Matthew Modine Revisits 'Full Metal Jacket' Photos for L.A. Art Show

Matthew Modine/Courtesy of Axiom Contemporary
Stanley Kubrick on the set of 'Full Metal Jacket'

The star's Rolleiflex images from the set of Stanley Kubrick's brutal 1987 Vietnam War film, revealing the "magic" of the legendary director's work, will be on view at the L.A. Convention Center Jan. 10-14.

There are precious few on-set artifacts from Stanley Kubrick’s career, such was the legendary director’s devotion to the film being the film, and nothing else. He was known to destroy props, and never allowed behind-the-scenes photography on his sets. That’s why, when Matthew Modine published 2005’s Full Metal Jacket Diary, a 224-page collection of photographs and notes from the set of the 1987 Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, it was hailed as a revelatory look into the director’s world. Modine played Joker, one of the two main protagonists, alongside Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pyle. Because Joker was a war correspondent for Stars & Stripes, Modine brought a camera and a notebook to get into character. That documentation, Full Metal Jacket Diary, is the subject of an exhibition and panel discussion at the L.A. Art Show, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 10-14. THR caught up with Modine to discuss the significance of Full Metal Jacket, now 30 years old, and the Diary.

You had to convince Kubrick to let you photograph on the set with your Rolleiflex. Because he was usually so guarded about photography on set, the photographs are remarkable documents. What, to you, is most special when you look at them today?

I actually didn’t convince him. A friend of mine gave me the Rolleiflex because he thought it could be a cool way of my breaking the ice with Kubrick. He thought if I could show Kubrick that I had knowledge about the camera it might spark a conversation, given Kubrick’s own photographic background. So I taught myself how to use the medium format camera. My dad taught me composition and watercolors, and that was beneficial. When I met Kubrick I had the camera around my neck and he wasn’t impressed with it. He asked, “What are you doing with that old piece of shit?” I was shocked and defended the quality of the camera and then, remarkably, he said, “Listen, if you’re going to take pictures on my set, this is the camera you need to get….” He told me about a state-of-the-art 35mm camera and which lens I should get. He even told me what kind of camera bag to purchase. The important part of this story is that he said, “If you’re going to take pictures on my set.” That was something unheard of. And I took full advantage of that invitation!
The magical thing about some photographs is this: they continue to develop over time. The negatives and images lay quietly in boxes and the world outside changes. In the case of these images, they’re a peek behind the curtain of a Kubrick film production. 

Through your lens, you zeroed in on a master of the craft at work. What did you come to understand about filmmaking through your diarizing and photography of Kubrick?

The experience helped me to understand how difficult it is to be an artist in an industry. Part of Kubrick’s genius was creating an environment where he could be an artist within the business of show. It’s interesting to me that filmmakers basically all have the same tools to make a movie: a camera, sound equipment and the technicians that employ them. With these same tools, some directors are able to create magic while others do not. Kubrick was a magician. 

Full Metal Jacket came out 30 years ago, but the morals stay the same. Young men from the United States are still dehumanized in training, and they still come out of combat scarred and damaged. Have you continued to feel the film's effect on your own lens of what war means? Why, for you, does Full Metal Jacket matter after 30 years?

The brilliance of the film is that, even though it takes place during the Vietnam War, it’s about all wars. All conflicts. It could be about Cain killing his own brother. Having spent two years working on the film and developing a friendship with Stanley, like a young apprentice, I began to see things through his lens. Having had that privilege, I can now look at his films and find a similar theme throughout them, a comparable storyline that looks at humanity and civilization with an unfiltered lens. Full Metal Jacket, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory — his war films — show us a reflection of humanity as it is, not as it, or we, desire or believe it to be. If we were truly humane, we would have no need for police or military forces. We have these weapons and we weaponize our youth out of the sad knowledge of what we are.  

Though the book came out 12 years ago, you've continued to work with the Diary. You turned it into an award-winning app in 2013, and an audio book, and you've done panels and talks, and you're revisiting it here with a talk and an exhibition at the L.A. Art Show. Why do you think this particular project remains interesting for you, and why do you think it continues to find an audience through different media?

Some films have the ability to transcend the time period in which they were made. Full Metal Jacket does. The FMJ Diary iPad app became possible because of new technology. It’s a beautiful experience. With both the book and the app, I and the people involved, all wanted to be sure we were making something that would get Stanley’s approval. I’m happy that I was able to have the experience and I enjoy the passionate curiosity that others have for Kubrick. I can see it in people’s eyes before they ask the question, “What was he like?” I can only share what he was like to me. I think he was a different man to different people; playing many different roles to accomplish whatever that goal happened to be in that given moment. The ultimate actor.