Dito Montiel - A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Question: Can you describe your family background?

Dito Montiel: My father is from Nicaragua, born and raised there, and my mother is Irish, from Coney Island in Brooklyn. My father used to call me Casper as a kid because I'm so white. But I pretty much grew up in an Italian-Greek neighborhood. It was always ignorance more than racism - a little more forgiving.


Question: How much liberty did you take in translating your life and the lives of your childhood friends to the big screen?

Dito Montiel: I took huge liberties. This was no James Frey book! This is a combination of a million different stories (real and imagined). The Mike O'Shea character was a composite of one of Antonio's younger brother and an actual guy named Mike O'Shea who was from Ireland and now he lives in England - and he's alive and well, so he's probably surprised that he dies in the movie. I'm telling a story - the truth is in the emotion of the characters.


Question: What are some of the major differences you encountered between writing a memoir and shooting a movie of that memoir?

Dito Montiel: The idea of making any sort of biographical picture wasn't really interesting to me or to any of the people involved in the film - especially to me. You watch something like THE AVIATOR and think 'now that's an interesting life.' For the film, I just really wanted to capture the feeling of my book. The book has about sixty different stories. With the movie you feel like one or two of the stories is tough enough. I wanted to zero in on a moment in the book and touch the feeling of that moment for than telling an autobiographical story.


Question: Was there a decision to go with the most tragic moments for this movie?

Dito Montiel: An important part of making the film, which was also an important part about making the movie, was not to judge or vilify anybody, you know. I wanted to just lay it out there as it is. I hate viewing things through rose-colored glasses so the thought was to keep things feeling as real as possible for this movie. It was more about capturing the emotion of the book - and the warmth, hopefully.


Question: You assembled a terrific ensemble cast for which you won a prize at SundanceÂ…how did you assemble such a great cast?

Dito Montiel: This has been a strange trip and it's a particularly hard question to answer because there's so many answers. Initially I was terrified of my whole cast because I didn't really want to make a film with big movie stars. I love movies like RAISING VICTOR VARGAS and CITY OF GOD - which tried to keep things as real as possible. But when it came down to it, the cast did something very special. I know that's the typical response from a director who is congratulating his actors - what they each did individually was something incredibly special for me.


Question: What do you think Robert Downey Jr. brought to the part of Dito in the film?

Dito Montiel: Robert Downey Jr. was probably the most complex of all the actors. When I first wrote the part, I was thinking of Robert. And he said he would try a Queens accent or something, which got me really worried. The hardest thing about directing - and this is something I learned quickly - is once you put something on paper, it doesn't exist anymore. Unless someone is playing Gandhi, and even then it doesn't exist. The characters get handed off in a way. What Robert brought to the role is exactly the opposite of what I would have brought to the role, which is sappy and sympathetic. Robert brought realness to the role. He came to the set thinking it was about a guy who comes back to his neighborhood and realizes everyone from his past is a loser - that's not what it's about at all, but I never told him that. He brought this sense of indifference to the role that played out as a slow awakening - he made it very special in that way.


Question: Was it odd to watch an actor playing you - is the character, in fact, you?

Dito Montiel: I put my name in the film because I'm dumb like that. This was never my story once it became the movie. Everyone just took it and ran and that's what was fun about making this film. Robert Downey Jr. certainly wasn't playing me in this film. I handed him a role and he internalized it and decided how he felt about the role. So while it was certainly strange to hear my name over and over, the film is not 100 percent autobiographical.


Question: How did you come upon Channing Tatum for the role of Antonio? It seems like he's been hiding in teen movies until now.

Dito Montiel: He was someone I was really concerned about too. Antonio, the guy I wrote, he's 5 foot 8 and pretty scraggly looking and every bit as tough as Channing - but definitely not as good looking. When Channing showed up, I though,' Oh my God, it's a Bruce Weber model' - blue eyes, blond hair and he's from the South. But then we got together and started talking about the role. There's something about Channing - he might look like a Bruce Weber model and come from the South but I knew this character inside and out and I can't believe how well he nailed this person. Emotion was all that mattered to me and he certainly embodied all the lost qualities I wanted to convey in the character of Antonio. I don't know how he pulled it off, to do things that are more or less criminal but still come off as compassionate.


