Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Dito Montiel has his fingers in many pies

The first-time director has enjoyed a hat trick of success — a band, a book and a movie — and he's modest too

By David Carr  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The author and first-time director Dito Montiel in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. Montiel, whose film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints will be out this fall, said he was just dumb enough to think he was smart enough to do a movie

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Lots of kids who came up hard in New York think they have a song in them. And others a book. And there are even those who are bold enough to think the life they have lived belongs on a big screen.

Dito Montiel, a guy from Astoria, Queens, pulled off the trifecta, with a bit of help from Robert Downey Jr. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a movie based on a memoir of the same name, will be out this fall. It not only got made against tall odds, it also picked up significant notice and awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

Montiel, 35, whose resume includes leading Gutterboy, a downtown rock band that signed for US$1 million; a stint as a familiar of Cherry Vanilla (of Andy Warhol fame), and then a turn as a Calvin Klein underwear model, can now legitimately list “director” on a vita that is all over the map.

Standing under the N train on 31st Street in Astoria one afternoon a few weeks ago and shouting over the repairs that were taking place, Montiel said he was just dumb enough to think he was smart enough to do a movie, so he did.

“I benefited from my ignorance,” he said. “I was blinded by the idea of just getting in there and doing it. I am from the school that says you can either do it or you can't, and I thought I could.”

The movie is a moody evocation of growing up rough in Astoria, a place that seemed filled with possibility but became a cul-de-sac for most of Montiel's running buddies. Dito, the real-life one who is standing under the elevated N talking about his movie, and Dito the character in that movie, both made it out, but found themselves pulled back by the rugged draw of the place. Montiel, who recently moved back to Astoria from Santa Monica, California, has made a movie that is less New York borough set piece — “Everybody kept thinking I wanted to make this ‘Yo, Vinny’ kind of movie, when I was trying to do something exactly opposite” — than a brutal miniature about understanding the place that made you.

“When is our movie coming out?” Dody, a guy who grew up next to Montiel, said as he passed by on 31st Street. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Montiel, knows about the movie because it was made here, and will give him an earful when it comes out. No matter. (In fact, the movie is set for release in September by First Look.)

“It is one of the only things in life that turned out exactly liked I wanted it to be,” Montiel said, kicking the sidewalk with the Pony sneakers that he got at one of the swag tents at Sundance. In spite of his history pouting for the camera in Bruce Weber fashion ads, Montiel is not classically pretty. Like Queens itself, his character and visage are composed of many seemingly unrelated but complementary components. In his brown sweater and overlong shorts, he fits in just fine in the neighborhood he wanted to document absent sentiment or cliche.

Part of the reason the movie scans so much like Queens back in the day is that unlike much of the rest of New York, parts of Queens still live back in the day — in this case, the 1980s.

“Give or take an ATM sign, this fruit store looks pretty much like it did when I grew up,” Montiel said. “You change the Korean to a Muslim and it's the same.”

There is history, both personal and cinematic, every time we turn the corner.

At 32nd Street and 24th Avenue, Montiel looks up a hill.

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