While waiting for Dito Montiel during the Venice Film Festival, where his film Man Down had its world premiere, I expected a serious guy, who’d made a serious film about post-war trauma.
But he arrived smiling, laughing all the time and telling jokes. He was positive and full of joy. It surprised me; I’d always imagined that the director of films including A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Fighting, and Boulevard must be tough and focused on the negative sides of reality. Montiel definitely is not. He doesn’t like obviousness in any way—as is evident, come to think of it, in the way he casts actors. In Man Down the lead role is played by Shia LaBeouf. On the one hand this character is like many others LaBeouf has played before: strong and masculine, aware of how to use a gun and how to survive. But there is something more in him, too, which brings this story to another level and gives LaBeouf a chance to explore his talent.
The story itself turns out to be something very different from what we expected. Montiel plays with genres, and reminds us that nothing is ever what it seems. He proves this also with the settings in this post-apocalyptic drama: Places that seem to be generated by computers turn out to be real locations, and those made with CGI seem natural and real. Man Down is a reminder that in order to find the truth we have to dig deep. That applies to Montiel’s characters and to the director himself.
Artur Zaborski: It’s interesting how you translated war trauma with the post-apocalyptic world. How did you actually come up with it?
Dito Montiel: Well, we filmed in New Orleans, and unfortunately because of Katrina it’s a very half post-apocalyptic and half trying to rebuild, so it lent itself, unfortunately, to a very real world. Man Down was a movie pretending to be a big movie but it’s just a little story. When I say little story, I don’t mean unimportant, I mean very personal. We start off and pretend we are a really big movie and in the end it’s just the story of a man, his wife and child, and what they are going through. So I wanted to keep it like that because I thought it would humanize it, and in the end it would be somewhat honest. So that was the thought behind it.
Zaborski: But why did you feel the need to use this post-apocalyptic world?
Montiel: Well, we were trying to find a way to tell the story in a way that is playing pretend. I saw a story, a documentary about a guy who was riding in a cab in New York, and he took the cab driver hostage because he thought he was kidnapping him, and halfway through he realized he wasn’t in a war. So that was on my mind a lot, and I said, ‘Oh, can you imagine what that would be like that you wake up and it’s not real?’ Half the movie is Shia’s perspective, and then the other part we are watching from the outside, so I thought that would be fun to do it that way.
Zaborski: Was it difficult to produce, even if it was very small?
Montiel: It’s always a little difficult. Movies are weird, it’s like trying to make a painting with a hundred different people. It’s a weird world… but every job is weird… but it’s always a little bit hard and a little bit crazy and a little bit fun, nice combination.
Zaborski: All the ruins you used on the set were real, or built?
Montiel: Oh no, all those were real, nobody built anything, we didn’t have any money for that. It was destroyed. We found the houses where Gabriel, the character, lived, and I said ‘Wow, this is so nice,’ and the housing projects there, which is, from where I’m from, they don’t look that nice. And they said everything was destroyed from Katrina across the street, and I walked across the street and was like, ‘Ah!’ It was twenty blocks, and I said, ‘Oh my God, we can film here.’ And then we went across the street and we filmed there. Those houses had a very post-apocalyptic feel unfortunately from reality, and a lot of people still live there, so we would have to move the camera because we didn’t want to see anybody—so it was very unfortunate, and made the set not easy.
Zaborski: How did you choose the cast?
Montiel: I knew Shia, we had worked together on my first movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. I was rewriting it, and I called him up and said, ‘Hey man, take a read, and if you like this let me know,’ and he says, an hour later, ‘OK, let’s do it!’ And I said, ‘All right!’ Then I called Kate Mara because I thought that she’d be great for the other role.
Zaborski: How was coming back to work with Shia?
