Ted Melfi is clearly relieved. Two hours were left for his official press duties for second feature “St. Vincent” now that the film is being released on DVD and Blu-ray, meaning that he would never again have to recount the incredible story of how the relatively unknown filmmaker courted Bill Murray to star in the film. Not that Melfi will show any fatigue in recounting how repeated calls to Murray’s 1-800 number and an impromptu burger run with the “Groundhog Day” star secured his services to play “St. Vincent”’s titular role, loosely inspired the devil-may-care father of Melfi’s wife Kimberly Quinn (who appears in the film as a hospice care worker). Both gregarious and whipsmart, Melfi’s a natural storyteller and yet while having to answer the same question time and again can wear down even the best, the Brooklyn-bred writer/director also had to know that the casting story’s escalation into legend actually threatened to overshadow the intimate, bittersweet comedy that he made.
Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case with “St. Vincent,” which showcases Melfi’s ability to make the audience feel as if he’s taken them under his arm and bought them a beer. After losing his oldest brother at 38 and having adopted his 11-year-old daughter, Melfi was compelled to pour his heart into the story of a 12-year-old boy named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) whose working mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) enlists the help of her next door neighbor Vincent (Murray) to look after him after school. As wild as things get between Vincent and Oliver, who makes him the subject of a school paper for which there is plenty of material considering Vincent’s pregnant stripper girlfriend (Naomi Watts) and a predilection for playing the ponies, there is also a big, throbbing heart underneath as Melfi shows the way in which each of the characters plays a crucial role in one another’s lives, no matter how they fit into the larger world.
It’s an impressive leap for Melfi, who sharpened his skills in the commercial world while working to make the passion project attractive enough that it would draw the likes of Murray, McCarthy and Watts, and during this rare opportunity to speak to the filmmaker and his young, preternaturally poised star Lieberher after the film’s successful run rather than just before, the two could relax and reflect on the incredible ride the film’s been from conception to completion. Still, try as I did to ask questions that would steer Melfi away from stories he’s now told a million times in the months before, I soon realized all roads inevitably lead to crazy stories about Murray, of which there are many below. Worse yet, after promising Melfi I wouldn’t make him repeat himself, I managed to do this with my very first question. Even so, as one would suspect from the film they made, both Melfi and Lieberher were good sports about it and could easily start a standup act together if somehow this whole filmmaking thing didn’t work out.
Ted Melfi: We might as well say that one again! We were trying to find Oliver for about four months. We found a lot of kids, but they were too precocious or too cutesy or too Disney-esque. I happened to be home on Super Bowl Sunday and this Hyundai commercial comes on with Jaeden as this kid who’s getting bullied by a group of football players, telling him he can’t play. He goes and assembles this superhero squad of kids and they come back and kick some butt, and I thought to myself, “That’s the kid. It has to be.” I called casting and said, “You’ve got to find this guy.”
Was the role instantly appealing to you, Jaeden?
Jaeden Lieberher: I liked Oliver because he was strong – obviously not physically, but in the heart. He had a really big heart and he was just a really sweet character. He didn’t change. When he was with Vincent, he would be himself and he wasn’t afraid, and he was his own man.
Ted has said that in order to find each of the characters, he went through an acting exercise called 50 Questions where he found out the backstories of everyone involved. Ted, did you share that with Jaeden?
Ted Melfi: Jaeden and I kept it simple because when you’re dealing with a young actor, you don’t want to pollute them. What’s awesome about Jaeden is Jaeden, so Jaeden becoming my idea of who Oliver is is more a manipulation or me trying to mold him into something, and that’s not what acting is. Acting is finding yourself within a character. I had him read the script 20 times and then we must have met 20 different times in my apartment and went through every single scene in this film two or three times, so when he stepped on set, forget him being comfortable – it was like I know he knows what he’s doing, so if everything else goes wrong, I know Jaeden’s going to be fine.
Jaeden Lieberher: That was a very emotional scene obviously, and Bill was ready. Ted was ready, too — and he was pinching people.
Ted Melfi: Jaeden and I had rehearsed that scene tons of times and I think maybe just because I’m very sad, but he would cry. [laughs] He and I would cry together because we were connected looking at each other, but Bill was not. Bill wasn’t looking at Jaeden. Bill was profiling Jaeden and they weren’t really physically close, so I thought squeezing Jaeden’s hand and yanking on his shoulder, pinching him would give him a physical sensation that would help him. It actually did help him at some point. Right? [Looking at Jaeden, who’s nodding] I think it helped him unless it’s child abuse. [laughs] It was partial child abuse and partial directing, which is a fine line.
I’ve read Bill Murray didn’t want to meet Jaeden until you got to set so the relationship would unfold naturally before the camera, which sounds great in retrospect, but was it intimidating to start with?
Ted Melfi: I think he just did that because he was golfing. [laughs] No. He actually did say that he wanted to discover their relationship together on screen and let it happen in real time. I remember the first time I brought Jaeden to set, I made Jaeden watch “Caddyshack,” but he had also watched everything…
Jaeden Lieberher: “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day”…
Ted Melfi: So I bring him to set and Bill’s dressed as Vin, and I go, “Bill, this is Jaeden. He’s playing Oliver.” And I remember he was looking at Jaeden, going, “Huh,” and walked away. I thought, “Oh, God. This is not good.” And Jaeden’s like, “I don’t know if he likes me.” I said, “Oh, you know, he’s just Bill. He’s just grumpy.” So I went and talked to Bill, and he was like, “I don’t want to know the kid.” One of their first scenes together was when Bill is in the living room, Jaeden’s sitting on the couch, and Bill has the cat on his lap. They’re just feeling each other out, and [Bill asks], “What’s your name?” [Jaeden replies] “Oliver.” “Huh” [Murray mused]. They finished that scene, and I talked to Bill [afterwards] and Bill goes, “The kid’s good.” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “He might be better than me.” That broke everything. He had a deep respect for Jaeden pretty instantly and they became really close.
