FULL METAL JACKET
This is our article about the 30th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s war movie. There are many like it, but this one is ours.
BREAK OUT THE Full Metal Cake and get ready to blow out the Full Metal Candles — Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, has just turned 30. One of the greatest and most profound “war is hell” movies in cinema history, it also launched the careers of two of its stars — Matthew Modine, as the raw and idealistic Private Joker, and Vincent D’onofrio, tragic and terrifying as the bullied Private Pyle. Here the duo, who knew each other before filming began, reflect on the movie, working with Kubrick, and nearly walking off set. Do you remember how you got the roles? Matthew Modine: I was in a restaurant called The Source on Sunset Boulevard having breakfast with an actor, David Alan Grier, and there was a guy sitting about ten feet away, looking at me saying, “Fuck you, fuck you.” David looked over his shoulder and said, “Oh, that’s Val Kilmer, he’s a really nice guy.” So David went over and started talking to him and he got me to come over and say hello. I said, “Hi, my name’s Matthew Modine.” And he goes, “Yeah, I know who you are. I’m fucking sick of you.” I said, “Look, I’m the youngest of seven kids, I’ve been fighting my whole life; I have no problem going outside if you want to go outside.” He said, “I am sick of you because you got Vision
Quest, Mrs. Soffel and Birdy, and now you’re doing Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.” I said, “I am not going to apologise to you or anyone for the work that I’ve done. But I can tell you right now I am not doing Stanley Kubrick’s film.” Of course, when I finished my breakfast, I rushed outside and put 20 quarters into a payphone to call my manager in New York and asked him to send Vision Quest to Stanley Kubrick, and I’d call Alan Parker in London to see if he could send him Birdy. How I got the job I still don’t know, but Val Kilmer certainly started a fire. Vincent D’onofrio: The first time I heard about Full Metal Jacket was because of Matthew, and then, of course, Stanley cast me in the role. I’ve said this to Matthew before and he just brushes it off, but there is a very, very good chance I wouldn’t have my career if it wasn’t for those two guys.
Modine: I brush it off because you can open the door for anybody but it’s the person who walks into the room who gets the job. So I am very happy and honoured that I opened the door, but Vince owns his career.
Full Metal Jacket was the film that started this whole thing of actors going through boot camp. What are your memories of that? D’onofrio: It’s not the same boot camp you hear about these days where guys go through rigorous amounts of physical stuff. Our boot camp was learning all the things you need to know to look like a Marine. For me, it was learning how to march and putting on weight at the same time, learning how to do Monkey Patrol with the rifles, learning how to take a rifle apart and put it back together blindfolded. There are very specific things about the Marine Corps we had to follow. All of that stuff, when it came to etiquette, and how we behaved, we were taught all that by Lee Ermey. What are the R. Lee Ermey insults you remember? Modine: [Shouts] “I BET YOU’RE THE KIND OF GUY THAT WOULD FUCK A PERSON IN THE ASS AND NOT EVEN HAVE THE GODDAMN COMMON COURTESY TO GIVE HIM A REACH-AROUND!” D’onofrio: [Laughs] That’s one. There are so many. The shouting was fine when Lee hadn’t just finished lunch. There were certain days when he’d just drink coffee. If you lend yourself to it, it’s really happening. He was amazing in those scenes. What are your most vivid memories of Kubrick?
Modine: I think Stanley was a different person to each one of us. He was whoever he had to be in that moment, from a technician to an actor and then the different personalities from actor to actor. He was a different person to Vincent than he was to me because there were different requirements. What I took away from
Stanley was that he was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who loved making movies. He was passionate about life, loved his family and his animals, and really, really loved making movies. I believe he wished he’d made more of them.
D’onofrio: Stanley was very kind to me. He was never nasty to me about anything. I didn’t
get to know him very well. He invited us over to his house to watch movies. We watched The
Purple Rose Of Cairo over there. He had these two big projectors and he would change the reels himself. He opened the fridge up and we had these grenade-sized Heinekens we used to drink. He also told me some really personal things, about me and what my career might turn into, that I would never repeat but stuck with me my whole life. I was shocked when he did that. To be frank, there is one particular thing he said to me that absolutely is true about what has happened to my life. He pegged my career in one sentence to me. I looked at him like he was out of his fucking mind. I look back at it today as a 58-year-old man and the long career I’ve had because of him. And he nailed it perfectly in one sentence. For me, I was blessed to be there and I was treated really well.
