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Matthew Modine on Saving the World and Making Hollywood Go Green

If there is one thing more important to Matthew Modine than the next great acting role, it is the future of our planet. A vegan who walks the walk, would never dream of flying private and buys his clothes at vintage stores, he has a lot to say about how we waste resources and endanger the environment. At the recent ORA! Fest in Puglia, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Modine to discuss some tough topics.

Let’s talk about environmentalism and let’s start with Hollywood. How green are movie sets these days, really? Because when you shoot a film, there’s a lot of waste.

Tremendous amount of waste. So, the average movie script is about 110, 115 pages. In the nineties, I went to the William Morris Agency – it’s a very famous talent agency in the United States – and said, “Why don’t we double-side the scripts?” So, 110-page script would become 55 pages. The president of the Motion Picture Department at William Morris at the time was a man named Arnold Rifkin, whom I don’t mind throwing under the bus right now. He said, “What do you mean, double-side a script?” I said, “Well, print on both sides of the page.” He said, “How will people read them?” I said, “The same way you read a book, you turn the page.” And he got really angry, and he threw the script down on the desk. He said, “This is the way scripts have been made since the beginning of the show business, and that’s how they’re going to continue to be made.” And he went back into his office, and he slammed the door, really hard. And I said, “What an asshole.”

And I went to the basement where they print the scripts. And I asked the young people there, “How difficult would it be to get a machine to make double-sided scripts?” And they said, “This machine does it.” And I said, “Okay.” I made a budget. I said, “How many boxes of paper do we use every day, every week, every year? How much does it cost to mail a script that weighs two pounds versus one pound?” Right. Because if it’s 115 pages and it weighs two pounds, now we’re going to cut that in half, it’s going to weigh half as much. And I went to the head of the accounting department, and I gave him my budget and he said, “Let me check your math. I’ll speak to you tomorrow.” I spoke to him the next day, he said, “You get an A+.” He said, “Forget about Arnold Rifkin. We’ll go to the president of the company.” Because the company was going to be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by double-siding the script. And the William Morris office changed overnight.

Did they just see the dollars that they could save or was it, in fact, the trees?

It was about money. But that’s okay. Because as a result of that, the letter was then taken to CAA, and ICM, and then eventually the studios, and literally billions of sheets of paper were saved. It was financial, yes. But the point of the exercise was to save paper. So, it’s wonderful that they made a decision that was financial. Because if we’re going to fix the world, it’s okay if there’s going to be somebody who’s going to profit from making the world more sustainable. We live in a world that thrives on commerce. We don’t live so much in democracies anymore; we live in capitalistic societies. It’s a corporatocracy. C-o-r-p-o-r-a-t-o-c-r-a-c-y. It’s a new word.

What about the actual sets? What can be improved in terms of waste on a movie set?

On another film I was working in Morocco, in a beautiful place called Ouarzazate. It was a biblical story, the Old Testament. I was playing Jacob. Jacob and Esau are the children of Isaac, who’s the son of Abraham. So, we were filming in the desert and the crew were throwing away bottles after they drink the water, and the desert was littered with plastic bottles. So, I told the producers, I said, “Why are we filming in Morocco?” And they said, “Are you crazy? It’s beautiful. Look at it.” I said, “I know. But look. Everywhere we go, we’re leaving garbage everywhere.” And they said, “Fucking American actors.” So, they hired a Moroccan boy to pick up the plastic bottles. And I came to work the next day, I see a big black cloud. The boy was burning them. Because plastic in Morocco to those children was something that was kind of alien. The children and the people of Morocco drink water from the well, or they collect water from the fountain.

So, I said, “Okay, I have to find a solution to this problem.” I went to the mayor of Ouarzazate and I told him when I was a boy, I used to collect the bottles and take them to the store and get the money on them, and that kept the roads clean. I said, “Here’s the good story: because the only people purchasing water in this little town, Ouarzazate, are tourists, they’re not going to go back and get the five cents for the small bottle or the 10 cents for the big bottle. They’re going to leave five cents and 10 cents more in your community. Then you have now the little boys who can go around and collect the bottles and get the money and use the money for whatever they want.” He said, “Amazing.” And together we implemented a deposit system and a recycling system in Morocco that is there today. And the plastic problem is not so bad in Morocco.

