Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dito Montiel's THE SON OF NO ONE opens; Q&A with the talented, energetic filmmaker

Most of the early reviews I've seen for THE SON OF NO ONE have not been terrific, but I believe that critics have undersold this little film with a big-name cast. The third movie written and directed by Astoria-bred Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting), Son -- a more "personal" movie than Fighting -- harks back to Guide/
Saints in its location (Queens, New York) and theme (escaping and/or trying to come to terms with one's past). For elaboration on this, see the interview with Mr. Montiel that follows this review.

The filmmaker, shown at left, is full of energy -- which, more often than not, serves him well in this tale that takes place in two time frames: 1986, amongst children and cops, and 2002, when we meet the adults these kids have turned into, as well as the older, more cynical and self-protective members of New York's Finest that our cops have now become. This immediately post-9/11 year, you may remember, is one in which, in the name of a possible terror attack, all sorts of life-changing mischief could be and was essayed, by governments both local and national. If Montiel's energy sometimes appears sloppy or misplaced, it can just as often make a scene seem frighteningly real, offering the kind of "sloppiness" that life, rather than movies, provides -- going haywire as easily as staying on track.

Montiel is especially good with his child actors like Jake Cherry -- at left, above, with Al Pacino -- who plays the younger version of the leading role, and newcomer Brian Gilbert, who plays his best friend. Young Gilbert, who is sensational, somehow morphs into Tracy Morgan as an adult -- about as unlikely a pairing of a young and older character as you could imagine. (This makes the Shia LaBoeuf transition into Robert Downey (in Guide/Saints) seem like a case of identical twins.) Two scenes involving these child actors stand out. One comes early on, as a kid with a gun hides from a menacing intruder. Later -- in a scene involving a blackmailer, a dog and the kids -- fear, frustration and moment-to-moment action build into something fierce, frightening and genuinely surprising.

What's lacking in the film is the kind of air-tight scenario demanded by some critics (viewers, too) of the thriller/mystery genre, which Son at least partially inhabits. The movie gets its juice from a series of anonymous letters being written to a local Queens newspaper that implicate cops in what appears to be a miscarriage of justice involving two dead bodies never properly accounted for back in 1986. But when, at the finale, we finally learn the identity of the writer of these letter, it is anticlimactic, to say the least -- if not downright bizarre and a little bit last-minute and un-thought-out on the filmmaker's part. (In the interview below, we learn more about this, too, but it's a spoiler, so go see the movie first.)

In some genre films, this kind of thing would prove deadly. But it is less important here because the characterizations and performances rise above the sometimes desultory plotting. Channing Tatum (above) -- beefy, tired and not nearly as good looking as he usually is -- comes across as quite believable as the cop with a past. As his wife, Katie Homes (below, right) has yet another thankless, practically one-note role role but manages it well enough. That's she below, with the couple's daughter, played by Ursula Parker.

As the older brass in the police department Pacino and Ray Liotta (below, right) are both fine, and, as Tatum's scummy partner (below center), James Ransone'll give you goose bumps, he's so skeevy.

The scenes in the Queensborough Projects, especially the aerial views, are something to see, and the past that is unearthed there helps make the 2002 scenes work all the better. This is a depres-sing subject, and Montiel -- correctly, I think -- does little to make it less so. The casual, consistent racism of these cops knows no end.

The Son of No One, release via Anchor Bay Films, opened yesterday here in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Rave Motion Pictures 18 + IMAX.


Chatting with Dito Montiel, below, is a delight, beginning to end. He's friendly, energetic, funny and real -- with seemingly no separation between his professional persona and his ability to make it seem like just-us-guys-shootin'-the-bull.  In the conversation below, TrustMovies appears in boldface and Dito in standard type:

First off – is your first name pronounced Deeto or Ditto?

Well, they used to call me Deeto when I was little, then they started calling me Ditto, so that became it. But, really, I’ll answer to anything.

And is your last name pronounced Mon-tee-elle, with the accent on the last syllable?


You know it seems like your first film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was made a long time ago, but it has only been five years.

Yes, it does seem like a long time ago. Maybe because that movie took place in the 80 – which was a long time ago. But not that long.

Are you from Queens originally?

Yeah—Astoria. 31st Street. Right under the train. We actually filmed Saints on my block!

Wow -- I live in Jackson Heights. For decades we lived in Manhattan but then I got older and needed more space but didn’t have the money…

Yeah, then Queens starts looking good! When I was growing up, Queens was definitely not cool. Now—everybody I know that is cool, they’re in Queens of Brooklyn. I say, Hey – what are you doin’ out of Manhattan?!

But Manhattan, it has now priced itself out of real life. When I first came here, back in the 60s, a young single guy or girl could afford to get an apartment by themself – if you didn’t mind where you lived: the east village or way uptown. Now that’s impossible. Unless you’re rich. It seems like there is a whole area of growing up and challenging yourself in Manhattan that’s no longer possible for young people on their own for the first time.

