Dito Montiel: The story of my life

Dito Montiel grew up on New York's roughest streets - and still has the scars to prove it. Now he's turned his teen experiences into a remarkable new film. John Walsh meets him
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In 2003, a short, pungent memoir called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was published by the Thunder's Mouth Press, a small New York imprint, and in its pages were things never seen before: stories of the gang culture of Queens, the NY borough, tales of violence, sex, drugs, murder and imprisonment but told by someone who'd been in the thick of it. This was no fancy literary exercise, no Last Exit to Brooklyn, no homage to Kerouac or Burroughs. This was the real thing - an evocation of life in run-down Astoria district, told with naiveté and native poetry: of open-mic nights at the Speakeasy Club on MacDougal Street, where crazy EJ would release a sack of locusts into the audience; of the transvestite Marilyns and Mansfields avoiding the stink bombs on West 15th Street. Of walking with a friend from Greenwich Village to Wall Street in pink cowboy hats, leopard-skin vests and knickers, "looking like two fag pimps", of watching your best friend Antonio kill a boy with a single blow of a baseball bat (he was 16 at the time). And also of encountering people who, without seeming to at the time, looked after you and kept you safe from harm - your guardian saints - even while their own lives crashed and burned.

It was a testimony with the reek of truth. The author was Dito (short for Orlandito) Montiel, a half-Nicaraguan, half-Irish punk-turned-respectable-citizen, whose rock band, Gutterboy, had enjoyed approximately five minutes of fame - and a $1m advance from David Geffen - but who was known as a New York "face", a model for Calvin Klein and In Fashion magazine.

Four years later, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a movie, and a very fine one. Screen-written and directed by its author, it's a fiction based on characters and events from the memoir, and stars Robert Downey Jr as middle-aged Dito, successfully holed-up in LA, returning to see his dying father and remembering the life he once led on the hot, dangerous streets. I asked Montiel (who admits, "I don't read") how he'd come to write his memories in the first place.

"Well, I always wrote songs. And I have a kids' book called The Picture Book of Saints. I put in pictures of me and my friend Antonio one day and wrote a little thing under it, and then another picture of this guy Frank and I wrote more, and kept going. It became 30 pages, then 50, and I thought: 'Wow, maybe I can get this to 200 pages and someone'll read it.'" He smiles. "It took a long time to live it and a short time to write it."

He is weary of being asked if he was "exorcising his demons". "I always wanna say 'No' to that question. I hope I have better things to do than sit with a pen. But writing certainly makes me feel good." He was working in a "dub room" in Los Angeles, making copies of TV commercials, when he first met Robert Downey Jr, and the two became friends. When Downey was shown the Guide ("He was like, You wrote a book!?") and a tiny, one-minute video film Dito had made, he was impressed. Trudie Styler, aka Mrs Sting, was called in as producer, "and two weeks later, I was in London, two doors down from Prince Charles moving in with Camille or whatever she's called." He still can't quite believe his good fortune. "I'm the son of a typewriter mechanic, but for a brief while I got to see what it would feel to be on top of the world." Downey Jr was slated to direct but got overwhelmed by projects. "He calls me up and says, 'Why don't you direct it?' Next day, I got a call from Trudie saying, 'Now Mr Downey thinks you can direct. Well, I'll give you a chance. If you can make a film this week, at least six minutes long, with the flavour of the film we're planning, and I like you, then you can direct.' I completely freaked out. I called Robert and filmed him and some kids in the street and it worked out."

Suddenly the unlettered memoirist and the no-experience film director was making a movie of his own creation. They shot the whole thing on location in Queens, right there on the mean streets where he grew up and fought and bled on the sidewalk. "It's funny, the neighbourhood," he muses, "like a small town in a big city. It's New York but everyone knows everyone. I met the local senator, and discovered his mother was my teacher. And when we were shooting, the streets were full of directors. I tell you, there were more people yelling at the cast than in any movie ever, telling us how bad they were, how this character wouldn't walk like that..." He is very amusing about the auditions - how he put an advertisement on an internet site, expecting "maybe 20 or 30 to show up. But because of Pop Idol, a thousand people turned up. I had mothers ringing me up saying, 'My daughter is 12 but she looks 18, you want her?' I'd say, 'Are you crazy, you don't even know who I am and you throw your first-born at me?'" He also liked putting the kids through their swearing paces, teaching them to say "Fuck you!" with real conviction. "One guy grabbed me and threw me against the wall. I loved that - anybody who has the guts to scream back."

Dito Montiel is now in danger of having a monster indie hit on his hands, but he is remaining cool about it. He's moved back into the Queens area whose past he so effectively mined for book and film. "I never have a plan," he says. "It makes me feel good to write and create but I always had a hard time with the word 'Art'." His new project is a novel out in the States next month. It's called Eddie Crumble is the Clapper, "about a guy who's paid to clap at horrible TV shows". He smiles, like one astonished by all the luck - or the guardian angels? - in his life. "I feel very close to Eddie right now," he says. "Maybe that'll be a movie too."