’d get close to them, they’d stop talking and say hello, but I was sure that what they were saying was, ‘What does this kid from the Bronx know about directing great British actors?’” Then he said, “And then, one day, I was able to get close enough to hear what it was that they were doing and they were practicing their lines. They were saying their lines over and over and over again because you want to get to a place where you don’t have to think about what it is you’re saying. You get to a place where there’s nothing else that’s logically necessary to say but the lines that you were scripted, and your responsibility as an actor is to memorize, show up and do your part.” So if we think of Stanley as a conductor of an orchestra, his job is not to learn the music that the violinist is going to play or the cellist or the percussionist; his job is to conduct those people. So your responsibility as an artist when you’re working on a Stanley Kubrick film or any film is to learn your part so that when you come in, you know how to play that part of the violin or the cello or the percussion. And it’s the director’s job then to say “a little bit louder” or “a little bit softer” or “a little bit angrier.” And that’s who Stanley Kubrick was. He wasn’t this great manipulator. It would be surprising to so many people to understand that he didn’t know where to put the camera or what lens to use until the actors did their performance. He didn’t pre-vision how the scene was going to be shot. He couldn’t put the camera down and place it and lens it until he knew how those actors were going to play their parts.
Production was suspended for four and a half months since R. Lee Ermey was injured in a car accident. When bad luck affects a production like this, the interruption can sometimes be a blessing in disguise since it allows for favorable events to happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Filmmakers can also assemble their existing footage and assess what they’re lacking. Did the suspension end up helping the movie to some extent? Was there a silver lining?
Because we shot Vietnam first and boot camp second, I think it was a helpful break because physically, we were filming in one of the most toxic places I’ve ever been to in my life. If you Wikipedia Beckton Gas Works, you’ll see that there were probably 30 or more known carcinogens that were in the soil. There was also asbestos everywhere, and when you went home from work and took a bath, the tub would literally turn a kind of cobalt blue with all this dirt and chemicals that came off of your body. It was a sickening place, and after we finished up at Beckton, we all needed an opportunity to relax and cleanse that crap out of our bodies. So that was good, and it was good for us because of the transition of going into boot camp. I think it was all very beneficial for us to have that break. It was very painful for R. Lee Ermey because, as you mentioned, he was in a car accident and he’d broken his ribs. And with the dialogue, the yelling and the running he was doing when he was teaching us to march, he was in a tremendous amount of pain. Anybody who’s ever broken their ribs knows that there’s not much you can do to help yourself when you have broken ribs; you just have to push through it.
Joker quickly became rather adept at basic training. Did you get a handle on it as quickly as your character seemed to?
Well, we were in boot camp longer than people go to boot camp, and that portion of the filming was about six months. So there was no method acting to the training that we were doing. We were learning to be recruits and we were being trained by a person who was a former drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. And so, the things that we were put through were the things that people actually go through in boot camp. We just did it for a much longer period of time, and over the course of a shooting day, it could be 12 to 14 hours of training. So it was exhausting, but ultimately, it was rewarding because after all this time, we’re still talking about the film. That just doesn’t happen often.
Did you and D’Onofrio have a similar relationship to your characters in terms of helping each other through the filming process?
