Matthew Modine's Madeleine Moment

Text and captions by Matthew Modine
Photos by Matteo Prandoni and Kiyoshi Tatsukawa

My wife Cari and I pretending we are in a car, watching a movie (photo by Kiyoshi Tatsukawa)

My father was a drive-in theater manager, and when I was growing up, we used to spend a lot of time in the snack bar. There was nothing more exotic than the smell of fresh popcorn being popped. We'd use palm oil and salt and some kind of artificial butter, and mix that together with the corn kernels, and then this big machine would stir and stir those things. As they were getting ready to pop, you could smell the kernels of corn, and then when it began to pop it turned into a completely different, almost erotic smell of corn, and smoke, and burnt butter, and burnt oil. There was nothing more delicious than the taste of those kernels just coming out of the kettle. Throw some salt on it and then go sit down on the ground at my dad’s drive-in. We would bring a little towel, and put the towel down on the ground, and take a speaker and put it on the ground and watch these great American movies that used to play at my father’s drive-in.

Shot of the marquee - very famous when it went up (now in a trash heap I suppose) of the UTE drive-in in Midvale, Utah.

I was born in Loma Linda, California, and the theater that we had in Loma Linda was called The Cherry Pass. The Cherry Pass was special because it was surrounded by cherry trees. And then we moved to Imperial Beach, California next to Tijuana, and that drive-in was called the South Bay Drive-In, and it was surrounded by melons, cantaloupes, watermelons, and tomatoes. My whole childhood is sort of tied to these smells of plants, and trees, and the fruits that came from them. Then we moved to Utah, we had—for the first time we had a theater, and it was in that theater that I met Robert Redford when he was passing through town doing publicity for a movie he had made with Jane Fonda called Barefoot in the Park. And that was where I got into the candy room.

A shot of a 4 year old me at the South Bay drive-in in Imperial Beach, California.

I had figured out a way to get into the stock room where they kept all the candies. There is something about the smell of all those different candies, and the cardboard boxes they were in, that is a whole other kind of sensual experience. I got into one of those boxes and ate maybe one or two boxes of Junior Mints, and to this day I can’t stand chocolate with mint because it made me really sick eating that much chocolate and mints.

At the Dean & DeLuca dinner honoring Francis Ford Coppola, Tribeca Film Festival, April 2016

And then we moved to southern Utah, to a little town called Orem, and the Geneva Drive-In named after Geneva Steel, the steel mill that was there on Lake Utah. And that drive-in was surrounded by apple trees and pear trees. But that popcorn, that smell, stays with you, it was a constant, it was at all of these places, all of these theaters, all of these drive-ins, that smell of popcorn. It was one reassuring thing that you could have in your life moving from one place to another, that you knew when you went into the snack bar that there would be that one thing that was familiar to you, and it was that smell of popcorn. It takes me back to my father.

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