Matt Dillon is at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival this week for the world premiere of The Great Fellove, his second feature as a director after a 17-year gap since his debut City Of Ghosts. His new film is a documentary that taps into the actor’s passion for Cuban music, telling the story of Francisco Fellove, a singer and songwriter known for his scat singing.
The film chronicles how Dillon and his friend Joey Altruda travelled to Mexico City in the late 90s to meet Fellove, who had long retreated from the limelight, and to record a final album with him (he passed away in 2013). Dillon unearthed that footage after it has spent many years on the shelf, and decided to flesh it out into a feature film, travelling to Cuba and Mexico, recording interviews with many of Fellove’s contemporaries to understand how much he influenced their musical scene.
The film screens in San Seb today (September 21) for the first time. United Talent is handling the project’s sales.
DEADLINE: Hi Matt, you’ve just come off jury duty at Venice Film Festival, awarding the Golden Lion to Nomadland, how was that?
MATT DILLON: Venice jury was great. Just being back in that kind of environment was great. We watched a bunch of movies in a big theaters, it was nice to see that hasn’t gone anywhere, you can still do it. I actually like it when it’s every other seat at the movies, the distancing. In this tragic situation there’s still some really interesting, lovely things, and it’s less hectic, it’s like a return to the past. I was glad Alberto [Barbera, Venice chief] had the courage to do it, and now we’re on to San Sebastian.
DEADLINE: What does it feel like to be premiering a movie at a film festival right now?
DILLON: For me it’s special, it’s the first film that I’ve directed in 20 years. I think it would be special regardless of the situation – it’s not like I do this every year. But a lot of people who made this film would’ve loved to be here and that’s different.
DEADLINE: Who is going to make it to Spain for the premiere?
DILLON: My producers Carlos Sosa and Cristina Velasco will be with me. And one of my DPs Carlos Rossini too. A lot of the Mexican team are coming, I’m not sure if anyone’s coming from the States.
DEADLINE: You shot a lot of the footage in the documentary back in the 90s when you were recording this album, was it just hanging around?
DILLON: I had been sitting on the footage for a long time. We had all the mini-DV cassettes, it was state of the art at the time. It doesn’t seem that long ago but it’s a lifetime ago. I always take a Super 8 camera with me, I like it. I lost quite a lot of the footage, not all of it survived.
DEADLINE: What was it like filming with Fellove?
DILLON: He was an amazing guy, I loved his music. Back in 1999 [when they went to make the record] he didn’t know who I was, he thought I was a cable wrangler. He kinda got wind that I was actually more than that, and he started to get expectations about this renewed interest in his career. Remember, he’s part of a movement. All the Buena Vista Social Club people were his colleagues, his friends.
I love Cuban music and I was interested in the story of it, the migration of Cubans who left for Mexico [as Fellove did], it was a very interesting time and place. But Fellove was the story, his was the most poignant story for me. He’s an everyman. His success was marginal, only in performance does he live up to ‘the great’, he was a humble guy who came from poor roots. He was a real artist.
DEADLINE: What was Mexico City like in the 90s? I imagine it was a party town.
DILLON: Mexico City? Oh yeah. We would go out with this guy Chocolate…
DEADLINE: He looked like fun…
DILLON: We’d go out and play. The musicians would be out every night. It was a party vibe, though Fellove was very serious.
DEADLINE: You made the doc many years later, how did it come about?
DILLON: I met Carlos [Sosa, producer] in Guadalajara and we talked about it. He found Fellove, who was now living in an actors’ home, he was quite old and not very coherent, illness had caught up with him. But Carlos mentioned my name and Fellove’s eyes lit up.
It was only later when I met the woman who became his manager that she invited me to see all his stuff, his letters, pictures, records… that was how I got the narrative and got motivated to jump into it all.
We had a look at what we shot in ’99 and said, ‘what did we shoot there? Is there a movie?’ Then it became clear to me that there was no reason I couldn’t go back to Mexico, and continue to go back, I went back a lot because I’m a nerd with this stuff and the people I interviewed were fascinating.
DEADLINE: When did you manage to finish the movie?
DILLON: I was working on the edit in New York during lockdown. We finished it in July, a little bit in August.
DEADLINE: How did it feel to get behind the camera again after a 17-year gap (since City Of Ghosts)?
DILLON: I directed my first feature in 2003. That film took a while and I was really proud of it. It was when I did that that I realised, wow, the director is responsible for everything. I felt a responsibility for every aspect of the film. The performances, the look, everything. Acting is a different job.
DEADLINE: You’ve had such an interesting career straddling the Hollywood and indie spaces, and maybe leaned more into indie in recent years – has that been a deliberate progression for you?
DILLON: I look for good characters but the most important thing for me is to work with good directors. Sometimes that’s not forthcoming and I just go to work, and sometimes the most interesting films and independent films, especially lately. I like the creative experience of working with good people. But every movie I’ve done has been worthwhile, there’s something to be said for just going to work.
DEADLINE: Some actors take on those bigger films because it allows them to otherwise work on those smaller indie projects…
DILLON: Yeah I have done that. You could say the Scorsese thing – ‘one for them, one for me’.
DEADLINE: I remember being in Cannes for The House That Jack Built premiere in 2018. I recall some people fainting in the audience…
DILLON: I didn’t hear about fainting but I know a lot of people walked out. But then there was a standing ovation at the end. I don’t know, it’s a very mixed feeling. It’s a tough movie but I loved doing it, loved working with Lars von Trier, he’s a great director. I’m not interested in serial killers, not into that stuff. He asked me early on to trust him which was kind of scary, but I like the director and his films.
DEADLINE: Some actors say they keep a bit of every character inside of themselves… did that happen to you?
DILLON: No. No, no, no. I don’t have some form of dementia where I actually think I’m the character. But if I do a scene with something that’s challenging or dark it can affect me, and it did on that movie. But I know who I am, that Jack is Jack, and that’s it.
DEADLINE: Have you got shoots coming up? Are you likely to be back on set soon?
DILLON: Yes, but I don’t want to say something and then it doesn’t happen. My focus is giving birth to Fellove, finally getting the baby out there.
DEADLINE: Any concerns about getting back on set? Actors are the only ones who don’t get to wear PPE.
DILLON: I’m being responsible right now and I’ll be that way on set. You go into a restaurant with a mask on, you take it off when you eat. I feel ok about doing my job.
I’m more nervous about what I say on this because everything you say right now gets politicized. It’s a disgusting situation that we’re in. I just don’t like the wilful stupidity, people taking off their masks and parading around a supermarket, what is your point? It’s been politicized that way and that’s obscene.
I want to get back to work. I can’t stay still, I have to be creative.