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Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

Ted Melfi has been in the movie industry for years. He’s worked in
commercials, produced shorts and started Goldenlight Films, a production
company, with his wife Kimberly Quinn. St.
Vincent,
though, is his first major feature film. He snagged Bill Murray as
his lead after finding him through a 1-800 number and, soon after, the
Weinstein Company came on to produce. The cast is incredible, the story is accessible,
and, from my experience, the audiences are responding. Watching St. Vincent at the Grove Theater in LA
on a Friday night, no one left during the credits. They rolled, Bill Murray
danced to Bob Dylan, and everyone stayed put, in awe. I whispered to my friend,
“People love this movie.”

Bill Murray plays
Vincent, an unemployed drunk in Brooklyn who loves to curse and make other people
feel inferior. When a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son
Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vincent takes the opportunity to
make some extra cash by babysitting Oliver. Although Vincent is initially
distant, surrounding himself with gambling, booze and a Russian prostitute Daka
(Naomi Watts), he and the boy soon form a bond. When Oliver is asked to pick a
saint at school, he insists that Vincent, who most view as a nightmare, is
actually a good guy, even a saint.

I met with Melfi at the Weinstein offices in LA. Walking
into the conference room, surrounded by hit movie posters, stiff chairs
and a massive glass table, I was immediately comforted by Melfi’s warm smile
and firm handshake. He was vulnerable right off the bat, confident but sincere.
I soon was convinced
that if I were Bill Murray, I’d say “yes” to this guy too.

Melfi got his start producing in a way that is both
unlikely and believable. He worked in an
Italian restaurant in Studio City. A guy walked in one day and started talking
about a story he had: “It’s about this African American kid back in the Midwest
trying to find himself as a writer.” Melfi was compelled by the story. The man offered Melfi
his script and asked if he had produced. He said, “yes,” with an apron on. Melfi had never produced before.

Thankfully, LA is about faking it till you make it. He spent
the next few months raising $600,000, and they were shooting the film weeks
later. Melfi knew,  “This is what I’m
going to do with my life and I’m 23.” 

He went on to write and shoot projects with his wife
Kimberly Quinn with their production company Goldenlight Films. Melfi completed
seven indie movies where he produced and wrote, but he refrained from
directing.  Meanwhile, he was writing
things on the side and trying to get agents all over L.A. All of his films were
released, but in today’s industry, that doesn’t mean you’re making a good
living. After eight years of producing, Kimberly said he had to get a real job.
She suggested commercials, having worked on a plethora of them as an actress.
Eventually, Melfi made specs and got lucky with MTV. He made a commercial
starring Ron Jeremy about pizza and porn and shot it for $1,200.  MTV bought the commercial for $10,000, and it
launched his commercial career.

Melfi doesn’t proceed to make fun of his Ron Jeremy venture
or discount his work in commercials, as many “artistic” filmmakers might. “I
love commercials,” he says. “I love telling stories in a short amount of time.”
He’s working on about “two a month” at this point in his career and assures me
“they all have their good spots.” Once Melfi established a life with a
consistent income for his family, he decided to get back to his first love, writing.

After completing a few screenplays, all praised by his
agents but none landing, Melfi wrote St.
Vincent.
The story has an extremely personal origin for Melfi.  His brother passed away at 38 with an
11-year-old daughter–the mother was not around. “My wife and I adopt her and
take her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks, California. She gets this homework
assignment in her world religion class: find a Catholic Saint that inspires you
and find someone in your real life that mimics the quality of that saint and
draw a comparison.” Similar to the saint Oliver chooses in the film, she
chooses Saint William of Rochester, and then chooses Melfi himself. “It was,
like, healing for our family.” Ted couldn’t stop thinking of it, but knew it
would transform into the characters that soon became Bill Murray and Oliver.

Coupled with the personal experience of his daughter, Melfi
chose to base Vincent on his father in law. “My wife’s father was a Vietnam
vet, drank too much, smoked too much, gambled lied and cheated.” He stopped
talking to Kimberly when she was 9 and never spoke to her again. One day, she
decided to write a “Dear Dad” letter in attempt to re-connect.  Sure enough, he called soon after and they
talked for hours.  “He became her saint,
she became his saint. They reunited and became father and daughter for the last
10 years of his life. He realized he had value through her, and that’s what
Oliver does for Vincent.” Right there is the kernel of the project for Melfi, “It’s
about value.”

