" Let's face it: he's no Rhodes Scholar," one British journalist recently pronounced of Matt Dillon. The 38-year-old ex-bratpack star, who was nicknamed "Teencake Agonistes" on account of his rugged physique and high cheekbones, has often been the butt of such jibes. He acknowledges as much himself: "There were certain preconceptions that people had of me, you know... 'He's dumb', or 'He's just got a pretty face'."
The roles didn't always help. Whether as the eminently seedy private eye in the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary, or as Nicole Kidman's handsome but featherbrained husband in To Die For, Dillon has played more than his fair share of schmucks. Even his iconic teen rebel, Rusty James, in Rumble Fish, and his junky-on-the-road in Drugstore Cowboy, weren't exactly highbrow types. In his new film, City of Ghosts, which he himself directed, he is again cast true to type as the handsome, vaguely shifty and slow-on-the-uptake Jimmy Cremming, a New York insurance salesman who goes on the run to Cambodia, where his sleazy boss Marvin (James Caan) is hiding out.
His co-star in City of Ghosts, the British actress Natascha McElhone, has her own pet theory as to why he is stereotyped as a dumb Adonis. "It's a hangover from being a 15-year-old movie star, when you've got to be cooler than cool and have the cigarette hanging out of your mouth and not say too much in case what you say rumbles you," she says.
As if to belie his reputation, Dillon arrives at the interview ostentatiously brandishing a book, Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow Of The Sun, and leaves it open on the table. "I'd love to make a film out of it," he muses. "Africa is a tragic continent, it's beautiful, a fascinating landscape."
Around his neck hangs a little stone Buddha – "a birthday present from a couple of girls " – but it's there, he explains, for ornamental purposes, not because he is a convert to eastern mysticism. "I have a deep respect for Buddhism, but I think at the core, all religions have been corrupted. In the beginning, they start out with the best intentions, but they get corrupted."
Dillon was one of a group of male teenage stars who emerged at roughly the same time. Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn were among his contemporaries. Back in the 1980s, he seemed like their natural leader, but he always bristled against his status as teen idol, and resented critics who wrote about his "epicene beauty". "I don't want to get stuck in the leading man kind of thing," he told The New York Times when he was 19. "I'd just like to get really good, juicy character parts."
Two decades on, his wish has been fulfilled, albeit at a heavy price. By avoiding mainstream studio pictures, he may have retained his credibility, but he is not a bankable star in the way that Cruise (a supporting actor in The Outsiders, in which Dillon starred), or even his former girlfriend, Cameron Diaz, now are. His faltering status is reflected in the battles he faced to get City of Ghosts made.
The idea for the film, originally entitled Beneath The Banyan Trees, came to him in the mid-1990s, when he read a piece in the International Herald Tribune stating that many of the world's most wanted criminals were holed up in Cambodia thanks to the country's lack of extradition treaties. In 1993, in a break between movies, he took a long holiday in Asia, during which he had stopped off in the country. "There were all these people from the UN there," he remembers. It was a little like being in a war zone. Nobody knew what was happening."
The Khmer Rouge, he remembers, was threatening to seize back power. "There was an edge, a duality. It's a beautiful place, a spiritual place, a magical place, but there's also this nightmarish quality to it, this ominous, palpable sense of danger that's just there... That was the vibe I wanted in the movie."
He conducted extensive research in Cambodia, visiting temples and bars, speaking to UN officers, and tracking the cases of Westerners who'd been kidnapped. He and a friend even ventured into the "no-go" red-light areas. "On this one evening, there was real tension in the air. We walked into this place and there was this guy there wearing a woman's sarong, who had these long fingernails. He was like the devil himself, he had this real darkness about him. They paraded about 12 whores. One girl came up to me and asked where I came from. Later, the driver told us that two minutes before we arrived, there had been a shootout and the reason it was so tense was that everybody was waiting for the inevitable retaliation."
Back in the US, he enlisted the help of his novelist friend, Barry Gifford (best known for Wild At Heart) to help him write the screenplay, and then tried to attract investors. Nobody was interested. He was told to relocate the film to the Philippines or Mexico, where it would be cheaper to shoot, but he refused. "Look, this story could have been set in Guatemala City or a variety of places," he concedes. "But Cambodia made sense to me because I had travelled there and so many of the people I met there seemed to be running from something. I was interested in that."
This was the first time a major international movie had been shot in Cambodia since Lord Jim in the mid-1960s. Recruiting local actors proved difficult – so many had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. To play bit-parts, he used bar girls from the local nightspots as well as characters (panhandlers, flowergirls) he spotted at markets or outside hotels. Kem Sereyvuth – cast as the cyclo-driver Sok – was an orphan who had grown up on the streets of Phnom Penh after his father, a doctor, was executed by the Khmer Rouge. Shooting was as gruelling as he had anticipated. There were several cases of dysentery, and some of the crew passed out from heat exhaustion. "It was chaos, but in the best sense," says McElhone, who arrived in Cambodia with her nine-month-old son in tow. "The noise level was phenomenal – car horns, motorbikes, general street noise – when you were shooting you were battling with all this other noise. It was like being in a firing line. We worked on the run. Hordes of people were watching every scene."
Dillon says that he kept going because that's what his heroes, John Huston and Carol Reed, would have done. "Great film-makers" he says, "always wrap themselves up in a location and create an atmosphere." Dillon somehow talked three leading Western actors, Stellan Skarsgard (as a shady businessman), James Caan and Gérard Depardieu (a bar-owner) – into joining the production. "They knew it wasn't going to be an easy shoot, but the best part of making a film is not the outcome. It's the journey, the adventure of making it and the discoveries that happen."
The Cambodians themselves didn't know what to make of Dillon. "They don't get Western films much, only what they show on TV, and that's usually with no subtitles. They had no idea who I was. After a while, the cyclo-drivers picked up that I was a famous Hollywood actor, so they started to call me 'Hollywood'.
What's most admirable about the film is its dirty, naturalistic feel – the sense we're given that Dillon and his crew have steeped themselves in the local culture without trying to prettify it or offer some glorified tourist's-eye view. It's certainly an idiosyncratic endeavour, in which the lead actors offer compelling but wildly self-indulgent performances, and the narrative veers every which way. In one set-piece, based inside the Laughing Lotus brothel, we're treated to the unlikely sight of James Caan performing a Cambodian pop song on the karaoke machine. ("I thought, well, I can have him sing a Tony Bennett song, but Jimmy was adamant that he had to sing in Khmer. According to the Cambodians on set, his accent was flawless.")
Dillon is in almost every scene. "The movie was financed on the basis that he had to be the lead role. There wasn't a choice about that," McElhone points out. Her own part, as the beautiful archaeologist that Dillon bumps into outside a bar and promptly falls in love with, is a little tokenistic. She's the one major female character in a movie dominated by men. "But Matt wasn't an Il Duce-style director at all," she pleads on his behalf. "He was very strict that he never wanted me to be a vulnerable damsel in distress. He wanted me to be as tough and feisty as the guys."
There is already widespread recognition that City of Ghosts – which screened at Sundance's prestigious "American Showcase" earlier this year – isn't the usual actor-turned-director's pet vanity project. But that doesn't mean it has been easy to sell. The film goes on limited release in the US next month and, depending on how it does, may be shown here. George Clooney has shown that he's not just a pretty face with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Let's hope that Matt Dillon is allowed to do the same with City of Ghosts.
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