I write in restaurants because I like to see people because people say some weird, crazy shit, you know? And I have my phone, I write down everything I hear outside in public.
Screenwriters are supposed to make up stories far more interesting than their real lives, but Theodore Melfi’s backstory is a classic case of truth beating fiction. The writer-director behind the new dramedy St. Vincent starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy has many stories to tell, from being raised by a mobster to scoring his first deal as a producer while still wearing a waiter’s apron.
But St. Vincent stems from a tragedy, when his brother died suddenly at 38 a little less than a decade a go, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, whom Melfi and his wife adopted (he calls her his Naughter). For a homework assignment at her Catholic school a few years after the adoption, she was told to study a famous Saint and someone in her real life that resembled a saint. She chose Saint William of Rochester—patron saint of adopted children—and Melfi as her real halo. It was a profoundly touching move that inspired him to write St. Vincent.
Bill Murray is in the acting equivalent of his favorite pair of sweatpants playing Vin, a willfully disheveled misanthrope, boozer and gambler, who is revealed to be more than he appears. Another key element of truth behind the script is the fact that Murray’s character is based on Melfi’s wife’s father who abandoned his family when she was only nine.
During a conversation with the Writers Guild of America West website, Melfi elaborates on the true roots of St. Vincent, the importance of writing against the natural sweetness of this story, and how he employs an old acting technique for every script he pens.
This film has personal origins for you, yes?
In a nutshell, when my brother passed away, which was just completely out of the blue as you can imagine at 38, he left behind Taylor at 11. Her mom was in jail for selling crystal meth, so there was no mom. Coming from a mob family, I ended up being kind of the only sane one in my family, and that was from 10 years of studying psychology. So my brother died—he was a gun nut and into drugs and everything—and my other brother was in jail at the time. So my wife and I adopted [Taylor]. We ripped her out of Tennessee and brought her to California. We put her in Notre Dame High School. She’s not Catholic, but we just put her there ‘cause we thought, Gosh, she’s gotta have some sense that the world is worth something, bigger than her, and good or kind.
So four years ago we put her in Notre Dame, and she goes to a world religion class, and gets a homework assignment—find a Catholic saint that inspires you, and find someone in your real life…
Just like in the film.
Yes, exactly. The film is partially based on a true story. She picked Saint William of Rochester—the patron saint of adopted children—and in real life, she picked me. So it was very touching, and, you know, Hallmark-y.
Vincent seems like he’s a projection of you, your father, and your brother?
He’s a projection of partly me, partly my father, but mostly my wife’s father, who was a Vietnam vet and a complete asshole. Abandoned all of his children. Abandoned my wife at nine. Never talked to her again. Drank, cursed, just did everything you could possibly imagine that was wrong. Then 10 years before he passed away, my wife went to one of these [self-help] seminars…and one of the assignments is to write a letter and get complete with everyone whoever did you wrong, or you did wrong to in your life, clear it up. She writes a dear dad letter, and mails it to this address she finds in the white pages back in East Hampton, Long Meadow, Massachusetts. Two weeks later the phone rings, “Kim, it’s your dad.” And she starts crying. And then she spent the next 10 years of her life with her father, having a love affair with this guy, as a father-daughter, they just became father-daughter, instantly. It changed both of their lives forever, for the best.
Was it genuinely curative?
It was real. It was so remarkable to watch. And that was Vin. I said, “That’s gonna be Vincent.” He’s a guy who finally gets someone that shows him his life is valuable and becomes good.
How did you navigate the line between Vincent being abjectly unlikable and everything becoming too sweet and sentimental?
When you have a character as disagreeable as Vincent, if you can keep him disagreeable, even when he becomes agreeable, you have done the job. Because you and I ultimately both know how the movie’s gonna end. Period. We might not know exactly how they’re gonna get there, we might be surprised along the way, but ultimately, you don’t go sit down and watch a movie called The King’s Speech and think that the King is gonna stutter in his last speech.