Upon learning the project is so personal, I’m curious how
Melfi actually approached writing the script. “The drawing board for me was to
sketch out the general structure and then to back away from it as far as I
could.” Vincent is 70, creating a generation gap between the drunken veteran
and Melfi, resembling Kimberly’s father more closely. Ted doesn’t write with
actors in mind, but people. 

“I think that the
most connected writing in the world is connected to something true and honest,
no matter what that is. Every character I write is based on something, some
personal part of me, someone I know, someone I’ve met. It just makes it clear
to my mind.”

Getting back to the crux of the story, value, I wondered
what was unresolved here. Was Melfi writing this as a form of catharsis, was it
out of a need to tell his audience, or perhaps himself, that they possess
worth? Melfi describes his experience with Jeff Kitchen, taking classes with
the screenwriting guru and learning a specifically helpful technique. “You
start any project with a question: what do I want to leave the audience with?”
With St. Vincent, it’s “every human
being has value.”

Melfi describes drawing arrows down from that point: how
will that happen? “You start to go backwards in time and all the sudden you get
to the drunk meets the kid.” After
the movie’s release, Ted has received many texts, tweets and emails, all saying
the same thing: “I cried.” He’s seen it for himself. He realized that perhaps
the reason they’re crying is because that last element landed. “That technique
has some value! He references Paul Thomas Anderson, saying that with all his
films he has an intention, whether or the movie is your taste or not.

You can fuck it up
shooting it, writing it. We fucked a lot of things up but we didn’t’ fuck that
concept up. It’s the intention that you have as a writer or director that made
that so.”

Still, Melfi hasn’t answered my question: did he need to
tell himself he had value? “Yea I
think everyone does. I think I’m a pretty good person. I’m in my forties, it
kind of happens later! Your value gets chipped away over time and the next
thing you know, you’re 65.” Melfi points out that everywhere people wonder is this it? They’re seventy, living on
retirement or social security, their kids are gone, what’s left with life? He
admits he’s thankful for his wife and family and feels valuable, but I wonder
about Kimberly’s father. “He spent his life trying to find his value and
ultimately I think life can be a lot for people. It was so much for him that he
bailed out.”

This sense of isolation compares to a moment in the film [spoiler!]
where Vincent sits next to his wife, who at this point, is just a box of ashes.
He’s broken, and when Oliver offers comfort, Vincent pushes him away with wit,
then anger. Melfi suggests, “The instinct is to push away because no one wants
to feel vulnerable, because if the dam breaks, the river is going to flow. And
it does not stop.”

This avoidance of vulnerability is fueled by Vincent’s
history as a veteran. “War is disgusting and disturbing and they’re there for us.” But when these veterans get home
that “one man’s life means nothing” doesn’t quite translate. Behaving in battle
like your life is meant for sacrifice, but having a family tell you they need
you can be confusing and propel one into that same isolation Vincent gravitates
towards. Melfi admits that our country and culture don’t take proper care of
veterans.  They’re the “bravest men and
women on the planet.” The audience may write Vincent off in the beginning of
the film, as do the characters surrounding him in the story. He’s crude, rude
and mean. But he’s also a war hero.

“You peel back the skin of the onion and start to go, this guy is amazing.” It’s the same
situation with Maggie, who Melissa McCarthy plays with both strength and palpable
weakness. She’s a hardworking mother stuck between work, a divorce and an
innocent son. “That mimics most closely to what life is. You don’t know a shit
about anyone. One day something will happen and you’ll go [makes a gibberish
noise and shakes his head in stupor].”

Melfi believes this compassionate philosophy, believing
people are more than they may appear. He still, though, must function as a
filmmaker in a town where not many are willing to let their appearances
crumble. “Los Angeles is a tricky town. I’m from New York, and in New York ‘Fuck
you’ means ‘Fuck you.’ A New Yorker will sit down and tell you his whole life
story.” LA, on the other hand, is about separation. “I don’t know how I survive
here. I have a family and I get out of here as much as I can.” Melfi is able to
pull back those layers of the people around him, eager to get his hands dirty.

