Category: Archive

‘Saint’ Astoria

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In addition to playing a fictionalized version of the author, the Irish-American actor also served as co-producer of the independent film, helping Montiel convince producer Trudie Styler (a.k.a Sting’s Mrs.) to back the low-budget project.
A writer and former punk rock musician who was raised Catholic by an Irish mother and Nicaraguan father in Astoria, Queens during the 1970s and 1980s, Montiel says he first talked to Downey about working together on a feature-length film after the celebrated actor fell in love with a six-minute short Montiel had shot with virtually no money in New York City.
“I had sort of known Robert Downey, which is a nice thing when you’re trying to make a movie,” said Montiel, “he saw the short and said: ‘This is great; let’s do it.’
“In the end, he stayed there from that day until it got made (four years later) and he brought Trudie down, literally, two days (after seeing the short film.) And they stuck by a first-time director that really didn’t know what he was doing.”
Montiel said that when he initially discussed the film with Downey Jr., the “Chaplin” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” actor had considered using the author’s script and turning it into his own directorial debut, as well as an acting vehicle.
“Which sounded great to me,” Montiel said, confessing it had always been his dream to do so, even though he didn’t think anyone would risk financing a project for an inexperienced director.
“It’s almost like you wish things into happening sometimes,” he observed. “One day, Robert said, ‘I really liked your short; you should direct it,’ and I said, ‘Well, if you can talk Trudie Styler into it, I’ll do it.’ And she called me the next day and said, ‘Now, Mr. Downey seems to think you can direct the film.'”
The director said Styler told him to make a short film with Downey Jr. and promised that if it was good enough, she would help him make the full-length movie.
“It was like ‘Game of Death’ with Bruce Lee,” Montiel quipped, and noted that the story ends happily as both Downey Jr. and Styler liked what they saw.
“My first thought about making ‘Saints’ into a movie was, ‘I don’t want to walk into the office of a quintessential Hollywood producer with this,” Downey said in the production notes for the film.
“Dito and I are, first and foremost, friends. There are a lot of creeps in the netherworld between true indies and studio movies and a lot of producers who will give up on a project too easily. Not Trudie Styler. She’s a really savvy business woman, but once she sets her mind on something she won’t stop until she succeeds.”

Coming home
In the film, Downey Jr. plays Dito, a Los Angeles-based writer called home after a 15-year absence by his mother, Flori, (“Bullets Over Broadway” actress Dianne Wiest,) because his father, Monty (“A Bronx Tale” star Chazz Palminteri,) is gravely ill.
As he makes the trek back to Astoria, he recalls the summer of 1986 and the people and events that led him to leave home, breaking his father’s heart and changing his own life forever. “Bobby” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played” star Shia LeBeouf plays Dito in the second cast of mostly unknown young actors who play Dito’s friends in flashbacks.
Rosario Dawson (“Rent”) and Scott Michael Campbell (“Brokeback Mountain”) play the adult versions of the friends, or “saints,” the older Dito encounters during his visit home. They are the few people from his childhood lucky to not be dead or in jail.
When it came to casting the film, Montiel says he was at first adamant about using all newcomers, because he wanted the $2.4 million-movie to have a raw, authentic feel, not the polished look he believed big-name stars like Palminteri, Dawson and Wiest would bring to it.
“I fought against every single one of them, but I’m sure glad I lost a lot of those arguments,” confessed Montiel, a director who said he looked to movie greats Brian DePalma, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese for film-making tips.
“I did a bunch of open calls in New York and, luckily, I got a lot of the younger actors off the street,” he said, recalling how he and the producers reached a compromise to have both newcomers and established talent in the cast. “I did nine open calls and I was convinced any actor would destroy my movie. I love movies (that have unknown actors) like ‘City of God,’ and putting someone famous, even Robert DeNiro, in it would destroy it, as good as he is.
Montiel says the production’s miniscule budget didn’t really stress him out since he thinks having no money helped him to be creative about his choices.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with (a bigger budget,)” he insisted. “I like scraping nickels and dimes together. We shot on location in the streets and my girlfriend did the catering.”
So, how much of the book and film is actually based on Montiel’s life?
“If you look at the book that’s the facts as far as I can tell. I tell stories about people who I was lucky to have met in life,” he offered. “They put ‘memoirs’ on there. They like that word, but this is a story about a bunch of other people. I’m barely in this thing.”
Explaining how he feels the film’s spirit is true to life, Montiel said many of its characters are amalgamations of individuals he has known over the years.
“I see a lot of people and, to me, it’s fun to write about my versions of them,” he said. “I don’t know who they are; I know what they did for me. Making this film and writing it was almost of a bit of a fiction trip for me because it’s like this happened to Angelo, but give it to Antonio.”
Although Montiel was happy with what he had written, he says his actors constantly made improvements to the script by offering their own insights into their characters’ motives and behaviors.
“It was an evolution throughout the whole film and a fun one for me,” he said.

A Queens tale
One aspect of the movie Montiel said he refused to be flexible about was the location in which he set and shot the majority of the story’s action.
“Something felt like it had to be shot there. I don’t know why,” he said, stating most of the film was lensed in the area around 31st Street and 24th Avenue in Astoria.
“Maybe it’s because I had a feeling people would be a little more embraced, but I’m really glad it was. Even certain streets we could have found a more picturesque street, but some of things just had to be where they had to be.”
Montiel said the neighborhood he shot his movie in is the same one in which Scorsese filmed his classic 1990 mob drama, “GoodFellas.”
“It was the most exciting thing in the world to me,” he said, recounting how he and his friends nicked food from their catering tables, and one pal even boosted the crew’s lighting truck.
“We had the same locations guy (from ‘GoodFellas’) who told us that,” he laughed. “But it was really exciting to film there because I had a feeling the neighborhood would still be like that … It still has a little bit of that untouched quality to it. Not entirely; it is in New York, but people were excited to be extras, which is kind of nice.”

“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” opens in New York and Los Angeles Sept. 29.

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