toronto badgeAs his directorial debut St. Vincent is unveiled tonight in a gala Weinstein Company premiere at Toronto, and with a Sony adaptation of J.R. Moeringer’s The Tender Bar and a New Line remake of Going In Style percolating, Ted Melfi is hot stuff. But this weekend is all about Bill Murray, and it seems worth remembering how much that actor, with an assist from Jack Nicholson, is responsible for helping Melfi rise from that deep pool of writers who believe they’ve got the next big script, if only they could get somebody to pay attention. I wrote Melfi’s story when TWC agreed to finance his $13 million film, but it most certainly is going to get repeated after tonight. So here it is, again.

Murray made St. Vincent happen, when he agreed to play a cantankerous train wreck of a neighbor who takes under his corrupt wing the 12-year-old son of a struggling single mother who has moved in next door. After Murray committed, so did Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Chris O’Dowd in this story of a broken man who somehow improves the neighbor kid’s life as he teaches him “everything about his decadent lifestyle, from fighting to drinking, gambling and how to cheat lie and steal,” said Melfi. “And the 12-year-old has such a pure soul that he only extracts the good from all this.”

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The genesis of the project consisted of two personal episodes in Melfi’s life. Part of it came after Melfi’s brother died five years ago at age 38, and Melfi and his wife adopted his 11-year old daughter. Told to write about someone in her life reminiscent of a saint, she chose Melfi and St. Will of Rochester, the patron saint of adopted children. Later, Melfi’s wife, actress Kimberly Quinn, went to a personal healing seminar, and part of the course forced her to square the ledger with people in her life. That prompted her to reach out to her father, with whom she had not spoken since she was 9. They reconnected and spent years growing close before he died. Melfi melded this together, with this unifying theme: “It’s about understanding our value as human beings and saying ‘I love you’ now, instead of waiting until someone is dying.”

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The 40-year-old Melfi had been writing scripts for 15 years and directed more than 100 commercials, but this one was special, and Melfi raised $800,000 to make a tiny film, until his UTA agents Ramses IsHak and Mike Sheresky saw this could be bigger. They got Chernin Entertainment involved, and then Jack Nicholson became intrigued. That started a process that took awhile to play out, but it honed the title character. Nicholson oversaw script drafts, but as much as he liked the character, it wasn’t enough to get him back in front of the camera. “I spent time with Jack, and he loved it, but it became clear that he doesn’t want to work,” Melfi said. “But Jack said that Bill Murray would be perfect for this.”

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St. VincentMurray has a reputation for being notoriously difficult to engage — Sony Pictures chased him for years on a Ghostbusters sequel, and even the Toronto festival wasn’t sure until recently that he would show up for his career honor this week. Melfi found that those stories weren’t exaggerated. “It’s not an urban legend, he’s very private,” Melfi said. “He’s not attached to Hollywood, and I mean that in the best possible way. He doesn’t want to deal with the bullshit and has put himself in a position where he doesn’t have to.” Eventually, calls to Murray’s attorney led to an invitation to send a one-page description to Murray. That got him to the lightning round, as Murray agreed to read the script.

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Said Melfi: “I’m driving one day, the phone rings, and it’s Bill Murray, and he says, ‘Ted Melfi, I don’t know who you are, but I love your script.’ He asked me to meet him at LAX and go for a ride as he returned home from a golf tournament. I Bill Murraymet him in baggage, we got in a Town Car. He pulls the script out of an attache case. It’s dog-eared, and there are notes all over it. We stop at an In-N-Out Burger and spent a three-hour drive to I don’t know where discussing the script. He understood everything about the character, and his notes were simple, direct and to the point. He said, ‘This character is who I am at times, and this is how I talk at times.’ It was one of those days where you think, ‘If I died tomorrow, it would be OK.’”

Once Murray committed, every specialty label in the business wanted the film, and Harvey Weinstein made sure he got it with a strong deal.

“It’s not a spec-script acquisition,” Melfi told me at the time, “it’s a get-moving-and-shoot-the-movie kind of deal, and I feel like that 10-years-in-the-making overnight success story that comes along once in a while.”