Once publicity shy, these days Matt Dillon is travelling the film festival circuit to spread the word about his directorial debut, City of Ghosts. It’s a role that the former teen heartthrob feels comfortable in. When we meet it is at the end of a long day for Dillon, courting the press at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. “I like Sundance because I think it has more of a focus on American films.”
Dillon is a youthful 34, laid back, eloquent and a perceptive storyteller. Rather than going a conventional Hollywood route with his first directorial gig, Dillon and co-writer Barry Gifford decided to write an unfamiliar tale of redemption and soul-searching set in Cambodia. It was hardly the stuff of mainstream Hollywood but Dillon was interested in something character-driven as well as story-driven. “It began initially as this idea of a man travelling who pays an unexpected visit on his mentor, an expartner in Cambodia. He wasn’t supposed to go because of something that had linked them to their past – some crime, and what happens as a result of his going there.” Dillon both directs and stars in this story revolving around Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon), an American insurance salesman, working for a bogus company, who gets singled out in an FBI investigation of fraudulent business practices. Meanwhile, his boss and mentor, Marvin (James Caan), has skipped the country and taken refuge in Cambodia. Jimmy decides to reunite with Marvin, despite Marvin’s wishes, to help him set up a large-scale casino with a corrupt Cambodian ex-general. Unfortunately, Jimmy finds himself caught up in a web of deceit.
Dillon wanted to set City of Ghosts in Cambodia “Because when I travelled there I would see foreigners and westerners who interest me as much as the place itself,” he explains, who had done a great deal of travelling in South East Asia and many Third World countries. “These were people that had some kind of history and some kind of past that whom I felt were running from something. They were Americans, Europeans, and Australians who tended to be very secretive about what they were doing, where they were and there was this air of mystery about them; these sorts of people interested me and I found the end of the line kind of thing was something that I wanted to explore. These people, the guy that’s on the run, existed and was not something I came up with because I had seen an old movie.”
Dillon recalls being initially drawn to Cambodia as a tourist and traveller at a time when he “had been working back to back and was sort of fried,” he says. Dillon decided to take a break from acting, and ended up studying in Japan with his oldest friend that he grew up with. “We went to Thailand and did plenty of travelling there, going up to northern Thailand and then going over to Vietnam, never thinking I’d go to Cambodia until I met an ex-pat living there who just told me to drop everything and go, which we could at the time because the U.N. was there.”
The Khmer Rouge was still prevalent at the time that Dillon first discovered Cambodia, a country of contrasts, he says, but one he sums up as being “a wild place.” That country of contrasts, idyllic and poetic versus its dark underbelly, is a theme that manifests itself throughout City of Ghosts, and Dillon was also able to create for himself a darker character than we’re used to from the veteran actor. “I think maybe it’s my curse and it’s just a little bit the way I think but I have a tendency to have an active imagination. I’m not paranoid, but I have a tendency to go to the dungeon often and so I have a tendency to be drawn to these sorts of similar dark stories.” In writing City of Ghosts, Dillon began with the idea of “writing a character that I would want to be cast in the movie,” without intending to take the plunge as director. “Yet, when I began to write, I got consumed with the directing part of it so I didn’t, in the beginning at least, over-consume myself with details about that character and so, a lot of that stuff grew as it kind of went along, in terms of what kind of guy he became. By the end of it, what I liked about him was there was this shyness about Jimmy that I liked that was there, that was evident, and I was really happy to find that out a little bit. I always wanted him to be a guy that’s spiritually dissatisfied from the very beginning,” Dillon explains.
Dillon felt it important to be able to relate to Jimmy “and the more I act, the more I feel this way that everything has to come from within you personally and emotionally because that’s all we have is subjective experience.”
It is hard to imagine that 23 years have passed since the adolescent Dillon first graced our screens in the likes of Little Darlings and Liar’s Moon, before etching his way into the public consciousness in 1982’s Tex and a year later with the seminal The Outsiders and Rumblefish. Comparing his perceptions of acting today as against those when he began as a young teenager, Dillon admits that he has become more distant. “When I first started acting I think I took the tools I got from the message too literally, so there would be this kind of urgency to keep it fresh and so I’d have a tendency not to rehearse thinking that that was a good thing. That didn’t serve me when I was much younger.” These days, adds Dillon, “I am much more into preparation which is really key for me.” Dillon says it is hard for him to talk about and evaluate his early work. Commenting on the Hollywood Cinemateque’s recent decision to screen a retrospective of Dillon’s work “as a bit freaky”, the actor says of his early work, “I think I have a blind spot about some projects. Some things I’m more proud of than others and there are some films – like Tex – that I haven’t seen in a while.”
In a career spanning over 20 years, Dillon has had his share of ups and downs. With City of Ghosts, perhaps he has discovered his new calling as a director, but the experience of making the film and finding distribution, has also made him unusually cynical and even angry. “This one really kicked my ass and beat me up a little bit, I have to say because I try to take the good with the bad and when you do something as long as I’ve been on this film, and go through good things, bad and good luck, you just take it all in stride,” says Dillon. “I try not to even think of it as luck. You just take the good with the bad and just keep showing up, and I think there was a lot of tough stuff. Your first film as a director is used against you even though you’ve got close to 40 films under your belt as an actor. They try to say: Oh, well he’s never done a film before. So you have to fight for things.” Dillon has been fighting for recognition for most of his career. The fights endured on City of God, however, simply wore him out. “It wears you out that everything is a battle. You win one and then you realise that you’ve got four more left, and then you don’t even know what’s on the other side of the hill. But I just think at the end of it I want to do it, more and I know what I’ll do next time to protect myself.”
Dillon won’t rule out being a director for hire one day, “a big, bang ‘em up genre movie, and then I’ll be a little bit more diplomatic about how it should go about when it costs the amount of money that some of those films cost.” In the meantime, he’s putting his directing on hold for an acting gig. “I got to do an acting job because it takes so long to finish a movie. I have to pay the bills, you know.” At the time we spoke, Dillon laughingly said that her is “trying to hold out for something good.” Now that he has gone through the pain of directing, Dillon will feel sympathy for the next director he works with. “Well, it certainly is easy when these guys are passionate and film means everything to them.”
– PAUL FISCHER
CITY OF GHOSTS OPENS LATER THIS YEAR.