Dito Montiel on fighting, clapping and being an unlikely filmmaker

Writer, director and musician Dito Montiel first came to the public’s attention in 1989 when his hardcore band, Gutterboy, signed to Geffen Records for $1million. In 2003, he published A Guide To Recognising Your Saints, a memoir of his life growing up in Queens, New York, during the 1980s hardcore punk scene, which chronicled his time touring, his brief modelling career and his old neighbourhood.

Adapting aspects of the best-selling book into a screenplay, he was persuaded to direct it by Robert Downey Jr., who starred in the 2007 film adaptation as the adult Dito, alongside Shia LaBeouf as his younger self and Channing Tatum.

Montiel’s second novel, Eddie Krumble Is The Clapper, about a professional audience member who’s transformed into a celebrity by Jay Leno was published last year. His second film, Fighting, starring Tatum and Terence Howard as underground street fighters, is released in 2009.

He speaks to Future Movies about genuine fight scenes, the grim reality of being a television clapper and his latest project, based on real, unsolved murders.

Is it true the film company made a trailer for Fighting before they’d even seen the movie?

Yeah, it’s hysterical and beyond me how that’s possible. I think they just got the footage and decided well, Channing looks good without his shirt, we’ll go with that.

Is it like Fight Club?

No, not at all. Originally, they had a script that was horrible. I thought it was pretty bad at least, about basketball players that gamble. What, everyone’s broke but they own Hummers?! One of those.

So they asked me if I’d rewrite it for them and I said, “if you’re talking about guys from the street, the most I’ve ever seen change hands is $20”. I’m more interested in the idea of two people meeting who need each other because they’re a little bit lost.

Now, I like basketball, but there’s only so many ways you can dunk a ball. And when they called up and said, “turn it into fighting”, I told them they were crazy. This would be good for someone else to make but not me.

Still, I started writing it and really had fun with it, referencing retro films like The Warriors. I figured if you’re going to go for it, why not have some fun? So I said look, Terence Howard is itching to do something, let me get him and Channing together, plus some other actors I really like, say Roger Smith and Luis Guzmán. I didn’t want it to be one of these “I’m gonna kick your ass” movies. I wanted it to be something fun that we’re all glad we made.

Do the characters of Sean (Tatum) and Harvey (Howard) bond through fighting?

Yeah, sort of. The first time you meet Harvey, he’s complaining about someone charging him too much for a soda. They just kind of strap onto each other, start roaming together and when they get thrown into this thing, the mentor needs another guy. But the idea of Harvey being a mentor should surprise the audience because he’s someone who’ll argue about the price of a pizza.

As the film is set in New York, do you bring a degree of authenticity to it?

As with my last movie, I think that if you bring relatively real things to a movie, it’s more fun. A lot of things I see in movies … I don’t mind a guy flying, because I know that’s not real. But if you try to portray a reality and you make it really corny, that’s shit. So instead of making them guys who were excited to fight and wanted to be the champion of the world, they would rather just hang around together. But they suddenly get thrown into it and the fights end up being crazy, which is fun because I’ve never done that before. In Saints I had two little fights and I let them really beat each other up. In this movie, at first the producers kept telling me ‘well, you can’t let them do that’. But of course, it looks more real, because they’re really fighting. So we let them really fight and we got some crazy footage. It was very exciting.

Channing’s a maniac. Really crazy, but in a good way. And he’s turned into a really good actor. I joke with him all the time. When I met him I didn’t think he was right for the last movie. And then, when they praised him, I told him ‘I don’t know what the hell they’re praising you about, you weren’t that good’.

I mean, I thought he was good, but the character was quite close to who he was, I don’t know if you’d call it acting. Now though, I think he can really act. He reminds me of a young Steve McQueen. I haven’t seen a guy in a movie like this in a long time.

Is there added pressure because this is your follow-up to a successful debut?

I never wanted to be in this business, although I’m really happy I am. Still, I’ve never really had the pressure, because to me it’s a big gift. There’s pressure for sure. But it wasn’t like this is my baby, I’m going to make a movie out of it and no-one can touch it. This was something they came to me with. The only way I wanted to be a part of it was to do it my way and they’ve been pretty good about that. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking but I’ve had fun.

Speaking of babies, are you planning to turn Eddie Krumble into a film?

Yeah, that’s going to be a really exciting one.

Have you spoken to Jay Leno about playing himself?

Why wouldn’t he? I hope so. I don’t know if he’d be up for it though. After Saints, I just wanted to write something really dumb that someone like me would read on a train. Really simple and a laugh. But I started falling in love with Eddie and I think we can make something a little bit beautiful in the movie.

Would you say that both Eddie and Saints are fantasies about people seeking better lives?

