THE SON OF NO ONE (2011)
Release Date: November 4, 2011 (limited)
Studio: Anchor Bay Films
Director: Dito Montiel
Screenwriter: Dito Montiel
Starring: Channing Tatum, Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Writer/director Dito Montiel teams with actor Channing Tatum for the third time on the powerful suspense drama The Son of No One following their successful collaborations on Montiel’s first two critically acclaimed feature films, Fighting and his impressive, award-winning feature film debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, an adaptation of his 2003 memoir about growing up in Astoria, Queens. Montiel often draws on his own experiences and the environment in which he spent his childhood and teen years. This is certainly true of his latest film, The Son of No One, with many of his characters composites of people from his past and his experiences living in the Queens Housing Projects.
The film demonstrates, once again, that Montiel is an uncanny story teller with what critics and many of the actors who have worked with the filmmaker call “a unique voice in American film.” Beginning with A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints Montiel has shown a keen eye and savvy sense for interesting casting, this time around assembling a stellar and somewhat eclectic cast which in addition to Channing Tatum includes Academy Award® winner Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes, Academy Award® winner Juliette Binoche, Tracy Morgan and James Ransone. The film also features two extraordinarily talented child actors, Jake Cherry and Brian Gilbert, as the young Jonathan and young Lenny (the adult characters played by Channing Tatum and Tracy Morgan).
At this point in his career, when Montiel starts writing, he’s not necessarily certain whether it will be a screenplay or a novel first, and that was the case with the genesis of this film. “I just start writing – because that’s what I do for fun. I started writing what became The Son of No One based on this kid, Jonathan, who I grew up with in the projects. There used to be White John and Black John, which is what we called this kid and another boy who were always together. I always mix up people I knew, and there was a kid we named Milk because he was so white.”
Montiel explains his process of developing the story: “So I had this idea and just started messing with it and writing some stories, then a long story. It started to feel like a book at one point, but then it began to feel more like a movie.”
“It’s a bit of a crazy process I go through,” Montiel admits, “So I’m still trying to finish the book. I always was the kid that watched the movie for the book report, so it makes sense that I’m doing it backwards. When I wrote my book A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, if I knew then what “INT.” meant, it probably would have been a screenplay first. It ended up close to being a movie then. But it’s all the same to me,” says Montiel, who is also a musician and painter. “Writing, directing, music, painting – art is art.”
And what Montiel has created with The Son of No One is both a captivating character piece and a cleverly crafted suspense thriller in which there aren’t completely good guys or bad guys, but rather all the key characters are painted in varying shades of gray. As Montiel explains, “It starts off in 1986 about two kids living in the Queensbridge projects in Astoria, Queens, who kill two people and get away with it. The rest of the film concerns how they deal with that as adults in 2002 when something occurs that impacts their lives and all the people around them.”
Montiel elaborates: “One of the boys, Jonathan White (then known as Milk), played as an adult by Channing Tatum, becomes a cop because he needed the medical insurance. He and his wife, played by Katie Holmes, had a baby, and he was tired of working at 7-11s and record stores. It’s hard to get a normal job these days and getting a job as a cop gets you medical insurance. And that’s why Jonathan becomes a cop at 30 years old. So he’s now a cop, working close to his home in Staten Island and can live a relatively normal life with his wife and daughter.
“But then he gets transferred over to the 118th Precinct in Astoria, Queens, where he grew up and where much of the film takes place. He thinks it’s a bit weird, wondering why he’s been transferred there. It’s all under this supposedly ‘Quality of Life’ program going on in Astoria, where they’re trying to ‘clean up’ the projects—and basically run people out in order to develop the land for nice condominiums.
“They’re bringing in a lot of cops from different precincts for this, so Jonathan thinks that’s probably why he was transferred to the Astoria precinct,” continues Montiel. “But once Jonathan’s been brought into the precinct, he begins to feel that he’s been brought back there for other reasons. That’s where the interesting, weird twists begin—as his past slowly comes back, and things start to happen.
