Matthew Modine is one of the most recognizable faces in the movie industry. From Full Metal Jacket to Memphis Belle to Married to the Mob and even The Dark Knight Rises, Modine has played such an incredible variety of characters. With his last film, Jesus was a Commie being nominated for and winning several independent film awards, it doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down any time soon. The Poetry Question had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Modine about his incredible career, and of course, the meaning of poetry.
TPQ: What are your earliest memories as a reader? Were there books that you remember being read as a child? Was there a favorite reading moment? Maybe a light bulb moment where you realized that you were reading a text that would define your life?
Modine: Dr Suess. I’m the youngest of seven children. We had, I believe, everyone of Suess’ books. They were beaten up and drawn in by my siblings. But it didn’t matter. I loved the adventure and rhymes in his writing. The bizarre characters and illustrations. When I read the Butter Battle Book I knew that Suess was more than an author. He was a great humanitarian and confused and frustrated by humans and their stubborn ignorance. His books helped shape my consciousness.
TPQ: What was the first movie you watched where you felt as if it was something you’d want to do for the rest of your life? What about it made you feel that way?
Modine: Little Big Man. This is a very important American film. This was the first time I witnessed a Western/Cowboy type movie from the point of view of a Native American. I was living in Utah when it was released. Many of my classmates in elementary school were Navajo. Sweet, kind young people that were bussed to school from the reservations. This film transformed my life. I felt great shame by the treatment from the “white man” on what the people they called “savages”. The true savage was the invaders who raped, pillaged, and murdered in order to “civilize” this amazing continent.
TPQ: Who were the writers and actors that most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?
Modine: I studied acting in NYC with Stella Adler, a former member of the Group Theater. We studied Ibsen, Shaw, Odets, Williams, Miller. Their plays are such important pieces of literature and studies of modern society and life.
TPQ: How has the culture of the film industry changed over the now 30+ years you’ve been involved? Is it a good change, or a bad change?
Modine: LIfe is always about change. As we get older we often look back with nostalgia and a feeling that life was simpler when we were younger. Entertainment has certainly changed. We can see from television and the internet what people are actually, truly, interested in. Without question, the mass of humanity is obsessed with internet pornography. It’s said that the internet was built for the military and financed by pornography. Television is littered with noisy gossip shows, scandal, “reality” (which is mostly staged and scripted) shows. 24 hour news cycles focus on violence, war, murders, and scandal. There are great accomplishments being made to make the world so much better, safer, and sustainable – but with all the noise – its hard to hear the stories and to focus on what is positive. By measuring what people spend time watching, you clearly see what the masses find interesting. Honey Boo Boo.
TPQ: Has the Big Summer Blockbuster style movie taken away from the more story-based films? Or do you feel there is an equally strong market for movies that lack the big explosions, and appeal to the younger audiences?
Modine: There have always been big summer blockbusters. That’s okay. It’s good for the business of show. The circus always has the “Big Top” event. The internet has changed film distribution forever. Cable television, with its multitude of channels has made it hard to focus on a single program. When there were less options, we all tended to watch the same program and discussed the films or TV shows by the water cooler the following night. Because of the multitude of options, we no longer have those communal discussions.
TPQ: You’re filmography is beyond impressive. What are the films you are most proud of, and why? What makes those the shining moments?
Modine: I am thankful for each of the experiences I have had. Even the most difficult projects brought their own special rewards.
TPQ: I suppose this goes along with the previous question, but which of the pieces that you’ve written do you feel is your absolute best? Or is there an “absolute best”?
Modine: I love my last short film, Jesus Was a Commie. It’s been so wonderful to watch the film with audiences and participate in post screening discussions. I also love Ecce Pirate. Both films are about life and existence. Finding peaceful ways to solve our collective differences.
TPQ: How have you grown as a writer over the years? What do you feel you’ve learned as you’ve matured in your style?
Modine: To speak from my heart and not care what people think. It’s important to have a confidant. I’m blessed because my wife is not just the smartest person I know, but she is also my best friend. She is a great soundboard for me and has truly made me a better human being.
TPQ: What is your all-time favorite movie? All time favorite book?
Modine: Little Big Man. The Old Man and the Sea. I feel the Old Man and the Sea is the best Hemingway book. I love it for the sparseness of thought which is often tied to a physical action. Aren’t we are all the old man? Aren’t we all at sea in a small boat? Santiago is each of us. We leave the watery world of the womb and enter the world. As infants we’re at sea. Soon we find our legs and begin to walk and explore this new world. The mystery of where we came from and where we end up is THE great mystery. The giant marlin Santiago is trying to catch is something much more than a fish. The marlin is a great metaphor.
TPQ: Since we are The Poetry Question, we have to ask: What is Poetry?
Modine: Poetry is the essence of thought which cannot be expressed through prose.
TPQ: Finally, if you could sit down for a scotch with one artist, actor, writer, or musician, dead or alive, who would it be, and why?
Modine: Any one of the Beatles. John, Paul, George or Ringo. Because of their collective ability to express their thoughts and emotions through the most powerful medium on earth, music.