NOC Interview: Matt Dillon on His Documentary Film, ‘El Gran Fellove’

Matt Dillon’s film career has spanned over three decades. The actor has starred in over 50 films such as The Outsiders, Drugstore Cowboy, There’s Something about Mary, Crash, and The House that Jack Built. In 2003, he co-wrote and made his directorial film debut with City of Ghosts. Dillon’s new documentary El Gran Fellove recently had its North American Premiere Screening at the Telluride Film Festival.

El Gran Fellove is a documentary film from actor and filmmaker Matt Dillon, that chronicles the musical career of Cuban scat singer and showman Francisco Fellove and the recording of his last album. Through a series of interviews, archival photos and videos, as well as Matt’s own footage, the film recounts Fellove’s life as a struggling musician in Cuba, his eventual success in Mexico, and the contagious love he had for music until the very end.

I got to speak with the legendary actor about taking on the role of filmmaker, creating such a powerful documentary, his love for Latin music, sharing the film with an audience, what moved him about Fellove, and much more. Keep reading to find out everything he shared with me!

First of all, I got a chance to see the documentary and it was really beautiful.
Matt Dillon: Well, thank you. It was a real honor and pleasure for me to do that film, it was a lot of work, and it didn’t all come together neatly, cleanly and seamlessly; it was a lot of work, but life is complicated and life is messy, you know? This guy was a great artist and an incredible, gifted, brilliant, innovative guy, but he was also very human and flawed. He had his ups and downs. As great as his talent was, as brilliant of a man that he was, his success was marginal and spotty in places. I think, none of us can live our lives perfectly. Everybody has regrets and things. So, with Fellove, for example, I’m not saying that he had a lot of regrets, but there were disappointments or unrealized expectations and things like that. For me, when I first heard him, he really was like, “Well, that’s who he was, The Great Fellove,” this bigger than life character, this exuberant personality, this incredible talent, but who had this exuberance and joy, right? Then, when I got to know him, I could see also the sadness, that his life was not all easy. It wasn’t an easy life. He came from poverty, he came from a difficult background, the deck was stacked against him from early on and yeah, he persevered. So, that is part of what touched me about the story, I felt this pathos, I was moved by him as a man, as somebody who was just really a unique individual. One of the beautiful things I think about nonfiction storytelling or documentary filmmaking is you really can tap into those themes of the meaning of life in a way, what’s important, why we’re here, and I felt was really an honor to be able to do that on someone like him and to shine a light not just on his life and his story, but the story of so many people. So, the key for me was the friendships he had were touching and they moved me. Then sort of the big revelation for me was it also mirrored my own friendship with Joey Altruda and friendships that I’ve had as well as the importance to me of friendship. So, it’s a film about friendship in many ways.

I can tell this was a passion project for you and I could feel how much you truly cared about Fellove’s story. It was really powerful. This was a long journey, a long work in progress since the footage was from a while ago. So I’m curious, how did you feel when you originally started working on it and then how did it feel when you finally saw the finished product?
Well, when I first started working on it, it all kind of came together quickly, it was all born out of this passion that I had for that music, not being a musician myself. At the time, it was just that I had this friendship with Joey, we both love the same kind of music, and it came together kind of quickly. I didn’t have a background in making documentaries. I had a background in film as an actor and I directed a couple of music videos and television, had written script of a movie that I was going to direct shortly afterwards. So, I kind of just jumped in without really knowing where it was gonna end up, you know? What came of it was this incredible footage. To get to know this man in that short period of time really, because it wasn’t a long time, it was only three weeks when we were all together there, was a revelation of like — we kind of knew he was special, we knew he was special because of the music, the old records, and stuff, but when he arrived, I remember the first day there were a bunch of us there through rehearsal, he walked in the room and he had that bigger than life personality. He’s just a great subject for a film, because he’s not somebody that’s brilliant, but really introverted and uninteresting, you know? There are people who do brilliant things, but they’re not necessarily somebody you want to listen to or want to watch. He just is somebody that you can’t forget the moment you meet him. Of course, when he met me, he was very nice like he was to everybody. He had that very old fashioned kind of caballero, he was a real gentleman, but he was also a little bit like, “Who is this guy? Why is he disrupting the rehearsals?” He thought I was just part of like the video crew and he’s nice, but like we have a record to make. Then people started to tell him that guy’s actually one of the reasons and then he started to get these ideas that, “Wow, there’s going to be this renewed interest in my career and my life.” Then he became really interested in me and we hit it off. He was a beautiful soul. So then, of course, when I got back to reality, and then we were trying to figure out what the next step was, we really weren’t sure what would come of the project. I didn’t really know exactly what it was. I knew there was some great footage, but not having had a background in documentaries, I didn’t know I can go back and continue to work on it.

