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OLD SCHOOL
Dito Montiel adapts his own autobiographical memoir into a haunting cinematic memory piece, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

BY SCOTT MACAULAY

A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS WRITER-DIRECTOR DITO MONTIEL. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

Independent film is full of writer-directors who have scavenged through their childhood and adolescences to find material for their first feature. But many times, once these characters and storylines are put on the page, something goes missing. Storylines get developed, characters grow arcs, and what starts out rooted in deeply felt personal truth winds up feeling like just another indie coming-of-age tale.

Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which premiered in Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival this year and will be released by First Look in September, could have easily fallen into these traps. Based on Montiel’s own memoir of growing up in a rough Queens neighborhood, the film chronicles Dito’s transformation from a conflicted youth within a violent world to a sensitive soul who has found his voice by articulating his past as a writer. Full of teenage lust and random violence and taking place during a steamy New York summer where anything can happen, the movie at times recalls films like Kids, Mean Streets and The Basketball Diaries, but what makes Saints so fresh and emotionally devastating is its quality of memory. Somehow, Montiel, a writer, musician and now first-time director, has imbued his film with a real feeling of lived experience, and his filmmaking — aided incomparably by the great cinematographer Eric Gautier, editors Christopher Tellefsen and Jake Puchinsky, and a great cast — beautifully captures the ways that people we knew and moments we shared ricochet through our consciousness throughout our lives.

I spoke with Montiel on July 4 in Astoria, Queens, the neighborhood where he shot his movie.

JULIA GARRO AND MELONIE DIAZ IN A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS.

How much did your memory of the real places, people and events of New York in the mid-’80s help — or possibly hinder — you in making the movie? When we started thinking about how to make this movie, the biggest thing for me was that it not be “about New York.” I mean, I like some movies that are very obviously New York, like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee movies. But with movies like Raising Victor Vargas or 9 1/2 Weeks, you know you’re in New York, but you don’t have to see the Empire State Building. [The location] just feels appropriate, and that’s all that matters. It was really important that this movie could take place in Ames, Iowa, and that someone there might say, “I knew a kid like that guy,” or “That was me,” or “That other guy, I knew him. He lived next door to me.” And also, I thought, I didn’t want this movie to be about me, Dito. I didn’t want it to be autobiographical. I mean, I was dumb enough to [name the protagonist after me], and everything is personal — that’s a given — but the last thing I wanted to do was stress the obvious.

Still, though, the actors are playing roles based on people you knew growing up. Did you ever show them photos of the real people, or tell them stories about them? No. They never read the book either. And the script went in the garbage can the minute we started filming.

Really? In the garbage. Immediately. When you write scripts — it’s funny — you fill them up with exclamation points and dumb question marks. You write in “coughs.” You just put these things in, and it’s because you’re delusional — you think you are actually directing a film on your little computer, which you’re not. The minute you show up to the set, [an actor asks,] “This guy keeps coughing. Why?” And it’s like, “Well, I wrote, ‘He coughs.’” Another actor says, “And this guy keeps yelling. Why?” “Well, I put in four exclamation points.” It all just becomes a bunch of garbage. Every time something sounded false, it was because it was [written as] a direction in the script.

When did you decide after writing the book that you would want to direct the movie? And how did that happen? I had shot some shorts for fun with a friend who was working with me in a dub room out in Santa Monica. My editor, Jake, was the sound music editor there. This guy I worked for, Jonathan Elias, he’s a friend too, and me, him and Robert Downey knew each other over years of roaming around. The book came out, and Robert used to come by a lot. So we started talking about making a movie, and it seemed like a crazy pipe dream at first, but then it started to sound kind of real. Robert is that weird combination of just famous enough, just crazy enough, and just cool enough that he’ll allow this to happen, where he won’t sell you out and he’ll take a risk.

SHIA LABEOUF.

So you didn’t meet for the first time when he approached you at Book Soup in L.A., like I read somewhere? We keep laughing about that! We have been to Book Soup together, but we didn’t meet there. I’ve known Robert for years. And he knew Trudie Styler, the producer, and he brought her down. She has a guy who works at her company named Alex Francis, who is just incredible. He is what you might call a script doctor. And me, her, him, Jonathan and Robert all sat down and started talking about how we were going to make this movie. I was terrified because autobiography... I mean, I didn’t even care that much about the The Aviator and it was directed by Scorsese and it was about a guy who actually did things! We talked about different ideas and thought, Let’s just take one moment. So we took one moment out of the book and started building around that.

