DITO MONTIEL, “THE SON OF NO ONE”
Punk rocker turned memoirist turned auteur, Dito Montiel has lived a life that has strayed far and wide from his Astoria, Queens upbringing, but especially in his motion pictures, he can’t help but go home again time after time. In his newest film, The Son of No One, he circles around half a dozen or so New Yorkers caught in the throes of the NYPD’s culture of malfeasance and brutality, even in the aftermath of 9/11. Montiel’s film, despite having the trappings of a police procedural and a high wattage cast, has the rhythms and authenticity of a smaller scale, surprisingly nuanced story about the how the sins of the past come back to haunt a young NYPD street cop (Channing Tatum) and his wife (Katie Holmes). In 2002, just months after the towers fell, secrets from the cop’s troubled Queens childhood become enmeshed with a series of mysterious letters hinting at a police cover-up of a pair of mid-’80s homicides in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects. After the letters find their way to a rogue foreign journalist (Juliette Binoche) who is intent on bringing down both the past (Al Pacino) and present (Ray Liotta) captains of the corrupt 118th precinct that serves the blighted riverfront area, everyone’s basest instinct come to the fore.
The 46-year-old Montiel, who first came to prominence as the frontman of ’80s hardcore bands Major Conflict and Gutterboy, is a prolific multi-medium artist. Beyond his film work, he released a self-titled solo album in 2006 and his second novel, Eddie Krumble is the Clapper, the following year.
The closing night film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Son of No One follows Montiel’s acclaimed debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which was based on his own memoir, and the Terrence Howard vehicle Fighting. Anchor Bay releases the film on Friday.
Filmmaker: What keeps bringing you back to Queens? I imagine in some ways this story grew out of your lifelong fascination with the place you grew up and the way the police are both integral and antagonistic in troubled communities.
Montiel: You know, it’s funny, I was talking to my editor and he said, “You should have wrote this about garbage men. Then we wouldn’t be thinking about the cops.” When I was a kid, we used to hang out in the Ravenswood projects a lot, which was right next to Queensbridge where we filmed. We would hang out in Johnny’s apartment on the first floor. He lived with his grandmother. We were really young — 14-years-old. A lot of junkies used to hang out there — they were older and kind of scary because his grandma couldn’t control anybody so she couldn’t get rid of anybody ever. One guy in particular, Hank, he used to come and freak us out all the time. He was just a terror, he was 19 so he felt like a man, and one day he just turned up dead in the hallway, you know?
It wasn’t any kind of big emotional thing because we were all kind of happy he was dead. [laughs] As horrible as that sounds, he was such hell. That was just the reality of being a kid I guess. I remember them taking him away, his body, and Vinnie, who used to hang out there — he was a drummer in a hardcore band — said, “You know, nobody cares. Nobody cares about anybody here.” That thought, not in a huge way, it didn’t impact me forever or change my life by any means, but it stayed with me. Nobody cares. Wow, that’s odd. Here’s a place where, literally out of everybody here, no one cares. I’m not sure that they were wrong. Funny enough, there’s a lot of that going on now with the Occupy Wall Street, there’s a lot of people who feel like they are just sort of disappeared.
So when I started to write this, I first started to write it as a book called The Story of Milk. He was, like in the movie, a kid who causes this death nobody cares about. Al Pacino in the movie says, “Not a single fucking person,” and in the end nobody cares about an old cop. I was trying to write a strange little story about people nobody cares about.
Filmmaker: What do you think is at the root of that antipathy between people living in the projects and also between the police who ostensibly serve them and the community itself?
Montiel: Well it’s a weird thing. I grew up with a lot of good friends who are cops. I was trying really hard to not make this an anti-cop movie or any of that sort of thing. I see a lot of movies where there’s always the good guy and he takes the gun out and saves the day and it is the cops that are the mafia. I’m a really big fan of The 25th Hour, I love that movie. That’s one of the few movies where the whole movie is building up to that this guy is going to go away for six years. You see movies all the time where a guy is gonna do ten years and he’s like, “I could do ten years standing on my head.”I don’t know who’s done ten years standing on their head. I don’t know who doesn’t one week standing on their head — that’s terrifying. That movie really, really slowly ripped me to shreds becuase I thought, “Wow, that’s what it really might feel like.”
Filmmaker: I think its reputation has only continued to improve with age. I hear people talking about it pretty frequently.
Montiel: I’m glad to hear that, because I can never get a single person in a room to agree with me about it. I love it. When I was writing this, I was thinking, This isn’t about a terrible marriage or a great marriage, it’s about a cold marriage where sometimes people don’t ask questions. It’s not about a bunch of cops that did some fucked-up things, it’s about cops who did what, right down to their bones as human beings, not as cops, they felt was the right thing to do. Al Pacino, I’m talking to him and he’d say, “Is this a guy that lives with regret for what he did,” and I’d say, “No, this guy can’t believe this ungrateful kid isn’t thanking him at the end of the day,” which is a little more how I imagine this would be in real life. Sometimes it’s a slow burn.
