Hollywood film star Matt Dillon has been visiting Cambodia since 1994. But until recently, few people knew who he was. Now that he’s returned here to write and direct his first movie, the $10-million Hollywood thriller “Beneath the Banyan Trees,” locals have started to recognize him.
“They call me ‘Madeline,’” the 37-year-old actor said recently. “I like it when they call me Madeline.”
It’s early April, and shooting is nearly complete. Dillon has brought his crew of 150 back from Kampot province to the film’s principal location, the French colonial square in front of Phnom Penh’s main post office.
They’re working on a crucial scene. Jimmy, played by Dillon, is on the lam. He’s fled the US after his attempt to pull off an insurance scam has gone wrong. His mentor, a criminal mastermind played by Hollywood veteran James Caan, has left him holding the bag, and Jimmy’s come to Cambodia to hunt him down.
The scene is Jimmy’s hotel room. Dillon chose the location on a previous trip to Phnom Penh. In real life the building, a decaying old police headquarters, is inhabited by policemen and their families. Residents trail in and out, toting bags of groceries across electric cables strung out along the hallways. An infant sleeps in a hammock among the crew’s sound and camera equipment.
As Dillon prepares for another take—he has shot at least seven already—a sickly gurgling noise starts to emanate from a neighboring room. A resident is struggling to bring phlegm up from her chest. She starts with a tentative cough and then breaks into a noisy hacking fit that echoes through the corridors.
Dillon pauses, expressionless and stock still. He waves away make-up artists, who creep up on him with imported spritzer bottles of French mineral water to squirt on his face to cool him down. When the noise finally subsides, he springs back into action.
He finishes the scene to his satisfaction and breaks for lunch. The crew mill about, packing up the equipment. Many of them, the Thais and the Americans, sport “I Survived Cambodia” T-shirts from the Russian Market.
About 70 members of the crew were hired locally. “Tomb Raider,” the last big Hollywood picture made here—and the first in 35 years—imported almost all of its equipment and all of its staff. But for practical reasons as much as anything else, Dillon has preferred to use Cambodian talent. He wants the movie to be authentic, and he needs locals to do that.
“That’s been really important, especially when it comes to casting,” he says.
The film is thick with minor supporting roles. Dillon made his own start when he was spotted by a talent scout in the corridors of his high school when he was 14, and many of the roles in “Beneath the Banyan Trees” are played by amateurs he hand-picked off the street. A flower girl was plucked from the sidewalk in front of Lucky Supermarket. A bevy of taxi girls were recruited from city nightspots.
A well-known Phnom Penh panhandler was tagged to play the eccentric doorman at the movie’s Belleville bar, the setting for several key sequences.
Dillon spotted him while having a drink on the waterfront with local photographer Al Rockoff. The man habitually wears a scruffy gray blazer and a chauffeur’s cap.
“I said, ‘look at that guy. He looks like a New York City doorman.’ He didn’t even need a costume.”
Dillon spotted the film’s third lead, Kem Sereyvuth, in front of the Capitol Guest House. The 33-year-old motodop had offered Dillon a lift. Dillon declined, but he liked the man’s face. He took his photograph and asked him to an audition at the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh.
Dillon needed someone for the part of Sok, a cyclo driver who becomes a close friend of Jimmy. After the audition, he decided Kem Sereyvuth fit the role.
Dillon set him up with lessons in English, acting and driving. He paid for him to go to Movie Street, a shop in Phnom Penh that screens videos in private, karaoke parlor-style rooms. Kem Sereyvuth went almost every night for an intensive course on Hollywood cinema. “It was very expensive,” Kem Sereyvuth recalls with a flicker of disapproval.
He watched a selection of recent hits chosen by Dillon—“Good Will Hunting,” “Braveheart,” “Forrest Gump,” and Dillon’s own 1998 comedy, “There’s Something About Mary.”
He also watched “The Godfather,” a series of legendary gangster movies in which Caan co-starred as Sonny Corleone.
“Godfather I, II, III!” Kem Sereyvuth groans. “It took nine hours to finish ‘Godfather.’”
But his best training comes from watching the other stars at work, he says. He particularly admires Gerard Depardieu, who played Emile, the seedy Corsican owner of the Belleville bar. He does an unsettling impression of the burly classical actor, growling his words with a subtle French intonation. “You get that f—-ing thing out of my bar,” he says, waving a pointed finger at an imaginary suitcase stuffed with cash.
