An Interview with St. Vincent Writer/Director, Theodore Melfi

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by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)

The man who created a return to comic form for Bill Murray, writer and director Theodore Melfi talked with me about writing and making his first major movie, St. Vincent (read my review here). The independent hit for The Weinstein Company about a boy and his mother (Melissa McCarthy) and their disagreeable next door neighbor (Murray) opened last year and is available on home video. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran (SH): You’ve been working in Hollywood for a long time, though St. Vincent is your first time writing and directing a major feature film. How do you separate hype from truth when you’re writing the script and shooting the movie?

Theodore Melfi (TM): 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’s 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—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.

SH: How did you integrate screenwriting and directing?

TM: I did 800 storyboards for this film. I had 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. 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.

SH: Which is your favorite scene?

TM: Probably when they win at the [race] 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.

SH: Who is your favorite filmmaker?

TM: 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 also like Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas is 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.

SH: What was the first movie you saw in a movie theater?

TM: Beat Street [1984]. [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.

Its-a-Wonderful-LifeSH: Any favorite movies?

TM: 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 [Holleran’s review]. Of movies out right now, I saw Whiplash [Holleran’s review], which I think is good, not great, because it’s a world you don’t know, a world that’s interesting.

SH: Is everything in St. Vincent scripted?

TM: Yes. The only unscripted things are 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.

SH: Did the producers do anything to improve the screenplay?

TM: 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 [Naomi Watts] 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.

SH: What’s next?

TM: “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.

SH: Is St. Vincent making money?

TM: It’s the second highest-grossing independent movie of the year, second only to The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s going to make a lot of money for Harvey [Weinstein, principal of The Weinstein Company].

~

Former Box Office Mojo editor and partner Scott Holleran writes scripts and teaches media and storytelling workshops and courses in LA. He posts movie reviews on his blog, where he writes about news, culture, and ideas.

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