Well, Vince and I had met at an audition a couple of years before Full Metal Jacket. He was studying with somebody from Lee Strasberg’s school, and I was studying with Stella Adler. They were both from the Group Theatre in New York City, and there was an antagonism between the two of them. Stella said that actors should work from their imagination, and Lee Strasberg said that you should work a different way. So I said to Vince, “What we should do is trade places. I’ll go to your classes and you go to mine.” So I went to some of his classes, and it was crazy. I mean, people were slapping each other and it was a sort of theater of realism. There was no imagination, so it was very weird for me to go from Stella Adler’s into a place where people were yelling and slapping each other. So I stopped going, but Vince never went to my classes. But at the audition, I saw something in Vince that I thought was really wonderful and powerful. He had a gift and was very unique. I ran into him again when I was going off to London to meet Stanley Kubrick and begin the process of making Full Metal Jacket. Vince was working as a bouncer at the Hard Rock Cafe, and he was kind of embarrassed that his career hadn’t taken off while I was doing so well. So I said, “Don’t worry, man. An opportunity is going to come. Somebody’s going to need an actor for a role and I’m going to put your name in the hat. So keep the faith.” When I got to England, we started shooting the Vietnam segment of the film, and Stanley said that he was really pleased with all of the actors and that the movie was looking really good. And then, he said, “But I have one problem. I can’t find someone to play Private Pyle.” And I said, “I got somebody.” Obviously, Pyle was written as a very heavy person, so I said, “He’s not heavy and he’s not Southern.” Pyle was supposed to be a Southern boy. So I said, “But I’m sure he could do the accent,” and Stanley said, “Well, have him audition.” So I got in touch with Vince, he sent the audition and the rest is history. Vince got the part. I’m not taking credit for Vince getting the job. All I did was open the door, and it was obviously Vince who had to walk through the door and convince Stanley Kubrick that he was the right actor to play the part. But, as I mentioned, the reason I’m telling you this story is because we had two different acting styles. He had the school that he was going to, versus me working from the imagination, and as it got closer to Vince entering into the role of Private Pyle, our friendship started to separate. We stopped talking to one another to the point where we became so antagonistic toward each other that in many of those scenes where I’m teaching him how to make his bed or lace his boots or take apart and then reassemble a rifle, we wanted to kill each other. We were just so fed up and angry with each other. But I think it worked well for the film, and we’re friends today. We’re very good friends and love one another. But yeah, during the making of the movie, it got really ugly. (Laughs.)
When Joker helped Pyle climb the confidence course ladder, did you and D’Onofrio actually shoot at the top of that vertical ladder? Or did that scene involve some camera trickery?
No [camera trickery]. When you think about it today, I don’t know that we would’ve been able to do what we did because there was no safety anywhere. He was climbing and there were no ropes. There was nothing to save any of us if we fell, and poor Vince had broken his knee because he put on all that weight to play the role. He was getting ready to jump over one of the obstacles, and when he planted his foot, his knee just popped and it destroyed his knee. So he didn’t have full control over his leg and his knee when he was climbing up that obstacle; it was terrifying. I think we were literally about 60 feet up in the air on that obstacle, but I’m comfortable in heights because of the construction work I did before I became an actor. So it wasn’t so scary for me, but for a lot of the actors, the background performers and everybody that had to climb over those obstacles, it was a scary thing. It was no joke.
Did you already have Private Joker’s John Wayne impression in your back pocket, or did you have to develop that once you read the script?
(Laughs.) I grew up watching John Wayne movies because my dad was a drive-in theater manager. I’m sorry my father’s not alive today to see this reemergence of outdoor theaters. I think he would’ve gotten a kick out of it after living through the closure of so many of the drive-ins that we ran [when I was] a boy growing up in Utah and in Southern California. But the movies that would play at my father’s drive-in were John Wayne’s. I’d done a movie with Mel Gibson called Mrs. Soffel, one of the early movies of my career. And since Mel had quite a heavy Australian accent and had to speak like he was an American, the dialect coach would work with him in slowing him down. And in the process of listening to him learn to speak like an American and then us taking classes together so that we’d sound like brothers, Mel would often sound like John Wayne. So I learned how to do a John Wayne impersonation when I was working on Mrs. Soffel, working with the dialect coach and listening to Mel Gibson learn to speak like an American. (Laughs.)
It's a strange thing to say at a time like this, but the last 45 minutes include some rather striking images of actors in the foreground and burning buildings in the background. Did the crew have complete control over the fire and smoke in each building?
Yeah, they would turn them on and turn them off. I actually have a proud moment about that time. It was getting really dark and we were losing the light, so Stanley asked for more flames, which made it look even darker because the flames were against the dark sky. And Stanley was frustrated, so I said, “Put more smoke in the air.” And he goes, “What do you mean? It’ll block the light.” And I said, “No, the smoke will refract the light. It’ll be like a giant bounce board.” So he thought for a minute, and then, he said, “More smoke!” So creating more available light was a proud contribution that I made to that moment of the film by adding more smoke and reflecting all of the burning buildings that were there. There were giant tankers; I don’t know what we were burning, but it may have been diesel that we were burning. We were in such close proximity to England that everybody hated us because it was like suffering through these Los Angeles fires. We filled the air full of horrible pollution and black stuff fell on all of these people’s homes. It wasn’t nice.