“Al Pacino’s character, Stanford, is now Deputy Commissioner, but back in 1986, he was a detective and Jonathan’s father’s partner—he’s known Jonathan since he was a baby. After Jonathan’s father was killed, Stanford would always take care of him—the way some people will just check in on a kid. I think part of it was that he felt bad for a little white kid in the projects. So when the boy is rumored to have killed those two people, I think Stanford helps him out—the way I believe you could possibly get away with murder in 1986. “So it seems that Stanford covered up the killings for young Jonathan—and then in 2002 things start to resurface. Captain Mathers, played by Ray Liotta, is about to replace Stanford as Deputy Commissioner. Now people are starting to receive letters alluding to the killings and Bridges, a journalist played by Juliette Binoche, is printing them. Stanford and Mathers are concerned that rumors will start about corruption in the police department and need to put a stop to that.”
Montiel admits he’s always been a big thriller fan. “I like all kinds of thrillers. Morgan Freeman, white girl, serial killer – I’d go. Ashley Judd, black guy, serial killer – I’d go. They switch around once in a while. But I do love thrillers, so there’s a thriller thing going on in the film, too.”
“I think it’s a beautiful story, but some pretty scary and crazy things happen. When two young boys are involved in killing people, whether it’s justified or not, and then covering up the acts— that’s scary. And what happens when this begins to be uncovered when they’re older; it’s no less scary.”
Montiel, in effect, has created two stories, one that takes place with the boys and their friends and neighbors in 1986 and the other when they’re adults, leading very different lives from one another in 2002. Writing the script presented some challenges for Montiel. “I love it, but it’s crazy doing this kind of story. There’s a lot of room for error, which I like, or rather, there’s no room for error but there’s a lot of room to make an error and I like that because it puts you in check a lot.”
As to his choice of years in which to set the two stories, he explains: “I thought 1986 was an interesting time and place. I was a kid then and, although it might have been awful if you were an adult, I sure liked it because it was in some ways a bit lawless. But when I think about what we got away with as kids, a lot of those things could be a headline in the New York Post. It was a little bit free-er then; I don’t know if it was better, but it was free-er.
“2002 followed a strange time anywhere in America, but particularly in New York, because it was that period after 9/11,” he continues. “But my reason for setting the story in 2002 was that there was this love affair with the police in 2001. I had an American flag and it was a nice time to be an American. Throughout the tragedy I was reminded of when I was a kid and there was a blackout. It was beautiful, with everybody coming out of their homes and being friendly, part of one big community. 2001 was a nice moment.
“But then in 2002, the love affair with the police in New York was starting to wane. So I wanted to have that awareness going on in the film. Given that Channing, Al, Ray and P.J. all play cops, I thought it would throw an underlying tension into the film. I’m not sure if people will notice it’s 2002, but I tried to keep it as real as possible.”
To bring the story to the screen, Montiel selected a perfect cast of actors to embody the characters he had created. “Directing a movie with a cast like this is a dream come true,” he enthuses. “But I never dreamt like this — that would be insane. Actually, when I was younger I didn’t dream about making movies. I grew up watching TV and playing on the street. I just fell into this stuff. I don’t know how it worked out, I really don’t. And every day I work on a film like this, I can’t quite believe it. On Ray Liotta’s last day of work I was saying to him `You know, the weirdest thing about movies is last night — I’m on the roof and I have Al Pacino standing there with a gun out, Ray Liotta has a gun out, Tracy Morgan is there, Channing is there, P.J. Ransone is there. I have cameras everywhere. I’m drinking a free diet Sunkist soda, which I love, and I’m saying to myself, I can’t wait for this to end, I can’t wait for this to be great. I’m so nervous — I don’t even want to let myself enjoy the experience. I just want it to be great and over.’ So, for me, a film is like a dream when it comes out. Making the film is more like a ridiculous reality.”
Montiel couldn’t be more enthusiastic or excited about his cast of actors and their performances. “I was blown away by everyone in the movie and I’m not just being a nice director when I say that.”
For the lead role, Montiel turned to Channing Tatum for their third film together. “Channing is Channing. I love him. I cried when I watched his film, Dear John and I think he’s a great actor all round. I don’t work with him just because I like him; I work with him because he’s great — and I like him too. He’s perfect for the role of Jonathan White.”
