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Interview with Dito Montiel, director of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Review of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Dito Montiel directs A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints about a middle-aged man named Dito (Downey, Jr.) who recalls his rough childhood growing up in Astoria, New York during the 1980’s. Chazz Palminteri plays Dito's terminally ill father who reunites with Dito (Robert Downey, Jr.) after 15 years. This is Dito Montiel's first feature film. I had the privilege to interview him.

First Look Media will release A Guide to Recognixing Your Saints on September 29th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: At what point did you decide to turn the book into a movie?

DM: I was working in Los Angeles with Jake Pushinsky who had never [edited] a film in his life. He didn’t even know how to use Avid, but he’s got that ridiculous talent that editing [requires]. It’s like drummer—I think [you can only] be born a drummer. You can get lessons, but you’re born a drummer. He’s a born editor. We went out with a little video camera—real DV— not Hollywood budget. We’re talking about low budget. When we came back to New York, I filmed this dirt spot on a train and I said, “Check this out, it looks kinda cool” and we put all these sounds on it and music. Actually, the real Antonio, was talking to me [from] prison and, so we [edited his voice into the film]. We did it for a minute and then we did one for 6 minutes. I had sort of known Robert Downey, Jr. which is a nice thing when you’re trying to make a movie. He came in, saw the short and said, “This is great. Let’s do it.” Of course, that comes to a long process of craziness, but, in the end, he stayed there for that day. [The cast] stuck by a director that they really didn’t know what he was doing. I had a [good] feeling and it doesn’t happen all the time. This was just a lucky course of events.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the book turning into a movie?

DM: I never even thought that this was actually going to be a book [in the first place], so it’s all pretty remarkable to me. Once we started making it into a movie, Robert [Downey, Jr.] actually wanted to direct it which sounded great to me because I didn’t even think in a million years that they would ever let me [direct it]. Me and Jake [Pushinsky], the editor, secretly talked about it. One day, Robert [Downey, Jr.] said, “I really like your short [film]. You should direct it,” and I said, “If you can talk Trudy Styler, [a producer], into it, then I’ll do it.” She called me the next day and said, “Now, Mr.Downey seems to think that you can direct the film.” I said, “sure” and she said, “You never worked with a movie star before, so make a short [film] with Robert this week and if I like it, you can direct the film.” Luckily, [the short film] was good enough that she [let me direct this film]. From then on, they both stuck by it. It sounds corny praising your producers, but they stood by a first time director.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How long did it take to turn the book into a movie?

DM: The [process of] the book to the movie was a long time—it took 4 years.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get the incredible ensemble cast together?

DM: Against my will. I fought for every single one of them. I did a bunch of open calls in New York and, luckily, I got a lot of the younger cast off the street. I was convinced that any actor would destroy my movie. I think taking a movie like City of God and putting Robert De Niro in it would destroy it. I couldn’t be happier, honestly. Nobody could be Monty besides Chazz [Palminteri]. Before he was Monty, there was no way he could have been Monty. Monty is from Nicaragua and he’s 5’4”. Chazz is 6’4—he blew my mind how [tall] he is.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How similar were the characters to the real people in your life?

DM: It’s been really weird making this movie. All the characters in my film are a combination of at least three people and sometimes six or seven people. Antonio is the combination of three different people, really. But there was a kid named Antonio who I grew up with that did go to jail for a really time for things that are even beyond putting in a movie that people might find redeemable. The person I based the character on was a kid who was in a horrible abusive house. I, [on the other hand], was in a house full of love. I can’t imagine what that was like, so I tried to base the character on much different people.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How much of this film is based on real events?

DM: If you look at the book, that’s all the facts that I can tell. I tell the stories of people who I’ve met in life. In the movie, Giuseppe in real life was deported [to Milano] for being a career criminal. A kid [named] Billy we knew was riding trains when he got killed. When we were [shooting] the movie, we couldn’t put a kid on top of a train because nobody [was] allowed to get on top of it. Adam Scarimbolo, the actor who played Giuseppe decided that it was like suicide scene. The [real Giuseppe] was like a cat. The train would come and two seconds later he would pop up, but this kid was playing like [it was] a suicide. I asked Adam why he’s doing that and he said, “Because my brother [Antonio] loves me.” And I said, “Boy, that’s so much more interesting that what I wrote.” So, the whole film was an evolution and a fun one.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did the real Antonio react to seeing this film?