And that moment was...? A kid I knew killed this guy with a baseball bat. Pretty heavy shit. And so I thought, Okay, let’s see if [that story] can turn this world around. And Robert was big on Memento at the time, so he said, “We need something else going on.” I said, “What else?” And Robert was like, “Let’s do it backwards. We should come up with two stories that might run into each other.” So that was how the idea came about.

The other story being the Dito character returning to his old neighborhood from L.A. to see his ailing dad? Yeah. We were just trying to give a reason for why [the audience] is watching this. Alex kept saying, “If you’re so big on this not being autobiographical, then why am I watching the film?” Which is a good question, and I feel like we answered it pretty well.

How long did that process of getting a script down take? It took a while. I mean, I really thought INT meant “introducing” and that EXT meant “exit.” I had no idea about scriptwriting at all. I felt like I could do it, but I just had to understand how it was done. So it was a long process of maybe like a year of putting it together. And then along the way, the Sundance [Writers Lab] came into the picture, which was just wacky, you know? A [producer] out in California named Leslie Urdang got the script, which was, like, 150 pages. She passed it on to Sundance, and Michelle Satter, who sort of runs the trip there, called me up one day. I had never even heard of the labs. I thought it was some Learning Annex kind of scam [laughs]. I asked Michelle how much it costs, and she said, “It’s free,” and I was like, “Okay.” So I was there with Anthony Drazan, Frank Pierson and Walter Mosley. I mean, these guys are pretty good. They sit there, and they do that same thing like Alex from Trudie’s company was doing with me. They just say these questions that sound like weird Bodhi Tree conversations. It’s like, “Well, why do I care about Laurie?” And at first you’re a jerk and say, “Because it makes sense!” But when you get to hear it from people like [these guys], it makes you listen more. If this guy wrote Dog Day Afternoon, well, okay. Frank Pierson would say things like, “I don’t give a damn about this kid. Either kill him, make him kill himself, get him out of your script or make me care.” I kind of like the way they sort of handed you another problem on top of a problem and walked away.

CHAZZ PALMINTERI.

It seems like it might have been a hard movie to make, just in terms of the number of locations, the period detail and the budget. What were your days like on this movie? I don’t know the exact budget, but I think it was like $2.4 million and 24 days of filming, which sounded to me like War of the Worlds. I mean, I never made a [feature] before, and my shorts were truly zero budget. You hear “zero budget” a lot in Hollywood, and that means maybe $50,000, but I mean zero. I had friends hold the DAT player and maybe you buy pizza. A couple of hundred dollars, tops. So $2.4 million in 24 days of filming sounded to me like I could make the fucking Ten Commandments. I used to think, Ah, cinematography, you just hold the camera. Wardrobe, you just put clothes on people. What, are you kidding me? Making shorts, you kind of have to have that mind. Like, it’s 1986: “Okay, here, put this on inside out and backwards.” And somehow it works in shorts, and then all of a sudden no one thinks it can work anymore when someone gives you [a larger budget].

Well, when did you realize that that’s actually not such a large budget for making a period film with the caliber of the people you were working with? I like the struggle of films. I think that’s what makes them good. I mean, I love Martin Scorsese as much as anyone, but I think that they should have given him $5 million to make Gangs of New York. I would have probably enjoyed it more. You know, we’re actually [sitting right now] where we filmed most of the film, and I don’t know what I would change to make this 1986 except, well, that’s a pretty nice car over there, so get rid of that.

What was the biggest thing you learned about the process of making a feature? The most important thing [when making a film] is that you have people who understand what you’re trying to make because you doubt yourself when you’re making a film. It’s really just about putting the right people together, and the best doesn’t always mean right. My cinematographer, Eric Gautier — who is great, he shot Motorcycle Diaries. He’s made 40 films, and he comes from that world where “No marks? No problem, let’s just go.” Or “No rehearsal? This is going to be more fun.” [A person like that] is a really exciting person to work with for me. [That attitude] may not work with Brian De Palma, and he’s fucking great — Carlito’s Way is one of the best films I’ve ever seen — but for me, [Eric] couldn’t have been a better fit. The only hard times during production were when I didn’t inform the crew early enough that I didn’t care about things. They would say, “The refrigerator was just there. It can’t be here now,” and I would say, “What? Who cares?” And then we’d start filming. It’s funny, you know — on IMDb, people post goofs, but that’s what makes movies fun. There’s nothing better than seeing a goof!

