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Exclusive: Making the Band... with Matthew Modine

Matthew-Modine-in-scarf "Have you ever gotten in front of people and sang? It’s the closest you'll get to getting up in front of people and taking your clothes off and standing there naked." This daunting nugget of advice (or extreme caution) comes courtesy of Matthew Modine, the actor/writer/director/self-deprecating conservationist -- and a recent Back Stage client.

Before the New Year, Back Stage published a casting notice for The Rocking Horsemen, a new feature film about four high-school boys starting a rock band in the early 1960s. The film's director is none other than Mr. Modine, an actor whose distinguished and varied filmography includes such cult favorites as Vision Quest and Married to the Mob, undisputed modern classics like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Robert Altman's Short Cuts, and more recent performances as businessmen of questionable integrity on Showtime's Weeds and HBO's upcoming feature about the financial meltdown, Too Big To Fail.

Modine told us more about The Rocking Horsemen and his grassroots casting process, and he even invited Blog Stage to come check out his open call auditions in New York City. Read on for more about Modine's film and see exclusive video from the auditions, including thoughts from some Back Stage readers who came out for the call.

Rocking horsemen

"It's a film that I've wanted to make for a few years," Modine says of The Rocking Horsemen, which marks the prolific short filmmaker's first return to feature-length directing since 1999's One Last Score. "The inspiration for me was simply because I wanted to be in a band when I was in junior high school," he adds. "My brothers played guitar, so I had access to their musical instruments. Music is such a powerful art form, and I guess I recognized that as a young person and wanted to be a part of that."

The fact that the film is set in the actor-director's own boyhood years -- specifically those just before the "British Invasion," heralded by the likes of such musical acts as the Beatles and the Zombies -- is not just a nostalgic conceit. "It was the beginning of the Civil Rights Era and we were just about to go into the Vietnam War," Modine says. "It's an amazing time in American history, where music was really instrumental in changing the psychology of a generation or two generations of people. So many people thought that rock n' roll music was something that was a passing fancy." (He points to the recent digital resurgence of the Beatles’ back catalogue as proof that the music of the era is as vital as ever.)

"The ultimate goal, the home run, is to create a band," Modine says, reiterating why he specifically called for actor-musicians in his casting notice (along with the band's inevitable entourage of young lady friends). With music playing such a vital role in the project, authenticity and ability are crucial ingredients the filmmaker is not willing to sacrifice. "What you see over the course of the film is how their lives are changed by mastering an art form, mastering a skill that transforms their lives, one that gives them a sense of confidence that they didn’t have before. It gives them the ability to express themselves in a way that they didn’t before."

Ventures_knockf When asked if there are any bands in particular that served as the inspiration for the film's fictional quartet, Modine immediately singles out 1960s surf-rock royalty The Ventures and their classic track "Pipeline," noting that the simple three-chord progression was the song everyone wanted to master on their guitar when he was growing up. (Check out a clip of the Ventures shredding it below.)

So why exactly would an actor of Modine's caliber and reputation -- no stranger to New York casting heavyweights -- take such a democratic approach when it came time to find his Horsemen?

"The reason I wanted to do an ad in Back Stage was to give young artists an opportunity that I wish that I could have had when I moved to New York as a young actor," the California native confesses. Returning again to the requisite confidence of musicians, Modine draws a parallel to his own experiences as a young performer just beginning to navigate his fledgling career.

"The auditioning process is one of the most crucial aspects of learning to be confident as an actor, you know, to have the courage to submit, to go in the room and say, 'Hey, I'm alive, here I am, and I want to be an actor.' I appreciate those people and their courage to take those steps because it's not an easy thing. I moved to New York City 30 years ago with just that wish and desire in my own heart, and I remember vividly the people who gave me a hand up and encouraged me in those early days."

Below is the Back Stage casting notice seeking teen actor-musicians for The Rocking Horsemen:


New York Film Academy is casting The Rocking Horsemen, a feature film following four 1960s-era teenage boys along their funny and difficult journey to making their own rock band, their lives changed for the better by learning to play the instruments they love. Friendship, love, heartbreak, and the pain of growing up are the eternal themes of the film. Matthew Modine, writer-dir. Shoots April 2011.

Seeking—Candoo: 17-18, must have musical background, guitar or bass, some vocals, LEAD; Cephas: 17-18, must have musical background, guitar or bass, some vocals, LEAD; Amassa: 17-18, must have musical background, guitar or bass, LEAD; Octo: 17-18, must have musical background, drums, percussion, LEAD; Mark Alexander: 14-17, must have musical background, piano, keyboards; Marcia Alexander: 16-18; Suzy: 16-18; Nancy Startin: 17-18. Producer states: "The charismatic boys from the Rocking Horsemen Band are charming, funny, and goofy, similar to the Beatles in Richard Lester's Help!. We see the charm and innocence of youth of George Lucas' classic American Graffiti. When the boys play at their high school graduation we feel the romance, nostalgia, and the emotional gravity of the Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso." Note: The ages given are the ages of the characters. Actors or actresses that may be older but can play younger are welcome to audition but they must be believable as teenagers/high school students.

Several young Back Stage readers were only too happy to take advantage of such an opportunity, though more than one went into the auditions unsure if their potential director was indeed the same person they were thinking of. "To be honest, I was a little skeptical at first, because I was like, 'Why is [Matthew Modine] coming down to audition no-names?' But I thought maybe in some realm this could potentially be a real audition, so I decided to take a chance and come down," admitted Claire Duncan, who first saw the casting notice on Backstage.com.

Watch the video below for an inside look at the open call, which was held on Dec. 15, 2010 at the New York Film Academy in NYC:

The Rocking Horsemen crew has also created a Facebook page to keep in touch with everyone who attended the auditions and keep those performers in the loop with updates on the film's progress. Such transparency is vital to Modine, who feels that keeping an open dialogue is a way of honoring the time and effort the actors took to come out and screen test with him.

"I think that what's really important," he says, "is to meet as many young people who are interested in performing in the film and keep searching until I find the right combination of four guys." Then he adds, "There are three films that I want to make, so maybe I’ll find someone who’s right for that."

As this was only the first round of open calls, keep an eye out future Rocking Horsemen notices in the pages of Back Stage, and be sure to visit the film's Facebook page to learn all about what Modine and company have in the pipeline.

Take it away, guys…

-- Jesse Landberg

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