Other members of the cast have raved about Kem Sereyvuth.
“He’s a natural,” Dillon gushed. “He’s such a great guy, and he’s done such a great job.”
But for his part, Kem Sereyvuth doesn’t see what’s so special.
“After every shot they just say ‘Great,’” he says. “Matt, he always says ‘Excellent.’ [But] I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”
Much of what happens to his fictional character is inspired by his own experiences. He even supplied some of the lines. “My father had bad luck. He got killed by the Khmer Rouge,” Sok says at one point, mirroring Kem Sereyvuth’s own experiences.
Elsewhere, the script is pure fiction. “I’m king of the house,” Sok tells Jimmy, reassuring him he can control his wife.
Is it like that in real life?
“No,” he says firmly, glancing at his wife. “Only in the movie.”
Kem Sereyvuth grew up in an orphanage in Kompong Thom province. His mother was too poor to support him, he says. He joined the army and served for three years, quitting in 1998 to come to Phnom Penh in the hope of finding a better living.
In the city, he parlayed the English skills he’d picked up at the orphanage into a job driving tourists around the capital. He makes between $2 and $5 a day, and sometimes as much as $10. Combined with his $22-a-month job as a Ministry of Interior official, it’s an adequate income to support his wife and two kids.
The movie pays considerably more—though his contract forbids him to specify how much.
“For a poor guy like me, it’s too much,” he says. “I can buy maybe two cars, one house, something like that.”
He plans to use the money to renovate his family farm in Takeo province. He wants to build a new fence. “The animals come in and destroy all the food we plant.” He wants the kids to go to a better school and study English. Perhaps he will buy a car and switch to working as a taxi driver. He doesn’t want to go back to being a motodop.
“There is too much competition to get foreigners,” he said. “I don’t think it is a good business anymore.”
But Kem Sereyvuth said his performance will mean more than just a financial windfall—it will have a deeper significance for his country.
He cites the example of Haing Ngor, who won an Academy Award for playing Dith Pran in the 1984 drama “The Killing Fields.” Haing Ngor was shot to death in 1995 at his home in Los Angeles. Police say his killers were gangsters trying to extort money from him.
But Kem Sereyvuth won’t accept that Haing Ngor was the victim of gangland violence. He believes the actor was murdered by the Khmer Rouge to punish him for telling the world the truth about the bloody regime.
Performing in a big-budget Hollywood thriller will help to bring the world another message—that after 30 years of bloodshed, Cambodia is emerging from the wilderness, he said.
“It is one movie that shows Cambodian culture, Cambodian living conditions,” he says. “When they see the movie, they will know what is Cambodia.”
Dillon first fell in love with Cambodia when he came here with an old friend in 1994 to visit Angkor Wat. He’s been working on “Beneath the Banyan Trees” for at least five years, making frequent trips to the country to soak up the local atmosphere.
“I was really blown away by the people, the beauty of the country.
“It’s a very exciting, exotic place, a place where you can create a story with some conflict and drama without being an obvious place to go.”
By the time it came to shooting the picture, Dillon had a clear idea of what he wanted, and he picked the locations himself—Phnom Penh, Kampot, Bokor Mountain, Kep and Phnom Chisor.
They are locations few people have seen before. “Where else can you shoot in a place like Bokor with a thousand foot drop to the ocean and a tropical rainforest all around?” said Nicholas Simon, the film’s associate producer.
Dillon wanted the film to have the feel of the slightly seedier Cambodia of the early 1990s. For the Belleville bar, the art department gutted a restaurant opposite the Post Office, stripping off mildewed, peeling paint and replacing it with paint made to look like mildewed, peeling paint. They installed battered chairs and tables, plastered the walls with postcards, photos of soulful-looking taxigirls and artful replicas of French Foreign Legion memorabilia.
As soon as shooting ended, the owner ripped out the chairs, the tables, the wall hangings and the 6-meter art deco bar and turned the place back into a shabby neighborhood restaurant. “We made it into a really nice bar,” Dillon says mournfully.
Dillon suddenly breaks off, his eye catching the Post Office.
“God, I hate that color yellow,” he said.
The building has been freshly painted in compliance with a city beautification edict ordering all buildings be painted a uniform color.
“This has been one of our biggest problems in Cambodia,” he says. “As soon as we choose a location, they start painting it.”
