Matthew Modine’s film and television career includes a sizeable collection of memorable fare, from “Full Metal Jacket” and “And the Band Played On” to “Birdy” and “Vision Quest” — to his run as the oversexed Sullivan Groff on “Weeds.” But no project stands out more for Modine than the gripping 1990 WWII film, “Memphis Belle,” in which he plays the captain of a B-17 Flying Fortress on its 25th — and last — mission. Next week, the film is making its debut on Blu-Ray — part of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment’s True Stories of WWII collection hitting the marketplace in advance of the 70th anniversary of D-Day June 6. The release has given the well-regarded actor, environmental advocate and avid cyclist occasion to look back on his “Memphis Belle” experience. He recently appeared at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and met with some WWII vets to “pay our respects to those people who understand the true cost of war.” Modine also looks forward to some exciting film and TV action going on in his professional life right now.
Q: When you were making the film, did you feel sometimes as if you were almost channeling those men, going back in time? You bring the era so to life, crowding into small spaces, and all that metal — the analog world.
A: It really did bring us back. Fortunately nine of the members of the Memphis Belle crew were still alive when we came to do the filming. They told us about some of the hardships they faced, the fears that they had. And personally, for me, I was really honored because my uncle (Wylder Modine) was a B-17 pilot. He was the captain of a crew and so, here I was, portraying something that my uncle had done in real life. I went to him to talk about that experience, and he shared some stories, went to his closet and took out his dress uniform. He gave me the jacket and I put it on — and it fit me. So I told him, ‘I’ll wear it in the film.’ And I said, ‘Is there anything that I could do in the film that would be a wink to you, that I did this for you?’ And he said, ‘No, but when you put that uniform on, don’t disrespect it.’ The way that he said it, it had such history and such deep significance that we learned from Tom Brokaw in his book, The Greatest Generation, they were different people. The way they reacted to hardships and challenges is very different from the way people react today.
Q: Where did your uncle serve? Was he in the European Theater?
A: Yes. Yes, he was shot down over France. After he was on a bombing mission, returning he got hit by anti-aircraft fire and almost had his right arm taken off. He had his crew bail out of the plane. His copilot was shot up really badly, he couldn’t parachute, so my uncle with one arm landed the B-17 that was wounded, you know a crippled plane and he landed in a field in France. With one arm he landed the plane and then he was able to get to the hospital, and they saved his arm, and he was an extraordinary man, my uncle.
Q: It sounds as if he should be a movie himself. Is he still with us?
A: No — that generation is almost gone.
Q: It looked like it got pretty uncomfortable to do the film. I know you’re conscientious, and rightly so, about pointing out that your experience was not on the level of what the real-life crew went through, but still you were out there getting wet and cramped and tired. Was it pretty hairy some days?
A: It was. It was a difficult film to make. It’s remarkable, because as big as the plane is, the cockpit is very, very small. When the planes were hit, when they would become crippled, it would be very, very difficult for the captain and copilot to get out of the cockpit, to get out of the plane before it crashed, you know? You had to get your parachute on and there wasn’t much time. A lot of people just died because they couldn’t get out of the plane in time.
Q: And they suffered terrible casualties with the B-17s didn’t they?
A: Yeah, because of the daylight bombing missions. It’s remarkable to think that just a few decades ago there weren’t satellites to guide people. There was no ability to navigate at night time, so the only way to do successful bombing missions was to do it in the daylight.
Q: What stands out as the worst part of filming?
A: It’s a funny thing — as time goes by, the difficulties you experience disappear and all you’re left with is positive memories of the experience. We’ve all remained such good friends; Eric Stoltz and Billy Zane, Sean Astin and Neil Giuntoli, we’ve all remained friends and I’m very, very honored that they put me in that exulted position where they refer to me as Captain.
Q: How did you get into the mindset of these men?
A: You try to approximate what 24 combat missions would have done to a group of young men. They put us through a rigorous boot camp where we had to learn to work together to solve problems and get through some very difficult obstacles. And that process really brought us together as a group and we learned some creative problem-solving.
Q: It sounds like you’re really busy right now — you have this potential new TNT series, “Proof,” and your “Rocking Horsemen” project that you wrote. What’s on the front burner?
A: Well, it’s the reason I came to Los Angeles. One of the things I always wanted to do was be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, so I’m living vicariously through the script about the Rocking Horsemen, these kids who make a rock ‘n’ roll band in 1962.
Q: You’re doing crowd funding, but not with Kickstarter. It sounds interesting. How’s it going?
A: I tried this other organization called Slated. The difference between that and Kickstarter is that the investors in Slated have the opportunity to become participants in the profits of the film. Where, the other crowd funding like Kickstarter, you get rewards. You get your name in the credits if you give enough money. You get a t-shirt, you get a DVD when the DVDs come out.
Q: At the same time, are you going to be doing ‘Proof’ do you know?
A: I’m not sure. We should know soon. I also did this horror film with a wonderful actress named Olivia Williams, called ‘Altar.’ It’s a horror movie like old fashioned horror movies, like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ — not one of these slasher movies with lots of blood and people getting dismembered and things like that. They just submitted it to the Toronto Film Festival, so we’ll see what happens.