“I’m an instigator
and an aggravator. I ask questions people don’t want to ask. I’m fascinated
with people. I think it’s what we’re here for.”

He believes we’re all one; his favorite film being It’s a Wonderful Life. St. Vincent has
the same message, telling people they do
matter; they can make an impact.
Recently, Melfi noticed two ladies talking outside a screening. One of them
says they cried, which was a marvel, given she’s on anti-depressants and can’t technically shed a tear.

“God forbid, there’s an emotion in a movie! It’s sentimental
and schmaltzy! What the fuck are you going to a movie for? If you don’t want an
emotion just go see action films…even Spiderman,
they have emotions! Go see those movies because you have lost sense of what art
is.” 

“Art is a catharsis. You
are supposed to go and get fucking mad and laugh and cry and have every
emotion. Otherwise, there’s no point to art. We might as well make network TV.”

He and I agree that much of that type of programming isn’t
connected to anything real. It’s a product. As much as St. Vincent could be called the same, released by the Weinsteins
and with a Hollywood cast, it’s not. If it turned out to be, that clearly wasn’t
Melfi’s intention.

“My generation and everyone below is now in a world that’s
disconnected. We have this illusion that social media, Twitter, texting these
things are connecting us more. Instead of dealing someone on the human level,
we don’t have to do that anymore. Human beings were designed, from the earliest
days as cavemen, to read faces, to fall in love with someone, to fall in
hate…to get them. We’re not emotionally connected. Entertainment has followed
suit. It has very little humanity.”

Melfi is taking a risk painting religion in a positive light,
if making a film that’s sentimental as opposed to cynical wasn’t enough. “My uncle
was a priest. My aunt was a nun. My mom was a nun.” He reveals a scandalous
love affair between his aunt Patty and uncle Tom who fell in love, got married,
and then were kicked out the church. It’s been 50 years now.  “Tom is the coolest mother on the planet.
He’s kind of the inspiration behind Chris O’Dowd’s character and a new look at
religion.” O’Dowd plays Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher in school.  “I wanted a positive depiction of what an
honest Catholic priest would be today, where he has to embrace every religion,
and no religion, and try to get people to understand that God is whoever you
want him to be at this point in your life. If you find my particular God, okay,
if you don’t, okay, but you should learn the values of being a good person and
living some of your life for others.”

Melfi is encouraged about Pope Francis: “He’s going to make
it tangible for other generations who have shunned it. “ Melfi believes this action
is developing the view of religion and encouraging a freedom to find a personal
relationship with God. “I personally have seen enough of the Catholic Church
getting beat up. Everyone does a big ‘X out’ on religion because they have an
experience. Most people nowadays haven’t even had an experience; they have a
perception. They have no idea.”

Melfi’s mission is so pure; I wonder how he preserves it. It
is Harvey Weinstein after all. “Everything you do in life is a collaboration.” Although
Bill came with the project, Weinstein wanted a second and third big star in the film. Melfi
fought for Melissa, she even volunteered to audition, and Weinstein convinced
Melfi to make the prostitute Russian and cast (poor guy!) Naomi Watts. “I
fought when I needed to fight, and you collaborate when you need to collaborate.
Be open to being wrong. Directors get stuck in I’m an auteur, this is my baby, this is my vision. To some degree
that’s a trap. I come from the script is
the boss
.” Melfi was once a stage actor, which could explain his dedication
to text. 

“When the script is
good, the best thing a director can do is get out of the way.”
 

Melfi has multiple scripts about children seeking father
figures, a subject matter that also ties into St. Vincent’s quest for value.  It’s not until the last minutes of our conversation that Melfi reveals, “My dad disappeared 19 years ago and I never saw
him again. There’s a deep part of me that will always wonder what happened to
him.” Melfi goes to therapy, and he explores his own personal life outside art.
He’s no Lars Von Trier, who openly puts his painful, demented catharsis on
screen. Melfi just wants to create stories. “My favorite filmmakers are
personal filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Spike Lee, Frank Capra, even Steven Spielberg.
He’s telling great stories.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

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