The suspense drama The Son of No One is writer/director Dito Montiel’s third collaboration with actor Channing Tatum. Often drawing on his own experiences and the environment in which he spent his childhood and teen years, this latest film is no exception, with many of his characters composites of people from his past and his experiences living in the Queens Housing Projects.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Dito Montiel talked about how the story was inspired by a real-life drug addict who was killed in the apartment he lived in growing up, that there were only minor changes made to the ending after the film screened at Sundance, why it was important to him to make sure these characters were not entirely good or entirely bad, how surreal it was to direct Al Pacino and Ray Liotta in scenes together, and how he hopes to do a funnier film next. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Here’s the film’s synopsis:
In the police thriller The Son of No One, Jonathan (Channing Tatum) is a second-generation cop who gets in over his head when he’s assigned to re-open a double homicide cold case in his Queens neighborhood. An anonymous source feeding new information on the long-unsolved murders to a local reporter (Juliette Binoche) leads to evidence suggesting a possible cover-up by the former lead detective (Al Pacino), who was on the investigation. As Jonathan digs deeper into the assignment, a dark secret about the case emerges, which threatens to destroy his life and his family. Written and directed by Dito Montiel, The Son of No One also stars Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes, Ray Liotta and Jake Cherry.
DITO MONTIEL: You know, I just started writing and, like everybody, you put a little bit of real stuff in your work. When I was a kid, we used to hang out in the Ravenswood projects a lot, which is right next to the Queensbridge projects, which is where we filmed, in Queens. We were 14, and my friend and I used to hang out in his apartment. He lived with his grandmother and she was a little bit off, so nobody ever talked to us. A lot of older people would hang out there, drinking all day and smoking crack. It was a really strange scene.
There was a guy, Hanky, that used to show up a lot, and he used to really scare us because he was 18 or 19 and he was always cracked out. One day, somebody killed him, but it was none of us, like in the movie. They killed him when he was in the hallway, and I remember the police were taking him away while they were smoking and eating sandwiches and laughing. Not that I particularly cared because we all hated Hanky, since he was really scary. It was just odd. I remember my friend Vinny looked over at me and said, “Nobody cares. Nobody cares about any of this. It doesn’t matter.”
That strange notion stayed with me, not in a big way, but how we lived in a little world there where we truly believed that nobody cared. If someone died or got robbed, it was just odd. So, in the movie, there is a kid named Vinny who says, “Nobody cares.” Al Pacino even says, “Nobody gives a shit. Not a single person.” In the end, they said, “Nobody cares about an old cop.” There’s this notion of this little world that nobody cared about.
When you were going back and forth, wondering if this was going to be a book or a movie, at what point did you realize that it was a movie?
MONTIEL: I’m just lucky enough that I get to make movies now. I just started writing it on the notion that it was a book called The Story of Milk, and that book is finally going to come out, but you have to make the movie first to get the book out, these days. Halfway through the book, I started thinking, “Hey, maybe this could be a movie.” So, I started writing it more as a movie, and seeing the scenes. I was the kid that saw the movie and wrote the book report on that, so it makes sense, in a weird way.
MONTIEL: The only thing we changed was the ending. At Sundance, we did a different ending. I loved it. I didn’t think anybody would be totally freaked out by it. In between these gunshots that go off, we faded to white and I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” For whatever reason, people thought the movie ended when it faded to white. I said, “Jesus, can people have a little more patience?” We didn’t reshoot anything. It’s the same film. We’re just not fading to white.
Was it important to you to make sure that these characters were not completely good or completely bad, but varying shades of grey?
MONTIEL: Yeah, 100%. One of my favorite movies that I’ve ever seen is 25th Hour. I love it so much because it’s simply about a guy who’s going to jail for six years, and this slow terrible day he has. A lot of people didn’t like it, but I loved it because I see movies all the time where people are going to jail for 10 years, and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll be out in 10. I can do that standing on my head.” And I think, “Boy, if I was going to jail for one day, I would be mortified.” I really liked that. And, with this movie, Channing would say to me a lot while we were filming, “Can’t I just kill somebody? Can’t you write that in there?” And I said, “That’s okay, if you feel like that, but this guy can’t do anything. He’s totally trapped.” And then, we would talk about guilt. He’d ask, “Do I feel really guilty?,” and I’d say, “Well, in movies, people feel guilty a lot. But, in real life, I think people are happy enough that it never came back.”
