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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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch