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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas