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Interview with Ted Melfi, Director of St. Vincent

The Weinstein Company: (L-r) Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher in "St. Vincent"I didn’t know much about Ted Melfi before I met him during his trip to Boston for a round of interviews that he was in town to do. All I knew was that he directed a movie called St. Vincent with Bill Murray starring in the lead role. Seeing as it did feature the seasoned Murray, I decided to give it a chance and take the interview that was being offered.

Before I took part in the interview, I looked up a bit about the man and found very little. The only thing I constantly saw on different sites around the web about him was some story about how he got Bill Murray to agree to do the film. It’s an interesting story, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to ask him about since it was clearly asked of him plenty of times already. I was sure he was tired of it, plus it would be a waste of time at this point.

What he got to talk about this time around had to do with a bunch of other things connected to the movie. Sure, Bill Murray was brought up, but that story didn’t get much of a mention during this interview. Instead of that story, he was able to talk about a plethora of other things that meant a lot to him on a personal and professional level.

I didn’t know how much this film meant to him beforehand. I also didn’t know what the inspiration behind it was. Because of this, asking about that was the obvious thing to do, and his response got the interview flowing in the right direction. According to him, he had two main inspirations that just happen to be things that many could relate to.

Melfi: The first one was the death of my oldest brother. He died at thirty-eight just out of the blue like eight years ago. My wife and I adopted his daughter, which is my niece obviously. There’s no mother in the picture, and we moved her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks, California and put her in a catholic school, Notre Dame High School. In her sophomore year, she’s in her world religion class and she gets a homework assignment to find the catholic saint that inspires you, and find someone in your real life that may have the qualities of that saint and draw a comparison. And so she picks Saint William of Rochester, the patron saint of adopted children and then she picked me. That was a very touching moment for our family. I couldn’t get that out of my head. I was like ‘that’s the story I want to tell. Something I think is worth telling.’

While the first inspiration behind St. Vincent came from someone he knew and helped grow into a young adult, the second inspiration helped create the character that Bill Murray plays. Murray’s Vincent comes from on an unexpected source that the director himself hadn’t known until a little bit later on in his life.

Melfi: The second inspiration is that Vincent’s character is based on my wife’s father. He lived in East Long Meadow, Massachusetts. He was a drunk, curmudgeon Vietnam vet. He had five kids, didn’t know any of them and abandoned my wife when she was nine. Then twenty-five years later my wife goes to one of those “Find your life” seminars in L.A. and one of the assignments is to get complete with the people in your life meaning make amends. So she writes this letter to an address she finds in the White Pages in East Long Meadow, Mass. It was just a “Dear dad” letter and two weeks later, the phone rings. And it’s her dad who she hadn’t talked to in twenty-five years. And he said ‘Kim, it’s your dad,’ and she just started crying. From that moment on, they were like father-daughter for the last ten years of his life. So I kind of like smushed those two things together. Those are the two inspirations.

Seeing as how his character was inspired by Ted Melfi’s real life niece, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if Jaeden Lieberher’s Oliver had any similarities to her actual personality. There was however one person who hadn’t completely thought about it. Ted Melfi himself:

Melfi: I had never thought of that, but come to think of it, he does have the same qualities as her. She’s eighteen now, but she’s a late bloomer, she’s very smart, but totally introverted and shy. She was bullied, tough to warm up, seen a lot. She saw her dad die, her mom was never around. Just kind of a world wary eleven year old. That’s what Jaeden is.

This was Melfi’s first time working with Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher, but it was also first time the two actors met and worked together as well. According to Melfi, the first meeting between the two thespians didn’t go exactly as smoothly as one could have hoped.

Melfi: I asked Bill if he wanted to rehearse with Jaeden, and he said no. The first day they met was on set in the middle of the scene and I bring Jaeden up and say ‘Bill, this is Jaeden. He’s going to play Oliver.’ And Bill goes like ‘Hmm’ and walked away. Jaeden was like ‘Oh, God. I don’t think he likes me.’ I go ‘He’ll warm up. That’s just his way.’ Bill told me later, he was like ‘I don’t want to know the kid until I know the kid. Then I want to know the kid.’ So, Jaeden and him together did that first scene in the living room when they’re both feeling each other out for the first time. The scene’s over and Bill comes up to me and says ‘The kid’s good. The kid’s really good.’ I said ‘Yeah, I think so.’ That started the chink in the armor of Bill as a person, but he has six kids. He has three younger ones. He calls them team one and team two. “Team one” is thirtyish, “team two” is fourteenish. Then, they became best friends. Inseparable. Then by the end of it, they were doing another movie together, the Cameron Crowe movie in Hawaii, and they were scuba diving. It was great to work with both of them. They just fit together so there wasn’t much manipulating.

