St. Vincent Director Ted Melfi managed to get Bill Murray to star in “St. Vincent” by being persistent and calling him “about 40 times” on his 800 phone line, because Murray has no manager or press agent. Says Melfi, “The hardest part about getting Bill Murray in anything is finding him, because he has no agent and no manager; he has an 800 number. I bet I called that 800 number 40 times. When he actually did call me back, at first, I didn’t think it was him. Then I realized that was his voice.”
“So Bill Murray says, ‘Meet me at LAX in an hour, which was 9 o’clock. And so I drive down to LAX, and, sure enough, Bill Murray comes down the causeway and says, “Ted? Let’s go for a drive.’”
“ We drive for 3 hours from L.A. to the Pechanga Indian Reservation and Casino. So, Bill says to me, “I like you. Do you wanna’ do this movie?”
I said, “Yes…that’s what I’m here for”
“Do you want to do it with me?”
I said, “Yes, and Bill Murray says, ‘Let’s do it!’”
“I say, the only thing is, do you think you could tell someone else besides me that this whole thing happened—that we were driving down the road and you agreed to do the film? I can’t go to the studio and say, ‘Hey! Bill Murray said yes in the back of a town car on the highway on the way to an Indian Reservation. That’s just not gonna’ happen.”
“I look at Bill Murray and I don’t just say, ‘He’s one of the greatest comedians of our time. He’s one of the greatest actors of our time. And what people don’t know about Melissa (McCarthy) is that this girl did 7 years of hard-core drama in New York theater. And the goal for us, on set, was to not be funny.” This is quite obvious in the dialed-down performance of the often over-the-top McCarthy. Naomi Watts’ part as the brash Russian hooker/stripper is quite the departure from the woman surviving the tsunami in Thailand, but she pulls it off (No pun intended). Writer/Director Melfi described her talent as “the tip of the iceberg.” Chris O’Dowd, as always, was genial and enjoyable.
Says Melfi, “I remember the first day, I said, ‘Bill—do you want to rehearse with the kid?’
And Bill says, ‘No.’ And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ be good.’
I bring the kid to the set and take him over to Bill and I say, ‘Bill, this is Jaeden; Jaeden this is Bill.”
Bill grunts. And walks away. And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ work out.’
And then they did a scene together and Bill comes up to me after and says, ‘The kid’s good.’ And I said, “Yeah—he’s pretty good.’ And Bill said, ‘He’s real good.’ Once he figured out that the kid was good and that he was not a “kiddy” actor, they became, like, very best friends. In fact, Jaeden got the part on Cameron Crowe’s new movie. And Jaeden goes to Hawaii and Bill is offered a part in the Cameron Crowe movie. And Jaeden goes, ‘You should do it.’ And so Bill flies to do the Cameron Crowe movie because Jaeden told him to do the movie, and they spent the whole month scuba diving. So, it’s like this most ridiculous love affair, father/son beautiful thing.”
Melfi shared the story of the film’s genesis (which he wrote and directed). Melfi and his wife adopted his brother’s 11-year-old daughter after his eldest brother died eight years prior. Her Catholic school in Los Angeles made the assignment that is featured in this touching-but-funny movie. The students in Melfi’s daughter’s new school were assigned to write a paper on a “modern day” saint in their real life and a historic saint who shared the same qualities. She picked St. William of Rochester, the patron saint of adopted children, just like Oliver in the movie. “And, ” adds Melfi, “she picked me. It was just like this touching, sentimental moment for us. And I said, ‘Okay. That’s the movie.”
“Vincent is a timeless character because so many of us get to the end of our lives and go, “That was it?”
“So, what’s amazing about the movie, for me is that this little kid, Oliver, who’s 12, tells him, ‘Dude, you did great. You served our country in the war. You took care of your wife for 8 years. You did freaking great, so be proud of what you’ve done.
