I think Dito's first film is a work of art, something truly truly masterful, his second film was pretty cool - and his third one, 'Son Of No-One' is currently in production. It could be genius, it could be awful; I have no idea. But based on 'Saints..' I will always follow his work and always believe in what he is capable of. And there are not many writers I can say that about.
'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints' is about growing up in Queens, New York, in the 1980's. It's about friendship and family and violence and loyalty and many other things. In fact, it might not be about friendship and family and violence and loyalty, I don't really know - I've never really thought about summarizing or intellectualizing it before. All I know is that I relate to it, heavily, and exactly why is hard to say. I have nothing in common with the characters, have never had to deal with any of the issues that are dealt with in the film: yet somehow every time I watch it I feel like Dito Montiel understands my life. What the hell is that about?
That is exactly why I love 'Saints', because it's so real. It has real truth to it. It touches on something meaningful. And I think you know a film is really something important, and special, when it completely polarizes opinion. I made my brother watch the film, and he turned it off half way through. "It's boring," he said, "nothing happens!." This made no sense to me. Everything happens, I thought. Here's the thing though, I watched it with my girlfriend a few years ago, and she was in tears all the way through the film. Come to think of it, maybe it's because she was going out with me, but I think the tears were because of the film. It touched something deeply inside of her. She went out and bought it the day after I had shown it to her. I LOVE IT when a movie has this affect; the effect of love or hate. When I write a script, if someone says "yeah, it's alright, pretty funny. Good job," I worry. If they say "it's fucking awful!" then I know I've got something worthwhile. There are people that hate 'Saints', as there should be - it's a work of art, it's something personal. And when it's something truly personal, you either get it and are moved by it, or you reject it. Or it just doesn't speak to you personally.
So why is Dito Montiel one of my favorite writer/director's? I mean, I loved 'Garden State' but I would never think of having Zach Braff in my list. So what's different?
What makes 'Saints' something special is how everything was done for the art of it, based on feeling. In my interview with the film's editor, Jake Pushinsky (which you can read here), he talked constantly about feeling. He edited based on feeling and instinct, and he had the freedom to do that because he had the trust of his Director. So many decisions were based purely on instinct. The film was set in the eighties, but many people criticised the film because the costumes looked more like they were from the seventies. Dito's response? "It just felt right to me." There's a moment on the director-editor DVD commentary when one of them mentions a subway train in the background is clearly more modern than the year the movie is set in. Dito didn't care, it wasn't important. They chose what felt true rather than what was true: and that to me is art.
"I still remember when Anthony Ripoli (the greatest Assistant Editor out there, and now an editor too) came to me and said, "you can't do that, you're crossing the line." I had no idea what he was talking about. I still don't really get it. If it feels right, it feels right. If it doesn't, it definitely doesn't. But back to the scene... Editing to me is all feeling. I always go to performance first. If the actors don't feel real, the scene won't feel real and then movie doesn't feel real. Dito and I are always trying to get the real emotion out there. Ask anybody that hasn't been to film school if it bothers them when the line is crossed - there will be no response. But if you ask them if they are bothered by a bad performance? I don't know if there's a person out there that isn't."
People have said the editing is disjointed. Doesn't matter, it felt right. People say Eric Roberts casting is unrealistic. Doesn't matter, it felt right. People say the age difference between Robert Downey Jr and Rosario Dawson is stupid, doesn't matter, it felt right. People say there are continuity/realism issues, doesn't matter, it felt right. The film was written, directed and edited based on what the director felt was right. That is courageous. You might think every film is based on what the director feels is right but in reality, that is rarely the case. Of course, continuity is important; if in one scene Robert Downey Jr has a pony tail and in the next he's bald and in the one after that he has a German accent, of course; that doesn't work. But in 'Saints' - the Director's view was if there's some little issue/mistake, it's not important - the film is about the characters and what they're going through.
More than anything, this film just clicks for me in a way precious few films do. I love every piece of music (composed and source), I love every actor, every bit of dialogue - and throughout the film there is a tone, pace, style and level of emotion that holds consistent throughout - and for that, Montiel should be applauded. It happened, I can only assume, because of how in touch he was with what he had in script form, and where he wanted it to end up.
It's amazing to me how improvised/accidental/unscripted so many of my favorite parts of the movie are. Again, that's something Jake Pushinsky shed light on in his interview - they filmed extra things just to try stuff out, they filmed bits when Dito wasn't sure what he wanted, they acted on suggestions from actors; there were key moments that came together by a complete accident in the editing room. Dito was open as a writer and a director; open to suggestion and influence, but at the same time; held everything together so expertly.
I can think of no better film to clearly show what it is that a writer-director does. Whilst Dito's style, energy, content and talents are completely different to my own - his debut film and his attitude towards creating it is something that inspires me on a huge scale; and I can't wait to see what he does next.