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No small miracle

High-powered intervention saved the day for `Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.'

September 29, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

WHILE making the semiautobiographical "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," first-time writer-director Dito Montiel learned a few things that might be worth sharing with the group. Like, if you're going to tell a young actor that his character's reaction might include throwing a table through a window, it would be prudent to inform the assistant director and possibly the actress standing next to the window. Also a prop window would be nice.

Or, when casting characters based on your parents and friends, you are going to have to let go of the physical details even though this will be extremely difficult. Or that using kids straight off the street in crucial roles may sound like a great, gritty indie idea, but there is such a thing as a schedule and a budget, and actual actors will help you meet both of these. Finally, while it is beneficial to recognize one's personal saints, it is even more important to trust them.

Fortunately for Montiel, who at 35 has had one of those bicoastal-eclectic careers -- lead singer for Gutterboy, punk rock memoirist, Calvin Klein underwear model -- the saints involved in making this movie proved to be stalwart and well connected.

The film, which lands in theaters today and is based on Montiel's almost stream-of-consciousness memoir about growing up in Queens and the downtown New York punk scene, has already picked up awards at the Sundance and Venice Film festivals.

"Usually when you hear a story like this," Montiel said, "you find out the guy's last name is Murdoch or something. My father was a typewriter mechanic, but I just happened to fall into the hands of Robert Downey Jr., Trudie Styler and Sting."

Downey, who stars as the adult Dito in "Saints," met Montiel through composer Jonathan Elias, who, fittingly, did the score for "Saints."

"Dito was still in Gutterboy, and I'd go down to the studio and you'd walk by the recording booth and there'd be this buff guy wearing nothing but combat boots, screaming," Downey says. "And Jonathan would say, 'Oh, yeah, that's Dito, he's doing vocals, and he can't seem to keep his clothes on when he does vocals,' and I'm like, 'Whoa, I thought I was crazy.' "

They kept in touch through good times and bad, and three years ago, when Montiel's memoir came out, it was Downey who said, "You want to make a movie?"

A few weeks later, Downey had called Styler, another old friend, who has a production company and is married to Sting. The two, friends since the "Chaplin" days, had long talked of working on a project together. Although the book's experiential form did not lend itself immediately to a screenplay, Styler said she was drawn to the struggle of the main character to leave his family, particularly his father, and his neighborhood.

"I really related to that," she says. "I wanted to be an actress, which my dad did not understand at all. No one on my street wanted to be an actress; they were all off to work in the factory. I felt like he didn't see me, so I left in a dark cloud, spent years in the wilderness and came back when their health was bad. It's a universal story, I think."

The film follows similar lines -- in coming of age, the young Dito realizes he wants something more from his life than the often-violent streets of Queens can offer him; his father sees this desire as a rejection of him. In returning years later, the adult Dito must come to terms with the aftermath of his departure.

To carve this narrative from the book, Styler had to lock Montiel and Downey in her apartment for a few weeks. Which could not have been easy, since the two men have the nervous energy of espresso-fueled 5-year-olds and a tendency toward syntax that winds on for days. "And occasionally Sting would pass by and say, 'Why don't you do it this way?' " says Downey. "Which was very helpful."

Once he got started though, Montiel says, the script came easily, quickly landing him a spot at the Sundance Lab -- although he was such a neophyte, he didn't even know this was a good thing. "I get this call and I'm like, 'OK, thanks.' Then I called Robert and Trudie and asked them, 'Is this some sort of scam?' "

Meanwhile, Montiel had decided he wanted to direct, and Downey seconded it. "I look back and it was such a crazy, disillusioned process," Montiel says. "But at the time it seemed completely normal. It's my film, of course I would direct it."

Aside from one two-minute short, however, he had never directed a film, and, as Styler pointed out, this was a bit of a problem. "Trudie called me and said, 'So now Mr. Downey thinks you can direct. OK, go make a short film with him and get back to me.' "

But even with the short, the Sundance Lab cachet and Downey attached as star and co-producer, scaring up the $2 million they needed wasn't easy. "I have never had financing fall out so many times," Styler says. "But in the end I figured it was because we were in bed with the wrong people."

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