This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“What’s your name?” Matthew Modine asks his director of two feature films between bites of an English muffin. The director in question is none other than Academy Nicholl Fellow R.J. Daniel Hanna, who laughs at his actor's joke and answers “Daniel,” all eyes returning to Modine.
It’s Saturday morning and we’re seated at The Four Seasons on the eve of Chicago International Film Festival’s closing night.
Modine (Stranger Things, Oppenheimer) and Daniel, along with Producer Christian Sander, are here to celebrate the success of their CIFF selection, Hard Miles. The drama follows the true story of social worker Greg Townsend (Modine), who led a group of incarcerated students from a Colorado correctional school on a 1,000-mile cycling trip to the Grand Canyon.
Modine recalls how he enjoyed working with Hanna on their 2019 film Miss Virginia and was excited to read the script for Hard Miles when the director approached him to join this project.
“I would say 90% of the movies that get made every year we’ve seen before,” Modine says when asked what drew him to the production. “And this man’s journey, I’ve never seen that on film before. So for me, it was a completely original script.”
Sander says decades of stories and articles surrounding Greg Townsend offered substantial material to pull from throughout the filmmaking process.
Many of the memorable moments the real Greg Townsend shared with the Hard Miles team were collapsed into different characters in the film, Hanna explains.
Modine goes on to express the importance of Townsend in molding the other characters and helping them grow.
“I'm grateful for people like Greg Townsend because they save lives,” Modine says. “Sometimes you have to do bad things in order to accomplish something good. Greg Townsend, in order to save those young people's lives, needed to push them. And for society to continue to advance and evolve, we need people like Greg Townsend.”
Modine adds that like Townsend, Hanna challenged him to be better and empowered him to do his best work on set.
The dramatic conflict at the heart of the film, Hanna highlights, lies between Greg and the characters he leads to their emotional and physical brink during the journey.
Hard Miles was shot on location at high-altitude roads throughout the Sierra Nevada, the Navajo Nation and other sites.
“We wanted to make sure that you really felt the hardship and the pain and the struggle of riding,” Hanna says. “It was really about each of [the character’s] internal battles so we wanted to make sure we could get in there and feel that with them.”
Hanna credits Modine for inspiring the cast to bring their own unique perspectives and deeper insights into the characters. He says on the set of Miss Virginia, he discovered Modine consistently brought different ideas with which to approach each scene.
Modine chalks this up to working with younger actors at the New York Film Academy.
“I share experiences,” Modine says. “I think it's more important to help people become human beings than to teach them to act…how to be a good human being, how to see nature, how to see life, it's through that lens that you become a deeper artist.”