Theodore Melfi and ‘St. Vincent:’ A Cinematic Labor of Love

By Brandon Howard

Theodore Melfi worked in Hollywood for 15 years before making his theatrical feature-length debut, “St. Vincent,” starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. After raising $800,000 on his own, the script bounced around Hollywood and eventually caught the attention of The Weinstein Company, which put $13 million into the film.

The plot centers around Vince (Murray), a grumpy recluse with a gambling problem living in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood who is down on his luck, money and love of life. The many-layered character is revealed after he begins babysitting his neighbor’s son.

The Chronicle sat down with Melfi to discuss the film’s political themes, the production process and the heart of the story.


THE CHRONICLE: What was it like directing, writing and producing the movie?


THEODORE MELFI: It was overwhelming, really. The writing was easy because that’s what I love to do and you do it on your own … and the producing was the part I probably like the least because I don’t want to deal with the politics of Harvey Weinstein and Peter Chernin and wrangling actors. You really just want to tell a story and be creative and you don’t want the business to be involved. But at some point, if you don’t get involved in the business of it, it takes over. I think I’ve made the movie I wanted to make, pretty much, and I don’t think many first-time directors can say that.


What was your process when you went into the editing room?


Our first cut of the movie was 2 hours [and] 20 minutes, which made me want to kill myself. When you make a movie, the script is usually perfect in your mind … and you get into the edit bay and you’re like, “It’s not important anymore.” In the edit bay, love is not your friend. I’m making the movie for you, I’m not making it for myself anymore. If I’m making it for myself, I’m self-indulgent and I’m masturbating. I hired an editor who doesn’t give a s–t, Peter Teschner, who’s not a sensitive dude, and he’s just like, “That’s gotta go.” So he helped me. I’m like, “I really love that shot,” and he’s like. “Well, what does it mean? What value is that?”


When you were writing Murray’s character, did you have him in mind?


I didn’t have anyone in mind because I wrote it for my wife’s father. I solely thought of him, and he was an a—–e. He was not a good guy. [He was] drunk, abandoned all his kids and then became a saint, basically. He became my wife’s father once again. What Bill did with him was give him more of a sense of humor. Bill is the only actor on the planet that can be so dislikable and yet never unlikeable in the exact same moment. We were shooting in an old folks’ home, and this guy walks by who must have been 85 and he’s got this great plaid shirt on. And Bill is like, “That’s a great shirt.” And the guy lights up like a Christmas tree because it’s Bill Murray. Then [Bill] goes, “But I wouldn’t wear it with those pants.” And that’s Bill Murray.


Do you think Murray’s character somehow ties into a sort of anti-hero theme that is recurrent, especially in television?

When we say anti-hero, what do we mean? The regular person. I think the hero is not realistic.… I think there’s more Vins in the world than there are Peter Parkers. I think now that we are in this era of seeing these what we call “anti-heroes,” we’re basically seeing ourselves, which is flawed but with a lot of goodness. And the goodness is always battling against the flaw inside the person, and it’s always just right below the surface.


There’s a line in the movie when the caretaker in the nursing home says “There’s no more good faith.” How important was it to you to paint these characters in such a realistic socioeconomic status?

Seeing what my father-in-law went through; house had a reverse mortgage, house foreclosed upon, couldn’t afford his wife’s health care, all these things that a person goes through these days that there is no more good faith. It’s a f–k you, pay me world. And if you can’t pay me, then fuck you. Don’t care about your health, don’t care about life, don’t care about anything. That is the bad part of democracy. But the good part is so much better than the bad part. I wanted to shine a light on reverse mortgages, like we’re preying on people when they are 65–70 years old to get their house.


Are those themes sprinkled throughout the plot of St. Vincent?


It’s throughout. Reverse mortgages is the opening scene in the movie where the guy goes, “It is what it is.” And what is this statement? Everyone gets f—–d and they go, “It is what it is.” The original line Bill goes, “That means you’re f—-d and you’ll remain f—-d.” But [the MPAA] wouldn’t let us have two fucks in the movie because it would be rated R. Melissa’s character is f—-d… Daka [played by Naomi Watts] hasn’t had an ultrasound [and] she’s eight months pregnant. [Vince] goes, “Well, they have technology.” She goes, “What am I going to do, tell my stripper employer to fax the insurance card?” They don’t have a f—–g insurance card, right? It’s a movie about showing people this is really what life is about, and they band together and become this dysfunctional weird family.