The setting of St. Vincent is in a lower middle class community. As he explains, Melfi had a few reasons for choosing that type of setting and people who exist in it to tell this story:

Melfi: I grew up in Brooklyn. In Williamsburg before it was remotely cool. We were dirt poor and next to us was a pot dealer and gangs across the street and prostitutes up and down Kent Avenue. Kent Avenue is now all condos. Kent Avenue was one time prostitutes and barges like on the river. That’s how I grew up. I didn’t know any prostitutes by hand, but I saw them everyday. Single moms were everywhere, “Vincent’s” were all over the neighborhood, there were drunks up and down every Bedford Avenue bar with Schlitz beer for fifty cents and their were catholic priests. It was right in front of a catholic neighborhood. So, I kind of grew up in this environment. Those are the stories that are more interesting to me. Who wants to watch rich people? I don’t want to watch rich people. And I don’t want to watch people who are so poor that it’s too sad for me, so I just went slightly above poor.

You would think that getting a film like St. Vincent made would be a difficult task. I asked him about that and found out his view on making films as a whole. It’s difficult work that he still hasn’t figured out yet on the business side of things. Looking at this experience, you can see how crazy it can get:

Melfi: I think getting anything made is like a modern miracle. You know how many moving parts there are in a movie? It’s insane, and you go ‘Oh, he can’t work this day, because he has to go here and she has to go there,’ and your head’s like ‘Are you f*cking serious?’ I don’t know how anything happens. I don’t know how any movie gets made. For every one movie that gets made in Hollywood, there’s gotta be five thousand scripts or ten thousand scripts. Every step of the way was a hurdle. You have to look at it like dominoes almost. You have to get something to fall and a lot of people just lie. It’s a very good technique. I don’t sanction lying, but you say ‘Hey, I got “so and so.” They’re like ‘Really?’ Then you start building on these lies. I know a lot of producers who work that way and you find out that it’s kind of like I don’t know how they get it done otherwise. It’s a tough, tough business. Melissa (McCarthy) had eighteen days. There’s that element. Naomi (Watts) had twenty days and they had to fit into two different segments. Chris O’Dowd could only work Saturday and Sunday, only two weekends in a row. So you could imagine the schedule. Then the kid could only work eight hours, because of the labor laws. Just try to fit that rubik’s cube together and you’ll never get one side of the cube to match much less all of them to match. And then the script got bounced around town. The script started at Fox. It was going to be this big forty million dollar movie and I was like ‘What? Where are you going to spend forty million dollars? I guess we’ll eat sushi everyday.’ And then it got moved over to Fox Searchlight and they said it was going to be for eight million dollars, then they couldn’t get a deal with Bill Murray that was acceptable for either party. Then we moved out of Fox and went to Sony for like three weeks and finally ended up on Harvey Weinstein’s desk and he just said ‘How much do you need?’ I said ‘I don’t know, whatever it was.’ And he just said ‘Let’s do it.’ Literally, there’s still hurdles. It’s a hurdle everyday trying to find Bill. Is he going to be at this event or that event? We don’t know. Not just Bill: Naomi, Melissa, Chris O’Dowd. They’re people who are working and busy so it’s constant.

Bill Murray is a legend in the film world, so working with him would probably something that a lot of people would want to do. You may want to do a project with him, but Melfi pointed out that time can change your perspective of him as you begin to understand his approach to filmmaking and life:

Melfi: I got to say I love Bill Murray from a different place. I think of him like he has ultimate freedom. And I’m thinking one day I want to grow up and have that freedom. Like ‘Today, I want to go to Budapest.’ Then he’ll just go to Budapest and golf. I think all of us would want that freedom at one point. It’s unfortunately not going to happen, because it’s more of a mindset. I think he’s been training himself for like sixty years. Everyday was awe-inspiring, because he is the most present person I’ve ever met in my life. If he sees something, if he sees a cup of coffee he’ll go ‘Can I have a sip of that coffee?’ You’ll say yes, he’ll drink it and you’ll end up giving it to him. He’s just that guy. He’s present, he’s one hundred percent in the moment, so as an actor there’s nothing to say to him. It’s not like he comes to set and says something and you go ‘That was ridiculous.’ There’s was nothing to say. You’re kind of just watching him do what he does best, which is be free and actually teach all of us actors and crew alike how to be free. It was a great experience.

Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray would seem to potentially have a lot of differences on the surface. While they do, they also have a good bit of similarities as well:

Melfi: They’re very similar. They’re very, very both smart, very intelligent, hyper aware, hyper present, always in the moment. The difference between Melissa and Bill is that Melissa is super organized as a human being. Not to an OCD place, but just very organized and wants to know where she’s going, how she’s getting there and what she’s going to do. So she works out the script from an intelligent place first and then goes to an emotional place. I’m guessing this, because I’m not in her mind. And Bill doesn’t go any consistent way at all. Bill probably found the character physically. So he came to set, he has this make up artist in England, Morag Ross, she did this whole soul patch thing on him with his hair back and he had this veneer to make his teeth look dirty and he did a very slight accent. He finds this physical thing and then he just manifest that.

