The career trajectory of Dito Montiel has been far from conventional. He’s been a construction worker, dog walker, failed rock star, Versace model, author and recently turned filmmaker. Given the semi-autobiographical life story depicted in his debut film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, it’s a surprise he ever made it out of that pivotal summer on the hot, sweaty and violent streets of Astoria, New York.
“When I was 13 I cut out of school with my friends Mike & Ray to find where the people in Punk Magazine hung out. I met a guy, Billy, from my neighbourhood who said he was starting a band. I couldn’t play anything!” Ever the creative optimist, Montiel wouldn’t let something as small as musical talent stop him. “He said then I could play his guitar because he just got a MXR distortion box and I could blast it! Mike played Bass, Ray played Drums & Billy sang. We did a show that weekend at a place called the A7 club on the lower east side. We sucked.”
The band wouldn’t last long. It did however push Montiel towards forming the group Gutterboy, who were signed to Geffen Records in 1989 for a then unheard of $1m record deal. The band was dropped after their debut, but Montiel doesn’t regret his brief foray into the world of rock and roll. “It was the defining moment of my life. Right then I knew I was gonna make noise the rest of my life. People paying me for it wasn’t a thought. But the noise was important. Sometimes my noise is books, sometimes music, and sometimes movies. Corny as that may sound, it’s what I believe.”
His debut novel was a short, sharp memoir published by the Thunder's Mouth Press, a small New York publishing house, and although it’s content was over familiar: gang culture, tales of violence, sex, drugs, murder and imprisonment, this time they were told by someone who'd been in the thick of it. This was neither a stylish exercise nor not an attempt to homage his literary heroes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. This was the real thing. It was filled with wonderful stories: of open-mic nights at the Speakeasy Club on MacDougal Street, where a crazy DJ released locusts into the audience; horrific tales of watching his best friend Antonio kill a boy with a single blow of a baseball bat.
Montiel’s debut novel became a best seller and was quickly optioned for film adaptation. Robert Downey Jnr was set to direct as well as star, but after seeing Montiel’s short film, the Hollywood star urged the author to take the reigns. The short was shown to the producer, Mrs Sting Trudy Styler, and she was so impressed she gave him the go ahead. From the outset, Montiel was determined the film would not be determined by money. “It’s always been the idea of art. Creating, admiring or just to be around it. I consider myself very lucky but to not be around it was not an option.”
The producer’s gamble and Montiel’s vociferous determinism paid off and when A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints debuted at the Sundance Film Festival it won the Director’s Prize and the Special Jury Prize. Montiel confesses, “I never dared dream this big in terms of success.” Yet he remains modest about his success and his fresh and vivacious talent for filmmaking and scriptwriting. “I saw it as fun. An adventure. I believe the idea of ‘whatever feels right’ will occur. If the heart is correct it’ll all make sense. I didn’t know the rules so I couldn’t break any. In art you make your own rules. The idea of there being any set rules in any form of art is absurd. And filmmaking remains an art even if schools have found a way to charge huge tuitions for it!”
The fiercely personal aspects he was allowed to indulge in literature were however to be reconsidered when it came to adapting the novel for the screen. “It was important that in Saints maintained the spirit of the book but was the story of any kid any where. My stories or films just happen to set been in New York. When I saw City Of God I saw myself in Brazil, in Sweet Sixteen I was in Scotland, in Cinema Paradiso, Italy. The story should be universal. Everything else is interchangeable.” Despite his assertions, Saints the film remains almost documentary like in its evocation of time and place.
Montiel hasn’t been resting since he finished the film and has been keeping the creative juices flowing by writing again whilst the film has been opening all over the world. “I didn’t make Saints to become a director. I made it…to make it. I had a story I wanted to tell. I now want to tell the story of Eddie Krumble. The Clapper.”
June 2007 saw the publication of Montiel’s second novel: Eddie Krumble is The Clapper. Here TV and instant-celebrity culture comes under Montiel’s satirical eye as we follows Eddie, a slacker from Queens who runs away to L.A. with his friend Chris at the end of high school. There they find their true niche as clappers; people who get paid to suffer through the dregs of the TV schedule, clapping and reacting on cue in a feeble attempt to boost the profile of terrible talk shows and insipid sitcoms. All is undone, however when a show lackey discovers Eddie's recurring gig, and produces a video segment revealing him. Soon, "The Clapper" becomes a mini media phenomenon, and Eddie's attempts to cool things down only make things worse. “I love reality TV and celebrity culture is so absurd now, so I can’t wait to start filming. I’m adapting it, and currently completely obsessed with the project.”
With two new projects currently in production it would seem that his belief in doing what feels right has finally found him a niche in the creative world he has always sought to be a part of. Nevertheless, can the ever-ambitious Dito Montiel remain in one profession forever? “I love this. It’s my noise at the moment. We’ll see.”