It’s funny. I have a friend called Eddie from Queens, we lived together, and he’s a clapper. He lives out in Los Angeles now and that’s what he does. He’s brought me to do it a few times, these really horrible TV shows. He’s so serious about it all the time, he doesn’t find anything funny in it. It’s a really interesting little world and I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, I was pretty fascinated by it. The thing I really love is that they aren’t even watching the shows, they’re watching the prompter. They’re bringing sandwiches, making small talk and then they’re clapping and laughing on cue. It’s nuts! I really enjoyed it. There were too many stories that were just too insane though, I couldn’t put them in the book.

Judy is a redeeming, angelic figure for Eddie. Is she like the people Dito leaves behind in Saints?

There were a couple of people who were genuinely like saints to me and then they were like ‘I read your book and it was a piece of crap’. I never thought I was Shakespeare. Saints isn’t a book to be that proud of but it reflects a reality for me. And to me, Eddie was the same thing. I just felt like having a bit of a laugh. At times it was a really weird thing to like, because it really started getting into my head and when it came to actually letting go, I was reluctant to leave him. It started to make me sad, and I was like ‘no, Eddie would never get sad’. So I had to give him a happy ending because he deserves a happy ending. And I wanted it to be as corny as possible, just so he could be happy. It’s just a corny little love story, that’s what Eddie would call it.

Do you have anyone in mind to play Eddie?

Oh man, I’m not even going to try to act like a director. All I know is that I thought everybody in Saints was wrong for the role and they all turned out to be right. I’m the worst casting director in the world, though I’d rather Eddie wasn’t a teenager or the hottest young star. I’d prefer someone a bit older, someone a little bit run down. That’s every actor’s dream role: a rundown older guy.

So you didn’t picture Shia LeBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. as Dito in Saints?

Yeah, I didn’t see them as that, I really didn’t see anything. With Martin Compston the role was written for an Irish kid. But then Trudie [Styler] the producer said: “Have you seen this movie Sweet Sixteen? He’s really good, but he’s Scottish. So let’s just make the character Scottish.” I thought no, why not have people keep calling him Irish? When I was a kid, if you weren’t from New York, you may as well have been from Mars.

As far as Robert and Shia were concerned, they were so wrong that they ended up being really right. If you think about Saints, the lead character is Iron Man and when he was a kid he was Indiana Jones and his best friend was GI Joe. What the fuck? I accidentally cast a bunch of super heroes.

Had you considered filmmaking before Robert Downey Jr. suggested you direct Saints?

I remember seeing an interview with Spike Lee in which he was talking about making Malcolm X and crying, tears coming down his face, how he needed the money so bad. And it really struck me that if it can make you cry, it must be pretty interesting and pretty important. He wasn’t crying because he wanted money, he was crying because he really wanted to make that movie.

There were other stories in the Saints book that weren’t in the film. Do you plan to bring those to the screen?

I think that movie was everything I wanted that book to be. I mean, the book was crazy and just a bunch of stories. There’s no beginning, middle or end. There isn’t a person on this earth who hasn’t written a bunch of junk on napkins, laying all around the apartment somewhere, pieces of paper that you find in a shoe. It was just a bunch of things like that that ended up being put together and some guy at a publishing company said he’d put them out. So making the movie was just “ok, let’s try to give this a little bit of a story”. It wasn’t the most normal story I guess but it’s funny when critics say I was doing Cassavetes. I don’t even know sometimes if they’re trying to be nice or bad. They throw “impressionistic” at me, I still don’t know what that means. I’ve heard a few people knock me with it and a few people applaud me with it, so I’ll take the applause and pretend I don’t understand the knocks. That’s what I think is really cool about filmmaking, especially now. I think everyone can be their own little artist but you should be prepared for the world to critique you.

As a musician yourself, are you a hands-on director with the soundtrack?

Oh sure, I drive people crazy. I used to hate it when other people walked in when I was working. Now I’m the one others hate when I arrive.

Are you still making music?

Once in a while I’ll pick up a guitar. My friend Jesse Malin is coming out to Los Angeles at the end of the month to play and he asked me to do a few songs with him. So I’m like yeah, it’ll be kind of fun, to get some drinks in and perform something stupid in front of everybody.

Have you got any other projects lined up?

I have this thing I wrote and I’m really crazy about it, The Story of Milk. It’s the story of a kid named Milk based on a true account of two kids that got away with murder. Well, it’s true as far as I know it’s true, so I’m certain a lot of people are going to be trouble when I make it. These kids are involved in two murders and get away with it and it’s about how it affects their lives as adults, each in different ways. Milk is a white kid that grew up in the projects, the only white kid there.

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