Ted Melfi: Every day was crazy.
Jaeden Lieberher: Pretty much.
Ted Melfi: Bill makes every day crazy. At one point, we couldn’t find him. We’re at Belmont Racetrack and we’re shooting the track live, so there’s thousands of people there and horse racing going on. We’re trying to get a shot and the sun’s going down. Bill’s gone, and the next thing you know, we get a call over the walkie-talkie from security saying Bill Murray and Naomi Watts are on the golf cart on the track going around the track in the middle of race season. Were you on it? [looking at Jaeden]
Jaeden Lieberher: Huh?
Ted Melfi: Were you on the cart?
Jaeden Lieberher: No.
Ted Melfi: He was away at the shoot like a good actor. But Bill was on the cart. Every day was something like that.
Is it true he wandered out to a Navy hall one day?
Ted Melfi: Another day we couldn’t find him! 15 minutes goes by. 20 minutes goes by. We hired a [production assistant] to follow Bill and he could ditch her in seconds. He’d say, “Oh, go get me a taco” and he’s gone. She’d go away and he’d just vanish. The next thing you know, another P.A. goes, “We found him. He’s in the Army/Navy Recruiting Center.” We go into the Army/Navy Recruiting Center, and [Bill] and Naomi Watts are hugging veterans and military, taking pictures and just spending time with them. How do you interrupt that? Every day was beautiful and crazy at the same time.
Jaeden, for your young, impressionable mind, was this the best example to be set for you or the worst?
Jaeden Lieberher: I think it was both. It was the best because people can loosen up and have a little fun and live a little. At the same time, it was the worst. I mean, you’ve got to work.
It was interesting to see what hit the cutting room floor in terms of the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. Oliver’s relationships with Ocinski, the bully who he eventually befriends, and his father (Scott Adsit) were trimmed considerably. How were those decisions made?
Ted Melfi: I personally have a deep hatred for two-hour movies that are 2:30. I just don’t understand it. So in a movie like this when you have a lot of talking, I think it’s respectful just to tell your story. We felt that Ocinski and Oliver’s beats were repetitive. Oliver hits Ocinski, and that cracks the code for them. The next time they see each other, they’re in detention and Ocinski returns his wallet and keys, and everything else after that felt like we’re just hammering home the same theme, so that had to go. With the father, you think things are important when you write it, then as you see it on screen, you don’t care. You didn’t feel a missing piece of that father scenario. Especially towards the end of the movie, you really wanted to see how Vin and Oliver were going to close up, so that just felt like it was an unneeded detour.
Still, there is a loose quality to the film, which I believe also had its benefits, such as the film’s beautiful closing credits sequence where Bill sings “Shelter from the Storm.” I’ve read how the scene came about, but after you figured out the song, was it difficult to get the rights to it, given that it’s Bob Dylan?
Ted Melfi: The interesting thing is when I told Bill I wanted him to sing a song, he said, “What song?” I said, “Shelter from the Storm.” And he said, “That’s my favorite song,” so [I thought] that’s meant to be. I called our music supervisor Randy Poster and he said, “Are you crazy? That’s your whole music budget!” And I go, “But we have to have that song. Like, tomorrow.” Then I called Harvey Weinstein and I said, “Harvey, I’ve got this great idea for the ending,” and I pitched it to him and he was like, “I love it!” I go, “The only thing is, we need to get the rights to a song” and he goes, “What song?” “Shelter from the Storm,” and Harvey goes, “That’s one of my favorite songs!” I didn’t know what to do, but Harvey goes, “We’ll make it happen.” Randy is really close with Bob Dylan’s manager, and Bob Dylan gave us that song for a third of what he normally would, even knowing Bill Murray was going to sing it.
I’ve heard you say that the film boils down to the value we place in one another and how everyone is meaningful to someone. Considering this film has reached your biggest audience to date, have you actually been able to feel that as a filmmaker?
Ted Melfi: Well, I know my life has value because everyone’s life has value. But I think people come into this world and you’re born with value and, over time, life chips away at you. Next thing you know, you’re 40 and your mom dies or someone gets cancer or someone gets sick, then the next thing you know, you’re 50 and you get fired from a job and you’re trying to start over. Suddenly, you’re 60 and you’re like, “I’ve got five more years and then I’m retired.” Then you’re 65, you’re retired and you get the first social security check, and you go, “What the hell is this? I thought I gave 40 years for something. This is all I have?” As you get older, that value gets stripped away by society, by yourself, and by your experiences. I think you have to work hard to retain your value, to know that you have value. I don’t know what it means for me personally other than I believe that I have things to say and I hope that I get the chance to say them. That will give my life the value that I deserve as a human being.
What’s the experience been like getting this out into the world?
Ted Melfi: It’s been very rewarding. You know what the most rewarding thing is? A friend of mine’s on a plane yesterday. Someone’s watching “St. Vincent” behind him, crying and laughing the whole time. That’s the most rewarding part. Obviously, we didn’t get paid so that wasn’t very rewarding, but… [looking at Jaeden] what was the most fun you had, what event? Toronto, the Critics’ Choice [Awards]…?
Jaeden Lieberher: [smiling] All those.