The longevity of Matt Dillon’s laudable career is a byproduct of his self-reinvention.
Oscillating between charismatic leading and comedic supporting roles, the New York-based actor has built a nuanced, noteworthy cinematic career on his penchant for risk-taking.
Beyond his Oscar-nominated portrayal of an unscrupulous LAPD officer in Paul Haggis’ Best Picture Oscar-winner Crash, Dillon has enriched landmark films by some of the world’s most celebrated directors, including Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish), Gus Van Sant (To Die For), Bent Hamer (Factotum), and Cameron Crowe (Singles).
Dillon’s affinity for uncompromising artists has most recently led him to controversial Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, in which he stars as the title character—a serial killer whose abominable acts of cruelty persist for over a decade. The mantra on set, Dillon tells MovieMaker, was to “Keep it messy” and “Draw outside the lines,” an unconventional approach that favored on-set immersion over rehearsal.
Dillon shared some shrewd advice and time-tested wisdom about the importance of creative tastes and the need for earnest aspirations in the pursuit of moviemaking.
— As told to Carlos Aguilar
1. It’s important to have fun making movies. When you’re having fun, the audience experiences that. The joy you’re feeling when you’re making a film is transmitted to the audience, even if it’s not a movie that’s supposed to “enjoyable.” We actors are players, after all; we are creating, and creating is a very fulfilling thing.
2. Films work best when you’re transported to another world, an atmosphere in and of itself. You can pick up on that when you’re making the film because of the originality of the moviemaker and the story, and the way it’s being made. Working with Lars von Trier, for better or worse, means you’re working without a net. You’re going places you haven’t gone before.
3. If you haven’t had any experience with something, it’s hard to make a movie about it. Often, I’ll get scripts that are well-written, but you can tell that the writer’s experiences are limited to coming out of film school and not having lived life. Sometimes their scripts reflect that in such an obvious way that all of their references are from Hollywood. You realize that they haven’t experienced much outside of what they’ve seen in the movies.
4. You think you know it all, but you don’t. As a director, when I made a shot list I thought I had all the answers. I thought, “I’m going to be fine, I don’t need a master shot here; I don’t need that.” That’s the beauty of doing what we do: We learn stuff all the time. Be humble enough to continue to learn and grow, because that’s where the joy is—in the discovery.
5. I could sit here and tell you that a good director has to understand structure, composition, storytelling, how to talk to actors, and character development, and that’s all true. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have good taste, it’s not going to work and none of that will matter. When I say taste, I don’t mean tasteful in some politically correct way, I mean having good intuition or instinct. I mean being able to say, “That’s what I like,” and having a sense of style in the way that you do things.
6. You should be in the moment, alive, and authentic, and you can only do that if you trust the person who’s making your film. I take professional pride in what I do. I show up, I feel responsible, I want to deliver a performance, I want to do a great job. But the truth of the matter is, if you have trust in the director, you shouldn’t be worrying about that.
7. Failure sounds worse than it is, because despair over failure is the bigger problem. Failure can turn into a learning experience.
8. People focus too much on the technical aspects moviemaking. Obviously technology is amazing when we’re looking at some of the incredible digital elements we can create with. But none of that matters if the story isn’t working, if the audience isn’t connecting with the characters, if the material isn’t hitting you, it doesn’t matter how technically good a film is.
9. Having creative freedom is the key to great work. Part of that can be that you require a lot of rehearsal, a lot of discipline, or it can be saying, “To hell with all of that, let’s just work without a net, discover on the fly, and see what comes of it.”
10. Focus on the creative potential of something, as opposed to the cash and prizes. If you’re doing it for stability, forget it. If you’re doing it because it’s good for your family life, forget it. Not to say those things don’t work out, but that’s not the reason to do it. If your reason for making art is, “I want to make a lot of money,” then go into some other business. MM
The House That Jack Built opens in theaters December 14, 2018, courtesy of IFC Films. All images Courtesy of IFC Films. Featured Image: Matt Dillon hangs behind the scenes of writer-director Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, his 56th feature. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.