How did you wind up getting Eric to shoot your first feature, especially given that he’s never shot a feature in the U.S. before? Did you know that you needed a cinematographer who could work the way Eric does? I didn’t know anything about him beforehand.

So you could have wound up with De Palma’s cinematographer? I would have killed for him, you know. Originally Dante Spinotti was supposed to shoot the film. I met him, and he came to Astoria, and I was like, Wow, this is really trippy. He probably would have done an incredible job, but it didn’t work out — he had to go do another movie when the money came in. I really liked Ellen Kuras, and we spoke a lot on the phone, but unfortunately she was doing another film. And then Eric, someone told me he was coming to New York to meet about another movie. I had seen bits and pieces of The Motorcycle Diaries, and it was beautiful looking. And Michelle [Satter] over at Sundance, she said, “If you can get Eric, he’d be great.” So I found out where he was meeting this guy, and I had it set up that I would meet right after. I met him, and he hadn’t even read the script. I asked him to do it and told him we’d have a lot of fun. He read it and called me up the second he got back to France and said yes. And then I really grew to love the idea [of using him] more and more. It wasn’t because I was smart enough to plan it ahead of time — I’m more of a reactor. When you tell me I have to work with somebody, then I figure out why it’s a good idea. I liked that he was only in New York once before. I liked that he would sort of look at [a location] and not get precious about “That sign used to be yellow.” Sure, it used to be yellow. Now it’s not. We can’t afford to change it! And it’s not that he doesn’t pay attention to detail, but I think he’s got an emotional quality as a cinematographer.

How did you go about the casting? And how did you match your older and younger actors who play the same character, like Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr., and Melonie Diaz and Rosario Dawson? Initially, I was really obsessed with movies like Kids. I didn’t want any [name] actors in my film at all. I did nine open calls all over New York, and I found all the kids that I was sure these were the perfect kids. I didn’t know that we were going to get any famous people other than Robert Downey, and I really didn’t want any. I love movies like City of God, and if Robert De Niro appeared in the middle of City of God, it would blow it for me. I’ll see City of God before I’ll see Glenn Close doing an independent film. [Casting stars in independent films] feels manipulative. I feel like as an audience member, Oh, they’re tricking me into this indie film. So I found this one girl, Eleonore Hendricks from Coney Island, I wanted to play the role of Laurie. Now, she’s in the movie only for a small amount — she’s the girl in the hallway that Antonio is trying to get with. I just loved her, and I thought, Oh my god, I found a young Jodie Foster. And then the next thing I know, [the producers] are talking with Rosario Dawson about playing [the older Laurie]. I said, “No, I found this white girl.” And they said, “No, we got Rosario Dawson.” Now, I love Rosario, and I’m happy she’s in the film. She’s one of those people who can be raw but can also really act, and she’s just honest on camera. Then Melonie Diaz came in to audition one day; I’ve loved Melonie ever since Raising Victor Vargas. She’s also natural and raw, but she doesn’t have to be raw — she can do the script word for word and nail it too. I kept thinking about Melonie [to play the young Laurie], but Melonie doesn’t look anything like Rosario. And then we found this one girl who looked exactly like [a young] Rosario Dawson, and she was good too. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Melonie. Then Shia fell into this, and I thought, That other girl and Shia, I don’t know if they would work or not. But Shia and Melonie would be the perfect couple. Melonie came back for a third audition, and I said, “Melonie, you’re killing me because I really think you’re great, but we have Rosario Dawson, and the girl has to look like her.” And she said, “I don’t look like her, right?” I said no. And then at the last minute I was like, “Fuck it! We never cared about anything else as long as the emotion’s right.” And now I hear people say [Melonie and Rosario] look so much alike in the film. To me they don’t, but they were honest and they brought truth to the characters. That’s all you look for.

