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WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints'

"I wasn’t setting out to tell my story or any memoir; I was trying to capture a feeling, an experience, a moment in time." Dito Montiel takes us behind the scenes of his Sundance-winnning film, 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.'

By Dito Montiel

Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2006

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My name is Dito. I’ve lived a very strange life up to this point that could best be compared to Swee’Pea from Popeye sleepwalking on construction sites where planks keep aligning just in time before he/she (never quite got Swee’Pea’s gender?) falls off the side. I wrote a book about these planks called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. It wasn’t intended to be any kind of memoir, autobiography or any of that nonsense. The Aviator was a biography of a guy who did great things and was directed by one of the greats and THAT was a tough sell for me!

WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints' | Script Magazine

ABOVE: Writer-director Dito Montiel. PHOTOS: Walter Thomson.

Although I do like to short sell the whole reason behind this project, the truth will always be that I was touched and moved deeply by people who did great things for me. Extraordinary people. I brush it off as a fluke but I wrote my book because I had to. The same reason I made this movie. People needed to know Antonio existed! Monty existed! For this article, I was asked to explain the process of turning this book into a script and then a movie. Although I was guided by a wired combination of ignorant transcendental bliss, I’ll tell you what I can remember of the process. Here goes:

I can’t remember which movie it was but Woody Allen says, “love fades.” What a sad saying.

Along that mode is the thought that once you put people on a page, in book or script form, they’re gone. Not as poignant as Woody Allen’s line, but true. Once the characters are down, they’re gone. They’re open to all kinds of interpretation, exploitation and worst of all, cartoonization.

In my story it was particularly strange. I wrote a book about people I knew—people I’d been lucky to have met in my life. It became a movie. The process was very strange.

Having never written a script, I had to start with the basics. Okay, INT. = INTERIOR not INTRODUCING. EXT. = EXTERIOR not EXIT. Then came the easy part—putting my people on paper in story form. HA! Because I knew no rules, there were none to follow— so I made my own.

First and foremost, and I believe this more than ANY other thing you may or may not have been taught, ANY character or location you present should be open to interpretation. I don’t care if you are writing the biopic of the Reverend Al Sharpton, you should be able to have a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man read his lines and those lines should be able to work. While casting Gene Wilder may not be the best choice (maybe it would), if your role is written correctly—meaning honestly and not exploitatively—then race, gender, NOTHING should matter. Mario Van Peebles as George Bush! Yahoo!

Every human can relate to ANY feeling ANYWHERE if written honestly. Pain is pain is pain is pain. This thought came to me the first time someone decided to write what is called a treatment for my book. I hadn’t heard the term before which is why I capitalized it. The treatment was awful! A bunch of “Yo, Vinnys.” They even found a way to squeeze the mafia into my story! Geesh. Seems the people hired to do this were excited to write about their New York, not the story of a boy.

WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints' | Script Magazine

LEFT: Anthony DeSando as Frank The Dog Walker. RIGHT: Shia LaBeouf as young Dito.

I was terrified to say how I felt because the idea that anybody was interested in making my book a movie was something I didn’t want to rattle.

I remember my first meeting with the suits. I said if they wanted to cast Jim J. Bullock in the lead with my name I’d be fine with it. I even laughed to let them know I’d be easy to deal with. I even believed I meant it, but I didn’t.

Art to me, unfortunately, is too important. I know that’s some bad cliché, but it’s true. I love the art of writing. The idea of compromising a single line makes me want to puke! It’s a strange thing, scriptwriting. There are two very important sides to it. One, how important the words are, and two, how you can’t be too precious.

Another thing I learned in this process is that punctuation is a bunch of bunk! I thought it was some weird actor mumbo jumbo when I heard about certain ones who take it all out. I’m still not sure it isn’t actor mumbo jumbo, but what I do know is when you’re writing at 3:00 a.m. you get bored. Next thing you know you’re filling that boredom (and unfortunately your script) with ridiculous things like exclamation points, question marks and direction like “cough!” Then you’re on the set and an actor keeps saying a certain line with too much authority, or worse yet, keeps COUGHING in between words and you can’t understand why. I had my own example of that. Here it is:


(looks up from pipe)
Oh shit!! What’s up?
Is it Saturday?