What was your experience with Kubrick’s endless takes?
Modine: All that preparation he did was all he needed in order to be able to tell a story. There was one story he told about people talking about the number of takes he does — as if it mattered. He said you would never go to Beethoven and say, “Hey, Beethoven, how many notes in that concerto?” Or to Picasso, “How many strokes in that?” He said it was just absurd. The process of making a film is the same kind of exploration into art as a musician or a painter. So why should you consider the number of takes important? What’s important is you’ve found the one you needed in order to tell your story.
D’onofrio: I never had any problem with it. In the boot camp stuff, there was not one time we did anything different from any other movie. The blanket party scene I did somewhere around nine times and that’s normal for a scene like that. It was a long, difficult shot. Did I want to do it nine times? No. But actors are fucking lazy by nature, they never want to do things too much.
Modine: One more thing about the number of takes. When we finished the film, Arliss Howard [who played Private Cowboy] told me he was saying goodbye to Stanley and Stanley asked, “You are going to miss me?” Arliss said, “Of course, I am going to miss you.” And Stanley said, “No. You are going to miss me when you are on another film set because you are going to be doing a scene and the director is going to say, ‘Cut, we got it, let’s move on.’ And you are going to know we didn’t get it and we shouldn’t be moving on and you are going to miss me.”
Matthew, is it true that he didn’t let you leave for the birth of your first son?
Modine: No, he did let me go but it took some convincing. It took me threatening to cut my hand and say that I would have to go to the hospital to have my hand stitched up. I think what it was, I started on the wrong foot by saying, “I am not filming today. You are shooting the scene where Eightball [Dorian Harewood] is shot by the sniper and I won’t work today.” That was a bad approach: I was accusing him of doing a lot of takes and being slow. He was like, “What are you talking about? We’re going to shoot Dorian and then we’ll be onto you in the afternoon.”
D’onofrio: Or four months later… Modine: So I started off on the wrong foot. My wife and I named our son Boman about five years before he was born. We were joking and said, “We’ll have children and when it’s a boy we’ll call him Boy and when he’s older we’ll call him Man. And as a teenager we’ll call him Boman.” We thought it sounded like a baseball pitcher.
[Does announcer’s voice] “Now pitching for the New York Yankees — Boman Modine!” But what never occurred to me was Keir Dullea’s character in 2001: A Space Odyssey was Bowman. So I think he thought we were naming our son after Keir Dullea.
What are your memories of living in London during the shoot?
Modine: How bad the food was. It was explained to me by Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali that England was still paying for World War II. It didn’t make sense that you couldn’t get good fruit and veg in England with all that grain and good soil. You’d go to buy carrots at the veg shop and they were like a 90-year-old man’s erection. D’onofrio: At least they were erect.
What does the film mean to you now?
D’onofrio: I’ve only seen it twice. I saw it when it first came out and then we had to do this commentary thing where you talk through the film. It’s just an incredible comment on war and the human psyche. I think it’s amazing. The reaction I get for the character I played is never-ending. There’s not a man or a woman who recognises me for that film who has been in the military who can’t help themselves but stop and say something about it. That’s been happening for 30 years. So whenever anybody asks me what my favourite film is, many things go through my mind but I can’t help but say Full Metal Jacket because of the experience I had.
Modine: People have expectations about Stanley Kubrick that are unrealistic when they first see his films. I think this film continues to have relevance because we continue to teach young people to go through military training and then go out and kill people. It is something very primordial and sadly necessary to vanquish people who want to kill us. I think Stanley Kubrick was saying if we continue to use violence to solve our problems, we’ll be riding that bomb like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, destroying life as we know it on this planet. We have to learn from the mistakes of our past if we’re going to move forward as a conscious society that’s achieving the goals of civilisation as we desire.
Far left: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) unleashes hell over a jelly doughnut.
Left: The Marines under fire in Vietnam (actually the Isle Of Dogs in East London).
Born to drill: Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and Private Pyle (Vincent D’onofrio) on the parade ground.
Right: Stanley Kubrick calls the shots on the often freezing London set of Full Metal Jacket.
Below (top to
bottom): Private Pyle has his famous breakdown in the showers; Private Joker has a close shave.