In 2002 Hollywood star, Matt Dillon, made his directorial debut with the feature film City of Ghosts. The film, which also stars James Caan and Gérard Depardieu, is a crime noir thriller set against the backdrop of Cambodia. City of Ghosts was one of the first feature films to be shot in Cambodia since the end of the Khmer Rouge and filming in this foreign land was much different from how it is today. After the film was completed Matt Dillon reflected on his memories of filming in Cambodia in a series of interviews (sources from online magazines Filmmaker Magazine and Black Film).
QUESTION: What made you set your first feature as a director in Cambodia?
DILLON: Well, there’s an old thing that Hemingway said: “Write about what you know,” right? And [then there’s the opposite]: “How dare you write about something you don’t know anything about?” I feel that you can write about what you know, but you can also use [writing] as an opportunity to discover something new that you didn’t know. You just trust your heart and your gut and go with it, and that’s what I was doing. What do I know about Cambodia? Well, it’s a place that has fascinated me for a long time and it just seemed right for a film setting.
QUESTION: When did you first travel there?
DILLON: When I first went, in 1993 I think, the U.N. was there. I wasn’t planning on going – I was just traveling on an extended vacation to Thailand and Vietnam with some friends. I’d been burned-out doing three movies back-to-back and needed a break. A friend who had been living in Bangkok for 30 years recommended that I go to Cambodia because nobody was really sure what was going to happen there. And then I read an article stating that a number of the world’s most wanted criminals were thought to be hiding in Cambodia to take advantage of its lack of extradition treaties. I thought that was interesting because [I met people there who] were clearly running from something. So, this idea of taking an American out of the U.S. and into this world became interesting to me.
QUESTION: It took years to develop the script and then get the movie made. How did the changing politics of the region affect your process?
DILLON: Like a lot of the Third World, especially Asia, Cambodia is such a rapidly changing place, and I always had to be readjusting the script. When I started writing the script, the Khmer Rouge existed as a political force to be reckoned with in Cambodia. By the time we began shooting, the Khmer Rouge basically had been disbanded, which is not to say that their thugs are not still roaming the countryside.
QUESTION: How did the collaboration with your co-writer, Barry Gifford, come about?
DILLON: Barry was an old friend, since the time he was publishing those Black Lizard pulp fiction and noir books. We have similar sensibilities and tastes, and when I called him, I wasn’t really sure of where we were going with a lot of the themes that are in the movie. What I basically had was: A young guy travels to Cambodia to catch up with his partner, who was sort of a father figure to him. They were involved with something, and whatever this crime was that they were involved with, part of the agreement was that they would just stay clear of each other. He wasn’t supposed to go there, and he shows up. Barry brought a lot of the criminal aspects to the film. Personally, I tend to go to the dungeon – I can really think the worst of people’s motives. That really lends itself to crime stuff, and Barry’s really good at that.
QUESTION: Watching the film, it seemed pretty clear that you had scenes lit for 360 degree coverage so you could always be grabbing things. You seemed to have tons of coverage for a shoot that happened quickly.
DILLON: We really needed two more weeks to finish shooting, so, I liked the mobility of handheld to change shots [quickly]. I don’t like handheld [camerawork] as a style, when people formalize it like, “Let me show you how handheld we are”, but I like the freedom it gives you. Having to be in both places at the same time, handheld really gave me a lot more latitude.
QUESTION: The film blends professional actors very nicely with what seems like real people. How did you approach the casting process?
DILLON: I had great luck with casting. I would see people walking around the street and I’d say, “Let’s put them in the movie.” You can do things like that in places like Cambodia or Mexico. It seems like it’s very difficult to do that in the States anymore. I also stylized characters based on [real people] I had seen [in Cambodia]. I had a guy working with me on the film, an advisor-consultant, and on New Year’s Eve he took me to Battambang, the red-light district that was sort of the last frontier deep in Khmer Rouge territory. There were these two brothels on the sides of this dirt route, and there was real tension in the air – guys in black shirts lurking around the doors. So, we went inside one, sat down, and they paraded out a bunch of strange-looking girls, and this guy came out who was like the devil himself – long fingernails, greasy, wavy hair, flip-flop sandals and a jacket. He was the scariest fucking guy I’d ever seen. We didn’t stick around. I said, “That was fun, and we’ve got some visuals to take back with us.” In any case, I’d remember all these details, and when it came time to cast [one of the characters], I designed him [based] on the guy in Battambang.
QUESTION: Was it difficult shooting the brothel scene?
DILLON: Shooting that scene was interesting to me because I felt this strong need to put this on the screen to show what these places are like. I had seen these places. It’s a brothel like in the film. Young girls, primary Vietnamese, are behind these glass walls and there’s a sign that says “STOP” to prevent customers from touching the girls, should they be drunk. I saw that place and decided to shoot a scene exactly as I saw it. Shooting the film was difficult. We had a finite amount of money to work with and a difficult schedule. You don’t want to burn out the crew but we didn’t have any other option. We were up against it and people passed out from heat exhaustion. Some had to go to the hospital for IV drips. That’s not uncommon. That happens on movies. It goes with the territory. It just happened a little more on this set than usual.
QUESTION: What were some of the dangers of shooting in Cambodia?
DILLON: The real dangers that we faced working there were obviously heat exhaustion, parasites and getting sick. We had problems; thankfully we were very lucky on all fronts. We needed good security, there is kind of palpable sense of danger that comes up from time to time. I really am realistic and humble enough to admit that we got lucky for the most part. I enjoyed the obstacles and overcoming them. That to me was part of the fun, part of the excitement.
QUESTION: I hear working with the monkey wasn’t easy. Is that true?
DILLON: We had a monkey that was uncontrollable. He attacked the prop lady. I had to smuggle a monkey in from Thailand and we were fighting the light trying to get a monkey to snatch a pair of sunglasses off.
QUESTION: Besides the monkey, I hear you had other animal issue to deal with. Could you elaborate?
DILLON: We were shooting at the top of a casino and it’s an area that’s really a national forest. The guards were constantly telling us when we were scouting there, ‘oh there’s a tiger seen over by the pagoda.’ We had brought up water buffaloes and billy goats and I said I want these goats at the top of the mountain (many of the goats didn’t survive the tiger). I don’t think that’ll go over too well with the animal rights activists! I remembered the day I was talking to the production manager and we were really behind the first day shooting up there. It was a long haul getting up to the top of that mountain. There was a big sequence with Jimmy Caan and he had to get back to the United States (it was his 60th birthday) and we had to finish shooting. The production manager wanted to shoot all the scenes with the water buffalo today? I said, ‘no we can’t do that. We gotta finish shooting James Caan.’ I said, ‘what’s the problem.’ He said, ‘we have a tiger and he’s been drawn to the scent of the buffalo and we’re afraid he won’t last till the morning.’ He’d been hanging around the elephants where the camp set-up was. So the production manager put the water buffalo near the generator because the tiger might not go there and left another goat out. Tigers like goats! Kill a goat, save a water buffalo!
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