One of the things that was interesting is that I knew the records because I had the records, I’d heard him, and that’s why we fell in love with the music, the early stuff he had done in the ’50s, and even stuff that he was uncredited for that he had done prior to that, but I would say “Fellove, I need some old photographs, records, anything you have that can kind of help me tell the story.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” It was always mañana, mañana. Finally, he gave me a couple Xerox copies of record covers and stuff that really didn’t help me very much and I thought, “Well, there’s just not that much on him.” There wasn’t much on him on the internet and so, it wasn’t until after I went back all those years later and I wasn’t able to visit him because he was living in the actor’s home in the hospital when he wasn’t doing well. I was able to go through all of the things that his manager had saved that were going to maybe end up going out by the curb like his old outfits, clothes, sheet music, and here were the letters, the pictures, and all the things that gave me his life story basically. They were the elements that came together. There I was able to see, he and José Antonio Méndez together in Mexico City, he was the one who brought him to Mexico and it started to come to life. It was that same trip, when I realized that I really had to tell the story, really finish this film, and complete it.

What is it like getting to share this film with an audience after all this time? I know the North American Premiere Screening was on September 4 at the Telluride Film Festival.
Oh, to me, that’s one of the great magic things about cinema is that we never really know what it’s gonna be like until we’re there with an audience. I mean, I’m really thrilled, because it’s taken a long time to get here. Last year, we premiered in San Sebastián and it was very difficult because it was at a time where there were no vaccines yet. The pandemic was really — it’s still a problem, it’s still a serious thing that we’re looking at, but we had a screening. My Mexican producers were there, but a lot of the team from North America was unable to to come. The screening was very emotional and I couldn’t have asked for more, because it just felt that the audience’s heart was open to this film, this person, and I was very pleased in the end that we had accomplished this, you know? That was my feeling when I saw the film and we had a great reaction, if I can say that. It was like one of the best reactions I’ve ever had for any movie I’ve ever made. And it was, of course, just had a difficult time because the world was still locked down and it did play so well on the big screen. It really played well in the theater and there were people that got it. I think that’s the thing, when I spoke to Fellove about certain parts of his life that we cover in the film, like his friendship with José Antonio Méndez, who he always loved, because he’s the one who gave him this new opportunity and brought him to Mexico. Then, that part of the story, their connection, but then also the difficult choice he had to make about whether he should go back to Cuba when his friend left. This means he would be leaving the new family he had Mexico and these are things that I wanted to cover, I wanted to go into that life and the difficult choices that he had to make, but people were able to recognize that and be moved by his friendships and the love of that he had with his wife, who he had met Mexico. These elements of the story were really felt by the audience. One thing that I learned, because as I said, obviously my background isn’t as a documentarian, but I learned that the most important thing is an emotional connection to the protagonist or protagonists in your film. What’s important for me in a documentary is I want to learn about people, but I’m also interested in learning something about history, movements and music, the arts, but you can’t convey that information. People are not able to absorb the information in a dry way. They need to feel emotionally connected. Once you have that, once you have characters or a character that you care about, you’ve got the audience, man. They’re there because they are there with him. And so, then they can absorb all the other information that you’re putting out there. That’s what I learned. So emotion first, information second.