Question: How does New York of your youth compare to New York now? Was it a challenge finding streets that could pass as 1986, considering how much New York City has gentrified in the last twenty years?

Dito Montiel: It's not all that different now (compared to 1986). I'm actually in Astoria now. There have been a lot of changes in Brooklyn and Manhattan but Queens has always been like this series of small towns in the big city. We shot on almost all the same streets that the story actually took place. We did one day in the East Village, which was the hardest part. Because the East Village to me was rubble - I don't even know if the South Bronx looks like the East Village anymore. Now it's a whole different planet, with fancy restaurants on Avenue C. We managed to find one block (East Third Street) that was as close to that eighties feel that I could remember. Astoria was a lot easier because it's more or less unchanged.


Question: One thing you captured particularly well was the idea of a cramped New York City apartment during an unbearably hot summer - how do you achieve this without being totally obvious?

Dito Montiel: We kept going for this sense of opposites with the whole film. Eric Gautier, the director of photography, is never intrusive as a cameraman, he doesn't swoop in the hypodermic needles, if you know what I mean, or zoom in on a hot radiator. The whole film is like that. I believed that it would come through without stressing the obvious things. That was a big part of it, from the acting, to the costumes, we just trusted that it would seep through. I don't need a lot of New Yorkers talking like, 'Yo, Vinnie!' And I don't need to see the Empire State Building - that's what I mean about going for opposites. Going for the less obvious maybe is a better description.


Question: The film feels like a mood piece in many ways. You use a lot of unique stylistic flourishes in the course of the film, like characters talking to the screen, or unconventional voiceovers. Did you try and make the film as unconventional as possible?

Dito Montiel: There really was no advanced planning for this movie! The only plan was to make things feel as real as possible. The hope was to experience the film more than to watch the film. A lot of the film, because it's set in 1986, is supposed to be these fragmented memories. How do you put those pieces back together again? That was the thought behind it, if there was one at all.


Question: What about the voiceovers - they're used so inventively in the film...

Dito Montiel: We tried to stay away from typical voiceovers and flashbacks. I don't know much about film except that I love it. I know that the guy who wrote MIDNIGHT COWBOY said that he was uptight about the idea of flashbacks. He never wanted anything to look like 'Oh, I remember when...' There was never any plan for the voiceovers, like when Dito and Mike are on the subway talking. I remember watching the scene and thinking that it's no wonder nobody wanted to make this movie... what they're saying is very quiet. But it's more about what they're NOT saying. It's a whole movie about people not saying anything. If you listen to the voiceovers they're really conversational as opposed to expository.


Question: So would you say this film really came to life in post-production?

Dito Montiel: It was a combination of factors. That's where it got really fun. On the streets filming it was fun because you start seeing pieces of the movie come together. The term 'dailies," which is all new lingo to me, was supposed to be what everyone fell in love with on set before you edited the film - footage that then ends up not looking as good when you finally edit. Well my experience was the opposite. I was looking at dailies and I was ready to shoot myself. I thought it looked like a bunch of madness. It really started to come together for me when I watched actors like Chazz Palminteri really go for it.


Question: It must have been one thing to write your memoir and sort of purge yourself of all these traumas you endured. What was it like adapting the memoir into a screenplay - were you dredging up these memories all over again? Was it cathartic for you in any way?

Dito Montiel: When I first started working with Eric Gautier I told him that I loved REQUIEM FOR A DREAM but this wasn't that neighborhood. I loved CLOCKERS but this also wasn't that neighborhood. I wanted it to be a beautiful place, which is how I remembered it. But there is always pain involved with beauty; that's just the way life is. I told Eric I wanted to walk down those streets again and fall in love with Laurie again. It wasn't so much painful as a sort of walk down memory lane.


Question: Can you give us an update on some of the characters in the film - the ones that were loosely based on real people from your past?

Dito Montiel: My mother passed away. Nerf is still great - he's an ambulance driver now. Antonio's younger brother is cracked out of his mind - I gave some of his real-life dialogue to Nerf's character in the film. Giuseppi is a career criminal. Antonio's still in prison. And Laurie died of AIDS two years ago.


Cast Interview www.femail.com.au/a-guide-to-recognizing-your-saints-interview-characters.htm


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