When you say you had all these people, were you getting famous people because the producers needed to raise money for the movie? Money for independent films comes and goes, and each bunch of money that shows up comes with a new name. There are these crazy things, like the guy who plays Hercules can get you a million dollars in Amsterdam. One bunch of money showed up, and Shia LaBeouf, he’s going to be in this huge Disney movie about golf, and he’s going to take over the world. And I said, Who? No! I was so against him because I only knew him from [Project Greenlight]. And then he did the audition, he did his own thing, and he was so fucking good. And then Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest and Rosario Dawson came along. I had this dumb sort of reverse crisis of what most people would have. I was like, I don’t want anybody I know. People kept saying, You should be so fucking lucky to be turning down these people! But [casting them was] no crazier than someone letting a first-time director make a movie. So in the end I had that lucky combination of people famous enough who meant enough who were also good enough. No, not good enough — right enough.

What was your relationship like with Chazz? Because he’s someone playing a character inspired by your father. Chazz was one of my biggest obstacles. I was really obsessed about not making this a New York film, and for me, putting Chazz in the film was like showing the Empire State Building. He really wanted to be in the film, and he actually put another film off to be in it. I’ve learned now that that’s a big deal when you’re making a film — [having] people who want to be there. We didn’t have any rehearsal time, and I mean none. [The actors all met] the first day on set. We started doing the scene where [Chazz’s character] has a seizure — it was one of the first scenes that we shot. There’s all this craziness going on, and Channing Tatum, who played [Dito’s brother] Antonio, he starts asking, “What can I do in this scene?” And I said, “You can do whatever you want.” “What do you mean?” “Anything you want, I don’t care. To be honest, I wouldn’t know what [I would] do myself if I was Antonio. I would be so full of insanity. If I saw a man I love having a seizure, I’d kill somebody. I’d pick up a fucking TV, and I’d bash it over the fucking guy’s head because he’s dying on me.” Channing’s a big guy, and he’s like, “I might really freak out.” And I’m like, “You can’t freak out enough for me, man.” So we’re getting ready to shoot the scene. Everyone’s ready to just go crazy, and Chazz is looking on — I think he got a kick out of it at first, like, “Oh, these crazy independent guys.” So it was like, “Let’s do it one time with no words. You guys can say whatever you want, and I’ll read the script out loud.” We’re shooting it, and everyone’s talking to me while we’re doing it, which is really fun. And Channing is like, “I’m going to fucking freak out!” And I’m like, “I don’t give a fucking shit!” It was like a red light went on — he picks this table up, which wasn’t scripted, and he throws it through the glass, and the glass goes all over Dianne Wiest, for real. She’s barefoot, she cuts up her feet, and all hell is breaking loose. She flips out and grabs him by the hair, for real, but they all stay in character. No one says, “Cut,” or “My foot is bleeding.” This woman won two Academy Awards, and she’s willing to go for the ride. And then the line producer comes in screaming, “What are you, fucking crazy?” And I’m like, “That was fucking great!” And then they grabbed Channing and they’re like, “Listen, you can’t be doing that.” Channing is freaking out, and he’s like,” I’m really sorry,” and he’s asking Dianne Wiest, “Are you okay?” and she’s bugging out. And then Chazz comes over and he grabs the guy who was yelling at Channing, and he was like, “Don’t you yell at him — he was doing what he wanted to do.” Chazz did what [his character] Monte would have done with [Tatum’s character] Antonio. He would protect him from everyone who’s yelling at him. It sounds corny, but movies are corny like that. He did exactly what Monte would do. And Channing was like Antonio. He was kind of like, “I fucked up.” I looked over at Shia, and he was just kind of left out of the scene. And Dianne is looking like, “I’ll go along for the ride, but this kid’s nuts!” And that [attitude] is right for the [the character of the] mother. From that moment on, I think everybody just was [his or her] role, and I credit a lot of that to Chazz. I don’t know if he did it consciously or unconsciously, or just because he’s a good guy or because he knew the role. But for whatever reason, I was like, Boy, I’m so lucky. From now on, this is going to be great.

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: 35mm.

CAMERA: Aaton 35-III and Panavision Panaflex.

FILM STOCK: Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and Vision2 250D 5205.

EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Film Composer

COLOR CORRECTION: Traditional film color-timing at DuArt in New York.


GO BACK AND WATCH...

BASKETBALL DIARIES: Scott Kalvert’s 1995 adaptation of Jim Carroll’s memoir dramatizes the writer’s portrait of himself as a young Catholic addict.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER: John Badham’s 1977 classic of a toe-tapping leisure-suited John Travolta was the ur-text of a kid from the boroughs dying to find himself in Manhattan.

SUNDAY: Jonathan Nossiter’s 1997 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner takes a look at the unmelted pot of immigration that is Queens, New York, today.

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