'Full Metal Jacket' at 25: Matthew Modine tries to answer, 'What was Stanley like?'

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Image Credit: Matthew Modine

In his 30 years on the big screen, Matthew Modine has worked with some of the most talented and revered directors, including Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, and most recently, Christopher Nolan. But there remains one director and one production experience that people never fail to ask him about. “What was Stanley like?” says Modine. “You can see it coming out of people’s mouths before they say it.”

Stanley, of course, is the incomparable Stanley Kubrick, and their collaboration, Full Metal Jacket, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week with a new special edition Blu-ray. The 1987 Vietnam epic was essentially two interlocking films — the grooming of young American Marines at Parris Island, and the upside-down world they encounter when unleashed on the chaos of Vietnam. Like the war it portrayed, the production famously turned into a quagmire — no one knew how the film should end, R. Lee Ermey’s car accident and other difficulties delayed shooting.

The two-year odyssey made a profound impression on the young Modine, who accepted Kubrick’s assignment to keep a production diary as part of his research of playing the role of a Stars & Stripes war reporter. In 2005, he published the magnificent limited-edition Full Metal Jacket Diary, which revisited his journal entries documenting the personal and professional drama that occurred behind the scenes. Today, that rare collectible becomes more widely available, making the digital leap as a stunning iPad app that brings you face to face with Kubrick’s genius, Lee Ermey’s rage, and Modine’s hopes and fears.

The film’s star, now 53 and currently starring in The Dark Knight Rises, recently chatted with EW about that defining episode of his life.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first hear whispers that Stanley Kubrick was looking for actors to star in his Vietnam movie?
MATTHEW MODINE: I was doing Vision Quest when I heard about the movie. I didn’t know anything about him. I mean, I knew 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I really loved Spartacus, but I didn’t know his full filmography. I just knew that he was respected filmmaker, but I was only 23 or 24 when I heard about the film. You saw my story in the book about Val Kilmer?

I was going to ask about that. [Note: In his book, Modine describes an awkward restaurant encounter where the man who would become Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday was “an angry guy cursing loudly in our direction,” apparently upset that Modine was getting all the good parts for young handsome actors their age, including the starring role on Kubrick’s upcoming project.]
Right. So that was my introduction to the idea that Stanley Kubrick might be interested in working with me. In fact, I don’t think I was even on Stanley Kubrick’s radar, so I have Val Kilmer to thank for opening that door and getting me to call my agent and say, “I just heard I’m doing Kubrick’s film.”

At the time, what was the bigger draw: the role of Private Joker or the opportunity to work with Kubrick?
At the time it was the role. But I love working with really respected directors, because it’s a directors medium. It’s their perspective — where they choose to put the lens is like their eyeball and their brain is the film. And then chopping it up into pieces to create a pace and a rhythm of how they see the world. Stanley Kubrick’s perspective and his vision of life and his pacing is different from anyone I’ve ever seen, whether it’s 2001 or Full Metal Jacket. The pacing is something that is uniquely Stanley’s.

One thing’s that notable about your character — in fact, all the soldier characters — is that we know little, if nothing, about their backstories. I think we learn that Cowboy is from Texas, but that’s really the extent of it. Did you have to build a backstory for Joker, or did you stick simply to what was on the page?
From the moment that you meet me, my name is Private Joker. He does have a name, J.T. Davis, and I think J.T. Davis is the first American casualty in Vietnam. [Note: Specialist 4 James T. Davis was recognized as the first American battlefield casualty in Vietnam, killed in an ambush in 1961.] But the backstory for me was to be a representative for everybody who had ever been in a conflict. I tried to imbue my character with everybody who died — not just in Vietnam, but the second World War, the first World War, the Korean War, going all the way back to Cain and Abel. When Joker stands over that young girl and takes her life, I wanted that to represent everybody throughout time, as a soldier who stands over another human being and makes that horrible decision. I wanted to splash blood on the audience. And I think we succeeded.

One thing that is unusual in Full Metal Jacket compared to Kubrick’s other films is that there are pretty obvious stand-ins for his perspective. In this case, Joker and the war photographer, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). Did it feel that way to you?
He said that to me, yeah. I was him and [screenwriter] Michael Herr, which was kind of uncomfortable. That was a heavy burden, but I’m glad he said it because it imbued me with a sense of responsibility to try to speak as articulately and intelligently as I could. He encouraged me to read my diary out loud on the set. You know, “Modine, read your diary.” Because he encouraged me to share it with him and the other people on the set, it encouraged me to be a better writer. When you speak it and read it out loud, you want it to be the best that you can. So that encouraged me to be a better writer and to be more observant, to be accurate.

What makes your journal so compelling is your reflection on the personal and professional challenges that became almost excruciating when filming kept going and going and going. Did you ever feel doubts about yourself or Stanley, and ask yourself, “Is this ever going to end?”
Absolutely. I described it as Gilligan’s Island. The ship set sail on what was supposed to be a three-hour tour and they end up trapped on this island. In our case, it was another of shooting, another day, another day. You begin to wonder what you have to do to complete this? But it’s not Stanley’s uncertainty, it’s his journey. He would say, “People always talk about how many takes I do.” But when you’re making a movie, the least expensive thing is the film. It’s the time and locations and all the other things. The budget on the film was really small because Stanley was such a good producer. He made his films in England, some place where you can create an environment where you can create your art for an extended period of time and not be burdened with the production costs that Hollywood associates with making a film. The whole thing about him claiming, “I don’t fly,” is one of the things he used tremendously to his advantage. He moved to London to make films because he couldn’t stand Los Angeles; he felt that everyone here was waiting for him to fail. And why be in an environment where there’s that kind of jealousy and animosity? So he went to London and fell in love with the professionalism of the film industry there. Everybody’s not trying to grab the wheel and be the director of the film. Plus, he now finds himself three hours from New York and eight hours from Los Angeles. Stanley was a great chess player, and to use that analogy, he’d make his move in the evening and go to bed. Before faxes, before email, people were forced to come to London and drive two and half hours to his country estate to discuss matters. He wasn’t afraid to fly. All those stories were things that were fabricated and if they worked to his advantage, he was very happy to let people think what they want.

As production dragged on, Oliver Stone’s Platoon arrived in theaters first and enjoyed a bigger reception, winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Was there a sense of disappointment or missed opportunity?
I didn’t think that much of it at the time. Time has dealt with that; the creme rises to the top they say, right? There’s no question that Full Metal Jacket is something that continues to have significance and relevance and is standing the test of time. Oliver was a Marine, and I think with his film, as painful as his experience was for him, it’s romantic in a way for him. It’s more like Ernest Hemingway, and when you go back and look at Platoon, it’s different. It’s like going back and looking at Rocky. You can’t believe how manipulative it was, but it was the right film at the right time. Over time, though, the film changes. I have this expression I use with still photography: You can keep the negatives in the boxes, but they continue to develop over time so they continue to take on different significance. When I took that picture of Stanley Kubrick’s chair on that chunk of concrete, I thought it was a funny picture. I don’t know why I did it. But in Stanley’s passing, the chair takes on a different significance: it’s a chair that’s empty that can never be filled.

NEXT PAGE: Listen to Modine describe how R. Lee Ermey went from being a technical advisor to the most-quoted character in the film.


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