Dito Montiel’s The Clapper is a Glimpse into the Unnoticed Hollywood

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Dito Montiel has lived A Life. A member of several successful hardcore punk bands, author of two books, screenwriter and director whose filmography is in the double digits, both Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. played him in a movie, and yet, the only way to find any of this out is by googling him. His hat is knit, there are no scarves, bracelets nor other accouterments of past musicianship in sight, his anecdotes are of failing the NYC sanitation worker entrance exam (a job he was once happily prepared to accept), and of taking the Trailways bus to LA. The man sitting across from me is warm and gentle in a manner barely distinguishable from shyness. Had he told me he was an exam passing sanitation worker, I would have no reason to doubt him.

Svetlana Chirkova: Where does the story of Eddie, The Clapper, originate?

Dito Montiel: When I first came to Los Angeles 12 years ago, it was me and my friend Eddie, and we just needed jobs. I didn’t go with any particular aspirations; I didn’t mean to be a writer or a director. I had a friend who could get me a job and would let me sleep at his place, that was enough. We took the bus there and I went to work in the dub room while Eddie got a job as a ‘clapper’, a paid audience member. He got $75 dollars for each show, and all he had to do was clap, laugh when the sign said “laugh” and go “ooh” when it said “ooh”. I thought it was insane. He could do three shows a day and make $225 dollars. Then one time, he got to ask a question, and was paid an extra $100 dollars, he was so happy, but after he wasn’t allowed to work for the next month because his face had been seen, so he was really mad. That’s where the idea came from.

SC: You write about the forgotten working class of Hollywood in the director’s notes. Could you elaborate on that?

DM: It’s a funny thing, when you’re not from LA, everyone thinks of there being this “Hollywood Elite” which is insane because it’s a such a blue collar town. Sure there’s Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, but if you think every director is Steven Spielberg and every actor is Tom Cruise, you are forgetting 99% of the people working in the movies. They are plugging in lights, they’re sound people, electricians, plumbers… I never thought of the glitz of it, it was just a place I ended up. We knew of the really nice houses up in the hills, but we didn’t go up there…[laughing] if we got invited, we would’ve gone. Had we ended up in Pittsburgh, Eddie and I would’ve worked at a steel mill, you know? We didn’t go to LA to become famous people or anything, so it was fun making this movie and writing about this world.

SC: Famous has become a very desired thing to become, in an of itself.

DM: Not for Eddie [the character], I think he would be fine with it if he could still make his money, but it works in reverse for his job. It was an interesting way to look at fame without hitting anybody over the head with the message. When we originally showed a screening to a bunch of people in Hollywood, you know, actors, they couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to be famous. He’s not against fame, it just messed up his job. He’s a guy who prefers to simply go to work every day and live…There’s a lot to be said about having a regular job.

SC: Film has been your regular job for a number of years now. Despite it not being part of the original plan, what was it that drew you in?

DM: I don’t know how I got in to it, I really don’t. It was utterly insane, like Mr Magoo. Somehow I ended up doing this and now I do it. But as far as an art form, it’s pretty incredible, because you get to mix everything; there’s writing, there’s music, there’s acting, there is cinematography. I toured for a long time with terrible hardcore bands in vans, which is kind of like directing except you don’t see the end result. We’ll see what happens next, but I enjoy film a lot and they’re letting me do it. Until someone says ‘No’, I’ll keep doing it.

Dito wore the same knit hat to the premier, a man simply doing a job he loves which occasionally entails interviews, photographs and premiers. I never got to ask him if he has been invited to one of the nice houses in the hills yet.

Photography by Leslie Hassler