Former punk singer turned director discusses bringing his very personal story to life

I had the pleasure of watching Dito Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints before it came out theatrically. After telling everyone I could think of to see the movie I then wrote my review. Weeks later, I still couldn't get what Montiel had put on screen out of my head. It was amazing to think that this was his first foray into filmmaking, but since he wrote the book version of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, it should surprise nobody just how sure his directing hand is.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a coming-of-age drama about a boy growing up in Astoria, N.Y., during the 1980s. As his friends end up dead, on drugs or in prison, he comes to believe he has been saved from their fate by various so-called saints.

How did A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints come together?

Dito Montiel: Well you know the fact that you're from hardcore makes it a little easier. I'll try and explain it through that because that's really how it all happened. The quick, long version is when I was 13 I was walking down Avenue A... with my friend Mike O'Shea and my friend Ray. Ray was in band called Abomination, he actually was Murphy's Laws first drummer. He gave me a punk magazine when we were in grade school, and we cut out of school to try and find the Village. We were walking around and I ran into this guy Billy who was in Urban Waste. He's from Queens. He said, "I'm gonna start a new band called Major Conflict you guys should be in it. You're from Queens..." I said, "I don't play anything." He said, "You'll play guitar, I have a guitar."

We played that weekend... I just made noise; I didn't even know how to make a bar chord. We had to write our own songs from then on because we sucked so bad we couldn't play anybody else's. That sort of thing always stuck with me. So I just started writing one day, it started to get longer and longer and it started to look like it might be a book. Then a guy I knew got a job at a publishing company called Avalon... and he said, "I think we'll publish your book." So he put that out and I was working for a friend of mine out in Los Angeles... in a dub room with the guy who ended up editing this film. He didn't even know how to use an Avid and we were just sort of two guys in a dub room. When you're in a dub room you're either smoking pot all day or your just talking sh*t, you know?

We just went out with a little video camera and shot one of the ideas from the book. We put it on the computer and tried to figure out how to use Adobe Premiere, to edit it, because it was a free program. We started cutting some weird ideas together and putting music and sound to them and we made a three minute short. I was like, "This is pretty cool. Lets do a longer one." So we did one for 7 minutes. I was like, "You know what? We should do this for an hour and a half."

As crazy as that sounds, it goes back to Billy who put a guitar in my hand and said, "I know you don't know how to play it..." And I certainly didn't and I certainly did suck but we went up and played. It's just sort of that weird, old, hardcore mentality. Just give it a shot, you know? It's funny with art. When someone paints a picture nobody stands around and tells them they're doing it wrong. When you make a movie people seem to think there's all these rules. So with this movie it's like, "I know there's a lot of rules but I imagine whoever they think made these rules, would hate them to be called rules." I just went and tried to do things with whatever felt right and it ended up becoming a movie.

What made you think you could direct a film having never done one before? Was it tough bringing your vision to the screen?

Dito Montiel: It's a bit of both, you know? Like I said, me and my friend were going to make this film the same way when we were little kids we made a hardcore record. We just wanted to go in and make a bunch of noise. Nobody was gonna tell us we were doing it wrong because nobody was paying for it. We're doing it at our friends house and it's gonna sound like shit but that's the way it goes and we like it, you know? When me and my friend were gonna make this movie that's the way it was. Then Robert Downey came into it and it was really cool and he loved this weird idea and said, "Lets make a movie." After two days of me and my friend jumping up and down going, "Oh sh*t, we're gonna make a real movie now!" Then we got really nervous. We started thinking about, "Oh my God, now we actually need to get film. We can't shoot on this video camera. And now they might not let me do it."

All the fear started coming in, as opposed to the excitement, so I tried to... when I was in these bands when I was a little kid I still love the way those crappy records sound, because it was a lot of fun and I still feel the fun through it, you know? When I was 19 I got a record deal with a band called Gutterboy. We got signed to a major label and they gave us money, and they told me how to make record the right way. They said, "You need to sound like U2." And I sorta listened to everybody because I was so happy there was a chance I wasn't going to have to do a regular job. I made stuff that I'm very not proud of these days. I tried to bring back that mentality where it was like, "Listen, I know that there's a lot of smart people out there but nobody knows how to make my movie better than me." Even though you doubt yourself... I just kept saying,"I don't care. I don't care." Whatever feels right we're gonna do it.

My friend who edited the film, like I said he never cut a film before, his name is Jake. I begged my producers to let him in and at first they wouldn't so I snuck him in. I don't care. I don't care if everybody hates me when this movie's over because I'm gonna love this movie and I don't care. They might hate it but as long as I love it, I won't be embarrassed of it 20 years from now.

The film is very personal. Was it hard coming to work some days because you were having to relive parts of your past?

Dito Montiel: Not really. When you're making a movie you get into this weird auto pilot, you know? You're not sitting there going, "Oh my God, that was me." A lot of it was me. When you sit there and you write how it is and everything means everything. Every little word you put down you can't change it because it'll screw your sentence up, you know? It's three in the morning and I put ten exclamation points because you gotta know how important this last word is, you know? Then you show up to the set and someone keeps screaming. You're like, "What are you screaming for?" And they're like, "Well, you put ten exclamation points." I'd say, "Oh forget that, you know?" You basically show up on the set and everyone's making it their own. It's the way it has to be. There is a collaboration, I'm not a dictator, you know? I enjoy the fun of watching art being created as well as creating it myself.

There is an art to acting and I never used to believe it until I made a movie, you know? I'd sit there with the actors and they'd say things and I be like, "That's interesting. I didn't think of that." There's only one time I can think that it got very personal on the set. Maybe two and that was during... I shot a scene where Robert Downey's sitting in a car talking to Nerf (Scott Michael Campbell). My friend Nerf is standing their while we're filming it. My real friend Nerf. Two days before we filmed the scene, I'm walking down the street and I see my friend Lucho who's just cracked out of his mind. He grabbed me and he goes, "Dude, my mother she's so fat, she hides things... your mother's not supposed to do that it's wrong." I'm thinking, "That's f&*ked up but that really sounds good."

So I gave all the lines to the character Nerf and while we were filming it Nerf grabs me and goes, "What are you doing to me? That's not me talking?" I'm like, "It's a just a movie! Enjoy the movie!" It's funny we avoided anything that felt personal for me, filming it, and now that I sit down and watch it it means so much more to me because I avoided all that stuff.

Do you still keep in touch with the people from the story?

Dito Montiel: Yeah, my friend Antonio, I speak to. Once a month. He can only call me collect (laughs), you know? Like I said, we crossed a lot of lines with the film. Giuseppe, my friend, he was deported to Italy for being a career criminal in real life. In the movie he dies. I had a friend named Billy who died falling off a train. In real life Giuseppe got deported to Italy because he got arrested too many times. When the film got into the Venice Film Festival I called Giuseppe up and he was coming down and he was so excited to see himself die on film. I see Nerf all the time he drives me out of my mind, but it's a great experience.

What are you working on now?

Dito Montiel: Right now I've got a book coming out in March. It's called Eddie Krumble Is the Clapper. It's about a guy who claps for TV shows out in Los Angeles. These rotten shows, they basically pay people to come and laugh and clap at their bad jokes for $50 a show. It follows a guy named Eddie around and the book comes out in March on Thunder's Mouth. I'm writing the movie for it now and hopefully, I'm sure I will go out at some level and make the movie, you know? Probably with my friend Jake again. Maybe some famous people will show up for it and maybe not? It'll exist one way or another; that seems to be next.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints comes to DVD on February 20 from First Look Pictures.