But he didn’t write the role specifically for Channing. “I started writing this as a book at first while I was making A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which Channing was in. And when I decided to write The Son of No One as a movie, at first I didn’t think Channing would be right. I didn’t think Jonathan White was a good role for him and I had a couple of other actors in mind, if it was ever going to happen. Then, while Channing and I were making Fighting, I started thinking more and more about him in the role. And I’m so glad I chose him and that he agreed to do it.”
As for Al Pacino, working with him may well have been a dream come true for Montiel. “Al Pacino. What am I going to say about him? One day during filming, I told him the best way I could put it was I already thought he was the king of the world, but now that I met him I could say he was also a very decent human being.
“The first day of filming with Al Pacino, I was a nervous wreck. And the second time I filmed a scene with him, he had five pages of dialogue — just him, talking to Jake Cherry, who plays the young Jonathan. So I’m thinking, `Oh my God, we only have one day for this. I could spend a week on this.’ And Al shows up and on the first take he does five pages of dialogue, word for word, sentence by sentence. It was crazy, but he did it. He was just incredible in the film and I think people will be happy when they see his performance. I know I am.”
For the role of Captain Mathers, Montiel selected Ray Liotta. “He’s the best, the real deal. I’ve been a fan of his since Something Wild. The guy’s incredible. And then there’s Goodfellas —what a performance he gave. I really love him as an actor. And playing Mathers took a lot of guts because it’s such a difficult role.”
Then there’s Katie Holmes who plays Jonathan’s wife Kerry. “All I can say is that audiences will see an amazing performance. I knew right away, watching her live on set and then in the editing room how good she was. I brought her onto the movie because I thought, `Okay, she’ll be interesting because the movie’s so crazy, so much madness happening, that maybe the family scenes with her and Channing will seem normal. But as we filmed their scenes, it turned out there’s nothing normal about their relationship, and their scenes together are incredible. The strange thing is that the scenes which take place in their house, which I expected to be like a sanctuary, turned out to be maybe the scariest part of the film, certainly the most intense — and a lot of it has to do with her.”
Tracy Morgan was cast as Jonathan’s childhood friend and co-conspirator, Vinny, in his first dramatic feature role. “I’ve been a fan of Tracy Morgan since `Saturday Night Live.’ When we were considering actors for the role, my friend and film editor, Jake Pushinsky, showed me a clip of Tracy on some late night talk show where he was being really serious — as I had never seen him before. Jake suggested I think of him for Vinny. At first, I thought that was crazy but when I called up his agent — who also happens to be Ray Liotta’s agent — and said, ‘I have this crazy idea,’ he said, ‘If you’re calling about that, Tracy’s in!
“I don’t know if people are going to be surprised by the casting, but when they see Tracy in the film, I think they’re really going to like his performance and be moved by it. I know I am.”
For the role of the journalist, Bridges, who’s investigating the 1986 killings and the possible police involvement, Juliette Binoche was a brilliant but unlikely piece of casting, given that Montiel originally wrote the part for an American — and a man.
“When I first wrote the script I had the character as Roger Daltry — there were a lot of jokes that he had the same name as the guy from The Who — and it was written for an actor who I thought would be great in the role. Then one day I had an idea that a woman who wasn’t from New York, maybe not even an American, might make it more interesting. And Juliette Binoche just came to mind. I became obsessed with getting her for the film. I don’t know quite how, but we got lucky enough for it to happen. When she said yes, I was amazed and excited. There were just a few days filming with her, but she did a great job in this pivotal role.”
Another key actor in the cast is James (P.J.) Ransone who plays Prudenti, Jonathan’s new partner who, unbeknownst to Jonathan, is keeping an eye on him for Captain Mathers. “I thought James would be great casting for the role of Prudenti, although he’s not as well-known as some other key actors in the film. I first saw him in Ken Park, a Larry Clark film, where P.J. had a scene with his grandmother and grandfather, yelling at them for playing Scrabble — and that was pretty much all I needed to make me a fan. P.J. is excellent in the film. He’s a really good actor.”
