Matt Dillon stars as Jimmy Cremmins, a swindler who arrives in Pnom Penh on the run, one step ahead of the law. He's in Cambodia to see another expatriate: his partner-in-crime and mentor Marvin, played by James Caan:
As Jimmy tries to find his way in a country of great contrasts, he also must make his own choices between loyalty and morality, corruption and redemption. I always wanted it to be a story of a guy who goes through a spiritual transformation, sort of a story of self-discovery," says Mr. Dillon.
Matt Dillon wrote City of Ghosts after reading about how the expat community in Cambodia includes a number of international fugitives drawn by the lack of extradition treaties. "The atmosphere of the film has this nightmarish, dreamlike quality to it. It's a beautiful, yet foreboding kind of landscape," he says.
"It's a beautiful country, but shooting the film there and telling the story there was not a decision that I made. It sort of presented itself to me. It was specific to this place and having traveled there in the early 1990's [I found] there was a very menacing sort of air and yet it was a beautiful country," says Mr. Dillon. "The people were beautiful. What really surprised me was how visually striking it was and that the culture was so intact. Despite the Khmer Rouge trying to decimate the culture and bury everything in the past, it remained very much alive."
Jimmy's guide in Cambodia, literally and metaphorically, is a cyclo-cab driver named Sok; and Dillon explains he knew the key role had to be played by a Cambodian. "That was a very difficult role for me to cast, probably the most difficult. Early on I knew I was going to end up with a non-actor in that role," he says. "Here in California there's a sizable Cambodian population, but there's not a lot of professional actors. There were a lot of very good Asian actors, but they didn't have that Cambodian 'flavor.' I don't know how to put my finger on it, but obviously it's something very specific and I felt really strongly about that."
Dillon found his Sok when he met Phnom Penh taxi driver Sereyvuth Kem, whose real life experience was eerily parallel to that of the fictional character. "I used to drink iced coffee at this $3-a-night guest house called the Capitol Guest House and he was a moto-taxi driver. There was a crowd of them out on the sidewalk and we started talking. He stood out from the crowd. His English was good, he was very expressive, very funny and you could see he was quite clever," he says. "That's what the character needed and I saw that this guy had the quality inherent. I didn't know if he'd be able to pull it off, but his attitude and approach to it was really great."
The international cast of City of Ghosts also includes French screen star Gerard Depardieu as a streetwise but slippery hotel owner; Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard plays a duplicitous link in the criminal chain; and British-born Natasha McElhone plays a volunteer archaeologist helping to restore and preserve Cambodia's ancient temples.