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by Jordan Hiller


City Of Ghosts (2003)

Now and again, good-looking men and women in the entertainment industry decide they want to express themselves artistically outside of their recognized contexts. It may be difficult to determine initially why being attractive, adored, and rich doesn't cut it for these courageous, renaissance people but for some reason they desire to show us that they are so much more than pretty faces who have been unfairly defined by our unsophisticated, superficial perceptions.

So we get Ethan Hawke literature, Jewel poetry, Russell Crowe music, and Fabio cookbooks.

Celebrities proclaiming, "I have something to say dammit! I have something to offer." And we respond, "But we were content with what you were saying before. We liked it better when you read from the script. We saw your movies, listened to your music, bought your imitation butter spread." Why expose yourself so proudly as of middling intelligence? Why ruin the mystique?

The answer: In a word, ego. Do not confuse ego with arrogance. The ego is a vital, useful tool prodding us on to express ourselves as boldly as possible and that, I believe, is a good thing. We all have this feature - these folks additionally have the money and connections to act on it.

Über-stud Matt Dillon puts on a writer/director hat and casts himself as the lead in City of Ghosts and…the kid's onto something - something beyond his colleagues. Attention must be paid.

There are few leading men in Hollywood who have played beautiful, dim lugs more often than Dillon, so he certainly had the motivation to succeed in this more cerebral undertaking.  On that front, City of Ghosts is an inarguable success. Listen up world: "Matt Dillon is no imbecile!" And after sitting down with Mr. Dillon on one of those scorching April days last week, I can report that he comes off as bright and creatively inclined, albeit in a very normal, humble, personable way.

The surprise is not necessarily that Dillon has a unique voice, but rather that the voice is so bizarrely dark and uninhibitedly exotic. Evidently looks are deceiving. Who would ever guess that the story rumbling inside Matt Dillon, the one that he was itching to tell, would be about a reluctant, even-hearted criminal who escapes to Cambodia to straighten out business with his mentor (James Caan)?

Dillon told me that when he began this undertaking, he was not interested in covering the same ground many rookie independent filmmakers tread. Many first time writer/director’s like to start small, tackling family dramas or small town capers – Matt Dillon wanted to change his life.

The decision Dillon made to film in Cambodia and the skill and maturity with which he goes about this filming is not to be underestimated. In fact, it's monumental. It's huge. It's what we got here.

It would be an exaggeration to call the actual story compelling, the dialogue brilliant ("How could I trust you, I don't even trust myself"), or the characters overtly memorable - and no one is going to be singled out for superb acting (perhaps with exception of that French shaved bear Gerard Depardieu, playing a seasoned motel manager). Even Dillon as the anti-hero lead never quite fits comfortably into the role of an apathetic wise-guy in khakis.

But I assure you - forget all that.

With City of Ghosts, one need only concentrate on the ghostly city itself. Listen intently to the escalating, rhythmic nasal chanting, the penetrating chimes, the heart-wrenching twang of a sitar possessed. Think moist heat and yellow, dusty, shadowy roads and tall, green, chirping grass and thick rooted trees and peeling stone temples dating back…

Become hypnotized by Cambodia.

Exhale those foreign sounding syllables. Lose yourself in the pained, ancient faces glistening brown, reflecting the sun…and the world will once again open up for you like it sometimes does…

My God! There is so much out there - so much truth that we will never be exposed to…unless…

Where exactly is it? Who knows exactly (near Vietnam for the geography crowd)? It's out there to remind and be deep and wild, corrupt and complicated and unflinchingly primal. It's cold - and sweltering with humidity. It is poor with poor barefoot children who worship and are penitent like we will never know despite that they have what we term nothing. It is jungles, and swamps, and downpours, and disease, and craggy cliffs, and…and…and what's that guy from There's Something about Mary doing there trying to make us care about a casino scheme, political turmoil, and a shameless love story.

Well, Mr. Matt Dillon Film Director Thank You Very Much is there as a blossoming artist with his nine millimeter paint brush, conveying an experience, creating a perfectly worth-while spectacle on a magnificently chosen canvas.

Q & A with Matt Dillon

Q: Tell me what it was like writing with a partner (Barry Gifford) and did you know that what you were writing would end up being something you would direct and star in?

A: Yeah…it was the plan. I initially was writing City of Ghosts to create a character that I would want to play and in fact someone that I would play and I brought it to Barry. I had Barry in mind for this thing and it had grown out of my travels in Southeast Asia and an article I read in the Herald Tribune stating that according to Interpol, a number of the most wanted criminals were hiding in Cambodia due to the lack of extradition. I took that out of the newspaper and stuck it on my lampshade and it just yellowed there for a while. One day I was getting frustrated about not getting a part that I didn’t even want and I decided it was time to take some action.

I called Barry and I told him about this idea about a young guy who is involved in criminal activity and flees the U.S and goes to regroup in Cambodia. This is what I bought to Barry and this is the story that we wanted - and then what wed did was come up with a six page story - and it is interesting now to look back and it brings a smile to my face to think back and the way it came about…,we watched Brother Orchid, which is a totally different kind of film about a criminal hiding out in a monastery and everything was very different , but it gave us a good beginning – and then we just spent a lot of time working on it – sometimes we’d actually role play – dialogue back and forth, sometimes he would be Marvin (Caan’s character) and I would be Jimmy (Dillon’s character) - sometimes he would be Jimmy and I would be Marvin…it was interesting. Good dialogue comes of that.

But you know the writing process for me has been about never falling in love with it – and I think that is the only way you could be true to yourself. As soon as you start falling in love with stuff it takes you back and when it comes to changing certain aspects of the script – you get locked – you get stuck.

So in the end in went into a lot of incarnations and looking back on that actually is really great because it really has its own life, you know. I mean, you know, it’s sort of like – thinking about certain scenes that never made it into the movie, but at one point in the draft, they happened. That was a really satisfying process for me. I felt…I felt…much younger in a sense. It’s a good thing to do. Really expressing yourself…makes you feel great.

Q: What would your crew say about you?

A: I thought about that. I remember coming home from the shoot – I think that when I got back I started to feel bad about these guys. I remember on the set, I turned around a corner and I see this guy lying on the ground there and he had a pillow under his head and he was unconscious. They had to take him to the hospital…I felt terrible about it. I mean this guy worked real hard. He had been working fifteen, sixteen hours a day in one hundred six degree heat and…it’s rough.

I remember feeling terrible about that. Thinking back I said, I have an obligation to everybody who worked on this film to at least make the best film that I can make.

Sure enough, I ran into this guy after I’m editing the film.

I was back in New York and out with Stellan Skarsgard (co-star) and we went to a bar in the East Village and I ran into this guy. And I went over to him and said something like I’m sorry. And he says, you know – I got into this business so I could make films so I could have a really great experience – and I made a lot of movies – and I never had an “experience” on a movie till I worked on yours. Never.

And that was the experience I had and I was glad to see that other people had it as well and not just the guy who wrote the script.

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