Five Questions for St. Vincent Writer/Director Ted Melfi
With his debut feature, St. Vincent, Ted Melfi may seem like one of those out-of-nowhere independent sensations that pops on the scene a few times a year. But as he explains in the interview below, he has actually been behind the camera for years — shooting all styles of commercials and music videos — and has been producing independent films for even longer. (And, as he further explains, all those out-of-nowhere people — they didn’t come from nowhere either.)
For St. Vincent, Melfi drew on his own family experiences — and star Bill Murray’s unique mixture of irreverence and poignancy — to tell a story of surrogate fatherhood and rites of passage. Below, we talk about pitching Bill Murray, long roads to first features and what every aspiring filmmaker today needs to do.
Filmmaker: You’ve described in detail your story of getting Bill Murray to do your film, and it’s certainly worthy of being placed alongside all the other crazy Bill Murray tales. At one point in your story you say that Murray said he didn’t Google you and didn’t know much about you. How did you describe yourself to him on that call and, more broadly, what do you think you said that gave him the confidence to let you direct him?
Melfi: When Bill Murray asked who and what I was (cause he’s not a Googler), I rambled on for about ten minutes… part resume, part personal history. Something to the effect of: Well, I’m originally from Brooklyn, born and raised, went to college in Missouri; undergrad at Missouri State University, partial graduate work at UMKC in psychology. Then I moved out to L.A. to be a writer and ended up cooking at an Italian restaurant during the day and working as a security guard at night, at a strip club in the valley. In the parking lot. So there wasn’t even any added value to the job.
I started producing small indie films with friends and became decently prolific (if that’s possible) at finding money and gathering the resources to shoot a film. I did nine films this way… scratching and fighting my way through the indie world. The first film I produced was called Park Day. It won Best Black Film of the Year at the UrbanWorld Film Festival in New York. I co-wrote my second film, Winding Roads, with my wife, Kimberly Quinn, and we shot the film in Missouri. It premiered on Showtime. After several years of producing low budget art films — and some not very artistic ones as well — I decided to try to make an actual living and thus launched into commercial directing. My first spec commercial for MTV won Silver at the London Advertising Awards and got me nominated amongst Best New Director at the Cannes Film Festival’s Ad Festival and Top 15 New Directors at the Clio Awards. I got lucky and have since shot a gazillion commercials, which has allowed me to get back to my first love: writing.
And then I discussed the origins of the script and my reason for wanting to make it. That’s a whole other story.
I can’t speak for Bill as to what gave him the confidence to allow me to direct him. I can only say what I know to be true of Bill now that I know him and have worked with him. He’s by far one of the most honest and intuitive people I’ve ever met. He has an amazing “bullshit meter.” He can smell poop a mile away… and he knows who laid it. And he points it out and lets you know he knows. It’s really a remarkable honesty that he has. If he likes something, he says so. If he dislikes something, he says so, and he tells you why. It’s not mean-spirited or divisive, it’s simply truth well told. I think what Bill felt from me is that this script and this story came from a genuine place and I wanted to do something honest with it. It wasn’t a bullshit story, and I wasn’t conning him into believing I was God’s gift. We were just two fellas talking about life and a script and truth. I was very nervous, I was excited and I was grateful. He was Bill. He’s always Bill.
Filmmaker: You’ve directed commercials and produced shorts. What was the most difficult challenge transitioning to the helm of a dramatic feature? And how did your experience making commercials carry over in a positive way to this film?
Melfi: As I said, I’ve produced nine indies of all shapes and sizes, so by the time I shot St. Vincent I had seen and done pretty much everything one could on a set. I used to shoot a lot of specs: spec short films, spec videos, spec commercials. I’d rent a 5-ton truck on a Thursday night, run to the grip/lighting rental house (always Wooden Nickel Lighting) first thing on Friday morning so I could shoot something Friday afternoon and only be charged for a one day rental. Then I’d drive to set, hand the keys off to my crew friends and direct whatever we were doing that day and the rest of the weekend. On Sunday night I’d write the checks for crew friends’ gas money and have a beer with everyone. Then on Monday morning, I’d take the equipment back, check it in myself and go back to my day job. This went on for years. My wife was with me every step of the way. I can set a flag, build a camera, scrim a light, adjust a mayfer, shop for crafty… and so on.
Since those days, I’ve directed so many commercials that I now feel like I’ve shot literally everything: kangaroos, crowds, stunts, cars, rigs, beaches, oceans, dogs and cats and lions and bears, kids and babies and stadiums and live sports. So shooting a dramedy about a curmudgeon and the kid he impacts seemed like something I could handle.
I’d say the most difficult challenge shooting a feature is the intensity. It’s a long and exhausting process that seems like it will never end. Your body breaks down, you can’t sleep, but you need to desperately. You’re working 18 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, and your brain is full to the brim. Every detail is weighing in on your psyche and to some degree it’s all on your shoulders. People have some sort of perception that directors sit in a chair and smoke a cigar and call “action.” Any director will tell you: it’s a marathon and you can’t stop running until you hit that finish line or collapse right at it. I had to learn how to pace myself, trust that others were doing their jobs (thankfully our crew was fantastic,) and take power naps at lunch. That really saved me.
Filmmaker: How did you connect with your producers on this film? What do you think they saw in the script that made them want to commit?
Melfi: My agents Michael Sheresky and Ramses IsHak at UTA sent the script to a few producers. I remember my phone ringing on a Saturday afternoon. It was Peter Chernin. I said, “Is this Peter Chernin, Peter Chernin?” And he said, “Yes, this is Peter Chernin, Peter Chernin.” That was a holy-shit moment for sure. Peter went on to say that the script made him laugh and made him cry and that I must give him the chance to make this film happen. His Head of Film, Jenno Topping, had read the script and made Peter read it immediately. You can imagine he’s a crazy busy fellow. Peter, Jenno, Ivana Lombardi and everyone else at the Chernin Company bled for this film and fought and pushed and prodded and made it happen. They were true to their word from day one and never wavered. Without them, there is no St. Vincent. There’s just 105 pages of white paper.
