By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Theodore Melfi On St. Vincent

df-16485(1)_popFrom the opening scene of the new movie St. Vincent, where he’s telling a joke in a bar, to the closing credits where he’s desultorily watering a barren backyard from the comfort of his recliner, Bill Murray creates yet another memorably flippant curmudgeon. He plays Vin – short for Vincent, which at two syllables requires too much extra effort – an unrepentant Brooklyn gambler, boozer and smoker, who, aside from the occasional canoodle with pregnant hooker Daka (Naomi Watts), spends most of his time at home alone with his cat. That changes when divorced mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves next door with her young son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), then hires Vin to look after the boy when she’s stuck working her hospital’s night shift. By day, in the classroom run by genial Father Garaghty (Chris O’Dowd), Oliver studies the lives of the saints; in his afternoons with Vin, the kid gets an altogether different education.

Writer-director Ted Melfi drew on his own family life for inspiration. After his brother died, leaving a young daughter orphaned, Melfi and his wife adopted the girl. One year while in school she had a homework assignment to pair a Catholic saint with a contemporary, ordinary person, and for the latter she chose Melfi. Those elements of loss, hope and love recur throughout St. Vincent, a beguiling comedy with some agreeably flinty edges.  The Weinstein Company release was recently a centerpiece of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival, and Melfi came to town for the screening.

Andrea Gronvall:  How long did it take to get St. Vincent from development to the screen?

Ted Melfi:  Three years. I wrote the screenplay very quickly, in five weeks. We shot the film in 37 days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last summer.

AG:  All told, that’s not much time, really. Have you always been so decisive?

TM:  To a fault. My wife calls it my “happy delusion.” If I want to make something happen, about 60 to 65% of the time it happens. Look, if you reach even the 50% mark, you’re good.

AG:  Did you rehearse your actors?

TM:  Bill doesn’t like to rehearse; he likes to keep it fresh for the camera. With Melissa we didn’t have time, because she joined us one day after completing Tammy. Naomi spent four weeks working on her Russian accent prior to production, so she didn’t want to rehearse. Chris was working in Ireland on his TV series “Moone Boy,” so on Friday nights he would take the red-eye to New York, shoot with us all day on Saturday and Sunday, and then turn around and fly back.

AG:  That’s a work ethic for you. Actors in the U.K. and Ireland are like that. For them, it’s all about the work, whether it’s a bit part or a big movie. They love the work, more than they love the money.

TM:  That’s right. Over here it’s so fucked up. The amount of money that’s thrown around in Hollywood becomes an evil force. I made nothing on St. Vincent – which is to say I made scale. After you subtract the fees for agents, managers and lawyers over three years, there’s not much left. But I’d do it again. Your life should be about more than money.

AG:  Let’s talk a little about your discovery, Jaeden Lieberher. You got a terrific performance out of him.

TM:  I did rehearse Jaeden a lot; we’d go over each of his script pages 20 times until we got it right. Over my years of making commercials I’ve worked with a lot of kids. This is Jaeden’s first movie – he’d only made a couple of commercials before – but he’s like a 50-year-old pro in a child’s body.

AG:  And then there’s Bill, in one of his best roles. Nobody plays “world-weary” better than Bill Murray. How important is likeability for your characters? Because some of them walk a line. Your movie is sweet and funny, but it’s also quite tart.

TM:  Most people walk that line – move them 10% in one direction over the line, and they’re admirable, but move them 10% in the opposite direction, and they’re dangerous. Sometimes I’m an asshole, and sometimes I’m a nice guy. I like stories about real people. There aren’t any superheroes in real life, and very few Walter Whites [from “Breaking Bad”] – that is, at least before they go on to become so evil we can’t stand them. There are more Vins in the world than anyone else. That vast middle, the middle class, that’s who I’m making movies for.

AG:  Before I met you, I had planned on asking if you ever got intimidated directing a cast of such acclaimed actors, but I can see now that you’re probably not intimidated by very much.

TM:  Intimidated, no. But I can get nervous.

AG:  What makes you nervous?

TM:  The thinking of things. The doing of it doesn’t. Someone once told me that if you’re never nervous, you might as well quit this business, because it’s a tremendous venture you’re undertaking — and if you’re never nervous, you’re not being true to yourself. You’re masking your emotions, which means you’re dead, in a way.

AG:  Speaking of ventures, I read that for your next one you and Jon Favreau are developing a TV pilot called “The Mancinis”. But I’m a little confused about the wording in the press kit. Did it mean that the characters you’re creating are a father in the Mafia, and a mother who’s a nun, or did it say that those were actually your real parents?

TM:  My real parents.

AG:  Seriously?

TM:  Seriously. My dad was involved with some things in New York, where he was supervising a Mafia-run construction company called Stay-Put Concrete. You can’t make this stuff up. And my mom was a nun in Tarrytown, but she had a breakdown, so she quit and left to look for a job in the city. She applied for a secretarial job at my father’s company, but he told her he couldn’t hire a woman he was attracted to. So they went out to dinner instead, and four months later they married.

AG:  So, you’re still drawing on your own biography for your next work?

TM:  I have years of personal history that I can mine for the rest of my life.

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook