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Spirit world

Matt Dillon takes his dreams to Cambodia for 'City of Ghosts'

Matt Dillon's directorial debut, 'City of Ghosts,' contains a time-lapse photography scene Ñ perhaps only two seconds long Ñ of clouds scudding over the gleaming temple spires of Cambodia.

If that's not an homage to Gus Van Sant, the director who helped put actor Dillon on the map with 'Drugstore Cowboy,' what is?

'Yes, I'm influenced by Gus,' Dillon told the Tribune in a telephone interview. 'And by other directors who use dream sequences, such as Cameron Crowe. Some proceduralist script gurus will tell you there's no place for dreams in movies, but I disagree.'

He's got the Hollywood lingo down, but Dillon's new baby is all about Cambodia, a country as far removed from Los Angeles as you can get. 'City of Ghosts,' which he co-wrote and stars in, is about a New York insurance fraud named Jimmy who gets busted and travels to Thailand looking for his partner-mentor Marvin, played by James Caan.

The trail leads to Cambodia, where Marvin now is in league with a dodgy ex-general to build a casino. Everyone tells Jimmy to turn back, but fueled by vaguely Oedipal urges, he doesn't Ñ of course.

Dillon has had a soft spot for Cambodia since he first went there in 1993.

'I was burned out after just doing three movies back to back, and I took a trip from Japan to Thailand,' he says. 'I just carried on into Cambodia. All I knew was what I'd read in the papers Ñ starving children, war-torn, Khmer Rouge. É But I was struck by the beauty and the culture that remain intact in spite of all that.'

During a cyclo ride along the Mekong River under a full moon, with no traffic around, he realized the cinematic potential of the capital, Phnom Penh.

'The dreamlike quality of the place made me want to write about a man on a spiritual quest,' he says.

While in Paris once, he says, 'I saw an article in the International Herald Tribune about how the world's most wanted criminals live in Cambodia, taking advantage of the lack of extradition.'

He taped the story to his hotel lampshade.

'Then I lost an acting job I didn't want, and it helped me make the decision to make this film,' he says. He called his friend, noir author Barry Gifford ('Wild at Heart'), and they got to writing.

The director's respect for the Khmer people shows in the casting. One of the more original characters, the cyclo driver, was a nonactor, a police officer earning $11 a month. 'He'd been drinking palm wine at the station when he decided to show up for the audition,' says Dillon, who grew very fond of the man.

In one of its kinder comments, Variety wrote: 'Without any false exoticism, the lensing by indie (photography director) Jim Denault ('Boys Don't Cry,' 'Nadja') exactly captures the humid, dusty bustle of Phnom Penh's streets, and the Cambodian capital's mix of ex-colonial shabbiness and postwar modernization.'

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick said the thriller 'positively reeks of atmosphere Ñ but is woefully lacking in narrative credibility or character development.' Sean Axmaker of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, 'Dillon directs at a lazy lope, but what he lacks in narrative expediency, he makes up for in the atmosphere of exotic squalor.'

Dillon has directed an episode of the HBO television prison drama 'Oz,' but this was his first feature in the hot seat. When it comes to the director's craft, he says he has taken something away from every movie he has worked on, including Francis Ford Coppola when making 'Rumblefish.'

Van Sant remains a particular favorite: 'I was blown away working for Gus,' Dillon says. 'You could see his talent right from the start.'

Dillon says he loves Portland and the Northwest. 'I remember the beautiful drive up to the penitentiary at Walla Walla (to see Jim Fogle, on whose manuscript 'Drugstore Cowboy' was based),' he says. 'It seems so long ago. I remember saying to Gus: 'What's this Starbucks? We don't have that in New York.' '

Dillon is adamant about directing more movies: 'You go through so much to make a movie, but it's all worth it.' He's developing a project now about Crazy Eddie Maloney, who was involved in the kidnapping of members of the Gambino crime family in the early 1970s.

'His story reads like a throwback to the period of (1920s bootlegger) Jack 'Legs' Diamond,' he says. 'This Maloney was a Rasputinesque character. They just couldn't kill him.'

Though the critics may try, Dillon the director probably will be just as hard to gun down.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..