Montiel: I love it! He’s crazy and he’s great. It’s a good combination for me. I don’t know if he’s going to jump up and attack me, or the camera, or the actor, and I kind of enjoy that. He brings something unexpected, all the time. A little frightening, a little grey, so I really enjoy that kind of madness. I think he takes this work very seriously, really seriously, and sometimes maybe that comes across as arrogant or annoying, and I understand that. But it’s nice when someone cares so much. I don’t know how easy it is to be a big movie star, I’ll never understand that world, but to show up and care that much, to me, is a nice deal and I’ll take it. With all the craziness.
Zaborski: How did you work together with Gary Oldman to create his character?
Montiel: Gary is a dream for everyone on Earth. He was there one day, that’s it, the whole thing in one day. He’s so good, he’s like Michael Jordan, he dunks and then goes home. He just came, we were supposed to shoot him for three days and we were done in one. We were like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ But he’s a very special actor. I don’t have to say that, but he cared a whole lot. He and Shia had done another film together, so they knew each other. Two guys in a room, talking, two good actors talking, I could film that all day. One day, I could do it for ten! It was very exciting for me.
Zaborski: What is your approach for directing actors on a set?
Montiel: Once I know who the actors are going to be, I try to rewrite it to fit them a little bit. I don’t like to force words down anyone’s throat. We kind of read it together and I think, ‘Hmm, that kind of didn’t sound like them.’ So I try to work on it to try and fit the actor better and to see what they bring to it—I enjoy that more. We don’t ever put marks down; if you want to leave the room, we have a microphone, when you come back we’ll get you, or we’re going to hear you. Keep it kind of free, loose.
Zaborski: Is there an actor you would like to work with?
Montiel: Oh gosh, so many. I’m a fan of a lot of people. I stop them on the street and I take a picture with them, I go crazy, you know? I met Robert De Niro and I said, ‘You’re Robert De Niro,’ like he doesn’t know. I have to remind them who they are. I’m a fan first, so it’s always exciting. I dream about working with Christopher Walken, I love him.
Zaborski: Talking about the cast, how was working with Robin Williams for the last time on Boulevard?
Montiel: Oh man, it was incredible. I loved him. I mean, everyone grows up with him, one version of him. He’s an incredible actor, and we would walk around and talk about the roles all night long. Very sad what happened in the end.
Zaborski: Had you finished the work before the tragedy had happened?
Montiel: Oh yeah. He thought it was very nice. I still have my message from him on my phone, he was a very special person.
Zaborski: How can you cope with promoting it?
Montiel: It’s very weird, life is weird, movies are really weird because it’s like a circus life: You get together with all these people for three months, you’re so close, and then everybody goes to the next circus. Somewhere down the road you run into someone, like Shia, and say, ‘Hey man, maybe we can do something again?’ Movies are like life, really fast. So that was too fast, unfortunately, and it was very weird and very sad of course.
Zaborski: How did you study post-war effects, especially thinking about backgrounds and survivors? Did Shia and Jai Courtney meet some of them?
Montiel: They did their own research. Shia is obsessive. He wants to get it right, and this is a touchy thing. When you deal with war, it has to be at least somewhat honest or real at some level. I would call it a gun, and my friend who is a sergeant in the Marines would say, ‘Rifle! You never call it a gun!’ So that’s the simple things, but also as far as understanding this type of situation these people go through, I know they did a lot. I did my own, looking into it and you know, people suffer from PTSD, from everything, from rape, too. I have a friend I grew up with that he got into a fight, and this was just in the streets, and he got it. So this is not just war-related, it’s something that affects people in a lot of ways.
Zaborski: Can you elaborate a little bit about your connection to the war?
Montiel: Our guy Nick Jones, who is the advisor, he’s my friend, and he’s a sergeant in the Marines. He was with us every day and he just came back from Afghanistan. He was back and forth over six years. It’s strange because movies are playing pretend at all times, and no matter how scared you would get in there, I would say, ‘What was it like when you kicked a door in,’ and he would say, ‘Really scary.’ It’s a lot scarier than in the movies, so you try to keep that as honest as you can because it’s not as fun as sometimes the movies may make it seem. So we had people around to try and make sure we kept it honest.