“Too many filmmakers think to themselves that they have to put their stink on everything they make,” says Melfi. Using Michael Bey’s films as an example, Melfi said, “I choose not to stink up the place” ( “Last Call” appearance with Carson Daley). Says Melfi, “The film is about an older gentleman who is a Vietnam veteran who is kind of a drunk curmudgeon who doesn’t have much to live for any more until a little boy (Oliver, well played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) moves in next door to him.” The young boy shows the boozy reprobate that he hasn’t been such a loser, after all. Murray becomes the boy’s nanny/babysitter while mother Melissa McCarthy works long hours as an X-ray technician.
“It is like The Isle of the Misfit Toys,” says Melfi. “Bill Murray is a misfit gambler. Melissa McCarthy is a broken-down single mom who can’t get her life together. Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian hooker. So the only person who has their act together, really, is the kid.”
The film opens with Murray telling an Irish joke that involves confusion between the words porch and Porsche. (Fill in your own joke here). The joke’s not that funny, but, then again, the movie is not really a comedy, either. It’s more of a heart-warming “dramedy.” The humor it does contain is created by what we can call the Murray Mythos. Murray is laid-back. Eccentric. Cool. Funny in the Murray throw-away fashion. Gruff on the exterior; warm and fuzzy on the inside.
And, as we learn in scenes within the film, Vincent has been faithfully visiting his addled wife (in an expensive nursing home he can’t afford) for 8 years, even though she doesn’t remember who he is.
For me, the inclusion of Chris O’Dowd—who was so good in the little-seen movie “The Sapphires”—carried with it echoes of the younger Murray as he used to be on Saturday Night Live when he’d play everything from a bad lounge lizard singer to skits with Belushi and the gang. The troupe on SNL was truly remarkable. This cast is no less so, including Naomi Watts, Terrance Howard and the trio of Murray, McCarthy and child actor Jaeden Lieberher.
The scene we’ve all seen on television (official trailer above) where Murray tries to close out his bank account, only to learn that he has used up all the cash he received from a reverse mortgage and now has a negative balance is indicative of the kind of deadpan “so sad it’s funny” acting that Murray does so brilliantly.
What you don’t see on the film clip is “the rest of the story.”
When the Asian bank teller initially asks him why he wants to close out his account, Murray says, “I do not want to tell you to go f— yourself, so let’s just leave it at that.” There are also some Murray Moments showing the cranky curmudgeon answering phone calls from telemarketers with his typical brioche.(“Come on, Coward! Try to sell me something.)
The film also drives a sharp stake through the use of the catch-all phrase, “It is what it is.” Murray boils it down this way, explaining that it really means: “You’re screwed and you shall remain screwed.”
Chris O’Dowd’s priest, a teacher at St. Vincent’s, the private Catholic School that Oliver attends, worked 12 to 14 hour days, flying in on the red eye and working for four days, as he was also simultaneously shooting a television project. O’Dowd’s scenes are loose and genial. He gets the line, “Catholics are the best of all, because we have the most rules,” which he tells his classroom charges.
The concept of an adult who takes an innocent young boy out and exposes him to the seamier side of life was done earlier this year in Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words;” Murray’s taking young Oliver to the race track and a bar are scenes from the same playbook. The difference is that Oliver’s unsuspecting mother (Melissa McCarthy), who is waging a battle for custody of her young son, learns what “the babysitter” and his charge have been up to only when they are appearing in court. (The husband will be a familiar face from “Thirty Rock.”)
The other difference is that this is Bill Murray. Once Murray committed to the film, said Melfi, things fell into place. Other “name brand” actors wanted to work with Murray, in much the same way that marquee names known for taking films for reasons other than a gigantic pay-day attract other talented performers. This is an excellent cast, and they all deliver the goods.
It’s a fine movie with memorable performances. For emotional resonance, think of Clint Eastwood’s stint acting in “Grand Torino.” It’s always a pleasure to see Bill Murray in a role that lets him take the bit in his teeth and run with it, even if he’s running with a cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand.
So hunker down and enjoy the debut performances as well as those by an accomplished actor who seemingly can do it all.