So everyone’s goin’ somewhere else, and I guess it’s time for Brooklyn and Queens!

Where do you live now?

Now—I live out in Los Angeles. I was in Astoria until a year ago. It was funny: I first went out to L.A. to work. A friend had a music studio and I worked there. But then I had to come back here to make the first film, so it was like I came from L.A. to New York to make movies!  But now I’m back out there.

I was born and raised in L.A., but I never liked it much. Then I discovered New York.

That’s funny, 'cause my dream was always to go to California!

Yeah: New Yorkers often have that dream, I guess. When I was watching your new movie the other day, a few times during it I thought of Sidney Lumet. Have other people mentioned that connection?

I surely hope so. That would sure make me happy. I love him, of course, like everyone else. He is –

Or was –

Oh, right. The best.

Well, we need somebody to fill his shoes.

But those are ridiculous shoes!

Yeah, they’re hard shoes to fill, but you’re young and have time to grow. You've certainly carved a little niche with your films – although, I guess your second movie, Fighting, was not really in that niche….

Yes, Fighting was a crazy kind of movie. It was a movie they had been trying to make for like ten years. And they called me to rewrite it, to give it a little something.  It was a basketball movie originally.


Yes. It was funny, I was working on it, and then Channing (Ed: Tatum – it’s star) called me and said, "Hey, you’ve got to direct this."  And I said, No, I don’t really understand this movie. But the producers were pretty cool guys. You know Channing doesn't even play basketball, but he had to make this movie because of some contract thing. So I called up the producer and told them, "Hey, I'll do whatever. But you know, Channing doesn’t play basketball." And you have a better chance of faking a French accent than you do of pretending to play basketball. You really can’t fake that stuff: the dribble and all. So they said, OK: then, make it about fighting. So I just started writing, and they said, let’s just do it. And I said, "Wow—is this that easy?!" Because everything is supposed to so hard in Hollywood. I even asked if we could film in New York, and they said yes. So we really had fun with this movie.

I liked Fighting but not as much as your other two. And now that I understand its genesis, I also understand why. It wasn’t a personal movie, like your other two are. Has moviemaking gotten easier for you, as you’ve made each film?

Well, I have only been making movies for five years, but from everyone I speak to, it is really getting harder. Look: it’s impossible to make movies, period. It's like Lotto times a million. I don't even know how I got into this stuff. It’s so crazy. But I think it might be kind of like the music business was maybe ten or twelves years ago. And I don’t want to be corny or overly optimistic – but art will always exist somehow. It just will.

I agree. Look at how many movies open theatrically in New York in one week: 15, 20, 25. Historically that has never happened before -- in my lifetime anyway.

Yeah, and they close the next week.

Right – and sometimes during the week that they do play, they play only once or twice a day.

Just so they can say it came out in a theater.  You know, I started getting emails on Facebook a week or so back from people saying, "Oh, I love your movie!" But it wasn’t out yet, so I emailed them back saying, How did you see it? Turns out they had all watched it online. So, really, everything is leaking. You can’t stop it. It is one of those weird things. When you are not in this business you tend to think that everyone in it is rich and famous, and so, oh, no, they don’t get the income off of my movie ticket. It won't matter. They’ll be fine. But no. I am certainly not rich, and so this starts to be a scary thing. One of the biggest imports that America has is its entertainment, and it is a scary thought that everyone is juts stealing it now.

I guess it is this idea that’s taken hold now that content should somehow be free. But what does that do to the starving artist. He’s just going to starve even longer.

And what does this mean for the movie theater experience?

I have a friend who said, Oh, I just found a great online site that shows are the new movies that are in theaters. I asked her, but isn’t the quality pretty terrible. Yes, she said, but I get to see them free. So what? Well, I love movies too much to want to watch something crappy-looking online. I want a movie to look as good as it can.

In the old days, with the bootlegged copies, they looked so bad that you still watned to see the movie in a theater afterward. But now that the copies are looking better, I don’t know….

So what was casting like with your new film? You sure managed to get some wonderful actors in it. But then, you always do.

You know, sometimes I hear directors go on about how everyone they worked with was kind of annoying. But everyone I worked with here was ridiculous. Wonderful! And not just the 'name' people, but even the local New York stage performers. And a newcomer like Brian Gilbert who played the young Tracy Morgan role.

He was so good! But it seems imposbile that someone who looks like Tracy Morgan (above, right) could come from someone who looked like Brian Gilbert.

Yeah—it’s funny, because anytime I cast a film, I go to schools, I ride the subway, and when I see someone who looks interesting to me, like a young kid, I had them a card and tell them who I am, and say. Here’s the phone number, Have you mother call me. And this time a teacher up in Harlem called me about Brian Gilbert. I have this kid who is really good. I went up there, and he had about seven kids who were so good. I couldn’t believe it. I said, Oh, my god. I think Brian is 13, and I said I couldn’t bring a camera in so just do something for me. And he says, Well, I have this monolog…. So he did it, and it just blew me away. So I tell myself, He doesn’t look anything like Tracy Morgan, but people have got to see this kid, so somehow I’ve got to make this work.

