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‘Ghost’ story sparks Dillon’s helming debut

Learned from working with Milius, Coppola, Van Sant

HOLLYWOOD — With two decades of acting roles under his belt, Matt Dillon feels he’s got a right to branch out. On the heels of receiving a tribute at the Deauville Film Festival, Dillon basks in the glow of his newest adventure, co-writing and directing the United Artists release “City of Ghosts.”

The film’s genesis began in 1993, when Dillon, exhausted after back-to-back projects, planned a trip to Thailand. When a friend talked him in to visiting Cambodia instead, he was captivated by the ancient temples, towering forests, Buddhist monasteries and old French colonial towns. But it was a random newspaper article that crystallized the idea for “City of Ghosts.”

“In the article was a small clip,” Dillon recalls, “and it said a number of the world’s most wanted criminals were thought to be hiding in Cambodia because of a lack of an extradition treaty.”

Collaborating with novelist friend Barry Gifford, Dillon wrote what he terms “an atmospheric thriller” about a young con man (Dillon) who unexpectedly drops in on his criminal mentor (James Caan) in Cambodia.

The aspiring actor-writer-director made the leap, keeping in mind a bit of wisdom from John Milius: “There are two people (who) step on a movie set that both believe they might be making the best movie ever made — that’s the director and the actor. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely true … but if the director really believes in it, that’s infectious to everybody.”

Working with talent like Gerard Depardieu, Natascha McElhone and Stellan Skarsgard generated excitement for the novice director, who took on the challenge of shooting on location at the Bokor Casino, a ghostly stucco villa previously inhabited by the Khmer Rouge army.

Bokor, now home to nine varieties of venomous snakes, tigers and a herd of elephants, would dampen any director’s enthusiasm. But Dillon says the challenges experienced on other films he’s made over the past 20 years were preparation enough. He cites the circumstances of shooting “The Saint of Fort Washington,” in which he played a homeless schizophrenic, alongside Danny Glover, as an eye opener, especially after he broke his foot during the film and could not take time off to have it mend.

“We were shooting in the Fort Washington Armory Men’s Shelter, which had like 900 men living in one room,” Dillon reminisces. “Somebody went bananas with a knife and I thought, I’m not going to move too good.” Despite or because of the rigors of production, he considers it one of the great learning experiences of his career.

Dillon looks back fondly on doing two pictures with Francis Ford Coppola, “Rumblefish” and “The Outsiders,” and also enjoyed his much lighter turn in the Farrelly brothers’ smash hit “There’s Something About Mary.” He does admit however, “Drugstore Cowboy” is sort of a personal favorite. Gus Van Sant’s bold vision of addiction went against the prevailing “Just Say No” attitude of the time.

“When I look back at my career, I look back at the very specific and clear visions of those filmmakers I worked with,” Dillon asserts, “where I happened to be fortunate enough to be going along for the ride.”