The same applies to Harvey Weinstein and his whole team, including Dylan Sellers and Collin Creighton. Jeremy Zimmer at UTA slipped the script to Dylan Sellers at TWC, and Dylan and I had a glass of wine the very next night. He was touched by the writing and wanted to convince me to make the film at TWC — as if I needed convincing. Then Harvey read the script, and that was that. They emotionally connected to the material right off the bat and barreled it into production, when so many others were scared to do a movie about people. These filmmakers are doers and believers. With all the not-so-pleasant stories one hears about Harvey, he never spent a single day in our edit bay. He allowed us to make the film we wanted to make, and he gently guided from a distant. Personally, I think Harvey only gets painfully involved when there are problems. And if that’s not the time to step in…then when is?
The other producers, Fred Roos, Don Cheadle, and Kay Liberman, Lenore Zerman and Kathryn Tyus-Adair at his company, were friends of mine from past projects. I got them involved at the earliest stages because at one point I was going to make the film for 800K. They were all fans of the script.
My wife Kimberly was with the project from its inception. She helped me develop and shape the screenplay. As an actor she’s spent many years analyzing material and her ability to dissect a character is extraordinary. She’s my producing partner on pretty much everything. She has to commit or I’m lost.
I think what they all saw in St Vincent was a story of honest humanity. Peter Chernin said it touched him from the start. Jenno said the script had a raw honesty she misses in movies. Harvey said there wasn’t a false beat on the page. As a whole, they believed in the message of the film: every human being has a value and everyone is a saint to someone. They connected with this theme and they committed to making the film as it was written. I must say, it was a very blessed process. Strangely so. Maybe it was the title?
Filmmaker: You’ve discussed the role events in your family’s life have played in this movie. Were there specific elements to the characters that came directly from people you know and love?
Melfi: Oh, God. Everything in this film is personal in some way – except the Russian hooker.
My wife’s father was a bastardly Vietnam Vet who had a gaggle of kids he never really knew. He abandoned my wife when she was nine-years-old. Twenty-five years later she sent him a letter and then the phone rang. They reconnected and become father and daughter for the last ten years of his life. He became a saint for her and she for him.
The little boy in the film, Oliver (played by Jaeden Lieberher), is sort of my niece Taylor who we adopted from my oldest brother Phil, after he passed away at the young age of 38. We moved her from Tennessee to Van Nuys, CA and put her into a Catholic school called Notre Dame High School. The school project in the film was inspired by a homework assignment Taylor was assigned during her World Religion class at Notre Dame, except she picked me as her “modern day saint.” That was a very emotional time for my family, and this film has become a kind of cornerstone for our growing together as a family.
The priest character in the movie, played by Chris O’Dowd, is from my memory of the many priests I encountered growing up. They were funny, modern and honestly great human beings. I didn’t have one experience with a priest that wasn’t positive. It’s a shame that the cloth has been tarnished by the few sick ones out there. As a whole, these people are modern day saints who sacrifice an awful lot to be present and faithful for others.
Pretty much everything I write is pulled from something in my life: a person, an event, a memory. I would say this is true for most writers. We write what’s closest to us, whether we are aware of it or not.
Filmmaker: What advice would you offer to young filmmakers who believe that it’s impossible to make a movie with A-list actors and established producers first-time out?
Melfi: That’s a very easy question for me to answer because I am extremely delusional. I call it “happy delusion.” Here’s how it works: nothing in the entire universe is impossible and all you have to do is believe that and say it out loud. Or to yourself. Or write it down. Let me say this: “St. Vincent will make $175 million domestic and Bill Murray will win an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.” Am I crazy? Yes. Do I care? No. Fuck it. You only live once in this life. Believe you can do something and say it out loud and make it so. The worst that happens when you shoot for the stars is you hit the moon. That age-old adage is my mantra.
Listen… I grew up dirt poor in Brooklyn, way before it was cool. My dad left us when we were pre-teenagers, and my mom had to become a nurse at 50-years-old to get us through high school and college. My father was a mobster. He was often abusive. I had two jobs in college: pizza delivery man and stone washing jeans at the Lee Jeans Co. I moved out to L.A. with $600 in my pocket and a Ford Fiesta. When I got my first PA job I called my mom and told her, “Mom, I’m making $100 dollars a day. Every fucking day.” And she cried. I met my wife Kimberly in an acting class. We got married. I didn’t have a dime. She supported me as I shot and shot and shot, anything: shorts, spec commercials, nine indie films, Mexican music videos, and so on. Eventually it all clicked. What do I have to say about my story? Nobody gives a fuck about my story. It means nothing. Everyone has a story, everyone has hardship. Where there are people, there’s poop (and no one cares about your story either).
So get your iPhone out, your Red Camera, your Alexa, your mini-DV cam, your uncle’s Super 8… whatever it takes and shoot and write until you bleed. Believe in what you’re doing, even if it sucks. With a little faith, a little luck and a ton of persistence you will arrive at an opportunity, an opportunity that will draw on all the years of hardship you endured, and you’ll be ready and prepared. It won’t be some miracle, and you won’t pass out from anxiety. You will move into your vision with relative ease and everyone around you will say, “Where the hell did this one come from?” And you’ll say, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
With all the cameras in the world today, there are NO EXCUSES. Shoot, write and create. You have a story. We’d all like to hear it one day. We need it. That’s how I feel, delusional or not, and I’m sticking to it.