This is how you face the situation. How many other people are there in Hollywood who speak and do what you do?

I can only be responsible for my own behavior. I can try to help to influence people and to give them guidance or advice. But this expression from Full Metal Jacket, “You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?” So, if you’re going to talk about environmentalism, it’s very important that you live it. You can’t just talk it. Otherwise … I love Harrison Ford. I love his movies and I think he’s a terrific person. But it disturbs me to hear somebody talk about environmentalism and then come to the Cannes Film Festival in a private jet or to have small airplanes and that’s your hobby, flying around in small planes. I think the young people that are here and the audience today, the young people that are here, we owe you. We have a responsibility to you that the world that you are going to inherit be sustainable.

But how do you change the corporate thinking, the way products are marketed to consumers?

It’s difficult to know who’s telling the truth when there are so many people lying. Since the 1970s, they’ve known that burning fossil fuels was compromising the climate – since the 1970s. For many years, they knew that smoking cigarettes was contributing to cancer. The people that own the oil companies, the people that own the tobacco companies, paid money to scientists and doctors to lie to people and say that “Smoking, maybe it’s not going to give you cancer. And we’re not sure that climate change could happen from burning fossil fuels.” There was a really famous man, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, named Edward Bernays. And he said, “You don’t have to prove that cigarettes are not causing cancer and you don’t have to prove that burning fossil fuels is not contributing to climate change. You just have to create doubt, because human beings will want to continue to smoke and they’ll want to continue to burn fossil fuels, because they’ll say, ‘We’re not sure.’” To the young people in the audience, there is no question that smoking tobacco contributes to cancer. There is no doubt that burning fossil fuels is compromising the climate. There is no doubt. But the people who own those oil companies and the people who manufacture the cigarettes and the vape that people smoke now, the vape, are making billions of dollars from telling you, “We’re not sure.”

What was the start of your environmental activism? What woke you up personally?

I live in the western part of the United States. I grew up in Utah and in California, two of the states with the fastest growing human population, maybe in the world at that time in the ’70s. What I was witnessing was the disappearance of land, that they were tearing the farms down. They were tearing the trees down, the cherry trees, the apple trees, the pear trees. In California, where my father’s drive-in was, it was surrounded by tomatoes and cantaloupe and watermelons, and everything was being destroyed to build shopping centers, to build homes. I felt as a little boy, the earth couldn’t breathe, that it was being covered with so much stuff. The earth, I don’t know why, was something that was a living organism to me that provided us with food, and it was shocking to me. Then in San Diego, Imperial Beach, I was surfing and so I was seeing the effects of industrial and human waste in the ocean and what effect it was having on all the animals in the ocean.

You produced a number of shorts with this topic in the past few years – Heaven on Earth was shown here at the festival – and a documentary. How much does your fame help with getting the message out?


I don’t think I’m using my fame.

You do. In a good way.

I would be doing it even if I wasn’t Matthew Modine. But I’m able to reach more people. And I’m able to be invited to the Puglia Film Festival, at an environmental and social justice film festival, to share these ideas. And I’m grateful to have this platform to be able to do it.  My brother Maury, I was watching the news and I saw him being arrested where they were testing nuclear bombs in Nevada. And the news reporter put the microphone in front of my brother’s face and said, “Why are you doing this?”  And my brother said maybe the simplest sentence against nuclear testing I’ve ever heard, “We know they work. Why did they have to test them?”  So, as my grandmother said, “If you don’t know what to do, be kind.”

And the world that I came into, that my wife came into, was something that was beautiful and sustainable in a way that … It was interesting. When I began this journey, you see at the end, we have seven billion people. In the time that I’ve made this documentary, we’re at eight billion people. And by 2050, we’re going to have 10 billion people. Imagine that. Just imagine that. Try to see a billion people and now try to imagine three more billion people on the planet by the time you’re 20 years old. 2050, yeah. This is what I know, the resources of our planet are finite, they are not infinite. That we cannot continue to consume the earth’s resources and creating waste at the rate that we are. We have to change our behavior, and we have to do it today.