At one point in St. Vincent, Bill Murray’s new film that premiered to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, the actor is awakened by what he thinks is a telemarketer calling. He picks up the phone and says, “Come on, coward–try to sell me something!”
It’s a bit like how audiences and Murray fans might feel waiting for the opening credits once the film is released on October 10. They may not know who writer and director Theodore Melfi is, but they’ll be rubbing their hands together in anticipation, “Alright pal, you’ve got Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, and Chris O’Dowd here–show me something funny!”
He may not be a familiar name to moviegoers, but Melfi has been directing commercials for eight years–and he directed and produced independent films before that. Variety calls the film “unusually polished by first feature standards.” The director says it’s his advertising experience that gave a major Hollywood player like The Weinstein Company the confidence to put him behind the camera to direct his script.
Here, Melfi breaks down how his time in advertising made St. Vincent possible, why he’ll always be directing ads, and pro tips for directing Bill Murray.
Three years ago, Melfi wrote St. Vincent in about four weeks. He had planned to make it with friends, just like his other independent films but the script got into some important hands–and landed on the Black List— and soon studios were calling. “If I hadn’t done all the commercials I probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to direct the film,” says Melfi. He compares directing ads to working out.
“It’s the best film gym in the world,” he says. “By the time I got to St Vincent, I had shot so many scenarios I was ready for anything–I’ve shot kangaroos, I’ve shot dogs, cats, crowds, fight scenes, stunts, comedy, drama, handheld, dolly, helicopter, crane–I just felt that there was nothing I was unprepared for.”
He also plans to keep his film exercise regimen up. Melfi launched a new commercial production company called brother this year to keep his hands in advertising, features, TV, and branded content. “I have a very strict philosophy that if you’re not working out, you’re getting fat,” he says. “So any day on set is a good day. I have to shoot and work out and play and discover all the time. With brother, I wanted our own place to nurture a collective idea where I could be a real hands-on executive producer and help these other directors make the transition from features to commercials because they need that workout. It takes so long to get a feature out of the gates that you need to learn, practice, and polish your craft. I think the commercial world is a lateral step from features. Some people see it as a step down but I’ve never understood that.”
Watching St. Vincent, you get the feeling that Melfi knows exactly when and how to create emotional momentum. There isn’t any narrative loitering. The director says it was advertising that taught him to keep things tight.
“It paid so many dividends on St. Vincent because you know instantly when something is too long, or you’re taking too long to get that bit of comedy or drama out,” says Melfi. “If you take too long the drama is sappy and the comedy is dull. So the 30-second discipline taught me instinctively to know when certain takes or filmed pieces were working or not working. It’s especially important when you’re working with comedians and actors of the caliber of Bill and Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and Naomi Watts. They also know when something is too long or short. So we were able to fly around that set and shoot the movie in 38 days because we had the experience and discipline of commercials.”
Melfi wrote a great story, but the heart and soul of the film is Murray. And it wasn’t an easy task to get the infamously hard-to-reach actor to even read the script. But Melfi’s persistence paid off. Here’s his pro tips to any other directors lucky enough to have their phone calls finally returned.
Do: “Stop talking.”
Don’t: “Manipulate. Don’t manipulate the camera, the direction, the actors, the situation. Let comedy live and breath on its own, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t, if it does it does. Bill Murray taught me every day to relax and allow.”
Do: “Be overly prepared in what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. I storyboarded every shot–800 shots–of this movie.”
Don’t: “Give up. Persistence. If you want something or someone in life, it takes effort and you can’t quit. There’s always another way to do it.”