By Scott Holleran
December 2014—The man who created a return to warm but dry comic form for Bill Murray, writer and director Theodore Melfi, recently sat down with me to talk about his first major movie, St. Vincent (read my review here and visit the movie’s official site here).
The exchange took place in the San Fernando Valley, where we discussed details of the motion picture (plot “spoilers” ahead), its origins in his life and mind, and the cast, challenges and critical reception. The independent hit for The Weinstein Company, about a boy and his mother and their disagreeable next door neighbor, opened this fall and continues to play in movie theaters. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: Your movie St. Vincent gained attention for the lead performance by Bill Murray. With the onslaught of awards season hype, does the attention for Bill Murray overshadow the film?
Theodore Melfi: I don’t think so. I think it gets more people to see the movie and appreciate Bill Murray in the movie—and also appreciate the movie. Look, if the movie wasn’t being received well or wasn’t liked, people wouldn’t want to watch it, regardless of Bill Murray. Bill Murray’s been in some movies that few people have seen. So, I don’t feel like it’s being overshadowed. It feels like he’s helping the movie. Occasionally, I hear comments that run the gamut from ‘this is the best movie I’ve ever seen’ to ‘this is an utter waste of talent’ so if that’s the gamut, I look at the mean, because the gamut for every movie is ‘best movie ever’ or ‘absolute piece of s—’. That’s the range. Inside that range lays the truth. The truth is in the middle. The middle [for St. Vincent] is very positive, so when I hear a comment like ‘the movie was OK but Bill Murray was brilliant’, I immediately think that opinion has no validity because there is no way for Bill Murray to be brilliant without the script being pretty damn great. He’s saying the words written for a movie that’s been shot.
Scott Holleran: You’ve been working in Hollywood pictures for a long time, though St. Vincent is your first time writing and directing a major feature film. How do you separate Hollywood hype and get to the truth when you’re writing the script and shooting the movie?
Theodore Melfi: It’s tricky. As you go about creating a film, immediately there’s a bevy of sycophants. I want those people as far away from me as possible, so, first and foremost, my partner is my wife, Kimberly Quinn. She is the best development, idea, story and character person I’ve ever met. There is only what the character needs and what the story needs with her. It’s literally all about the work. The producers are the same way—
Scott Holleran: —because they want to make money—?
Theodore Melfi: —They want to make money but they also want to make the best movie. Then, when you deal with actors like Bill Murray, who don’t have any tolerance for BS, where the BS meter is at .00001, nothing slips by. If you keep yourself in check, you find the truth. You have to also know when to trust yourself and when not to trust yourself which is the hardest thing for anyone in any business—not just filmmaking—when you feel that what you’re saying is just right.
Scott Holleran: What did you learn about yourself now that your first major feature is behind you?
Theodore Melfi: The good news is that, for me personally, I’ve produced nine movies and I’ve directed a hundred commercials—for Bank of America, McDonald’s, Toyota—so I make those decisions every day in seconds. It’s a little like being in the military, which is not a perfect analogy, but even some of the film industry titles, such as the grip and gaffer, are military terms. Film sets are run like a small military operation. Obviously, the stakes are not even close to being comparable. But there’s a hierarchy and you run it in a way where decisions have to be made instantly where every minute counts because it costs like a thousand dollars a second.
Scott Holleran: Pardon the cliché, but is this the movie you wanted to make?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. 99.9 percent.
Scott Holleran: Is there anything that, if you knew then that you know now, you would do differently?
Theodore Melfi: [Pauses] Hmm. [Pauses] No. I did 800 storyboards for this film. I have a book. I knew every shot before I shot it. We came to set with a clear, proper plan. We deviated from the plan when we wanted to, when we had to, when we were inspired. But I can’t think of anything I’d do differently. I would not cast anyone differently—no one but Bill Murray could play [Vincent] for me, no one but Jaeden Lieberher could have played Oliver. I don’t know who could do a better Maggie than Melissa McCarthy or a better Daka than Naomi Watts. We shot what I wanted to shoot.
Scott Holleran: Which is your favorite scene?