Saturday? What’s up Frank ... we ...

Hey man ... you guys know this stuff ...
(points at pipe)
it’s no good and ...

When we did that scene the incredible actor (Anthony DeSando) kept YELLING “Oh shit!!” and COUGHING before he said the Saturday line. I was like, get this guy a friggin’ cough drop. Then I checked the script, and that was the LAST time an exclamation point or ANY direction will EVER appear in one of my screenplays.

I wasn’t setting out to tell my story or any memoir; I was trying to capture a feeling, an experience, a moment in time.

Understanding your characters is without question the most important thing in writing. I come from the school of no school. I was kicked out of high school and hate to read. You meet two different minds out there. The ones who think school will mess you up and the ones who think you can’t do without it. Both are wrong. Listen, I’ve been in bands my whole life as a guitarist and singer. I’ve sat behind drum sets since I was 13. No beat is EVER COMING OUT OF ME, OKAY? Drummers are born, not taught. Writing is similar. That being said, drum lessons aren’t going to make that natural drummer any worse and, in all honesty, can probably make a non-drummer suck a little less, but it ain’t gonna make you play a beat if it isn’t in you.

WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints'

Robert Downey Jr. as adult Dito in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Understanding a character is in your bones. I wasn’t setting out to tell my story or any memoir; I was trying to capture a feeling, an experience, a moment in time.

Channing Tatum played the role of Antonio in my movie. I’d battled this thing long and hard in my head. Antonio was a messed-up, wiryhaired terror with a messed-up face. Channing walked down my street the morning of the shoot looking like a Bruce Weber model. I was mortified. That’s where understanding the character and writing with honesty came in big time for me. At the heart of the character, Antonio was a lost kid doing anything he could to be loved, accepted. We were filming a scene where he had to beat this guy up. The real Antonio was somewhat of a legend in my neighborhood. Being that we shot it in the same neighborhood, there were critics everywhere. An older junkie guy I knew was hanging around the set. After Channing finished the scene, the junkie walked over and suggested that the real Antonio would have f***ed that boy up, spit in his face, and laughed all the way home. Channing asked if that was true and if he was being true to the character. That’s when I knew we were on to something.

You see, this junkie guy didn’t know the real Antonio. If he were directing the scene, it would have sucked. He saw Antonio like some mythological character, not the abused boy written in my script. At the heart and truth of the character was Channing’s portrayal of Antonio, and that is what interests me. The truth.

WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints'

Peter Tambakis as young Nerf, Adam Scarimbolo as Giuseppe, and Channing Tatum as young Antonio.

I know with some period pieces directors insist on things like silk underwear for their actors. Like, I don’t know, Alexander The Great or something. The reason now sounds like director mumbo jumbo, but there may be something to it. Why writing or acting works can be like discussing black holes, but strange things can get you to strange places. I’ve worked with kids who want to spin three times before a line, the great Michael Wright who likes to moan very loudly before a scene, and Adam Scarimbolo (he plays Giuseppe) who told me that if I wanted him to actually touch the third rail on the train tracks while filming, he would. I told him he’d be electrocuted if he did, and his only response was that it was “my last scene anyway, right?”

You can constantly doubt yourself when writing. I certainly do. After a few people read my script, a recurring comment was that my characters were unredeemable, unlovable ... TOO F***ED UP! How can you love a guy like Giuseppe who says:

Yo, if I was an ugly bitch and two hot, young studs
like us wanted to fuck me, I’d be into it. Totally.