There is something you said at the very beginning of the film that I absolutely loved. It was when you’re talking about how New York was just filled with music because I actually live in Queens, New York. So, I really loved that because it’s so true.
It’s true and I’m an Irish American kid from the suburbs but I love Cuban music. I love Latin music and always have. I mean, I’ve always loved music, but that’s the music that arrived that I was so passionate about.

Music is so universal. I feel like it’s a language that everyone can speak and everyone has their own experience with it. How did your passion for music start? And when did you really decide that it was something you wanted to look into a little further, especially Latin music?
Well, my love of music goes back really, because I don’t come from a musical family, I come from an artistic family, visually, you know, illustrators, drawers, painters, etc., but my father had these old Irish folk records of music and there was great storytelling in these songs. The music was great. As a kid, my father never listened to those records, they were just sort of there. He had them and just brought them along. My brothers and I would listen to this music and we loved it, because there was always a story. Then there was this passionate music that was either making you laugh or making you feel sad. And that music, I think that’s where my love of music really started. Those are two important things in this whole movie is music, love of music, the exuberance, passion, and all this of music, but also storytelling, you know? It’s very important for me, I’ve always been interested in storytelling, but I’m very intolerant of inauthentic schematic storytelling. It has to be authentic, has to come from people, and has to be real. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rational or make any sense at all, but my love of music has always been eclectic from the very beginning, but when I would be in New York City, like we said and Latin music is everywhere, I went right from listening to a lot of jazz and right to like Afro Cuban music. A lot of that was in the beginning with New York salsa stuff, the Palmieri brothers and then to people like Pérez Prado, the iconic Tito Puente. It just expanded in such a rich milieu of music. There’s so much great music in the world, certainly from the 20th century, there’s plenty of music that we forget is so good, such great forgotten music out there and Fellove is part of that. So the love of music in New York is a great place to be as you said. Queens has everything to offer.

I really enjoyed getting to see you all display the process of Fellove recording his last album. What was it like for you to be a part of that experience?
That was — I mean, I was a fly on the wall in essence, because I’m just filming and I don’t really have much to do at all with the making of the record, except just documenting it, but I want it to work as much as anybody. I think one of the difficult things was watching him struggle a little bit in the beginning because in the rehearsals, there was no question that this guy at age 77 even with having some health issues, Parkinson’s  and certain things coming on, the talent, the ability was there and then some. There’s something about watching an artist in their late period, so to speak. Fellove was that, this is like an artist who’s really fascinating because he’s bringing everything that he’s learned and become over the years, he’s bringing it to bear. Yet, we know he’s not going to be able to work on that level for much longer. So, it’s an interesting thing to see that. Once he got into the rehearsals, we could see there was no question that this guy was magic. He was going to be great. Any questions anybody had about whether he could do it anymore, forget that, it’s not an issue. Until we got into the recording session. I think it was difficult because it was an environment he hadn’t been in for maybe over 20 years. So it was like revisiting this thing and they looked at times like maybe this wasn’t gonna quite work out. Then of course, he just came to life. He did what he does so well and that was beautiful. That was a very beautiful moment to see, when you go, “Okay, from now on, I think they’re on easy street.” There’s no more doubt whether he was going to be able to do it, but it had its moments early on. It was exciting to see somebody at that point in their life’s work. I mean, I remember talking to a friend of mine about how many great artists have had a great late period and have had done some really wonderful work late in their career. Fellove’s a singer, not a painter or that kind of artist, but it was there. I often feel that as an actor, when I’m working with an actor who’s really seasoned veteran — I guess, eventually, I’ll become one of them, I’m becoming one of them now, maybe — but there’s something beautiful about watching them, so watchable, so engaging.