Theodore Melfi: Probably when they win at the track—it’s the joy of winning, the exuberance of getting one over on the bookie [portrayed by Terrence Howard]—just to see Vin happy. My second favorite scene is when Vin goes with his wife’s laundry and you meet her for the first time and he tells her that “as far as I can tell, you’re still beautiful…” That scene is personal because my mom has Alzheimer’s disease.
Scott Holleran: Were you raised Catholic?
Theodore Melfi: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Are you a practicing Catholic?
Theodore Melfi: No. I’m not ex or lapsed—I’m just not a big prescriber of church. I believe in God. I pray on my own. I meditate on my own. I do my own thing. I just got away from the organizational aspects.
Scott Holleran: Yet you decided to portray priests in a positive way. Is that a conscious decision?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. Growing up in the Catholic Church, I knew some great priests. They were just great, great, great human beings, people you wanted to hang out with. They weren’t pedophiles. They weren’t sick people. My uncle was a priest. My mom was a nun. My aunt was a nun. I grew up as Catholic as you can. My uncle is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met and he actually fell in love with my aunt who was a nun and they left the church and got married. They’ve been married for 40 years or something and they’re the greatest people in the world. I personally am sick of the beatdown on Catholicism and every religion. Yes, organized religion is flawed. But the base of it—the foundation—trying to do good for humanity, how can that be bad? So, I just wanted to portray a cool Catholic priest that’s there to help people.
Scott Holleran: The scene involving Shel Silverstein’s children’s story, The Giving Tree, foreshadows the climax of Oliver’s presentation about Vincent MacKenna’s life. Is self-sacrifice the central theme of the movie?
Theodore Melfi: [Pauses] No. [Pauses] I mean, it is—[I suppose it could be] one of the themes. It could be that for you—or it could be something else, maybe, I don’t know. The central theme in my mind is: the value of a single human life. I believe every human life has value. Over time, that value gets eroded by life and health and financial hardship. You take enough hits and knocks and you wake up one day and say, ‘what the hell am I doing here? I’m 50, 60, 80 years old and I have nothing—I have a Social Security check and I can barely get by and my wife is sick or my husband’s sick’, whatever it is. So, you lose [a sense of your own] value. You go to a darker place—or a self-destructive place where you just don’t care about yourself—and it’s [like a] death. This movie is meant to show that everyone has value; a pregnant Russian prostitute, a single mom who’s not that great of a mom who’s trying to make it work, a drunk, curmudgeonly Vietnam [War] vet, a kid, a bully has value—everyone has value.
Scott Holleran: Has there been criticism?
Theodore Melfi: If I had to put all the less positive comments about St. Vincent into a bucket, I’d put them in a bucket called heartless—
Scott Holleran: —Do you mean cynical?
Theodore Melfi: —Yeah. I don’t even want to talk to those people. I’m not interested in a relationship with them because I go to a movie—and I’ve been this way since I was a kid—to feel. I don’t want to go to a movie and go ‘I felt nothing’. I think that’s the entire point of cinema. Somehow, it’s become schmaltzy to feel. But there’s a difference between schmaltz and sentiment.
Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite filmmaker?
Theodore Melfi: Frank Capra. Other filmmakers I like are the Coen brothers. Anything they do I can watch all day long. I like Alexander Payne’s work. The first movie I remember really loving is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing because I’m from Brooklyn. I like Martin Scorsese. I have eclectic tastes.
Scott Holleran: The Coen brothers certainly express cynicism, to your earlier point.
Theodore Melfi: They do. But their movies have characters I love—I love what they do with normal, everyday characters and how they make their lives bigger than life. Like the Dude. He’s just a bowling potsmoker.
Theodore Melfi: —I don’t like all their work, but I like About Schmidt. I like his patience, his character development. I like that he takes his time and allows you to be in a world. I wasn’t a huge fan of Nebraska but I’m a huge fan of his putting me into Nebraska. I spent time in Missouri, so I get it.
Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite Scorsese picture?
Theodore Melfi: I don’t have to go out on a limb to say Goodfellas—it’s one of the best films ever made. You can watch it from any point in the movie and it’ll take you all the way to the end.
Scott Holleran: What was the first movie you saw in a movie theater?