We all know watching a movie called St. Vincent, that Vincent is gonna end up being the kid’s saint. This is not a thriller. To me all movies are about the journey to get there. So we kept him disagreeable, even at the very end, at the dinner table. He never changes his personality, never manipulates or becomes sentimental in his behavior to the people he’s now supposedly loving. He doesn’t change his fabric. If someone changes their fabric, and softens, it becomes mushy. From a directing standpoint, Bill and I promised ourselves, no manipulation. No corniness, no holding on shots. No crying. No dolly moves. There’s no epic dolly moves when they have emotions. It just kinda sits there and lets it be. We don’t hold on it, or pause, or make a big deal of it. And you know, personally, it’s casting. Very few people can do that like Bill Murray can do that.
Yeah, so if you cast a Bill Murray, the job’s half done because the movie already has a sweetness to it. But it’s supposed to have a sweetness to it, so you just have to work against it in the writing and the directing. So the writing has a lot of “fuck yous” in it.
You had to put some extra “fuck yous” in there?
You consciously did it?
Oh yeah. Well no, I didn’t consciously do it to not be sweet. I consciously made him the character he was in my mind.
It was just done because here’s a guy who wants to say, “Fuck you” to the world and to everyone around him, and that’s what he does. So it just stayed that way. Bill is the perfect guy to navigate that. How many actors are so unlikable and loveable in the same moment? That’s Bill.
A key theme in this story seems to hinge on the false perceptions we jump to about people—like Vincent says to his neighbor on the front lawn—by just observing them on the surface.
Right. Immediately, you think you know who I am because of my house, or because of what I drive, or how I dress, or how I talk. So we do this all day long, we walk outside, we look at someone, we peg them. That’s it, got ‘em, nailed it, right? The truth is, you don’t know shit about anyone, at any time…The more you get to know someone, the more you see all they have done and all they have accomplished and who they really are. That gets lost over time for people.
That idea must have a real immediacy given your situation.
Yeah. You don’t know shit. From the outside you’d think her dad was the biggest asshole in the world. The more you took the time to get to know him and start peeling back the layers, this guy was a veteran who took care of his wife for years while she was dying of cancer.
People ask me what the movie’s about all the time in Q&As. I’ve been to so many Q&As [for other movies], and I sit there and listen to the director or writer, and as a fellow director and writer, I go, Well, you didn’t shoot that. What you’re saying is eloquent and beautiful, but it’s not on the screen. There is a big disconnect a lot of times because the filmmaking process, as you know, is so hard. It’s so hard to get exactly what’s in your mind and on the page, to translate exactly as you saw it. So many things can fuck up the process. Only one or two things can make it right, but a million can make it wrong. A million decisions—a casting decision, a wardrobe decision, a location decision—can pull you out of it. That’s why this movie to me, basically, in one word, is “value.” How we have a value, and we think we have a value as human beings. We all have a value and that value is equal. Over time, the prostitute has a value, the single mom has a value, the old drunk has value, the Catholic priest has value, the kid has value.
Over time, as life beats you down, you lose sense of that value and you start thinkin’, I’m shit, nothing’s worked out, I’m fuckin’ 65 and that’s what I got. I got social security and I did all this and I have this to show for it? That’s the majority of the world out there. You and I live in a bubble, but a majority of the world’s living like Vin. They wake up at 65, and they get social security and Medicare and they go, “Well, okay.” I wanted to find that value in people in the film. I wanted everyone in that film to end up somewhat a saint by the end of the film. I don’t know if I achieved that, but that’s what I wanted to achieve. That’s it.
From a writing standpoint, do you have a routine or process in your approach?
Yeah. I have a few techniques I use. I learned a technique from a guy many years ago, a working backwards technique. So I start with the question, How do I want the audience to feel? And I write that answer, I want the audience to feel like their life has value. Okay. I draw an arrow down. How do I visually see that happening in the movie? The bad guy, the old drunk gets a medal as a saint. Then I work backwards from that. What’s the scene that culminates that? Oh, he gets honored at a kid’s saint ceremony in a Catholic school. Then you just go, what precedes that? I start with this working backwards process, so in very broad strokes, I just start to kinda feel it out. I don’t have to do the whole script, but you know, I have to know where I’m going in order to get there.
