n the short film I Think I Thought, actor-writer-director-producer Matthew Modine portrays Joe, a seemingly average guy who harbors a troubling addiction. The seven-minute ironic fable is based on a joke someone once told Modine about a man with a "thinking problem." The story is spare on dialogue, unfolding almost like an early silent film, enhanced by a contemporary musical score composed by jazz artist Ben Wolfe.
Filmed in New York, I Think I Thought played at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Then it was released May 13 on iTunes, in a package with another Modine short, the controversially titled (but highly patriotic) To Kill an American.
Modine, who recently completed an arc as Mary-Louise Parker's boss on the Showtime hit Weeds and has appeared in such films as Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, financed these shorts himself. He made them, in fact, for very little money—using digital video technology and the collaborative contributions of friends and family. For To Kill, for instance, Modine's son recruited New Yorkers in Washington Square Park to talk on camera about their diverse heritages. (The film's premise is that any terrorist would have difficulty identifying an American based on a particular race, ethnicity, or creed.)
I Think I Thought was shot in what amounted to two days, although the 48 hours were spread over a much longer time span. Modine decided to play the leading role, "just because it makes it easier than finding another actor who wants to work those crazy hours." The small supporting cast included lesser-known actors hoping to gain film experience.
The unobtrusiveness afforded by digital filmmaking allowed the cast and crew to shoot during working hours inside a hedge-fund office on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "We came in and very quietly said, 'We're going to put the camera down—nobody will be bothered by us. Just continue to work.' So everybody in the shot was actually trading and going about their business." Had the film been made using a traditional camera, heavy, blazing lights would have been needed, says Modine, and the crew would have numbered at least 15. "I make films the way I think Orson Welles would have loved to make films," Modine explains. "He would be like a pig in poop right now, to say, 'Let's go film, just at this hour, where the sun is just going past the Statue of Liberty and the protagonist runs out and stabs a person and then runs away off into the distance.' He could film that and not have to spend all the time getting all the trucks there. What on a traditional feature film might cost $50,000, he could now go out with three or four people and the actors and the camera and capture for 500 bucks. That's very exciting!"
Earlier shorts Modine made were shot on 16mm film. He saw I Think I Thought principally as a chance to experiment with new technology. He thinks of digital as a drastically different medium from 16mm or 35mm film—and believes it necessitates a new sort of storytelling. He believes that the transition from traditional film stock to high-definition digital presents a challenge comparable to earlier filmmakers' switch from black-and-white to color. For one thing, the starkness of digital catches a performer in the act of "acting" every time. "I'll be acting with you in a scene," he explains, "and then I'll watch the film, and I'll go, 'Oh my God, I never saw that emotion in you!' It was something that the film captured. But if I watch a digital film, the only thing I see is what is there on the hard surface. Nothing magical is going to happen with HD."
Currently, Modine has ambitions to direct two features set in the past: One is about pioneers in Kansas, the other about a kids' rock band in 1963. If he finds he must shoot them on digital to get them made, he knows he will miss the romantic softness of traditionally shot period films. But perhaps an intriguing perspective might result when figures from the past are presented in such stark fashion. Modine is open to doing test shots to see what might be gained: "The idea of shooting either one of these films on digital is kind of horrifying to me, but it could be incredible."
One ingredient that helped tell the story of I Think I Thought was its lively, cosmopolitan musical score. Modine met musician Wolfe through actor-singer Harry Connick Jr., with whom Modine acted in the 1990 film Memphis Belle. "I lie back a little bit in my storytelling," he notes. "I try to draw you in. It's like a yin-and-yang thing: While I'm lying back, [Wolfe] is pushing the story forward with music."
The first short Modine wrote, directed, and produced was 1993's When I Was a Boy, which was based on a prose poem and grew out of an argument he had with director Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children). Modine insisted the essential ingredients for filmmaking were "a good story, good actors to tell the story, and an understanding of the motion-picture camera in order to tell that story." Field, conversely, believed that additional embellishments were needed. Modine seems to have won the argument: "For kicks and shits and giggles, I submitted it to Sundance, and it got accepted, and from Sundance it went to New Directors/New Films at the Museum of Modern Art. So it had an incredible life."
Modine's second short was 1994's Smoking, based on a David Sedaris story, as adapted by Ira Glass for National Public Radio. Sedaris, who was transitioning from his house-cleaning career to that of full-time writer, viewed When I Was a Boy and gave Modine the go-ahead. Modine made a third short, Ece Pirate, in 1997.
So far, Modine has directed only one feature, If…Dog…Rabbit (1999), which he also wrote and starred in. A tale of an ex-con drawn into a heist scheme, the film was not an altogether positive undertaking. "It was the first experience I had where I wasn't in control of the film that I was making," Modine says, noting that he refused to take a producing credit on the project because people who had never been to a script reading or set foot on the set had requested and received such a credit.
The next feature Modine hopes to make is the aforementioned pioneer project, Crossing Kansas, which concerns a family that encounters young Native Americans who go on a "wilding" out of feelings of helplessness about losing their homeland. But Modine notes that he does not view I Think I Thought as a calling card to flash in order to get funding for feature projects. He clearly has respect for the short film as a distinct artistic entity—something entirely removed from the world of features.
Crossing Kansas is largely inspired by the memory of Modine's beloved grandmother—and by his remembrance of other older ancestors—whose dreams, he feels, somehow inhabit his psyche. The need to create, for Modine, has always operated on an existential plane, above the world of commerce. "For me," he maintains, "the journey has never been about fame and acquisition. It's been about having the opportunity to live."