Dito Montiel’s directorial debut, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," based on his best-selling memoir of the same name, won both the Director’s Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2006. The former punk rocker's next films all feature macho men (Channing Tatum, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Al Pacino) in tough situations, leaving gunfire and bloody body counts in their wake. Conversely, "Boulevard," his latest effort, quietly reveals the unraveling of a 40-year marriage as Nolan Mack (played by Robin Williams) comes to terms with his homosexuality. Masterful performances and Montiel's unobtrusive eye make witnessing the intimate narrative feel like a privilege.
Critics have debated the problems of gayface (straight actors playing gay characters), wary of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, especially worrisome given Hollywood's sad history of keeping gay actors in the closet.
Hilary Goldberg, director of "Render: Spending Time With Ani DiFranco" and most recently co-director and animator of "Valencia," told Indiewire that "the heteronormative male director has access to higher budgets and stronger support regardless of their film's content," but that "if a film is an excellent one, then personal lives outside of a project are less relevant. The more gay content and/or LGBT actors on the screen the better."
Indiewire chatted with Montiel in advance of “Boulevard's" Los Angeles premiere at Outfest 2014 on Sunday.
What initially drew you to this project?
"My mother left my father in their late 60s. I have three sisters that are way older than me, so they were already grandparents and were together for over forty years, so I was like, 'Mom, are you crazy? What are you gonna do?' And she was like, 'I'm not done yet.' It was weird. I was not so much hurt as wondering what she was going to do. Starting over sounds impossible at any age, especially then. So when I read the script, I thought of her, not as much the 'coming out' part. If this was the story about someone who was 22 it'd be about 'coming out.' It'd be a triumphant story—possibly. I'm sure because I'm not gay I can have that attitude, but to me it seemed more like ‘how do you leave?’"
This seems like a radical departure from your previous material. Or is it?
Did you take special considerations, or did you feel a big responsibility, being a straight director making a "gay movie" with straight actors playing gay?
"To me, it's a story about letting go and holding on, and how do you do it? I'm very bad at that. I could hold on to everything for the rest of my life. I don't make friends easy and I don't lose friends easy. But I get nervous—at first people would say things [about this] and I’d feel like I’m from outer space. People that I worked with asked that question and I hadn’t thought about it that way. Then it does pass into your mind, unfortunately."
Have you received criticism for it?
"I try not to read Google. If you Google, you want to commit suicide. So far, people have been great. Frameline was like 1400 middle-aged men on line to see it in The Castro and it went really well. It was really nice because a few people stood up and said 'that's my life up there' and they’d say how much it touched them and they felt portrayed in a correct way. Sometimes I find some movies patronizing, which I feel is the ultimate crime. I’d rather someone be out and out racist or homophobic than be patronizing. I was cautious about it being exploitative."
Do you feel like you got into directing later in life? Are there things you wish you’d known?
"Jack Kerouac took 40 years to live 'On the Road' and then he wrote it in two weeks or something. I never understand how anybody in their teenage years could have a dream. I never had any dreams—I just did shit to avoid other things that were worse. I didn’t want to fix typewriters. Then I got a job in a factory when I was a teenager and my father told me to drop out of high school because that was a 'good deal.' I was like 'really? That sounds so horrible!' So I started playing music and I got paid a little bit for it. Just enough so that when I passed the civil service test to be a token booth clerk, I could say 'no' because I was getting paid to play music.
"When I was writing my first script I thought 'INT' meant 'introducing' and 'EXT' meant 'exit.' I was so scared because Trudy Styler and Robert Downey were nice enough to say 'let's give you a shot.'
"Coming from the hardcore (punk) world, it was always: 'do it yourself.' Sometimes out of necessity—because I couldn’t play Yes and I sucked on guitar. I said 'I'm gonna play my own chords with two fingers and write my own words about whatever pertains to my life,' and for me it was an awakening. I started thinking 'my song isn’t so much worse than that song, and maybe I enjoy my own song better.' And with writing my book it was similar. And with movies it was the same thing."
Is filmmaking collaborative in a way that being in a band was?
"With a movie, it's a million levels of craziness. The real learning curve for me has been being able to play in the sandbox nicely. You get all these notes and your first instinct is to be angry and think 'you don't get it' or 'that is how it happened.' I’m getting better at that. Now it’s like, 'you didn't know how to fix my broken knee but you knew that there was a break.' Now I run scripts by every person I can.
"When we finished 'Boulevard,' we brought in our own test audience off the street on Cahuenga—every lunatic we could find. One guy was sleeping. He smelled like liquor and went straight to sleep. A couple of people were like, 'yo wait a second… he’s gay, right?' afterward. But through that crazy little audience we had, we actually got some comments that made us make changes. It was totally valuable.
"Now I realize producers aren’t out to screw me. I used to really think that. It's not personal. We're all trying to make a good product. As long as you work with people who want to make something great, they're going to give you at least good questions. I wish I learned that earlier."