DM: He didn’t. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will see it. Do you think they’d show it in prison?

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get into playing music?

DM: When I was 13 years old, I was walking down Avenue A and a guy Billy I met was in a band called Urban Waste and they were a great hardcore band. He quite and said [that he was going] to start a new band and asked me what [instrument] I play. I said, “Nothing” and he said, “Well, I’ve got a guitar, so you’ll play the guitar” and I [agreed]. We sucked [at playing], but I had so much fun.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What directors are your role models?

DM: I love Spike Lee. The 25th Hour is my favorite film ever. I love Brian De Palma--Carlito’s Way is one of the greatest films ever. I’m just in awe of that craft. I don’t know how to put marks down. But I know Brian De Palma tells you where to put that cigarette. [I also like] Martin Scorsese—the whole world likes him for a good reason. I like Darren Aronofsky. My favorite is Spike Lee because, to me, a Spike Lee film is like a Bob Dylan record: even if it sucks, it’s still a great song. I get off on watching all those directors talk on the DVD [extras], so that’s my school and it’s a good one.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about writing?

DM: Writing always [includes] bit of yourself. You write King Kong and there’s a little bit of yourself in King Kong. [Despite that this film is labeled as] a memoir, I’m barely in this film. For me, it’s fun to write about them. In my versions of them, I don’t know who they are. I know what they did for me and that’s it. Making this film and writing it was almost like a bit of fiction trip for me because it’s like, “Okay, this happened to Angelo. Let’s give that to Antonio.” It’s always going to be a little bit of that if I’m writing.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How different would the movie be with a bigger budget?

DM: I don’t know. To be honest, we made the movie for $2.4 million which was a whole lot of money for me and it is a whole lot of money. Hollywood is a weird thing because it’s delusional and it’s crazy. One minute, we made a no-budget short [film] and “no budget” probably means $100—we had to get pizza and a couple people helped out and we brought a cassette player. Hollywood could start talking about nothing and it could mean anything from $100,000 to $10,000,000. Once Robert Downey, Jr. was around, then we had to actually start to find [more money]. I wouldn’t know what to do with [a bigger budget]. I’m sure everyone else would find something to do with it. I like to scrape nickels and dimes to get what I need.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was most of the budget spend on?

DM: I don’t really know. I know that was shot on location in the streets and my girlfriend did [the] catering. Our friends were bringing in everything they could and we were using a lot of my friends’ apartments. When I was a kid, they shot Goodfellas on my block, which is the same block where we made this [film]. It was the most exciting thing in the world for me. I didn’t know who any of them were, we were running around the set stealing the craft services. Actually, the real Giuseppe stole their lighting truck and we had the same locations guy who told us that. It was really exciting to film there because I had a feeling that the neighborhood would still be like that because I think it still is. It still has a little bit of that untouched quality to it, but not entirely. People were excited to be extras.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the relationship with your father like?

DM: He’s a great father. We had one scene which is not really in the film: I bought a VHS for him once because he liked The Untouchables, so I put the [movie] in and I remember he was watching it and he was liked Kevin Costner. And after twenty minutes, he was like, “Where’s the commercials?” and I told him, “It’s that machine” and he goes like, “Ah” and walks away. He wouldn’t watch it. That’s him. The movie was to be told through two people’s eyes and, to me, picking a perspective was important. I picked the perspective of Antonio and Monty. They’re not lying to anyone—they are doing the best that they can.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was your relationship with your mother like?

DM: It’s probably like [Dito’s mother]. She was pretty close to reality.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What would you like audiences to take away from the film?

DM: I hope that they enjoy it—I enjoyed it. The only thing that I was particular about making the film was that it was a film full of love and that there were no villains in it. That’s my personal thing. I liked the way that Channing [Tatum] and several people did that. It’s tough when you’re making a movie about anything that’s like New York because it becomes a joke really easy. A bad guy becomes a joke even easier. What I liked about what Channing did was that he brought a little bit of this “mice and men” thing to the film. So, it was important for me that there were no cartoons in my film, [so-to-speak].

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on next?

DM: I have a book coming out in February [2007] called The Clapper. It’s about a guy who claps for a living on bad TV shows. Hopefully, that will [turn into] a movie. These guys at Paramount [Pictures] really liked A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and they gave me this script called Running and they let me, sort of, do whatever I want with it.

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