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Festival Film is born from the Sundance process

MATT JAMES Of the Record staff
A scene from A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, directed by Dito Montiel. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
2Recognizing-Saints

Dito Montiel never intended to make his book into a movie. Talking to him, you get the impression the film simply happened.

The movie, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," which he wrote and directed, started as a book of the same name. It is the story of his life growing up in Queens. Published, in 2003, the book is a description of his life, experiences and friends in a tough New York City neighborhood in the 1980s, and one day, when Montiel was doing a reading in Los Angeles, the story caught the attention of Robert Downey Jr.

Downey said he wanted to make the book into a movie, and the wheels began to turn. First a treatment of the book was written, but, unhappy with how it turned out, Montiel took a crash course in screenwriting and wrote his own version.

In 2004, he was picked to be a participant in the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, and then he was chosen as a fellow for Sundance’s Directors Lab. The film flowed from there.

"It was really incredible," said Montiel. "It was awesome I [had] never even heard of Sundance labs. I really don’t know anything about films. I wrote a book and it was really an incredible sequence of events, with Robert Downey Jr. wanting to make the film."

Over the phone, one can feel Montiel’s excitement, his energy. At the same time, he spoke humbly, conscious of his words, with an occasional self deprecating comment.

He said that almost his entire filmmaking education came from the Sundance Labs, and apparently, the time there has proved worthwhile. "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" will appear in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as one of the 16 films in the American Dramatic Competition despite his lack of experience.

"We sent them a really rough thing and they wanted to see more, so we cut another version and sent it to them," said Montiel.

He was amazed when he heard the work would be in the film festival.

"I bugged out," he said.

Buoyed by Downey’s support and the strength of the story, the film’s cast features its share of Hollywood names, including Downey, Rosario Dawson, Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri. But Montiel set out seeking something very different.

He said he originally wanted to keep the film small, shooting with a local cast of characters kids from around his neighborhood and other New Yorkers without major acting careers. Gradually, however, the film’s producers began to find actors with bigger names. Montiel said he accepted them reluctantly, at first, wanting to preserve the film’s indie feel.

"It turned out to be the greatest blessing in disguise, when it was over," he noted.

The actors, he said, took the material and began to work with it. They’d subtly change the characters or interpret them in new ways, individualizing each one. At first, Montiel said he tried to stop that, but eventually, he let that idea go.

"The story took a life of its own," said Montiel. "In the end, the story ended up becoming about two friends who had to go different directions.

"I had an idea about how I wanted it to be, and it turned out completely differently, but I love it."

While he wasn’t always happy with the results during the filming, he said he began to appreciate the actors’ work more and more once he saw them on screen as he edited the film. There, he said, the story finally came together.

"That was the blessing of my actors," said Montiel. "They knew what happened."

While he credited all of his actors for exemplary work, he singled out Palminteri, who plays Dito’s father in the film.

"Chazz did everything I could ever imagine with that role," said Montiel.

Palminteri’s role, he said, anchored the film, and his performance left everyone else free to play their roles.

Montiel said the film’s narrative grew organically.

"We just picked one moment and sort of built around that moment," he said.

"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," tells the story of the people Montiel remembers from his youth his "saints" who changed and influenced his life at various turns.

John Cooper, the director of programming at the Sundance Institute, describes the film in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Film Guide: "Just the way memories can flood consciousness, Montiel uses the same motif to flood the screen with his stories. The past gets layered upon the present, and the film comes to life."

But, Cooper notes, "The strength of the film isn’t looking back through a nostalgic, Vaselined lens; instead, Montiel infuses the memories with both the exhilaration and pain of youth."

And while some describe the film as a classic New York City-story, Montiel disputed that. The film, he said, isn’t about New Yorkers; it’s about kids.

"To me, these kids, I’m sure, exist in Ames, Iowa," Montiel said.

While the work is set in New York, he said he wants the story to have greater implications.

"Hopefully it’s not a quintessential New York movie," he said. "Hopefully it’s everybody’s version of a little story."

If it turns out as such, the film will be an impressive first effort. But for now, Montiel just seems eager to get the film out into the public eye.

"I’m just excited to see what people think," he said.

"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" will premier on the Racquet Club screen on Friday, Jan. 20 at 11:30 a.m. For more information about the film and for a full list of screening times, visit http://www.sundance.org.


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