Dito Montiel: A guide to recognizing your ambivalence
Even by the grueling standards of indie films, Dito Montiel's crime drama, "The Son of No One," had a painful birth.
There were the financing problems back when the movie was trying to get going in 2009 and 2010 -– potential deals came and went, until Avi Lerner's Millennium Films stepped in with the cash.
Before Millennium even came on, Montiel found himself getting notes from some financiers asking him to shoehorn a car chase into the script, even though -- as he told us at the time -- "it's a movie about a guy with a secret; why would anyone be chasing him?"
Then there was this year's Sundance Film Festival, where walkouts at a buyer screening prompted a story that the movie had bombed, then a backlash to that story. By the time "The Son of No One" actually played for the public on the festival's closing night, a cloud hovered over it that even its principals couldn't ignore.
All that might make Montiel, a punk rocker turned filmmaker, happy to arrive at this point. His movie, which features the likes of Channing Tatum, Al Pacino and Katie Holmes, is finally being released this weekend by Anchor Bay. The company is a small distributor specializing in home-video titles, but has done reasonably well theatrically with the occasional niche picture, such as "City Island."
Then again, this is Montiel, who mixes prickliness and a what-can-you-do New York ennui. He may be the first person ever to earn the sobriquet of the punk curmudgeon.
"It's coming out, but in like 10 theaters," Montiel said when we caught up with him by phone this week to see how he was doing. "It's at the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. But not even the good theater at the Third Street Promenade."
"Son" is set in the Queens, N.Y., projects where Montiel, 46, grew up. The director came of age in the '80s hard-core scene and transitioned to a film career, directing streetwise cinema such as "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "Fighting" before turning in a more crime-drama direction with this film, which is semi-autobiographical. Tatum plays Jonathan "Milk" White, a policeman who, as a child, shot a junkie in self-defense, then carries that secret with him into adulthood.
The movie has been recut since Sundance (an ending featuring a rooftop showdown between White and other cops had some at the film gathering scratching their heads). The new cut doesn't seem to have cleared much up for some reviewers, but Montiel says it had to be done. Or not.
"The people who bought the movie said, 'We gotta change the ending, and I said, 'I don't want to reshoot anything.' I would have fought them to the death if I thought they were insane, but I'll always try things, so I went back in and edited it."
And is he happier with the result?
"It isn't the one I [originally] did, but I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it was better. But I thought the other one was cool. I don't know. I don't know if it's better. I don't like one more than the other."
He still has a sour taste in his mouth about the film-festival reaction. “I thought Sundance was a place to experiment. But I guess you can't do that these days," he said.
Montiel is also not entirely pleased with Anchor Bay's decision to market the film as a thriller, because, as he says, it's really just the story of a place. But he says he understands it. "What are you going to do, market it as the movie about 'the neighborhood no one cares about'? Those don't get people jumping."
And he said that ultimately it didn't matter, because the movie was made for other reasons. "You can market it as a thriller, but I don't care. I don't care if you wrap it in bubble gum," he said. "Here's the thing. Years ago in the ... projects, there were crackheads in the hallway and there were little kids, cops were smoking cigarettes and eating sandwiches, and nobody gave a ... nobody cares about anyone. It was the little world that we lived in and grew up in, and I wrote a little movie about it."
Plus, he says, he bore some responsibility too. "I'm also guilty of things." He paused, thinking about it. "I should have made them garbagemen instead of cops. Now everyone thinks it's a thriller."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "The Son of No One." Credit: Sundance Film Festival