Memphis Belle: Matthew Modine on War Movies and Vision Quest

Matthew Modine Memphis Belle

The 1990 film Memphis Belle is now available for the first time on Blu-ray. Matthew Modine stars as the captain of a B-17 bomber on its final mission over WWII Germany, and was available to discuss the film. If you wanted me to talk about Full Metal Jacket, that was easy because Modine is also releasing Matthew Modine’s Full Metal Jacket, an iPad app and audiobook about his experiences. I would have segued into that anyway. Modine is also planning to direct a film called The Rocking Horsemen starring many of his Memphis Belle costars. And I wouldn’t be Fred Topel if I didn’t also ask about Vision Quest, Short Cuts, Private School and The Dark Knight Rises.

CraveOnline: At the time you made Memphis Belle was Full Metal Jacket still on your mind?

Matthew Modine: Well, Full Metal Jacket was one of those experiences that is indelible because, first of all, the experience of working with Stanley Kubrick, and second because it was almost two years of my life working on a film. In this sense, it’s incomparable to any experience I’ve ever had working on a film just in sheer time alone.

You’ve done a number of war movies, even including dealing with PTSD in Birdy. Since Memphis Belle was your fourth, were you thinking about it as a recurring theme in your career?

Yeah, absolutely. I grew up with the Vietnam War in my house and then the war came home when my oldest brother, Mark Jr., enlisted in the Navy. Suddenly, listening to Walter Cronkite talk about the war, it was no longer something that was outside of my understanding or my home. The war came home at that time. So it was always something that I was curious about and wondered while I was in school if it was something that I might have to participate in, if I would have to go and serve my country.

The United States has a long history, a culture of war from its founding with the Revolutionary War, the war of independence, the Civil War, the Korean War, the First World War, the Second World War. We have a long history of fighting so it’s something that I’m curious about just as an anthropologist, the culture of war. In a sense, I think the entire country, our culture is suffering from post traumatic stress.

Is Captain Dearborn much more innocent than Joker in Full Metal Jacket?

Absolutely, absolutely, because of the time. The Second World War was quite different to the Vietnam War. The reason for us participating in the Second World War was very black and white. There was a great evil in the world that needed to be suppressed and overcome. The Vietnam War is still a war that we wonder what was America’s involvement with Southeast Asia? What was the purpose of that war and the loss of nearly 60,000 American lives, not to mention the huge number of North Vietnamese who died in the war?

In the airplane sequences, were you basically reacting to nothing? Even if it was practical airplane footage, it wasn’t shot while you were on set.

Yes. Even in the Second World War era war movies they had to do something similar, whether it was green screen or rear screen projection. You’re doing something that is artificial. Fortunately, for me, I had the opportunity to fly the B-17 with the real captain of the Memphis Belle, captain Robert Morgan. He took me up in the plane and climbed out of the left seat, told me to sit down and do it and listen to him while he was teaching me to fly the airplane. He said, “This is the last one of these movies that’ll be made about these planes in my lifetime and I want you to know what you’re doing.” So I flew the B-17 for about an hour. It was such an extraordinary experience.

In addition to this, my uncle, Uncle Wilder, was a B-17 captain, pilot of the B-17. Flew about seven combat missions before he was shot down and almost killed. So it was an extraordinary experience to have these conversations with my uncle about his time during the Second World War, in the Army Air Force. I actually wore his dress uniform in the film.

That was his uniform?

Yes. It’s a wonderful story because when I put his dress uniform on, which fit me, I asked him was there something that I could do for him in the film, something that would be a wink to him, that would be our secret, that he would know that I did this for him in the film. He said, “No, but when you put on this uniform, don’t disrespect it.” He almost had his right arm severed from his body by antiaircraft fire.

When I got to England and we were on our way to do the first day of work, I took my uncle’s dress uniform out and I told his story to the other guys [who would be] on the airplane. We were all going to work together in a bus. I told them the story about my uncle’s combat missions and his heroics really in the Second World War and how he asked us that when we put on these uniforms, not to disrespect it. And it had a profound impact on all the actors that were working on the film. It gave us a sense of responsibility to those people who fought and died and served in the Second World War.

Was 1990 a good year for you with both Memphis Belle and Pacific Heights?

You know, I haven’t really had a bad year in my life. I was born in California, moved to New York City when I was 18 years old to pursue the career of acting. I’ve had a 30 plus year successful career so I feel blessed all the time that I went to New York with a dream and it came true. So I never take it for granted.

That’s a great perspective, I’m glad to hear it. And many of your Memphis Belle cast mates are in the movie you’re directing, The Rocking Horsemen: Sean Astin, Eric Stoltz and Billy Zane. Was it a pivotal experience for all of you that you kept in contact?

We’ve remained friends, all of us. The experience, they sent us to a boot camp before we started filming to teach us a little bit to try to approximate what it would be like to have been through combat missions. Of course, nothing we could’ve done at this boot camp would approximate what it was like to be in a combat mission, but the British SAS soldiers, the Special Air Service, they were the equivalent of our Underwater Demolition Team. They really put us through the hoops.

We had to cooperate with one another, learn how to help one another. It wasn’t easy. It was a very hard boot camp and we just gained a lot of respect for each other and a deep affection for one another. Michael Caton-Jones, the director of the film, he was one of those directors that knew that 90% of a successful film is successful casting. He put together an amazing group of young men to make the film.