I wanted it to be more based on fear like, “Oh, my god, I don’t want the past to come back because everything is okay right now. I’ve got too many things to worry about. I’ve got a daughter and a wife and a house. Please don’t open that door again.” I like that grey area of, “I can’t do anything.” It might be more realistic, in real life. With Katie’s character, every marriage isn’t great or terrible. Some are just happening. With the cops, every cop isn’t this full-blown, corrupt lunatic or Serpico. With Al Pacino’s character, I said, “I don’t think this guy is guilty about what’s happened. I think he’s mad. I think he thinks, ‘I helped this kid out all these years ago, and this is how he repays me?’” These are a bunch of people that might be good, in essence, that don’t know that they did some bad. That was interesting to me.
What do you enjoy about working and collaborating with Channing Tatum? What makes him your leading man?
MONTIEL: I don’t know. I really like him. I know that it always sound corny when directors talk about how amazing everybody is, but the bottom line is that I really like him. For the way I write, he has a very honest thing about him. I believe him. There are a lot of great actors out there, that I believe in certain situations, but there’s something about him. Even though he’s a good looking guy, I just believe that he’s in some of these tight situations. He’s more of a regular guy. I don’t know why, but that’s how I feel about him.
MONTIEL: My editor saw him on Jimmy Kimmel one night, and he called me up and said, “Did you see Tracy Morgan? I think he could play Vinny.” I said, “Are you crazy?!” And, he sent me this interview and Tracy was talking about his father. He was pretty serious, and I thought, “Wow, how cool would that be? That would be really fun.” So, I got to meet him in New York and I said, “Hey, man, I’ve got this crazy role and I think you could really do great,” and he said, “Let’s do it!” And, I’m really glad we did it. It was scary. I think of the guy from Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock, and if you laugh in his scenes, I would have been in big trouble. But, I thought he did a great job. I was really happy we did it.
Being on set with Al Pacino and Ray Liotta, did you have any surreal moments?
MONTIEL: Oh, all the time! We were sitting in the Queensbridge projects one day and Channing was sitting there, and right next to him was Ray Liotta, and right next to him was Al Pacino. We shot this movie really low-key, and some guy walked out of the projects who didn’t even know we were filming, and he saw the three of them sitting together. He looked at them and kept walking, and then stopped and turned around and was like, “No fucking way! Scent of a Woman!” It was totally nuts.
MONTIEL: I wish I was smart enough to make this choice. I was lucky enough to get it made for me. I don’t want to sound corny or anything, but I just got lucky. It just happened. I wrote because I always wrote, even as a kid. I wrote music. I was in a hardcore band when I was 14 and I wasn’t good enough to play anyone else’s songs, so I had to write my own. I always liked writing, and I had to fill my days up with something, in between jobs. And then, a bunch of ridiculous things written on a napkin turned into a book, and the guy I worked at Tower Records with published it, and I got to make a movie, and it did pretty good. Somehow now, I get to do this. It’s that simple and that ridiculous.
In what ways has it been fulfilling for you?
MONTIEL: It’s crazy! I’m so busy going nuts half the time because I’m so scared going, “How do I make another one?” No one is handing me Indiana Jones, so I have to write something for myself. And, I always tend to write myself right back into my old neighborhood.
MONTIEL: I enjoy it. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s more like disciplined that hard. If it’s too hard, maybe it’s not the right thing. When I had jobs, I was always doing manual jobs because I couldn’t think. I worked at the docks, unloading trucks, and did ridiculous jobs. A friend of mine was joking the other day and said, “Directing is the only job that you really could do because you don’t have to know how to do anything.” If you’re running a camera, you have to actually know how to do that. I just feel like I’m pretty good at writing honestly. That’s something I do feel good about. With directing, I feel like I’m pretty good at saying, “Hey, man, I don’t believe that.” Hopefully, I surround myself with really good people that can make it all look good.
Have you gotten any better about not reading press about your films, or is that difficult for you to avoid?
MONTIEL: It’s really funny because I never believed anybody who said they don’t read about themselves until recently. I can’t help it. I read it and then I get really mad. Once in awhile, I’ll write somebody and say, “You really think that sucked? Well, you’re fucking crazy because it doesn’t suck!” I even do that with things I didn’t write. I remember reading a review of Dear John, and I had just seen it and thought Channing was so good in it. I called him up and said, “I just cried in this movie. I can’t believe it!” And then, I read a review where somebody ripped him up, and I wrote the guy and was like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I was dumb enough to put it on some website with my real name, and then, of course, everyone ripped me to shreds for it. I don’t know. I try not to read it.
MONTIEL: I don’t ever take a break. I’m always writing. Hopefully, I’ll get to make something I really love again. The Story of Milk – the book for this movie – is coming out soon. And then, I had another book come out, called The Clapper, and I’ve been writing that for a movie. I’m really hoping that I can make that. It’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit more funny. It’s definitely funnier than The Son of No One. This is not a very funny movie.
Do you want to keep working with Channing Tatum?
MONTIEL: Oh, yeah, I love him. I don’t know what movies we’ll do, but if it’s right, we’ll do it.