Dito Montiel’s ‘Fighting’ Packs a Punch

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Director/writer Dito Montiel came onto the scene with a bang in 2006 with his hard-hitting coming of age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. His sophomore effort, Fighting, hits even harder — literally. The New York-based story centers around Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), a young guy from Alabama who scrapes by selling counterfeit merchandise on the streets of the Big Apple. When scam artist Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), sees MacArthur undoubtedly hold his own in a street fight, he offers him an opportunity to make some real money in the form of underground bare-knuckle brawling. I spoke with Montiel about the surprisingly non-bruising experience of making Fighting.

Tell me how Fighting came about. It was a script that producer Kevin Misher had. It was originally a basketball movie and they had asked me to work on the dialogue. We were all trying to figure out how to make this movie and take out all of the sports. Channing had said that maybe it should be about fighting. He’s a pretty strong guy who was a lot more interested in that than basketball. So we just started messing around with it.

How were the challenges different for you on this film than on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints? There are always challenges, and some of them were similar. It’s strange when it’s something you didn’t start from birth. But it’s kind of fun in a way because it already exists. I felt I could make sense of it. Probably the biggest challenge was to make a movie that was bit of a genre-type picture, which is something I am a big fan of. I am not the biggest fan of independent films. I love them when I get dragged into them, but I kind of go and see big pop crap. So I thought let’s try to make a really good version of the stuff that I always wanted to go see. That was probably the biggest challenge. How are we going to have a good time making this? And it feels like we did.

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Were you at all inspired by Fight Club? No. Fight Club is some sort of big social commentary. This is guys just roaming around New York. The thing that really intrigued me about this film is Harvey. When I spoke with Terrence, who I have always been a big fan of, he said the same thing we all said: “Can we take the fighting out of this? It would be so fun to make.” We tried to sort of ignore the fighting. I said to Terrence, “Instead of you being Mr. Miyagi who knows everything, when you tell him how to fight just say ‘choke him.’” As far as Fight Club goes, that seemed to be a lot deeper than where we were trying to go with this.

Do you feel there is a part of you in both of the lead characters Harvey and Shawn MacArthur? Yeah, there’s probably a bit more of me in both of them than I would like to admit. You always put yourself in anything you do whether you like it or not. That’s kind of the fun for me. I used to sell stuff on the street, and it was fun to be on those corners again and not getting chased by the cops.

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I thought that Tatum and Howard’s characters had great chemistry. They were almost a modern-day Dustin Hoffman and John Voight in Midnight Cowboy. When I read the original script before I was involved, there as a strange little thing in it that I actually misread. The original character Harvey was a lot more well-to-do. That didn’t particularly get me excited. But I thought that at one point he walked into a hotel and he had all this money and he took a free bagel. I thought that was so great. Maybe he’s lying about having money? I thought that was so much more interesting than him driving around in a Hummer. So I got excited about that. When I was first thinking about the way I could sink my teeth into this movie, I thought if Channing is a gift horse that moves into New York City and you know he’s worth money, but Harvey doesn’t know how to sell him and keeps walking him around, we could have fun. And that certainly parallels Midnight Cowboy.

You have a Martin Scorsese style of filmmaking. For a great part of Scorsese’s career, especially early on, he teamed up with Robert De Niro. Is Channing Tatum your De Niro? Channing Tatum is a great actor. I really like working with him. I’m a creature of habit. I eat the same thing every day and have the same friends since kindergarten. So it just makes sense that I make movies with people that I feel comfortable with. I’ve heard Scorsese does it like that.

In A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, you cast a lot of regular people off the street. In this movie did you do the same thing? Absolutely. And it’s not me being a nice guy. There is a whole lot of talent out there that for whatever reason gets overlooked. You just roam around and you find locations, actors, and interesting people. That’s one of the fun things about New York.

You started out as a book author, and now you’re directing movies. How do you feel about directing? I have done a lot of awful jobs, and this is a great job. It’s so much fun and it’s taxing, but every job is taxing. Sometimes when I get upset about something, I have to remind myself that I’m making a movie. It’s midnight and I’m on 45th and Broadway with cameras, friends, and free food.

What do you want people to take away from this film? I’m not making a deep message with this movie. Take a walk with me around New York and try to have fun.

You write New York stories. What is about this city that inspires your storytelling? It’s not conscious. I’m from here, and I have always loved New York. It’s comfortable, and I try to write what I feel comfortable around. It never really matters whether or not it’s in New York, but I always seem to end up here.

What restaurants do you like to frequent in New York? I like The Orchard on Orchard Street. They have empanadas and flat bread that is unbelievable. Rose and Joe’s Pizza on 31st Street in Astoria. Other than that I’m a two hot dogs and a papaya guy.

Last question: What’s the key to winning a fight? I went into the Golden Gloves eight years ago, and I got knocked out 15 seconds into the first round. The last thing somebody told me was, “Try not to get hit.”