by Patricia Thomson
photography by Roland Neveu
Photos courtesy of United Artists Films.
director of photography on numerous American independent films
- among them Real Women Have Curves, Boys Don't Cry, The
Believer, Nadja and The
Book of Life - Jim Denault has
often been asked to improvise, invent from scratch and dig
deep into his low-tech, low-budget bag of tricks. But nothing
quite prepared him for shooting in Cambodia.
Denault had shot abroad once before, in Ireland. "There, at least,
they had a film industry," he says over coffee in an East Village cafe. Cambodia had nothing, as he discovered
when filming Matt Dillon's directorial debut, City of Ghosts, on location in early
2001. "Our production basically invented the Cambodian
film industry," he says. "They had zero infrastructure.
They hardly have roads."
Unlike Vietnam, which has an incipient
film industry, Cambodia is still crawling out
from under the rubble left by decades of war. The last Western
feature film shot almost entirely in Cambodia was Lord Jim (1965).
Since the war in Southeast Asia ended, a decade later,
almost no major feature film set in Cambodia has actually been shot
there. The Killing Fields (1984) used Thailand as a
stand-in; more recently, Tomb Raider (2001) used the
ancient ruins of Angkor Wat as a
location, and French Cambodian expatriate director Rithy Panh managed
to shoot One Night after the War (Un soir apros la guerre) in Cambodia
during the mid-1990s. Local productions include four films
made by the king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk,
as well as a soap opera that mostly shoots video in studios
with antiquated equipment. According to Denault,
the only functional movie theater in the country since the
time of Pol Pot was just opening
for business when Dillon and his production were there.
a $17 million feature in a place as ravaged as Cambodia might give even he most
seasoned director pause. So why would Dillon, an out-and-out
neophyte, gamble? "He was smitten by the place," says Denault. "Matt
is very well-traveled. I think partying took him to Southeast Asia the first time around
- he'd been to Bangkok and somehow ended up
going to Cambodia." That was in 1993,
the year Dillon began thinking about City of Ghosts. He subsequently made
numerous return trips to Cambodia and cowrote the
screenplay with Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart).
Dillion says that one thing that fascinated him
was Cambodia's dual personality. "There
is a fantastical, hallucinatory, fairytale-like quality there
among the ancient temples, stupas and
royal palaces," he elaborates. "But there is also a
malevolence, a sense of danger lurking just under the
City of Ghosts takes advantage of both
qualities. At its center is Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon),
the front man for a bogus insurance company in the United States. When a tropical storm
exposes the fraudulent operation, Jimmy hightails it
to Cambodia in search of the company's
head and his mentor, Marvin (James Caan).
Aided by a duplicitous associate, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgrd), Jimmy eventually
locates the expatriate con artist, who tries to convince him
to join a new scheme: the development of a large casino in
partnership with a Cambodian ex-general. But Marvin is in over
his head and gets sucked into a world of violence and deception
that even he can't master, while Jimmy finds himself pulling
back from his longtime mentor. "It's an atmospheric thriller,
but also the story of redemption, the journey of a man breaking
away from old ideas and corrupt influences," says Dillon.
leaving for Cambodia, Denault asked
Dillon if there were any films he should watch to prepare. "Matt
said, 'Watch House of Bamboo - I don't know how you
can get it, just watch it,'" Denault recalls.
Indeed, locating a copy of this Sam Fuller film wasn't easy.
The Museum of Modern Art ultimately showed Denault a print from the personal collection of Martin Scorsese.
Set in postwar Japan, House of Bamboo bears
some similarities to Dillon's project: it's about a community
of expatriate gangsters and shady characters in a country that's
just getting on its feet after a war. "Visually it wasn't
much of an influence," says Denault, "but
it had a similar atmosphere relating to the characters who pop
up in our movie."