I’m trying to remember: Did I feel that way, also about Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints…?

Yes, yes. Shit -- they don’t look anything alike.

But it worked a little better somehow. What about Juliet Binoche. How did she get into this film?

Well, you know I wrote that role originally for an actor I really love: Robert Guenveur Smith (shown above, left) – who ended up having a small role in the film anyway. Then at the last minute I was thinking, Wouldn’t it be fun to have a foreign woman in this film and put her totally out of place in that role of the reporter.

Yeah—and at one of those funky little Queens newspapers….

Juliet (shown below) is so sweet: When we talked about the role, I told her, My thought is you probably came to America thinking you’re going to be the writer for The New York Times, but now here you are working for this little paper, and someone starts writing you letters, and you don’t care if they’re real or not—you’re just excited that someone is doing something.

One thing I didn’t understand – and maybe I missed some dialog. But – SPOILER AHEAD: SEE THE MOVIE FIRST -- Why does the girl – the sister, I think it is, turn out to be the one who is sending the letters?

Well, it’s kind of funny: I wrote the movie originally that it was the Tracy character who is writing the letters. But as we were getting ready to make the iflm, I decided that, no, I really liked that character a lot and I didn’t want him to be a liar throughout the film. If you watch the movie closely at the opening of the movie, that girl is being dragged out of there by the police.. They are not being very nice.

This is not a racist movie, but racism figures very strongly in the film. You watch it and think, Oh, shit, it’s still here.

The movie was based on a very small thing that really happened when I was a kid – maybe 14. There was this guy who used to come in to our building all the time, a crackhead who really scared us all. Then one day, he was just dead in the hallway. Someone had killed him. When the cops were taking him out, it was clear that no one cared that he was dead. And my friend Vinnie says to me, No one cares about anybody here. Nobody. We didn’t care, either: He was so scary, we were just happy. But that thought stayed with me. We really believed that inside these walls, nobody cares. In the film, Vinnie says this,and Al Pacino’s character says it. The theme is just about a bunch of throw-away people.

So the girl, then, has realized that Channing Tatum’s character is a now a cop?

My personal thought was that she didn’t even want to ruin him. She was just mad at the cops.

Did you know Channing Tatum before you made Guide/Saints? Because he's in all your films.

No – I didn’t but I think he is a really good actor. Obviously I am a huge fan. He is a great guy. And I really think he can act his head off. It’s funny, when I met Al Pacino for the first time, I told him – You know, whenever I am making a movie I look for someone like you – like the character you played in Panic in Needle Park. But where are those guys? It’s like they don’t exist. And he said a funny thing. He said, "It’s not that there a lot of great actors now, it’s just that the world is just different. People don’t come from a sense of neighborhood anymore." There is not a real neighborhood. You don’t even hear accents like you used to hear them. The world have become a very level place.

And it also much more diverse now.

Yes, so people are more worldly. So Channing, strangely for me, has that very blue collar sense, which I don't see a lot in actors. And as good looking as he is –

And you make him the least good looking I’ve ever seen him in this film. And it’s works. If he were this golden boy, it just wouldn’t work as well. I wish Katie Holmes (shown below) didn’t have another thankless role -- as the usual "nudge" wife. When you have an ensemble movie like this, I guess you can’t concentrate too much on her character.

When I first met her, I thought, this is a really hard role, at least in my mind. In most movies, marriages are great or they’re terrible. Normally they’re not just very "middle.”

But normally, they are.

Exactly: they are. They’re a mix of those things. And in this movie, I wanted it to be… I wanted it to be… You know, like a movie I loved so much: The 25th Hour. It was very simple, about one guy, one day, who is about to go to jail for 6 years. So with this movie, and with all this roles, I didn’t want this to be just a vengeance movie. People don't grab a gun and save the day. They just life their life. I know a lot of couples married a long time who do not know that much about each other. And that’s what’s happening here. Everyone seems afraid in this movie. Cold fear, and that’s what I wanted.

Yes -- and it’s depressing. But you don’t try to gussie it up and make it better. And so viewers are just about as depressed at the end as they were at the beginning. Which is one of the reasons I guess I thought of Sidney Lumet.

He really is the best, truly.

He really has done some fabulous stuff. What’s next for you?

I am just writing; I had a book out called The Clapper – about a guy out in L.A. who goes to bad TV shows and claps and stuff and gets people to laugh. I am trying to make a movie out of that. I think it could be really fun.

How old are you?

Me? 44.

You’re kidding. You don’t look that old at all.

I’ve been around, man. I’ve been around forever.

Well, then you have to hurry and work faster.

(He laughs) OK: I will!

Are you married?

Yes, and I have one little girl – named Charlie, like in the movie.

Great. Well, I am really glad to have finally met the guy who made one of my favorite films. Thanks, Dito – and I really wish you success with this latest film.

Thank you.

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