Theodore Melfi: Beat Street . [Laughs]. I saw it in New York. We never went to movies. We were very poor. We didn’t have a TV for a long time. We didn’t have a telephone. So, I was a breakdancer in Brooklyn, where it started on the sidewalk. My brothers and I were all breakdancers. So we all went to the theater and Beat Street was my first movie. I was 13 years old.
Scott Holleran: Did you go to a church called St. Patrick’s like in St. Vincent?
Theodore Melfi: No. But that’s a real school and church in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Scott Holleran: What’s the first movie you saw that took your breath away?
Theodore Melfi: Pulp Fiction . I just couldn’t believe there was such a movie that was so alive and energetic and vibrant. It’s so captivating on every level. That took my breath away. It’s Pulp Fiction. It’s such an experience.
Scott Holleran: Coming back to St. Vincent’s theme and The Giving Tree, why do you use the story?
Theodore Melfi: I have kids and I used to read it and my wife used to read it to our daughter. I don’t remember, I think it was my wife—it might have been me or my daughter—who said, ‘God, that [story is] depressing.’ One of us said ‘it’s not depressing if you think about it’. That’s because the tree has only one purpose in life—its function is to give life—its purpose is to give, that’s why it’s put on earth, to give life. It gives oxygen, leaves, fruit, whatever it gives to us. It has no other purpose. So for it to be able to achieve its purpose to the nub is the greatest accomplishment that tree could ever have.
Scott Holleran: But a tree is not a human, which is what makes the story’s tree, with its human qualities, sad—
Theodore Melfi: —Correct, because we look at the tree as an organism. It’s alive. Shel Silverstein, the storyteller, blurs the line. But that’s Vin. He’s the giving tree. He’s given everything to his wife, his country—he’s got nothing left to give. He’s a nub. This kid comes in and waters the plant, waters the stump.
Scott Holleran: Vin made bad choices, too.
Theodore Melfi: Correct. But we all make bad choices.
Scott Holleran: And you don’t sugarcoat those choices in St. Vincent. What is the response to Vincent among alcoholics and those affected by them?
Theodore Melfi: I haven’t had any interaction except for a comment on Twitter—he commented that he’s sick of Hollywood glorifying alcoholism. Now, I know that this film doesn’t glorify alcoholism on any level. It actually shows that alcoholism ruins lives and relationships. What I’ve found in my studies of alcoholism and my own experience is that most alcoholics have so much self-hate. That self-hate goes away when they drink. So when you meet Vin in the mornings, he’s not feeling so spry. He’s woken up and yells at the movers first thing in the morning. So you find the worst in him when he hasn’t had a drink yet. Then, as he warms up, [you find that] he’s had a couple of cocktails.
Scott Holleran: Do you have experience with alcoholism?
Theodore Melfi: No. I’m not much of a drinker. My dad wasn’t, my mom wasn’t. My wife’s family has a history—her dad was a drunk, basically.
Scott Holleran: And Vincent is based on your wife’s father?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. I’ve been married for 18 years and I’ve seen the effects. It’s debilitating to watch someone try to have a relationship with someone who’s an alcoholic. His name was Paul Quinn, and the movie is dedicated to him. He called every night to talk with my wife once they reconciled. They would talk for hours. To watch someone find love again—that was the greatest influence on St. Vincent because that’s what Vincent does. He slowly allows love to come in—let’s say light—and it changes everything. The moment light comes into a dark room, the room is no longer dark. One crack of light makes everything brighter. That’s the power of light. No one thinks about that. But, if you sit in a dark room, and someone cracks the door just an eighth of an inch, the entire room is illuminated. All the darkness is gone in a flash. You have to actually create darkness—it’s light that’s the natural state. You have to make a room dark and put on shades, put on sunglasses, to create darkness. Darkness has to be made, if you think about it.
Scott Holleran: Vincent does that.
Theodore Melfi: He does that his whole life. He’s become a shut-in, creating darkness, becoming a drunk and creating a disreputable spirit. Then, a kid that has only light comes in. There’s no way for that light to be extinguished once the child comes in. So, with my wife being the light and love for her father, there was no way he could stay in that [dark] place. Once you know what love is, you just want it. I got to see his transformation from an asshole to a saint of a guy where I enjoyed talking with him. We went and visited him and it was so much fun—he was just alive.