The most difficult casting for Montiel was the roles of Jonathan and Lenny as children in the 1986 part of the film. But he was fortunate to find two very talented boys who could pull off such difficult roles. “Jake Cherry plays ‘Milk,’ Jonathan’s name as a boy, and there’s probably, no scarier role that I’ve ever had to cast,” admits Montiel. “I can only think of one that came close — Shia LaBoeuf in my first movie. It’s an unsettling role, because here is this young boy who is doing some very adult things — not like he’s in ‘The Little Rascals.’ I was looking for a kid who wasn’t just a good actor, but who would make me believe that he lived in the projects and really did these things. At first I wasn’t sure, because Jake’s a good-looking kid, and sweet, but then during his audition he screamed — and I’m a big fan of screaming. When he screamed, he had the real scream. I felt it. I knew I had the right boy for ‘Milk.’
“The other kid’s role, ‘Young Vinny,’ is possibly even a more difficult role. During our casting search, a teacher up in Harlem who has a special class for really great kids told me I should come down and see them. So I showed up there and they wouldn’t let me bring any cameras. He had 12 of the best young actors I ever saw in my life. Brian Gilbert, who we chose to play this role, was one of them. I apologized that I didn’t have any scenes for them to read and the teacher said it was okay because they all had monologues prepared. I couldn’t believe it. When I was 11 years old I was bouncing off a wall. Brian’s monologue – I think it was Shakespeare – blew my mind. I couldn’t believe he had the guts to do it in front of me. He’s a very special kid and incredible in the role.”
It’s a testament to Montiel’s talent that every member of the stellar cast chose to do the film because of the script and the opportunity to work with him.
Channing Tatum had already made two films with Montiel and thinks the world of him as a person and a filmmaker. So it’s no surprise that he jumped at the opportunity to work on a third one together. “I think Dito had been writing this script for a long time,” he recalls, “but he initially told me about it one day while we were working on Fighting. He’s been a great mentor to me. He doesn’t pretend to know everything; he writes his scripts like a beautiful piece of jazz, and then when you get to the set you never know what’s going to happen. He says he doesn’t really know what the scene is until we get to the set and start to do it. Arriving on the set, he’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s a door there; there’s a kitchen there…’ and then figure out how he wants to shoot it, often changing the script. Because he’s written it, it’s not just improv. And now that we’ve done our third movie together we don’t even have to speak full sentences. We know each other so well, we just sort of grunt words at each other.
“I think he gets better and better as a storyteller and always knows exactly what he wants in every scene. He’s a kid from the streets, and he knows New York. He knows what a real scream sounds like; it’s not this actory thing, and he won’t let you cop out and do actory things. Sometimes when I don’t know how to play a scene, I’ll touch my face and Dito would say, ‘Stop touching your face, that’s a cop out.’ “
This time around, I saw more than ever that Dito really knows how to construct a story. He’s connecting the dots a lot better than most of the directors I’ve worked with. Jonathan White is one of the very few Caucasian kids who grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, so his friends named him ‘Milk.’ He and two of his best friends are involved in killing this crackhead, and they pretty much get away with it. Then he kills another guy they know. But they get away with that, too. And now, it’s about 17 years later. The kids who committed these murders with him didn’t really make it out of the projects, as my character did. I enter the film as the adult ‘Milk,’ who’s tired of working in 7-11s and record shops. At age 30, he’s become a cop, which he never really wanted to do because his father was one. But he needs to get medical insurance for his little girl who has epilepsy.
“After about two months in the job, Jonathan is transferred to his old neighborhood, and soon all the reports about the killings in his childhood start coming out. At first he’s not even sure they are his murders. But it slowly gets worse and worse, and he starts to go a little crazy.”
As for Jonathan’s relationship with his wife, Kerry, played by Katie Holmes, Tatum says, “I think their relationship is not this picture perfect thing and I don’t think they believe that anything is picture perfect – in life, not just at home. For me, the backstory is they were in love, and she got pregnant, probably before they got married. Now they have this beautiful little girl they both love. But it’s hard because she is epileptic. I don’t know if their house is ever really happy. And now that Jonathan has to commute from Staten Island to Queens, it gives Kerry another thing she can be unhappy about. Then, when the reports about the murders begin, its effect on Jonathan makes things between them worse.