I want to ask you about Vision Quest also. Do you still work out to “Lunatic Fringe?”

[Deep hearty laugh.] You know, Vision Quest is a really special movie in my life. On Twitter, I probably get 20-30 people a day who contact me about Vision Quest and about how it changed their life, helped them to overcome obstacles that they felt were insurmountable. It was the movie that introduced Madonna to the world. In other parts of the world the title was changed to Crazy For You. So I get tweets from people all over the world about their affection for that film. There’s nothing that makes me smile bigger than when I go into a sports arena or a baseball stadium and hear people scream my character’s name, Louden Swain.

There hasn’t been a real wrestling movie since. Was Vision Quest the definitive wrestling movie?

It’s the wrestling movie. There are some professional wrestling movies but nothing with the heart and soul and innocence that Vision Quest has. It’s an extraordinary film. I really, really, really love it.

When you do a film about a subject like wrestling or sailing, anything you have to get really involved with, does the passion stick with you after the movie?

Wrestling is the hardest sport I’ve ever been involved in in my life. It’s unbelievably difficult. I swore that I would never be caught in my life without a canteen on my hip when I made that film, because I just couldn’t replace the water fast enough that I was sweating. With sailing, Wind, that was just extraordinary because I was working with some of the best sailors on the planet to teach me how to become America’s top yachtsman. It was amazing. We were sailing from Australia, New England and Hawaii so that was an extraordinary experience.

You did some comedies like Married to the Mob, even Private School and Bye Bye Love. Did the industry have trouble seeing you as a comedic actor?

I don’t think so. Comedy’s hard and comedy’s changed. We went from that kind of comedy to that kind of comedy to what I call dick joke comedy. The kind of comedy I did was Cary Grant comedy, 1940s, 1950s romantic comedy. The kind of comedy that people love, and I enjoy some of it, is what I call dick joke comedy. It’s Bridesmaids which is very funny but you have a woman sitting on a sink shitting her brains out with diarrhea. It’s really funny, I mean I laughed my head off, but could I see myself sitting on a toilet and saying, “It feels like hot lava coming out of me?” [Laughs.] I don’t know. Maybe it would be really funny if I did it.

Another really intense scene was in Short Cuts, the confession where Julianne Moore’s character admits she had an affair. Was that a difficult scene to do?

Yeah, it was a very difficult scene. It was very difficult but that was one of the other pleasures I’ve had in my career is working with Robert Altman three times. You mentioned war films, the first one that I did was Streamers. That movie really launched my career.

Was The Dark Knight Rises just something you had to be a part of?

Yeah, to have that opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan, Gary Oldman is an old friend and I just love him. I think he’s one of my favorite actors alive today. He’s so versatile and such a kind man. Christian Bale is extraordinary, Tom Hardy, the whole cast of people, Marion Cotillard. They’re such a talented bunch of people so I was really looking forward to having the opportunity to work with them.

Did it have anything to do with Batman?

Kind of. I’m chasing Batman. I think it’s more important to catch Batman than it is to catch Tom Hardy’s character who’s threatening to destroy the planet. I want to capture the guy that got Harvey Dent, the police officer. That’s more important to him.

You joined the self-parody club when you did the play Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas. Was that a fun experience?

That was a great experience. It was a play that I didn’t want to do in Los Angeles because I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to do here because we were really poking our finger in the eye of the entertainment industry and the personalities of the people involved. I think sometimes this town has trouble laughing at himself. You can see it during the Golden Globes when Ricky Gervais was the host of the show. That’s what Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas was trying to do. I was playing a character named Matthew Modine who is making fun of the industry. I would’ve preferred to have done it in Chicago or New York City or London even than do it here but that was where the theater was available so that’s where we did it.

Everyone wants to be on Entourage but maybe they don’t want to be the butt of it?

Probably not, yeah. The reason I’m in Los Angeles is to make the film that you mentioned before, The Rocking Horsemen. In addition to Billy Zane, Sean Astin and Eric Stoltz, I have a terrific cast. Miles Heizer from “Parenthood,” Riley Griffiths from Super 8, Jared Gilman from Moonrise Kingdom and Isaac White from The Butler. I met a really wonderful young actor/musician. He might be a musical genius. His name is Ray Goren. He might be the final piece of the Rocking Horsemen band, so I hope to film that next year in Los Angeles and the next time we talk, I’d love to be talking about The Rocking Horsemen.

I hope so. You expect to shoot it in Los Angeles?

Yeah, it’s very difficult because there’s no incentives by the state to film in California which is terrible because this is Hollywood. This is the home of the entertainment industry and the state doesn’t support the people and the industry that live and work here. Regardless, I still hope to make the film here because it takes place in 1962 and I wrote it because it’s kind of autobiographical. I grew up here in California and I wanted to be in a band, so this is my dream.

Have you composed music for it or will you use existing songs?

There’ll be a lot of period songs from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s and hopefully some original music. Belinda Carlisle from The Go-Gos is interested in doing an original song or covering something. Ray Goren, this young musician that I mentioned, he’s a terrific songwriter, as I say, a musical genius. Maybe even Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. He might be one of my musical directors that works with the band to help the boys become a band. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.