Scott Holleran: Was he a Vietnam War veteran like Vincent?
Theodore Melfi: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Have you heard from veterans about St. Vincent?
Theodore Melfi: I have. Vets come up to me at screenings and say ‘thank you for making this movie.’ They say ‘thank you for showing that at times we feel all alone’ or ‘thank you for showing that we were heroes and no one even knows or cares’ or that life isn’t easy for vets. I’ve heard a lot of things.
Scott Holleran: Is everything in the movie scripted?
Theodore Melfi: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Is anything unscripted?
Theodore Melfi: The only thing unscripted was Vincent running through the parking lot with the kid and Vin dancing with the boy. I got the idea that maybe they should dance together for one take. So they did. I thought it would be great character development. It was scripted that he’s dancing alone [earlier in the film] then, later, he has a dance partner who’s a good friend.
Scott Holleran: So your skills as a breakdancer found a way into your first major movie?
Theodore Melfi: Yeah, though there are no headspins or windmills.
Scott Holleran: Why is Vincent dancing alone to a song on the jukebox—what is that scene intended to convey?
Theodore Melfi: A man literally oblivious to the outside world who could care less what anyone thinks of him. That was his last and only [remaining] way to express himself. It’s a man lost in his world. I choreographed it a bit. It was a dance that my father-in-law did. Paul Quinn would get trash-wasted and then dance by himself in this pizza parlor/bar in Massachusetts and just dance with a cigarette dangling, drunk out of his mind. He would do these Tai-Chi moves. Sometimes, he would try to get my wife and I to dance. He was just this wild character. That was the dance he was doing. So I demonstrated the dance for Bill [Murray]. I said, I’m not going to tell you how to do it, I’m just going to show you what my father-in-law used to do and how he used to do it. He took that and ran with it.
Scott Holleran: He dances to “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. Why is the music of counterculture central to Vincent’s character and prevalent in the film?
Theodore Melfi: It’s generational. It’s showing that Vin is on the fringes of society. When those songs came out, they incited rebellion and they were bigger than life—they were these Vietnam War songs. I looked for songs that Vin would have been drawn to.
Scott Holleran: So you had control of the movie. Did the producers do anything to improve the movie?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. Everyone who touched it improved it. [Producer] Peter Chernin said he thought I should rewrite the speech and use nuggets of what other people have said to the kid [about Vincent] during his interviews and lace it in—like when Daka said Vin’s lonely and people don’t like Vin—that becomes part of Oliver’s speech. That was Peter Chernin’s idea. I think it’s beautiful. My wife Kimberly Quinn’s editing was fantastic. She’s in tune. She’s intuitive. We had a storyline where the father of Oliver gets back into the picture and has a scene with Maggie [played by Melissa McCarthy] toward the end where it shows that he knew he’d been an asshole. Kimberly said that’s got to go, we don’t care [about the character’s mea culpa] at that point.
Scott Holleran: When Vincent says “No, I’m not” (alright) is it a first step – acknowledging that he has a drinking problem or that he’s an alcoholic – toward recovery?
Theodore Melfi: Not consciously. As a matter of fact, that is one of the few Bill [Murray] improvisational lines. There was nothing scripted there.
Scott Holleran: There seem to be two extreme reactions—those that love the first two thirds of the movie and can’t stand the last part and those in reverse that aren’t as invested until the last part—?
Theodore Melfi: —Both basically avoid [reality]. The first group is cynics, the ones that are heartless, who think the movie is great until it gets light—until there is a meaning. So, what? They want Vincent to die? They should ask themselves: what ending would I choose? Once they answer that question properly, then they know what to think of the movie. The second group of people are too scared to see the sin or don’t want to see anything bad, so they have blinders on. They like the backend when everything is beautiful and joyous—but there is no backend without going through the frontend. You have to peel the onion back to see that he’s a good man. You’ve got to do some work.