Many people consider Christopher Nolan to be the Kubrick of this generation. While I’m sure they’re considerably different filmmakers, are there some similarities between them in terms of ambition and innovation?
I don’t see any similarities between the two of them at all, and I don’t think that Christopher Nolan is trying to be the next Stanley Kubrick. I think that Christopher Nolan is trying to be the best Christopher Nolan he can be. That’s the journey of an artist. You can be inspired by somebody’s work, but to try to imitate or duplicate is the error. As an actor, I could say I love Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but for me to try to act like them would be artifice. I’d be a cheap imitation. The most important thing that you can be as an artist is to be the best you that you can be and to find how you interpret the story based on the experiences that you’ve had in your life. That’s why it’s so important not to separate yourself. So many actors start living in these kind of bubbles where they stop experiencing life. That’s a foolish thing to do because as an actor, you’re supposed to interpret life. You’re supposed to be out in the streets and be with people. You’re supposed to see the suffering that exists in the world, and see the different kinds of ways that people find joy in this world. That’s your responsibility and job as an artist. As Harper Lee said in her book To Kill a Mockingbird, you never really understand another person until you get inside their skin and move around in it. Well that, by definition, is what an actor and what a film director does. We have to get inside the skin of the story or the person that we’re playing and interpret those stories. So if you isolate yourself from the world, if you start to live in a kind of protected bubble where you’re not experiencing life and touching humanity, you start to become a kind of artifice. And I just think that Christopher Nolan is trying to be the best Christopher Nolan that he can be.
You mentioned that Chris asked you about Stanley, but did he also pick your brain about the particulars of shooting Full Metal Jacket?
No, I think that we just shared stories about him as a human being. You know, what was he like? So that would lead to talking about his family, his pets, the place that he chose to live. We talked about him moving away from New York, living in Los Angeles for a little while, and then ultimately moving to England because he could, in my opinion, be separated from the influences of Hollywood. Because film is one of the most collaborative art forms, if not the most collaborative art form, you want to collaborate with the people that you choose to collaborate with. And oftentimes, in Los Angeles, through the process of getting a film financed and made, you have to make lots of compromises, and perhaps work with people and work in situations that are not advantageous to the story that you’re trying to tell. But Stanley wasn’t willing to do that. So by moving a great distance to England and saying that he doesn’t fly, I think that that was maybe his biggest lie. His family or somebody may argue against this, but I think that Stanley said he didn’t fly just so he wouldn’t have to make those trips to Los Angeles and meet with executives. “If you want to talk to me, we can do it on the telephone. If you want to come and read the script, come and read the script in my parlor. Read it in my kitchen. Read it in the dining room.” If you write a script and you give it to someone in Hollywood, it might take them five weeks to read the script, and they may read 10 pages and put it down to go have lunch, grab a coffee or take a phone call, and then they’ll come back and read another 10 pages. But if you go to someone’s house, especially someone like Stanley Kubrick, and he wants you to read his script in the dining room or the kitchen or the parlor, then you’re going to read it from cover to cover, and you’re not going to be interrupted. You’re going to have a different experience reading that script in Stanley’s house than you would if you were reading it in Los Angeles. If you want to consider the kind of control that Stanley was demanding, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of control. I think it’s really smart.
When you were promoting The Dark Knight Rises, I remember hearing you talk about the fact that Chris didn’t have a video village with a bunch of executives sitting around in chairs. Anne Hathaway also happened to mention this a few months ago, but it was blown completely out of proportion. Did you hear about this silly controversy recently?
No, I didn’t, but as I mentioned before, sometimes on Full Metal Jacket, there weren’t more than 10 or 15 people on the set. And as big as The Dark Knight Rises was, with all of the people that were working on it and the tremendous size of the cast and crew, it got smaller and smaller and smaller as you got closer and closer to the set where you were going to be filming. So there’s a similarity between Stanley and Chris. As you got to the epicenter of where the action was taking place, it was incredibly calm, quiet, focused and intimate. All of the noise and all of those other things were kept far, far away from the set, and there wasn’t any reason to have a chair or a video village because for what purpose? Everybody could see what was going on. It was a quiet environment where we were making the film.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Full Metal Jacket is now available in 4K Ultra HD.
by Trilby Beresford
by Chris Gardner
by THR staff
by Trilby Beresford