I had the privilege of talking and being guided day and night by e-mail with a friend and great writer, Alex Francis. Alex comes from the school of “well-schooled,” but he can play a mean beat if you get what I’m saying. “As long as the characters were being truthful” was his relentless mantra. Alex likes to ask the kinds of questions that coming from anyone but him could make you say, “This guy’s a cheeseball!” He wants to know strange things about characters. He asks you things like, “Are they honest?” “Do they mean what they’re saying?” Corny as it sounds, and corny it can be ... it was invaluable. The thought and truth of my characters were that, flawed or not flawed, EVERY single one of them in my film—aside from one (the lead)—if strapped to a lie detector test and asked if they did EVERYTHING they possibly could to help my lead character in life, would pass that test with flying colors. They ALL absolutely had to believe that EVERY SINGLE thing they did, good or bad, was absolutely necessary. Now that sounded like writer mumbo jumbo! At first, the thought of his mantra was embarrassing and corny, but, in writing, it was necessary to overcome my hesitation. I ended up believing his mantra so much I put it in my script:

Do you know if you hooked a lie detector up to your father
and asked if he was the best father
who ever lived, he’d pass with flying colors?

Dito goes to speak. Flori stops him.

That’s because he loved you with everything he had.
Every last bit. He loved coming up here with you.
People used to think he was your grandfather.
He thought that was funny. We were too old to
have such a young boy. One generation can be funny I
guess but two ... we found ourselves needing you
more than you probably needed us ... but your father
was so crazy about you. Never saw nothing like it.

Everywhere you look you can find incredible dialogue. At Sundance one of my mentors was the great Frank Pierson. He told me in a scene he wrote in Dog Day Afternoon between Al Pacino and his real wife, he had gotten hold of a tape recording of the real Sonny (Pacino’s character) talking on a bugged phone and simply transcribed it. “You can’t write shit like that.”

One day, a few weeks before filming, I’m walking down the street and an old friend of mine, Lucio, catches up with me (cracked out of his head). He starts going on and on about his mother. “Dito, she’s so fat and she tries and hides behind skinny little poles like that from me ... she’s my mother. Mothers are not supposed to do that.” Horrible and exploitative as it is, it rang in my ear with a kind of beautiful poetry. That night my character Nerf went from just simply being an old friend talking with actor Robert Downey Jr. in a scene to a guy battling some demons, rambling on:

I don’t know Nerf. So how are you?

You keep asking me that. How am I?
I don’t know. Nothing ever gets better. My mother, right,
I told you she was excited to see you,
but with me ... when I ... she sees me on the
street she hides. She’s so fat and she tries
and hides behind skinny little poles.
Poles like that.
Even she hides from me and she’s my mother.
They’re not supposed to do that. You can tell me why?

I don’t know. Things’ll get better Nerf, I ...

Things will get better?
That’s nice to
have a
(slurred thoughts)
positive attitude
but no, t
hings don’t get better here.

Tell me they get better. You know
it doesn’t happen here now for me right?

WRITERS ON WRITING: 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints'

Chazz Palminteri as Monty in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed by Dito Montiel.

In my movie there’s a scene between the father (Chazz Palminteri) and son (Shia LaBeouf) in a bathroom. It’s near the end of the film. I felt no words were needed, so I had written the scene in silence. Once again, Frank Pierson told me I was copping out. He told me, “I know what you wrote is very clever (using ‘clever’ in a bit of a demeaning way), but you’re copping out on me!”

I was certain he was wrong. In the privacy of night, I thought I’d REALLY prove him wrong by writing some dialogue and show just how unnecessary it was. Frank was right; I was wrong. Hey, the guy wrote Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke, gimme a break! It turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the movie portrayed beautifully by Chazz and Shia with LOTS of NECESSARY dialogue.

So, I guess what I learned through this ridiculous process is, well, EVERYBODY’S got a theory on black holes and mumbo jumbo. I love this film with all I got. One of the few things in life I can say with all honesty turned out exactly as I had hoped.

There’s that other Woody Allen line, “In art, we try and make this perfect because in life they so seldom are.” Not a bad writer that guy.

I counter with one last thought: Once you put the characters on paper, they’re gone. Sad.


DITO MONTIEL was born and raised in Astoria, New York. At age 13, Montiel took to the music scene singing for a hardcore/punk band, Major Conflict, and at 17 years old joined the band Gutterboy. His first book, a memoir called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was published in 2003, and in 2006 the film of his memoir, also titled A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, won the Dramatic Directing Award and a Special Jury Prize (for best cast ensemble) at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Montiel’s second book is The Clapper.

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