Scott Holleran: You talked about light for the Bill Murray character coming in, though it works in reverse for the Jaeden Lieberher character, too, Oliver, who is guarded at first. Does he become enlightened, too?
Theodore Melfi: Yeah, well, he hasn’t had it easy. First of all, he’s adopted. Adopted children always wonder why they were adopted—why didn’t my parents keep me? That’s a very understandable part of his journey. Then, there are the things that his dad did to his mom, so he feels abandoned in that regard. He’s a fully formed kid—and Jaeden’s a fully formed human being. He’s calm, peaceful and he has a lot of joy and light. This is his motion picture debut. He’s just a joy to be around.
Scott Holleran: This is a small role for Terrence Howard. How did you get him?
Theodore Melfi: That was different. We almost had everyone cast—we already had Bill, Melissa and Naomi [Watts]—and his agent read it, gave it to Terrence and he said: ‘I’ll do it.” So it’s one of those domino effects. He was fantastic—I love that guy. He’s a mad scientist. At the time we met, I went to his trailer and he was mapping out the periodic table of the elements as musical notes, based on some old research from the 1920s. He was saying that he could chemically create emotions with music. I thought that was fascinating. He’s a singer, songwriter and musician—I believe he plays piano—and he’s a brilliant man.
Scott Holleran: It’s too bad he didn’t stay on for the Iron Man series. Ironically, his Iron Man character’s replacement, Don Cheadle, is one of the producers for St. Vincent. How did that happen?
Theodore Melfi: Don is a friend of mine. We had been working on a television series together. At the time, I was going to do this movie for $800,000 with a couple of friends and I called Don and asked for help to help me get some cast members. He said ‘absolutely’. He was on board from the beginning. He’s a good man—a really good man.
Scott Holleran: Is Maggie a breakthrough role for Melissa McCarthy?
Theodore Melfi: People see it that way but it’s hard for me to see it because I know she can do anything. She did nine years of dramatic, off-Broadway theater. Film audiences may not know that.
Scott Holleran: What are your other favorite movies?
Theodore Melfi: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption. Goodfellas, as I’ve said. I love Rushmore. Do the Right Thing, as I’ve said. I really love Moneyball. Of movies out right now, I saw Whiplash, which I think is good, not great, because it’s a world you don’t know, a world that’s interesting. I want to see Fury. I haven’t seen Interstellar—I’m a little leery about [the prospect of] Anne Hathaway in space. She’s a tough one to see in space. I don’t dislike her, it’s just tough to see it. I don’t know about Birdman. It looks pretentious. But I want a movie to cause me to feel fear, anger, rage, happiness, joy—does it make me feel? It’s supposed to be a moving picture. I know I’ve said I love About Schmidt—I just love the thought of a man retiring and going: now, what? I’m living in the ‘now, what?’ You don’t get to see that often.
Scott Holleran: So, now what for you? What’s next?
Theodore Melfi: Probably The Tender Bar, based on a New York Times bestseller about a kid who is raised by drunks in a bar. The drunks put all they can into this kid who ends up going to Yale and winning a Pulitzer Prize for literature—and he goes on to become an alcoholic. Just before he becomes an alcoholic, he goes back to the bar and they kick him out. They call last call on him for life. They don’t want him to become like them. It’s a beautiful story, like Good Will Hunting. We’re supposed to start shooting in March.
Scott Holleran: Is St. Vincent making money?
Theodore Melfi: Yeah, it’s the second highest-grossing independent movie of the year, second only to The Grand Budapest Hotel. We’re at something like $40 million in this country—on a $13 million budget. We’re just starting to roll out overseas. It’s going to make a lot of money for Harvey [Weinstein, principal of The Weinstein Company].
Scott Holleran: Does Harvey Weinstein’s reputation for being fickle about which movies to put up for awards ring true?
Theodore Melfi: No. He’s so pro-this movie. The tricky part is dealing with people like Bill [Murray] who lives in his own space. He just doesn’t subscribe to the whole Hollywood culture—he just doesn’t like it. I don’t blame him. I’ve been to those parties. I get it. But I can hide—he can’t. He’s a brilliant man, a tortured artist, all those things. Deep down inside, he’s a kind man.