TIFF: ‘Man Down’ Director Dito Montiel on Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Crazy Energy’ & Never Knowing What’s Going to Happen Next

by Valentina I. Valentini 6:34 AM PDT, September 16, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Over the past decade, Shia LaBeouf’s legal troubles -- from arrests to plagiarism -- have nearly outshined his acting career. But like many troubled actors before, the 29-year-old actor has managed to remain a fixture in Hollywood by aligning himself with notable directors.

His latest film, Man Down, is a testament to the goodwill he’s developed, reuniting him with director Dito Montiel. The two previously worked together on Montiel’s 2006 directorial debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which helped cement LaBeouf’s leading man status as he transitioned from Disney star to box office draw. 

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In the post-apocalyptic war drama, LaBeouf plays a PTSD-ridden vet whose only goal is to save his wife (Kate Mara) and son with the help of his best friend and comrade, played by Jai Courtney.

Although LaBeouf wasn’t doing any press at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film premiered, ETonline sat down with the 50-year-old director to discuss the actor’s method acting, his evolution over the past decade, and how LaBeouf displays similar attributes to Robin Williams.

ETonline: It’s been nearly a decade since you two worked together on Saints. How has Shia changed?

Dito Montiel: He’s always gone for it. It’s really fun. When we shot that movie, there’s this scene in the bathroom where he really went for it. He has that crazy energy. I think he’s become a better actor.

You say “crazy energy.” How do you mean?

He’s got a little bit of everything. He’s intense. I like the idea that I don’t know if he’s going to jump off the screen and attack me, or the cameraman, or an actor. It brings an edge to what you’re doing. It’s perfect for this role, that’s for sure.

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What did you see in him the first time around?

I didn’t really know him, and he made a bunch of audition tapes -- three of them -- and he kept sending them and I hadn’t looked at any. I liked another actor that his agent represented at the time, and she told me that she’d talk to me about the other guy as soon as I looked at Shia’s tapes. So I did. And man, he was just really good.

What made you want to cast him as the lead for Man Down?

We’d kept in loose contact over the years, and when I was working on the re-write for Man Down, I started thinking he’d be someone special for this. I sent it over to him and when we talked he was all in. It was pretty organic.

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Were you concerned about his reputation at all?

I don’t care about that stuff. Man, if you had a camera on me in my 20s, I’d be in a lot more trouble than him. It is what it is. I think it’s probably a difficult time, there’s a camera on you everywhere you go these days -- so trouble is probably easier to come by.

How was his attitude on set? 

He’s intense, and he cares a lot about everything. He can’t care more, and that’s a nice thing to work with in an actor. He’s obsessed with every word he’s going to say, every reason, every door handle he’s going to touch and why he’s going to touch it. That can be exhausting, but at the same time it’s nice that an actor cares that much to want to understand it -- especially with a character like this. 

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How is it to direct someone like that?

It’s the deal with directing. If you’re going to come wanting to work really hard, you’re never going to bum me out. This was a film with really great actors. It wasn’t like I needed someone to motivate Gary Oldman [who co-stars in Man Down]. I had a good scene out there with people like Kate Mara who really can act and care about their roles. It’s always nutty though, that’s the deal. I enjoy not knowing what is going to happen next. If they decide to do something crazy, I’m going to keep rolling.

Was there a specific “something crazy” that happened?

This was a tough shoot. It was a hard film -- mixing a weird set of emotions -- between a very violent scenario and a very compassionate scenario. At the end of the day, it is a husband, his wife and their son, so there is love mixed with intense violence. That’s a very touchy thing to film and to act. It was constantly terrifying. I was really uncomfortable making this movie. I mean, you have a little boy under a table crying and the father with a gun to the mother’s head. You feel like you’re not being a really decent human being allowing to roll on this situation, but you have to tell the story. That was tough for me.

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Was there anything Shia did on set that surprised you?

All I cared about was things feeling real. This situation is real, but real in a tough situation. I was surprised how they kept it honest the whole time. It’s easy to be exploitive with a movie like this -- crazy people can just be crazy and violent people can just be violent. This was a sweet, sour and salty combination, so everything was a surprise.

Why was it that you wanted to tell this very intense, very emotionally sad story?

I have friends who have had PTSD, and you can get it from other things than war. It can happen from rape or from street violence. When I was first reading the story -- and it’s a bit of a weird way to relate to it -- but my father had epilepsy. He would have seizures when I was a kid, and the old way to help the clamping down of the teeth was to take your two fingers like a hook and put them in their mouth so they don’t bite off their tongue. One time I did that, and it started to really hurt. They have no control in that moment, but my dad had just enough awareness -- which is really weird to me -- that he could stop. So I kept envisioning this scene, throughout the madness of this film, the world ending, that the father still sees his son.

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How has Robin Williams impacted you since working together on Boulevard?

You know, it’s weird, making a movie is like life compacted into three months. You have these very intense relationships with people and you talk to them every day -- your editor, the casting people, music people, your actors -- then it ends. It’s like a circus life. Then you run in to each down the road, so of course when you hear about something like Williams’ suicide, you feel it, but it’s just life sped up. It makes sense in that awful way that life has to make sense -- we’re all going to die. But it was very, very sad.

It’s a weird world, you tap in to people and you’re trying to get everything you can out of them in this short amount of time. Robin was very giving in that way. He cared -- different than Shia -- but intense in his own way. He had a scene where he was opening a door, and he would ask, ‘Why am I going through this room?’ I loved that he wanted to know everything. We would take walks all night long when shooting in Nashville and talk about the next scene instead of going to eat lunch. That was very impactful. Here’s a guy that has nothing left to prove to the world and he’s taking a walk with me instead of eating because the next scene means that much to him. If he does it, you should do it. And that includes me. I should care that much.

Man Down hits theaters on Oct. 30.