St. Vincent deals with some emotionally heavy stuff pertaining to the lives of ordinary people. This stuff came from an important place for the director, but his approach to broadcasting the way he did was just as integral to him as a man. He chose to bring all of it to this film with a comedic element. Below, he speaks about why that is:

Melfi: We added the comedy, because if we’re telling a story with a message. The movie to me is every human being has value and we judge people based on face value right away, we put a stamp on him. Drunk, single mom, priest. Stamp, stamp, stamp. And the only way to tell a story like that I thought was with comedy. The only way to go deep with pain for me is to laugh about it. My mom has Alzheimer’s, she’s basically the character who has Alzheimer’s in the movie. Someone asked her a couple of weeks ago ‘How are you doing?’ And she goes ‘How the f*ck would I know?’ That’s funny to me. And that’s the only way I can make this Alzheimer’s thing work, because it’s torture. I think comedy is the only way to get through pain.

One of the major spoilers during this interview comes here. In the film, Vincent has a stroke. That’s obviously a serious subject, so including in a comedy would be pretty tough. How could he put that in a comedy without taking away from it or losing its sense of seriousness? Well, Melfi had worries about that himself, but he found a way to do so:

Melfi: We were concerned about that because it’s Bill Murray. If that were Robert Duvall, you would go ‘Oh, that guy had a stroke.’ But it’s Bill Murray and when he has a stroke and he falls, one could laugh, because you’re always waiting for him, but we researched. All I can say is what we did. We had a stroke specialist come and speak to Bill and we worked on it and the stroke specialist said that the script was pretty much spot on with the slurring and certain continents that get stuck in people usually at the beginning or the end. And the other level of stroke is actually when they can’t remember the word. So there’s two kinds of stroke. Then we just took the same philosophy with pain and get through this pain in the sequence of this movie with laughter, because it’s a totally different movie if we play this whole section seriously. You’d go ‘Now I’m in a f*cking drama about strokes, and that’s what was in the movie. I also didn’t want to stay in the hospital, because I hate hospitals. Everyone hates hospitals. I didn’t want to stay in the hospital sequence long, so we kind of just got through it. If you think about it, that’s what you do when you have some ailment. You move through it. Do you want to f*cking move through it as fast as you can? If you know anyone that’s sick, they don’t want to talk about the past, they want to move through it. That’s the philosophy we took it. Just move through that section, use some humor to keep it alive and keep it from being morose. We just kept moving it forward.

Seeing as St. Vincent is his first feature film, I figured finishing the project could have been taken many different ways depending on how it all went down. I asked him about that and he gave some insight about it all.

Melfi: It’s hard to explain it. From the time you start prep, from the time you wrap, it’s basically eighteen hours a day with very little sleep. I don’t believe we use ten percent of our brain. I thought I used like one hundred and ninety-five percent of my brain, because it’s full to the rim. You’re going seven days a week and you think you have weekends, but the phone doesn’t stop ringing or you have wardrobe, a cast member you haven’t cast yet or a location you haven’t picked yet or something is falling out. Every single day. So by the time you get to the end, you just collapse. I literally slept for like three days.

Harvey Weinstein is rumored to be the kind of guy who has a hands on approach when producing a film. With that being the case, one would figure that he’d be heavily involved with St. Vincent, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Melfi: He wasn’t. You here a lot of stories, but no, he wasn’t. I actually had to call him and say ‘Are you ever going to visit set?’ He says ’No, because I’m watching dailies. You know what you’re doing. Go do it. I’m busy.’ Didn’t come in the editing room, didn’t tell me one thing to cut. He didn’t come in and take the film over like he has done. Then, I realize why. We were in good shape. We had tested the film for audiences and tested really high. So, he was like ‘We’re done.’ We were in good shape. He just didn’t come in. I can say confidently we caught the best movie out of what we had. What you’re seeing is the best movie of what we shot.

At this point, Ted Melfi has probably seen St. Vincent more than anyone else ever will. That’s to be expected since he’s the director, but it also altered his view on the film as a whole:

Melfi: I can honestly say I can’t tell you if the movies good, if I like it or dislike it at this point. I’m just being straight up. When you see something five hundred times, perspective is lost, it’s instantly gone. I was in the premiere last night going ’This is f*cking long.’ It’s not long! It’s a hundred and forty minutes. It’s not long for anyone else, but you’ve seen it five hundred times it’s f*cking long. It’s the longest movie you’ve ever seen in your entire life.