But otherwise, Dillon and other members of the production insist, things have been going smoothly. Simon, who has shot television commercials in Cambodia, said the crew was either able to buy or build nearly all of their equipment in Cambodia. Headaches such as bad weather, bad roads and the shortage of trained technical staff were balanced by the abundance of cheap labor.
The only trouble Dillon encountered was in getting financing. Cambodia was as-yet untested as a filming location, and last November’s rebel insurgency in Phnom Penh revived fears about security.
“The most difficult thing was to get people to have faith in me as a first-time director, not actually getting things done in Cambodia.”
And like a lot of foreign visitors, “everyone got sick.”
James Caan has to catch a flight to his home in the US state of Utah. He’s feeling the effects of a long bout of food poisoning, and before making the four-hour road trip back to Phnom Penh from Kampot, he wants a hot cup of coffee.
Caan’s personal assistant and his personal fitness trainer are upstairs making last-minute preparations for the journey. The two waiters at his $25-a-night hotel are flirting with a girl next door. The hotel manager, Loran Vallier, is behind the bar, smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. Vallier, a sardonic fisheries expert, gave up a job in France several years ago and moved to Cambodia to become the Basil Fawlty of the southwest coast.
The way the gruff New York native pronounces Vallier’s name makes it sound like a woman’s name.
“Lauren! Hey, Lauren. My coffee’s cold.”
The hotelier moves over warily from behind the bar and peers into Caan’s cup.
“You put the cold milk in it,” he said. “So it gets cold.”
“Oh right,” Caan answers sourly, lifting the cup to his mouth.
Caan has been shooting at the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Bokor Mountain for more than a week. The filmmakers have rented out every room in Kampot for the duration of the shoot. They redecorated part of a private house to make it into a suite for the second lead, Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard.
They took over a large building on the riverfront to run as a catering operation for the cast and crew. And they invested nearly $10,000 in upgrading the 35-km road to the top of the mountain so it could handle the production’s 25 vehicles, which include a specially imported 8-meter refrigerated truck.
“We get cold drinks when we want them,” Caan said.
But for the 62-year-old actor who doesn’t like to travel, the trip has taken a lot out of him.
“Going up there two times a day will put anyone out,” he said. “It’s tough, hot. We work 14-hour days.”
He glances at Vallier. “It’s been a lesson in patience and tolerance.”
Caan combines crotchetiness with a degree of humor. He’s a generous tipper, and takes care nobody misses out.
“The people [in Cambodia] are really exceptionally nice,” he says after a moment’s reflection. “And they have every right to be miserable and angry.”
The two errant waiters, Chan Chhoy, 23, and Pol Chan Ponleu, 26, return to the hotel.
They’ve watched Caan practice boxing with his trainer, Marlon Long, every day for the last week. There are no cinemas in Kampot. There aren’t even any pirated VCDs of Hollywood movies. They’ve never heard of “The Godfather,” and they know nothing about Caan the actor. But they’ve become avid fans of “the old man who is a strong fighter.”
Caan has promised to give the men a lesson, and they’ve been loitering around shyly all morning waiting for him to deliver.
“I got to beat these guys up,” Caan says, excusing himself and following Chan Chhoy and Pol Chan Ponleu to the makeshift gym in the breakfast room upstairs.
Chan Chhoy throws a wild punch.
“Not like that,” Caan says. He takes the waiter’s fist and guides it. “Like this. Straight out.”
Chan Chhoy punches straight, but drops his guard in the process. Caan darts out a flattened hand and slaps him on the trunk. Chan Chhoy dances back, shrieking in surprise.
“Again,” Caan commands, leading him through the drill—a jab, a right hand , an upper cut, and a parry to Caan’s hook. “Okay, again. One, two, boom, boom. Good.”
The kitchen staff have gathered round. At first they giggle at Chan Chhoy’s ineptness, then break into cheers as catches on.
“Again, this time fast.”
Chan Chhoy sets his jaw and squares off against Caan in earnest. He whips through the drill, then draws his elbows back into his sides to fend off Caan’s left hook. “Good!”
Chan Chhoy takes off his gloves. Caan raises his own bare fists pugnaciously. “OK, now we box for real.”
Chan Chhoy’s eyes flicker with fear, then he cottons on to the American’s dry wit. He dissolves into giggles.