What Was the Process for Making the Film St. Vincent?

Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher in St. Vincent.
Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher in St. Vincent.

Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/The Weinstein Company

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Answer by Ted Melfi, writer, director, producer, St. Vincent:

The process for making every single film is different. I’ve made nine movies as a producer, so I’ve been in the trenches for years. I’ve helped, pushed, and tried to get movies made every single time, and no matter what, it’s a completely different process each time.

For example, the process for St. Vincent started with me writing a script based on true-life stories. I had approached two friends of mine for $400,000 each, so once the script was done, I was going to go and make St. Vincent for $800,000. I was perfectly happy to make it for that budget, because that’s what I know—I’ve made nine movies with this kind of budget. Subsequently, my agents at UTA were asking about what projects I was working on, so I let them know I had $800,000 for this script, and they asked me to send it to them, so they were up to date on what I was dong. I sent them the script, and they called me a couple days later and said, “You’re not making this movie for $800,000. You can’t. You cannot possibly do that, because we think it’s fantastic.” I responded, “Yeah, I know you’re saying you think it’s fantastic, but the truth is, if I had a nickel for every time you said ‘This is going to be the one,’ I could make another movie. I have $800,000, and I’m going and making this movie. … If you want though, you can take two weeks to see if you can do something with it.” Because at that point, I was fed up and just wanted to make a movie.

Within those two weeks, they had slipped the script to a few people, the first of whom was Jenno Topping at Peter Chernin’s company. Jenno just flipped out over the script and sent it to Peter, who also flipped out about it, and then their whole office kind of flipped out over it. I remember being home one Saturday morning, my cellphone rang, and it was Peter (who had run Fox previously). He said to me, “You know, I read your script, and I cried. I have to make this movie. You have to let us help you make this movie.” My response was that I had a general meeting at Fox on Monday, to which he replied, “That’s not a general anymore. We’re going to make a deal so we can make this movie with you.”

So, I went into Fox on Monday morning, where essentially all the brass at Fox sat me down and told me that they wanted to make a deal with me the same day, that they wanted to close the deal before I even left the room. It was insane. My response was, “I’m not really prepared for this meeting. I’m not prepared for this in my life.” They kept asking me what it was going to take for me to make this deal with them, so I gave them a list of things and said, “Well it will at least be these things … ” which included, “I’m directing the movie. Period. There won’t even be a conversation about it. And I want the producers I have for the film to come with me.” I left the meeting, told my agents what had happened, and they were able to turn the deal around pretty quickly with Fox.

Ultimately the movie didn’t work out there—they moved us from Fox to Fox Searchlight, and we kind of got bounced around, though Fox Searchlight is an amazing place to make a movie, they ultimately couldn’t get the right deal done with Bill Murray. It just didn’t work out. So we were free to go. No fault on their part—it just didn’t work out. It ended up on Harvey Weinstein’s desk after Dylan Sellers there read it. Harvey just fell in love with it, and within a few days I was sitting down with him and Jenno, and Harvey is so passionate and fast that four months later, we were shooting.

All in, the process of making this film has taken three years total, from the time I wrote it to what you see onscreen, which is really fast. From a process standpoint, if you’re a director who wants to get your film made, you have to keep pushing and prodding until you find the right person to make your film. It’s like playing the matching game. When you find the right match, it just works, and when you don’t, it doesn’t. So you can’t get discouraged. You might get 50 or 100 nos, but it takes one yes, and the yes will come if you have a project that’s worth making and you stay at it.

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