Everything that he wanted in the film was put into the film. That’s the way a filmmaker would want it, but they’d also want anything they don’t want in it out of it. According to Melfi, they only did one day of reshooting. The scene wasn’t what he wanted, since it didn’t fit with the film, but the studio had other ideas. Below is how that happened and how it worked out:

Melfi: We did a reshoot one day, because the studio wanted us to. Because they wanted us to have a big, big comedy moment between Bill and Melissa. Now they’re taking the movie somewhere else. That’s not the movie. And Bill is like ‘What?’ And I was like ‘This is f*cking ridiculous,’ because the movie had already tested high, but the marketing people, they want to put Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, you know. That wasn’t the movie and Bill didn’t want to do it. They kept pressuring me.’You gotta get Bill. We made this movie for you.’ I said ‘All right.’ I kept texting Bill, he said ‘Fine, I’ll do something.’ He came to set six months later and it was the only bad day as a whole. Because no one, myself included, wanted to be there and wanted to do this because we didn’t want to f*ck the film up. We didn’t have any desire to f*ck it up. We did the reshoot in Los Angeles. We shot for the day and we all went home. We had two cameras, the next day the lab calls and says the pin registration of the camera was off, the gate was open and every ounce of the film is ruined. The second camera had a frame issue. Two separate cameras. In the fifteen years I’ve been shooting, I have never in my life had that happen ever, much less to both cameras, to every frame. Sometimes you’ll get like a hair, you can paint it out. Every f*cking frame. Harvey was like ‘We’ll pay to fix it.’ The lab gets it and says ‘If you paid us a million dollars, we can’t fix it. So that was our reshoot. One shot was salvageable. The sequence where he’s picking up the marbles with his feet in physical therapy. That was the only thing that was salvageable.

Just based on the name of the film, you know there are some religious aspects to the story. As he spoke about, this also reflects on his experiences growing up in a catholic community with somewhat of a religious upbringing.

Melfi: My mom was a nun. My aunt was a nun, my mom’s twin sister was a nun. There were five girls: nun, nun, nun one passed away a lesbian. Obviously not a nun. I guess you still could be, but whatever. Uncle was a seminary, my mom’s sister married a priest. So a nun married a priest. They got excommunicated in Brooklyn. They’ve been married for forty something years with two beautiful kids. My mom met my dad when he was involved with the mob. He was 46, my mom was 26. She met him, she left the convent and got married. I was an alter boy for six Sundays until I got fired. It was my other brother who drank the wine. So, we were like Heaven and Hell. The only job that an alter boy has to do is when they hold up the eucharist and ring the bell when they say ‘Do this in the memory of me.’ He held up the eucharist and my brother started laughing because he was half drunk and that was it. The priest said ‘You’re done.’ So, I grew up in this kind of warped catholic life, but I’m not overly religious by any means. I have fond memories of Catholicism. I think religion today gets beat to death. I mean it gets beat up all the time if you believe in anything it just gets beat up and beat up and beat up. We’re all cynical now, but if you look at all the good the church does. They’re the biggest philanthropic force in the world. For hunger, for sickness, for everything. They do great stuff and I was just like ‘You know what. I’m going to do something different with the catholic thing, because I’ve never experienced these creepy pedophiles. I never experienced that. We take the few really sick f*cks out there and ruin the whole thing. Which is unfortunate, because the catholic church does a lot of great things. So, I wanted a positive teacher that reminded of my teachers. That was fun and loose and didn’t really care. He’s not there to convert you, he’s just there to say ‘Hey, there’s something more than you. If you chose to believe it, good, if not it’s your life.’

I read that Melfi was in line to write and direct the Going In Style remake, so I decided to ask him about his future in filmmaking. His response was something I hadn’t heard, so I guess it was breaking news, but it spoke about how he’s going to handle things in both his career and his life in the future:

Melfi: I don’t really know who I am yet. I’m just trying to figure out who I am as a person, as a director, as a writer. To jump onto something, because this is out? Who gives a sh*t? If I need money, I can direct a commercial. I guess the thing to do as an artist, and Bill taught me this, is take your time, be patient. You can only do so many things in your life. Going In Style, I wrote the script, I love the script, but I don’t know if I want to do that genre right now. I’m trying to do something completely different, because I, you, everyone gets branded like instantly. Like Melissa McCarthy, you think you know who she is. You got a brand for her. I bet this movie broke that brand for you a little bit. Good for her, because you go ‘Well, she’s not just The Heat. Did you see St. Vincent?’ That’s what you’ll say. She’s totally subtle. Same thing with Naomi Watts. You’ll go ‘She’s not really funny.’ You go ‘But she was funny in that one.’ I don’t want to be, I don’t know, I don’t really know the answer.

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