Writer/director Ted Melfi got Bill Murray to appear in his first film by calling him. Murray does not have an agent or a manager. He has an 800 number. And Melfi left message after message until Murray finally called back and asked Melfi to pick him up at the airport. Apparently his pitch skills (and driving skills) impressed Murray because he stars as the title character in Melfi’s “St. Vincent,” as a bitter Vietnam vet who drinks and gambles too much and has sex with a pregnant stripper (Naomi Watts), and, desperate for money, agrees to babysit the son of his new neighbor, a single mom played by Melissa McCarthy. I talked to Melfi about the film.
Once Bill Murray signed on, everything kind of became a lot easier. Everyone wants to work with Bill. And my first choice for the role of Maggie was Melissa. And I told the producer Jenno Topping “I really want to try get Melissa McCarthy,” and she said, “Oh my God, I think that’s brilliant.” And so we told Harvey Weinstein and he said, “I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.” And he’s like ”I don’t think it is going to work, the movie is a drama with some comedic moments and she is a purely broad comedic actor,” and I said to Harvey. “She’s an actor, first and foremost.” “I am not going to lie, I just don’t see it.” And I said, “Well, what if I get her to audition?” And he said, “Well, sure if you can get her to audition, well of course we will look at it.” And so I called Melissa then I said, “Melissa,” I said, “I don’t know, I said “Who am I to ask you this, who am I at all, but I really want you to play this part and I think you really want to do it too, but do you think you’d be willing to audition and go on tape for it?” And she said, she actually said, “F**k yeah.”
On a Friday, she came over from her show and I taped her doing a couple of scenes. And I sent them to Harvey Friday night and Monday morning my phone rings and it is Harvey, and he goes, “Ted, I don’t say this often and you might not ever hear it again, but you were right and I was wrong. She is a revelation. I can’t take my eyes off her. I can’t see anyone else in this part. She makes the movie for me.”
Tell me about working with Jaeden Lieberher, who is so good in the film as Oliver. How did you find him and what were the challenges of directing a child in a story with very adult material?
I have done a lot of commercials and I have worked with a lot of kids over the years. I really have a good connection with kids, I have two kids myself. So I don’t have any problems with working with child actors. I find that child actors are the purest form of acting because
they are not spoiled yet. They are not ruined yet. And so, I was looking forward to working with the kid. The biggest problem with Oliver in this film is finding him. It was so hard to find. It took a sixteen hundred auditions, sixteen hundred kids across the country.
I think that is where comedy lives, that is when you do things that are completely inappropriate and then you make them appropriate, you make them okay. But Jaeden’s mom, her name is Angie, she is just this fantastic lady and they are just game for everything. It is not about money or desperation or pleasing you. It is literally about the art. Jaeden actually gets mad when he has a day off, he is like, “What? I want to be working.” He was born to be an actor.
How did you find the determination to keep calling Bill Murray’s 800 number?
My wife says I have what is called happy delusions. I guess I have had this disease for most of my adult life or most of my life in general. It is like I don’t stop. I actually put it in my calendar: “call Bill Murray” every day, every other day, once a week. People think I’m crazy and I guess I am. I am just so persistent, I mean, I don’t know much about myself, only that I am persistent. I am so persistent that it drives people crazy. Maybe it is all OCD, I don’t know, but I just keep going and I keep going, and I keep going. I probably just wore Bill down even if it is to call me back and get a restraining order.
The first time I met him was in the town car driving for three hours from L.A. to the Pechanga Indian Reservation. When I screened the movie for Bill for the first time, we screened the movie on an airplane from Atlanta, Georgia to LAX and then we took a town car to somewhere else. Bill loves travelling. I don’t know if he loves travelling but he’s does it an awful lot so I assume he loves it.
So tell me a little bit about what your concept for the clothes worn by Murray as Vincent.
Ted: Our wardrobe stylist is brilliant. Kasia Walicka-Maimone. She lives in Brooklyn. She does a lot of Wes Anderson’s work. Kasia was saying, “Okay, who is this guy?” And I said, “Kasia, let me give you one thing that I have, that I believe this guy…that encapsulates his entire existence.” So I gave her the only pair of shorts I held on to from college, green camouflage cargo shorts. I said, “That is what I want him to wear.” And she looks at it and says, “Now I know who he is.” And she took that thought and my shorts and she found the shorts and she found a couple of them, and she just rolled with it. And she’s from Brooklyn, and she just found all these vintage shirts and short sleeved shirts that are pit stained and red sweatpants and sandals and flip flops and that hat he wears. And for Daka (the Watts character) she invented something we called chic trash.
What was your inspiration for the film?
The movie is based on two true stories of my life, two inspirations. Eight years ago my oldest brother died and he was thirty-eight, and it was just kind of totally unbelievable. And he had an eleven-year-old daughter, the mother was not in the picture, so my wife and I adopted her and we moved her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks where we live, in California and we put her in Notre Dame High School when she was ready for high school and in her sophomore year she goes to a world religion class and in this world religion class, the teacher assigns her this project, find a Catholic saint that inspires you and find someone in your real life that mimics the qualities of that saint and draw a comparison. And so she picks St. Monica of Rochester, the patron saint that adopted children because she just got adopted. And she picked me. So I said, “That’s a movie.” I couldn’t get it out of my head. It made me feel very proud and happy and it was a very emotional time.
And I said it is not going to be me, it’s going to be an old guy that doesn’t have much to live for anymore. And the second part of the story is like “Who is Vincent. Who was Vincent?” And Vincent was inspired by my father-in-law, my wife’s father who was a drunk Vietnam vet who abandoned all his kids. He abandoned my wife when she was nine, smoked, drinks, gambles – just not a good guy. Twenty five years later my wife is in a psychology seminar in Los Angeles, in one of those “Find Your Life” weekend seminars? And the assignment is to get complete with the people in your life – which means, make amends. And so she sent a Dear Dad letter to this address she found in the white pages. Two weeks later the phone rings. He says, “Kim, it’s your dad.” And then she just starts crying. And from that moment on they became father/daughter, for the last ten years of his life, she even helped him through his cancer when he died and he became a saint for her and she became a saint for him. And that was Vincent for me, that guy.