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Astoria man wins Sundance director’s prize

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In an era when Hollywood is increasingly moving its productions to Canada for inexpensive shoots, Montiel insisted his $2.4 million autobiographical film, based on his novel of the same name, be shot on the streets of Astoria, where his story takes place.The director, who never attended film school, recalls his teenage years in Astoria when films were regularly shot on the streets and neighborhood residents would stand around and watch. He particularly remembers, in 1989, when Martin Scorsese shot portions of his Mafia epic, "Goodfellas," in and around his neighborhood. Montiel said the producers of "Saints" originally tried convincing him to shoot his film in Canada, but he insisted that Astoria's neighborhoods were integral characters to the story."You certainly can't fake this neighborhood in Canada," he said. "It's like a small town in a big city."The film, which stars Robert Downey Jr., Dianne Wiest, Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson and Eric Roberts, is an autobiographical coming of age tale, set in 1986 in Astoria, where young Dito must decide whether to stay in Queens with his neighborhood pals and bitter father or follow his dream of moving to California. The film's flashbacks are juxtaposed with Dito's return home as a published author years later to reconcile with his father, who is dying.While many directors, most notably Woody Allen, use their own personalities and quirks as source material, Montiel literally uses his own life and name in the film. Though he said some characters combine the personalities of several people he knew, the lead character in "Saints" - played by LaBeouf and Downey Jr. - is named Dito."It was a terrible idea, but maybe it worked," he said. "The main idea of the movie was not to tell my story, but to tell a story."Many critics would argue Montiel's methods did work. The film was awarded the best directing and ensemble acting prizes at January's Sundance Film Festival. The director said he was shocked when he heard his name at the film festival's awards ceremony."I literally almost fainted," he said. "We didn't think we'd win anything. Then, all of a sudden, we won the ensemble prize for the cast. Then, they were giving the director's prize and they said it goes to 'a first-time director from New York,' and I almost fainted."Montiel said he is still in the process of getting the film distributed, but it could be in theaters by late summer or early fall. He said he is currently working on a second book, which he may adapt to a screenplay.While he was able to finally follow his dream, move to California and live there for eight years, Montiel said he is currently living in Forest Hills and apartment hunting in Astoria."There's a magic to this place - it still feels very much like the neighborhood I knew when I was a kid," he said.Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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