Filmmaker: One gets the sense that you no desire to make Pacino or Ray Liotta’s characters traditional villains in any sense.
Montiel: The thought was, both as a book and a film, that nobody cares. If a kid backed up his car and ran over a squirrel, he doesn’t have to go to jail for the rest of his life. I think they really saw this as, “Who really gives a shit, some junkie is dead, fuck ’em.” I’m not going to let this kid’s life get ruined. This is hell he lives in, you know what I mean?
I have some really weird references in my head, but I think Archie Bunker was one of the greatest characters ever written in the history of writing. There’s a great, great episode where Archie gets drunk and he’s with Meathead. Every time I make a movie I show the actors this scene. Archie says, “Ah, those niggers,” or something along those lines, and Meathead says, “You know, you shouldn’t use that word,” and Archie says, “Well my father said that,” and Meathead says, “Well, your father was wrong,” and Archie says, “The man who worked so hard for me and broke his hand on me when I did something wrong, he was wrong?” It’s an odd scene to reference, but the camera goes on Meathead and Rob Reiner is just looking at Archie and for a minute, he recognizes who Archie is. He’s just a guy, he’s not a racist per se, he’s a child. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
When I write, and I like to direct, I try to really dig into what I believe at least is reality. I don’t know if there are really very many bad people in the world. I kind of like to believe that there aren’t. I just try to find out why each of the characters is doing what they’re doing. I kind of wanted to make a movie full of innocent people. It’s odd saying that I guess. I don’t know about Liotta, he might not be the most innocent guy [laughs], [but] a lot of the other people are just wishing everything would just go away. Al Pacino and Channing kept saying to me, “Oh my God, am I living with all this guilt through all these years?” I’d say, especially with Channing, “I know everyone’s always [supposed to be] filled with guilt in movies. I think people are filled with fear.” I think people get over whatever they did as a kid. You really can get over it. It’s remarkable! Humans are freakin’ relentless. You’d be fine with whatever you did as a kid. You just don’t want it coming back because then it’s going to screw you. Play that part. Regret is one thing, but all of these people are really just wishing it would go away. That was really the funny part of making a little film like this even though even though we had that big cast, you know?
Filmmaker: Speaking of that cast; this is the third time in your three films you’ve cast Channing Tatum. Did you write the role for him? How did the other pieces come together as you were packaging it? This has to be one of the more eclectic casts in recent memory. I never thought I’d see Tracy Morgan, Al Pacino and Juliette Binoche in the same movie.
Montiel: You know man, we were making our last movie and half way through it I turned to him and said, “You know man, you can really act!” I had been writing this, but I hadn’t thought of him for the role at the time. I remember, we were shooting a scene in the projects, as usual, up near the Chelsea ones, and he was so good and I went up to him and said, “We’re going to do this movie, its a little movie, and its really going to be fun because its literally about a guy who can’t do anything, he’s utterly trapped.” I keep growing as a fan of his more and more. I cried when I saw Dear John. I called him up and said, “yo, I just cried watching Dear John, that’s how bad things are getting with me!” I really just think the world of him, I really think he’s that good. Even though he’s this great looking guy, there’s something I really buy about him, where you can say, “I know that guy, I grew up with a guy like him.” Blue collar is a tough thing to find in films anymore.
With everybody else, you know, you write the film and you hope somebody likes it, because I care, you know, I hate when people don’t like it. You just wish somebody will like it out there. You don’t imagine they’re going to like it, you just hope anybody likes it. Then you get a call and its like, “Al Pacino wants to meet you,” and it’s like oh my God, that’s crazy. I call everybody I know from outside of his house like, “I’m outside Al Pacino house bro,” and then you meet him and after you’re in awe you just sort of say, “wow, this is going to be really fun and sort of special.” With all the actors its kind of like that. I’m in awe of everyone, not just the super famous ones, there’s alot of really great actors in the film, Roger Guenveur Smith is one of my favorites, he has a small role. Everytime I make a movie I just can’t believe I’m out there, nevermind when these guys show up.
Filmmaker: I love Roger, I think he’s one of the great, underrated character actors in American movies.
Montiel: Roger is ridiculous. He is so good. You got to see his one man shows-
Filmmaker: The one about Juan Marichal is amazing, Juan and John.
Montiel: He’s unreal, he’s just great. He’s totally one of the best. The Juliette Binoche role I wrote for him initially. I knew he would kill that role. When I was getting ready to make the movie, I started saying, “okay, what if I put a foreign woman, who has no business being in the movie in it,” and then I called Roger up and I was like, “Roger, I gotta ask you to do this really small role but I know you’ll have a really good time with it,” and he said, “okay, I’m in.”