Two weeks after Matthew Modine‘s most recent short film, “I Think I Thought,” made its North American premiere at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, the actor/writer/director spoke to indieWIRE about his decade-and-half-long career making shorts. Having embarked on his first short film endeavor while acting in Robert Altman‘s “Short Cuts,” Modine continues to make shorts that not only speak to ideas he’s passionate about but also are extremely entertaining. With “I Think I Thought” being released on iTunes later this month, “To Kill an American” on Metacafe, and “Cowboy” set to play CineVegas next month, Modine’s career as a short filmmaker is taking center stage. Here, in his own words, Matthew Modine reveals what inspires him to pick up a camera and make short films.
On his current film and his first one
“I Think I Thought” (2007) is an experimental film. My friend and producing partner, Adam McClelland, and I decided we would experiment with HD filmmaking. I wrote a short piece that is a reflection of this period of time we’re living in, and the unattractive nature of thinking. Thinking doesn’t seem to be something we’re doing a lot of. It’s a difficult thing for me to define, but I think I captured irony in the film.
What we wanted to do was try to see how few elements we could make a film with. We were able to get into a hedge fund office on the Upper West Side, and we went in without disturbing them because the beauty of HD is you don’t need lights or cables or anything like that — it’s just a tripod, a camera, and a lavaliere microphone. And this is what brought me back to the very first film that I made, “When I Was a Boy” (1993), with a friend of mine named Todd Field.
I was working on Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” and I had a rented a house at the beach. I had a friend of mine from acting school staying with me. We were talking about how film production was changing now that there were film stocks that didn’t require tremendous amounts of light and because 35 MM cameras had become so mobile. “I Think I Thought” was sort of the same circumstances as “When I Was a Boy,” the idea of “Let’s make a film today!”
On “Smoking” (1994)
I was driving in my car and I heard David Sedaris on National Public Radio reading a passage from his diary. I went to meet David, who was cleaning apartments for a living to subsidize his writing. He saw “When I Was a Boy” and agreed that “Smoking” could be an interesting short film. Not wanting to deviate from the radio program, I used the original piece produced by Ira Glass.
On “Ecce Pirate” (1997)
I was doing a pirate film in Malta, quite an expensive pirate movie. And I was doing a publicity interview with someone who had seen my two earlier short films at the Sundance Film Festival and asked me if I had a new one that I was working on. I started bullshitting about how I was going to make a short while I was on this film, a story about a boy who gets kidnapped, is taken aboard a pirate ship, and learns to accept things that are beyond his power. The reporter said, “Wow, that sounds fantastic.” When I hung up the phone, I thought, “You know what, it does sound like a really fantastic film.” I had a bunch of 16 MM film with me, certainly enough to shoot a 15-20 minute short film. So I wrote the screenplay and filmed it. And I think it’s my favorite short film I’ve made.
On “Cowboy” (2006) and “To Kill an American” (2006)
I did those two films back-to-back. “Cowboy” is just a joke, a cowboy goes into a bar — and that’s it. “To Kill An American” is based on a song that Paul Robeson sang during the Second World War. I went into Washington Square Park with a U-Hall Truck in which I had made a portable studio in the back. My son, who was seventeen at the time, helped me do this; he said he got to do something that he’s always wanted to do, which was to go up to people and say, “You want to be in a movie?” I gave people the script and said, “Here’s what I want you to do: pick out something that you feel really strongly about, something that touches you emotionally.”
On his recent public service short
There’s another short film that I made recently for the World Economic Forum — it’s called “Bicycle for a Day” (2008). I was approached by Young Global Leaders, who asked if there was one thing that I could to do reduce global warming, what would I do? I said why don’t we try to get the whole world to ride a bicycle for a day — so I made that short film. It’s on bicycleforaday.com
His advice for other short filmmakers
Short films are very special. I love making short films, and I love watching them.
I’m always surprised when I see shorts that have “movie credits” on them — so many people involved! Keep it simple.