Interview: Theodore Melfi and the Coming of St. Vincent


Having plumbed his own life for material for his new film, St. Vincent, writer-director Theodore Melfi could probably do the same thing with the story of how the film got made.

Specifically, his pursuit of the elusive, peripatetic Bill Murray -- who plays the title character, an alcoholic who winds up as an unwilling surrogate father to a pre-teen in deepest Brooklyn -- would make a thriller. Or a comedy. Or both.

It began with the script, a dark comedy with heart about an aging, hard-drinking misanthrope in a bind for money, who agrees (for cash) to help his new neighbor, a single mother (Melissa McCarthy), who needs someone to watch her son while she works.

In part, the script was based on the fact that Melfi and his wife adopted their 11-year-old niece after Melfi's brother, also a single parent, died at 38. Her appreciation was shown a few years later, when she honored Melfi at a school assembly in a ceremony that is mirrored in the film's climactic scene.

The character of Vincent McKenna, which Murray plays, was inspired by Melfi's father-in-law, "a drunk, gambling Vietnam vet who was an asshole most of his life and abandoned my wife when she was 9," Melfi, 41, says. "Then, 25 years later, my wife wrote him a letter, saying that she'd still like the chance to get to know him. Two weeks later, he called her -- and they had this father-daughter love-affair for the final 10 years of his life. He became a saint."

So -- who should play the role? The first actor who came to mind was Murray, who is notoriously hard both to track down and to pin down. Melfi had nothing other than his script, and some interest from some independent film companies, to recommend him. Though he had directed a handful of independent films, Melfi had spent the previous decade directing commercials.

How to get to Bill Murray? Let's let Melfi tell the story.

This interview continues on my website.