“This character’s journey is not really very far,” says Tatum. “Dito said to me, ‘Look, people don’t change that much in life.’ His character is pretty much in denial that everything in his life is lies. And then at the end of the movie, he maybe takes one little baby step — and that’s really it. He doesn’t even save the day or anything, just as in real life. He’s still trying to figure it out.
“The Son of No One walks the line of shades of gray, and right versus wrong. There aren’t big, epiphany moments... No one’s a good guy; no one’s a bad guy. People make decisions because they have to — sometimes they make good ones; sometimes they make bad ones. Sometimes they’re aware of that; sometimes they’re not.”
As for working with the other actors in the film, Tatum still can’t believe he was so fortunate. “Sometimes I think it’s insane for me to even be acting, much less be acting with these people. You watch movies your entire life and you see people you loved on screen — Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche, and Katie Holmes. I watched all these people, including P.J. Ransone and, of course, Tracy Morgan. To have Al Pacino give me a hug and say ‘you did some good acting today.’ It’s like check the box, I’m done. I’m good. I don’t need any more in life.”
“One great thing about Al Pacino is that he’s not set in his ways. He doesn’t come to the set with the attitude, ‘Okay, this is how I’m doing it, so you guys can figure it out.’ When he comes onto the set he really wants to play; he really wants to do things differently. He’ll do as many things as you’ll let him do. And that’s because he always wants it to be better. Because it’s true that once a movie’s over and they yell wrap, that’s it. Then the director and editor go into the editing room and you’d better hope you gave them all the colors you came with. Because if not, when you see the film, you’re going to groan and say, ‘I should have done one more take; I wish I would have thought of that one thing.’
“Tracy Morgan and I did a scene one night that was supposed to be really intense. Then it turned out to be this sweet, sweet scene between two best friends, with nothing but love for one another. Whereas that whole scene could have gone in the opposite direction. As it was written, I was supposed to grab him, threaten him and hold a gun to his head. After several takes and trying different things, we figured out that it’s really about two old friends. That’s the lesson I learned from Al. Don’t stop until the director has it every way.”
As for Tatum’s work with Katie Holmes, he really enjoyed their scenes together and has the greatest respect and admiration for her acting. He comments, “Tom Cruise is maybe the biggest movie star on the planet, not to mention one of the finest actors, so people can forget how unbelievably good an actress Katie Holmes can be. I’m glad that she wanted to do this film; she’s great in the role. She really takes her acting seriously. There’s none of this, ‘I’m Katie Holmes’ stuff. She’s just a normal girl from Middle America who loves what she does and is one of the best people I ever met in my life.”
Tatum was also impressed by Tracy Morgan, who plays the adult Lenny, Jonathan’s best friend from childhood. “Tracy Morgan is also going to shock the world,” says Tatum. “No one’s seen him do dramatic stuff before, but the guy’s a pro. I don’t think it’s a big secret that many comedians can be tortured people. I don’t know if he’s been tortured so much, but Tracy has certainly experienced a lot in his life. That’s what a great dramatic actor really is — somebody who’s able to harness those feelings you have inside and interpret them.
“What’s interesting about Tracy’s work in this film is that during his career he’s been groomed and conditioned to be so big and so outgoing, and when you take that away from him, it’s unbelievably intriguing to watch his quietness, because he’s got so much going on inside — it’s beautiful to watch.”
As for Ransone, who plays Jonathan’s partner, Prudenti, Tatum was really impressed by his talent. “I’d never met the guy before, and he comes in one day and we do a scene together. I had no idea how good he’d be in the role. I’d seen a couple of things he was in, but not the Larry Clark movie, and P.J. turned out to be one of the finer young actors I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart and doesn’t make normal acting choices. I admire that.”
In the few days Juliette Binoche worked on the film, her scenes are all with Tatum, with one also including Ransone. “Juliette Binoche is a strong, strong force,” says Tatum. “She definitely has masculine energy if she wants it, which she needed for the role of ‘Bridges.’ But she can also turn on the beautiful, female sort of energy when she wants to — like when she laughs or lets that character down for a second, and then you get to see her.”
Studio photos, notes and videos © 2011 Anchor Bay Films