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Q&A: Matthew Modine Talks His First Horror Experience in “ALTAR”

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In his long career, Matthew Modine has starred in practically every kind of movie—but ALTAR, in which he plays a father falling under the evil influence of his family’s new home, is the actor’s first horror feature. FANGORIA got a chance to query him about the film, just out on DVD and digital from Cinedigm and Great Point Media.

ALTAR (released in its native Britain as THE HAUNTING OF RADCLIFFE HOUSE) casts Modine and THE SIXTH SENSE’s Olivia Williams as Alec and Meg, a married couple who move with their children into an estate out in the lonely countryside, and soon become afflicted by the place’s unhealthy history. An artist, Alec accidentally spills a bit of his blood in the house, and becomes obsessed with incorporating the red stuff into his work, among other strange behavior. The movie was written and directed by Nick Willing, whose varied résumé includes forays into both big-screen thrills (CLOSE YOUR EYES, THE RIVER KING) and TV fantasy (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, two different adaptations of ALICE IN WONDERLAND), and who was one of the key reasons for Modine to make this his maiden voyage into fear…

FANGORIA: As this is your first supernatural thriller/horror film, what inspired you to take part in this particular project?

ALTARMODINE1MATTHEW MODINE: The first thing that was appealing to me was Nick Willing and his résumé—he’s made some wonderful films. Also Olivia Williams, who’s my wife in the film and a terrific actress. When they offered me the project, they were the first two things. Then when I read the script, I thought it was… The thing about horror films is, we say it’s the same meat and potatoes, it’s just a different gravy, you know? These stories are repeated over and over again, so when I say “the gravy,” that’s the people involved, and how we can do it differently—how we can take a story that’s been told innumerable times and make it interesting and relevant for a contemporary audience.

FANG: Can you talk about how you did that with ALTAR?

MODINE: Well, the movie is certainly similar to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, in that it’s about a family who comes to this building, and upon arrival, the father becomes possessed by the spirit dwelling there. So how do we make it different from what happens at the Overlook Hotel? I don’t know if I want to go into specifics, other than the simple fact that Olivia’s not Shelley Duvall, I’m not Jack Nicholson and Nick Willing’s not Stanley Kubrick, so it’s going to be distinctive just from the fact that you have three different people approaching the material.

Nick Willing is a very particular kind of personality; he’s very different from any director I’ve ever worked with. His approach to the material was quite fresh, and we were using technology that was new to me, with multiple cameras. Normally, in most films there’s a master shot, medium shot, close-up, close-up; that’s traditional film coverage. And he pointed out to me that he never went back to a shot; every time there’s a cut in ALTAR, it never returns to a previous angle, because he said that what that does is create a very unsettling feeling in the viewer, since you don’t know whose perspective, whose point of view, you’re seeing. And it works—it does become unsettling in a subconscious way. He used what’s called a Blackmagic 5K camera, and he had several of them positioned and stationed around the set—sometimes right in a shot, and you can’t see them—capturing information so that he could edit the movie that way—never going back to a master, never going back to the same shot.

FANG: What went into adopting Alec’s mindset when he’s in possessed mode?

MODINE: You know, the interesting thing about good and evil is that it’s like walking on a knife edge through life. You always have the possibility of being a really good person, or going over that knife edge and becoming someone evil. We’re faced with that possibility every day, like when we’re driving an automobile; for all intents and purposes, it could become a murder weapon. Out of frustration, we could drive up on a sidewalk and kill pedestrians, or just decide we want to end our life and flip our car over on the freeway and see how many other people we could take out with us. So you realize that we always have that possibility within us, and thankfully, the larger part of our global population chooses to cooperate with one another. There are just a few people who choose to cause that kind of pain and suffering. In some ways, horror movies show us an example of what not to be in life, you know what I mean? Not necessarily this film, but when we see people behaving badly, it helps us as a collective society, as a collective consciousness, to say, “That is inappropriate behavior; I don’t want to be a part of that.”

FANG: Can you talk a bit about the creepy locations where you shot ALTAR?

MODINE: Yeah, we went out into the moors of England, which is always kind of creepy and weird and beautiful at the same time. We filmed in one of those old, gorgeous, crumbling, dilapidated estates, and like THE SHINING with the Overlook Hotel, every scene was in or around that home, and that contributed a lot to the atmosphere of the filmmaking.

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FANG: People who have made movies like this on location have often talked of scary occurrences during production; did anything like that happen on ALTAR?

MODINE: Yes, there were odd times when doors would eerily open or slam shut, and they didn’t seem random; they seemed to be commenting on what was taking place while we were shooting.

FANG: I wanted to ask briefly about your experiences with Abel Ferrara, since you’ve done a few films with him.

MODINE: I’ve worked three times with Abel; we did GO GO TALES, MARY with Juliette Binoche and THE BLACKOUT with Dennis Hopper. Abel is a great artist; he’s a true independent filmmaker, and having done a few of his movies, it’s always interesting to go back. Sometimes they can be very difficult, but even if you don’t appreciate the totality of his films, there’s always something in them that is so fresh and challenging and different from the typical filmmaker. It’s truly Abel’s vision, so either you’re interested in what he’s doing as a filmmaker or you’re not. I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and I think it has helped me grow as an actor, because he demands so much from you. You really have to know who your character is and what your desires and needs are in every scene you do, or you’re lost. You have to come very, very prepared when you work on an Abel Ferrara film.

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About the author
Michael Gingold

Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.

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