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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
City of Ghosts, shot by Jim Denault, offers compelling drama amid the exotic ambience of Cambodia.


by Patricia Thomson
Unit photography by Roland Neveu
Photos courtesy of United Artists Films.

As 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.

Filming 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 surface."

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 SkarsgŒrd), 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.

Before 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."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.