Film News South Africa

Delightful St Vincent

Bill Murray teams up with first-time director/screenwriter Ted Melfi for St Vincent, the heart-warming story of a young boy who develops an unusual friendship with the cantankerous old guy next door.

The roots of the story of St Vincent were inspired by a life-altering moment in writer/director/producer Ted Melfi's own life. When his older brother passed away at the age of 38, seven years ago, he went to the funeral and realised that his 11-year-old niece had nowhere to go. Melfi and his wife quickly decided to adopt her and move her from a small, rural town in Tennessee to where they lived in Sherman Oaks, California.

Delightful St Vincent

Once enrolled in Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Melfi's niece received a homework assignment with the following prompt: Find the Catholic saint who inspires you, and find someone in your real life who mimics the qualities of that saint. She picked St William of Rochester, who is the Patron Saint of Adopted Children, and selected Melfi as the match.

A very moved Melfi realised that it was the perfect idea for a movie. Instead of characters like himself and his niece, though, he wanted to use an old curmudgeonly guy who'd lost his will to live and a young boy. Bill Murray seemed to be perfect for the role.

The genesis of the story

Recalls the filmmaker: "That's the genesis of the story: this young boy moves in next to this cantankerous alcoholic played by Bill Murray and they become best friends. This little adopted 11-year-old boy makes Bill Murray the saint in his assignment and they both change each other's lives. That's how this whole project started - from a homework assignment."

Although Melfi had Murray in mind for the starring role, desiring to cast Murray and actually tracking him down are two very different animals. It is not a task for those easily discouraged. Melfi explains: "Bill has no manager or agent. He just has a 1-800 number, and so you spend a fair amount of time leaving messages on the 1-800 number and hoping that it's actually his. You leave message after message and start having a relationship with an answering machine, kind of like in Swingers." But Melfi kept trying.

After six months of playing phone tag, Melfi found himself meeting up with Murray at LAX at 9am one morning over Memorial Day weekend. Talking over the script and stopping at In N Out Burger along the way, the eight-hour meeting in the back of Murray's town car solidified the actor's interest in the project.

Notes Murray: "The script was different. It had a different rhythm than most things have and had a lot of emotion in the story. Ted had a pretty good way of writing it that has the potential to not be sentimental at all, which is how I really like to see emotion delivered: without sentimentality at all. You feel it, and you're not tricked into it. You're not drenched in it. You just get it. It comes at you, and it comes as a natural outcome of the way the plot goes."

Delightful St Vincent

A life-changing experience

Melfi was not just willing to receive Murray's comments - he viewed the opportunity to collaborate with Murray as a life-changing experience. "Working with Bill, I've learned a tremendous amount about directing, about writing, and about life. He would tell me many times: 'Don't let stress take over. Stress is the death of art and the death of comedy.' He would tell me: 'Don't let the scene become what it's not. Don't get caught up in what you think is funny. Trust the material and trust the writing.' He brings stuff to the table when he has to, but other than that he stays out of its way, which is a gift. And he's taught me to stay out of its way - to know when it's working, see when it's working and to leave it alone. I can't think of a better person to learn anything from comedically and artistically than Bill Murray. He has to be the coolest person on the planet."

With the coup of landing Bill Murray as Vincent, Melfi faced another challenge: finding a young boy able to play opposite him. The story is largely seen through the eyes of Oliver, and Melfi was very particular about the kind of child he wanted for the role: "With kid actors, you really want someone who is a kid first and an actor second. You can get acting out of a lot of people, and especially children because they're so open and available, but you can't get an actor to be a kid." The film-making team auditioned about 1500 candidates over the course of six months. There was pressure to find someone who could handle the gruelling schedule of a film shoot and not be overly intimidated by working with Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy. Whoever they found also had to be able to hold his own and carry a movie.

Comments Melfi: "Vincent is the lead, obviously, but the character of Oliver is the glue of the script. That's the guy who holds it all together for all the other characters who are spinning out of control. That's a lot to ask for any actor, much less a child."

Delightful St Vincent

An extraordinary talent

In young actor Jaeden Lieberher, the filmmakers discovered an extraordinary talent with a quiet confidence - he fit the bill perfectly. Jaeden is preternaturally poised on and off screen, a smart, sage young person who handled his first film role with grace.

Murray confesses that it is not always so great to work with kids, however 10-year-old Jaeden really impressed him. "I'm not so sure about kid actors usually, but he's very good," Murray says. "I liked him more every day. There was one day he was just so good, he was as good as anybody I've ever seen be good in a scene. It was just great. He was relentless and unstoppable, he really shines."

Another key cast member was Vincent's cat. Unfortunately Murray is allergic to cats, but in another show of his commitment to the film, he tolerated the feline cast-mate.

"Not a cat guy particularly, but that cat happened to get washed, shampooed and blown dry so he had no dander," jokes Murray. "I don't think he even had hair oil because he was so clean. He's a pro cat."

Murray had a profound effect that extends beyond the cast and crew on set and spills out on to the general public, wherever he goes.

Bill's a saint

Says Melfi: "During the course of working with Bill on this film, I've realised that Bill's a saint. He's the most generous human I think I've ever met. He'll stop and talk to anyone any time. He spent hours talking to people on streets and taking pictures. He's just the most giving person. Bill Murray's present all the time. And it's something that's inspiring to watch. It's been enlightening for me as a person."

If you are looking for a great feel-good film and great escapism filled with laughter, tears, and total joy, St Vincent is the ideal film to share with friends and loved ones.

Read more about St Vincent and other new film releases at

About Daniel Dercksen

Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit
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