Is it kind of like a backwards outline?
Yes. So I have to know where I’m going in order to get there. Then, once I’ve done that to where I feel good about where I’m headed—granted I usually just do the third act, ‘cause that’s where you wanna know where you’re heading—I then outline scene to scene going forward.
How detailed is it?
This is pretty detailed, pretty much every scene, just a one-liner. So and so does this. So and so does that, a one liner. I wrote this script by hand, with pencil and paper, which sometimes I find, really, really inspiring because I can do it anywhere. I write in restaurants, cafes, and coffee houses, because the process is already too lonely…I write in restaurants because I like to see people because people say some weird, crazy shit, you know? And I have my phone, I write down everything I hear outside in public.
You memo it on your phone?
Yeah. I have a hundred pages of people saying shit.
How do you sort through that?
I just read the whole thing over again every time I start a script…and then I go, “Oh, that’s a great line.”
Can you give me an example from this movie?
Someone said to someone, “It is what it is.” And the guy goes, “What? That means you’re fucked, and you will remain fucked.” He said, “I’m tired of fuckin’ hearin’ that. Where’d that come from?” I wrote that down, and it became Bill’s motto. What the fuck does that phrase mean? That’s like a total cop-out phrase that like all of a sudden people say. I didn’t know that phrase five years ago.
So you read through the memos of overheard lines and write the first draft longhand?
I write the longhand the first draft, and it’s abbreviated—I write one line of action. I don’t believe in a lot of description. Then I start the dialogue. I then get to the computer, and I type through. As I’m typing, I’m editing, so now I’m on the second draft, which is great. So when I’m done, and type THE END, I have basically a second draft, which is way better than the first draft on paper ‘cause now I’ve had time to think about it, digest it, and check it, and work it through.
I also do a thing called 50 questions, which is an old acting exercise. What you do is you take each character and you answer fifty questions on their life before you start writing a word about them. This is what actors do—I studied acting for years, my wife’s an actor, and [she] gave this to me. It’s a lot of work. It’s like, where were you born, what do your parents do for a living, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry. Fifty questions on every single character.
Do you ever paint yourself into a corner by doing that first?
No. You occasionally have to be flexible. Occasionally you go, “Well, it doesn’t work that he was born in Springfield, Missouri, he really needed to be born here” and you just change it. The fifty questions is just a thing to spur your creativity and give you a general understanding of each character. It’s actually best for writing their dialogue because you know their fabric.
So you don’t struggle over dialogue because you have a feeling for the characters?
Correct. They’re in your gut. You know, he wouldn’t do that because he was actually a war vet… You do have amendments that you have to make all along the way because that’s just the process of it.
You probably get less inconsistency.
I think so. You pretty much get a character that knows exactly how they’re talking all the time. And what’s the biggest problem as writers we face all the time? Every character sounds the same. Right? That’s the number one comment I hear out there in the world. And so a writer’s quick fix is, I’m gonna make this guy a black, British gay guy. Right? But that’s not grounded in any kind of…
Reality. So if you do the 50 questions, you will have a reality for each character. They won’t talk the same way because you have simply absorbed who they are into your subconscious. So now, no matter what you do, they’re specific.
Did you know you were going to be directing this when you were writing it?
That helps cutting down on writing action, too.
Yeah. As a director first, because I’ve done 100 commercials—you know I’ve been doing commercials for years and a gazillion other things, shorts, and music videos—hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff. As a director, I always find that when I get a script with lots of description and stage action, it’s the first thing that gets thrown away ‘cause the actor comes in and goes, “I’m gonna stand over here, and I’m gonna chop celery.” So a quarter page is out the window in like half a second. I don’t find it useful and other directors don’t find it useful. Just tell us what’s important to the scene. But you only learn that by doing it.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West