Zaborski: What kind of inspirations did you have?
Montiel: I love all movies and reality TV. I love Big Brother. It’s the best. It’s terrible but I love it. [Laughs.]
Zaborski: Do you have a reason for yourself, why you like that so much?
Montiel: Oh, I just like dumb things. I like when movies feel honest. If you can relate to it, even if it has nothing to do with your life. I never left New York as a kid, ever, I never went anywhere. Manhattan was a long way away from me—we were in Queens. But I saw Cinema Paradiso and said, ‘Oh my God, I love that movie,’ and I related to it, in my own way, without going anywhere. Movies have always been an interesting thing. That are the things that I can enjoy when I can relate to something that I have nothing to do with.
Zaborski: Are you interested in doing a TV series, or producing one?
Montiel: I never know where anything is going to go. You just find something. With Boulevard, this guy wrote his first script, he was seventy-five years old. I was like, ‘This is beautiful, I guess we will do this.’ You don’t know where life is going to take you. It’s nice. I use to unload trucks; this is better than that. More fun, in some ways.
Zaborski: Man Down and your previous film are about people in denial of sorts. Do you see a connection?
Montiel: Well, life can be very much like that. The first movie I made was all about people who don’t know how to talk to each other. ‘I love you is a big word, and in this movie as well, they had a pretend word. Sometimes that’s a part of life.
Zaborski: How did you come up with translating ‘I love you’ with ‘man down,’ where did you come up with that?
Montiel: That was from the original script, so I thought that was interesting for a lot of reasons. One is: You are always trying to find a way to say things without saying them, but also the idea of death and love being mixed seemed to fit this strange movie. So that was interesting, I thought.
Zaborski: This was your first movie with action scenes, so how was it?
Montiel: It’s crazy! Things blowing up, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, wow, really? It was fun. There was the exciting part, but to keep it honest is what I like, as much as you can. It’s fun to flip a car six times, but I don’t think anybody can flip a car six times and then walk away. So I’m too real all the time, ‘He would never be alive!’ But it’s fun: You blow things up, who doesn’t like that?
Zaborski: How was it to direct it in only twenty-four days?
Montiel: It creates problems that are sometimes good. Of course, it would be nice to have a little more time, but I don’t know what I would do with it, to be honest. You find a location and you say, ‘Oh, there is a door there, we can go in that door.’ So I try to plan it a little bit.
Zaborski: Was there a lot of postproduction in the post-apocalyptic part?
Montiel: Well, most of it is real, and there is a little bit of playing around here and there. The editor is a friend of mine who is great, he likes to go crazy. I don’t even know what he’s doing half the time, you know? This was an interesting movie. [Laughs.]
Zaborski: The choice of the blurred background in Shia’s vision, was it an immediate choice, or did it come after?
Montiel: Sometimes we had to watch out because things were looking too real, so we had to cut a little bit out. Usually, you can block it with a truck or something, but we can’t put a truck in this movie. People lived where we were filming. Also, a lot of homeless people were there, so we were trying to avoid the situation.
Zaborski: What is the aim of making films this way?
Montiel: To try to find something to put yourself in. When I read Boulevard, the first thing I thought of was that my parents divorced in their seventies, and I said to my mom, ‘Ma, what are you going to do?’ And she said, ‘I’m not done yet.’ So that was mine into that movie. With this movie, it’s a very strange way to think about it but my father had epilepsy. So when I was a kid he used to have seizures, grand mal, which were really intense, and when you have a grand mal, you have no control. As a little boy I would take my fingers and put them in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue, and one time he was biting it so hard, and I said, ‘Ahhh, this hurts.’ He had just enough strength that he stopped, just for a minute, which is very weird because you don’t have any control. So that was always in my mind when I thought about the father, no matter how terrible the world was, there was always one thing he remembered and that was his son. It is the same with the character who still sees his son through all this and his wife. That’s a very weird way to think about it, but that was mine in.