It’s the first weekend of TIFF, and on a Sunday morning, the cast and director of the comedy St. Vincent (opening exclusively in Toronto this weekend before expanding over the next few weeks) have assembled to chat with the press. Yes, even the notoriously late and sometimes mercurial leading man, Bill Murray, who made a joke about the early hour.
“That was one of the most polite morning greeting’s I think we’ve gotten so far, so let’s just establish a baseline here.” Murray said flanked by director Theodore Melfi, actors Naomi Watts, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. He then starts goofing around with everyone before quickly apologizing for essentially being Bill Murray. “I’m sorry, we’ve got a long day ahead of us. You can leave here and go to a bar or take a nap after this, so we’re just going to take it easy here.”
“If I could be very serious for a second…” Murray said before pausing for a long time. “…I would,”
It becomes apparent that Murray has become a quarterback of sorts for his crew, and given his status as the biggest star and mouthpiece for the film, it makes sense. The fact that he’s in the room and loosening everyone up before the interview puts those around him at ease. No one is afraid to be sarcastic around him or say a joke that would potentially bomb because there would knowingly be someone else around to pick up the slack.
In the film, Murray plays a cranky old man with drinking and gambling problems who takes a quick disliking to his new neighbours: a single mother working to keep her family together (McCarthy) and her son (Lieberher). When she’s desperate for a babysitter, she turns to her neighbour and the young man begins learning life lessons from the last person on Earth he should be learning anything from. Along for the ride in Melfi’s film are Watts, as Murray’s pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend, and O’Dowd as a kindly priest and teacher.
We talked with the cast about the film’s real life inspirations, priests, peacock mating, cat wrangling, crying at your own movies, and making and promoting a film starring Bill Murray amid a flurry of renewed Ghostbusters hype.
Ted, this was a film that’s really personal for you, so what has it been like sharing those experiences with others.
Theodore Melfi: Well, sometimes it feels little like you’re exposing part of yourself, and that’s what you do as a writer. That’s where it has to come from. I don’t know how to do anything that doesn’t come from that place. It’s the only way because everything in the movie was based on something that really happened to me. Even the bully storyline is based around the first bully I ever beat up in P.S. 132 in Brooklyn. So every part of it – except for the Russian prostitute – was my personal story. (laughs)
A lady came up to me last night, and she might have been drunk, but she was just crying and said that the movie changed my life. I wanted to tell her that was great, but that she should get some counselling. (laughs) I joke, but the reaction to these things that I kind of lived through has been humbling and overwhelming.
Naomi, you don’t really get cast in comedies very often, but you do seem to have a way with figuring out accents, so was the accent harder than the role?
Naomi Watts: (laughs) In a way it was harder, but there was something very specific about the way that Daka talks that makes it easier to latch onto something. Everything that she has going on in her head probably sounds strong already, so the way she expressed that has to mirror that. I did work with two dialogue coaches, though. And, of course, the internet was a pretty great tool to pick that up, just watching women posting videos about themselves and their hopes for a better life. We actually even went to a Russian strip club.
TM: Yeah, we did do that!
Bill Murray: So, really, Ted, this is personal experience.
Chris O’Dowd: We all went. Even Jaeden.
BM: Jaeden didn’t really know what the ladies were doing, but he knew they were working really hard for a living. I’m still stunned by Naomi’s efforts to acquire an accent. She’s working on her American accent now, actually.
Naomi, your character also has to wear a lot of crazy clothing to make her look like a blend of high fashion and low class. Was there anything in particular that you wore that helped to get you into character?
NW: (laughs) The wardrobe lady came in with an incredible collection. It was all stuff that she had found on eBay.
TM: Yeah! Kasia Maimone is so brilliant. She’s lived in Brooklyn and researched these characters and the style that they would have for months. She basically nailed everything. Even the idea for Bill was built kind of around camouflage shorts and Naomi was around pink velour sweatpants. Then she just matched up tops as frames of reference. It was so authentic when we went to the strip club!
BM: That’s true. (pauses and laughs) We actually got a lot of street cred in the neighbourhood with this girl walking to the set. “What’s that girl doing with those movie people there.”
TM: None of the locals ever bothered us because Naomi was there.
Jaeden, were you ever nervous to take on a role with all these veteran actors around you and was there a particular part that made you more nervous?
Jaeden Lieberher: I was really nervous to shoot the speech scene at the end. I had to give a four page long speech to a bunch of people, so that was pretty nerve wracking. But Bill and I meditated before I had to start shooting it. So that helped.
BM: Yeah, it was something like that.
JL: It wasn’t serious meditation. (laughs)
BM: Hey! It worked, didn’t it?
JL: (laughs) Yeah, but we just put our heads down and closed our eyes.
BM: That was a hard day, really. (to Jaeden) How old are you?
BM: LIAR! But you were ten once, right? So what kind of director gives a four page speech to a ten year old? It takes a sadist and a monster. (everyone laughs) And then shoot it fifty different times with an array of tracking shots? Only a first time director would be that full of shit. I don’t know, do they have child labour laws up here? Can we talk about this?
Anyway, he had to do that speech a lot of times, and he just had to calm down a bit. We had to conserve our energy. It was the first time for him doing something this big. I know I wouldn’t have done as well with four pages of dialogue at that age. That speech is great what he did. I was just talking to him about ways to stay calm. That’s an important thing to always remember.
Melissa, the film kind of casts you in the straight-man role here…
Melissa McCarthy: But I’m not a man! It’s crazy! We left that out of my character’s backstory, but thank you for getting it. (laughs)
But was it part of the appeal to try something different and do something a bit more serious within a comedic film?
MM: No, the appeal was really in the story and to work with everybody up here. Ted had just had a good script. I mean, I do a lot of comedies, but I really don’t care if something is a comedy or a drama. I just like good stories. If someone has that, then I’m in… as long as I’m still playing a man. (laughs) That’s the one demand from my roles from now on.
Chris, your scenes require you to mostly act around a lot of kids, so were you prepared for all that energy and craziness where you have to try to be a teacher to a room full of rowdy grade schoolers?
Chris O’Dowd: I think the one thing I’ve learned in all my years, it’s that kids are idiots. (everyone laughs) I’ve never met a kid I’ve liked. And I’m glad that this film has given me the opportunity to continue that. It was quite nice playing a teacher where I felt like I had to keep everyone in step, so I really didn’t have to do any heavily thought provoking acting.
You guys also had to wrangle a cat for several of the scenes, which as a first time filmmaker you made the choice to have animals and small children in your movie.
TM: (laughs) Yeah. Well, I’m actually allergic to cats. Bill’s allergic to cats. Naomi’s allergic to cats. And on top of that we had the worst cat wrangler in the history of cat wranglers on this film. (laughs) So there’s this clicker that you use to train cats, and really that’s the only tool that she has to bring to set, and every day I would say “So do you have the clicker?” And every day she would just be, like, “Uh… no.” That’s essentially like me showing up to work without a brain. We were able to actually find a clicker app for the iPhone, but the cat was still difficult. Actually, there were two cats. They were twins. One was named Teddy, which was how he got the job (laughs), and the second was Jasper. Teddy was problematic, so we used Jasper most of the time.
Chris, what was it like going from something like Calvary, a movie where a lot of people in a community hate priests, to playing one yourself here?
COD: Well, if you’ve seen Calvary, which I can tell you have, I… well, let’s not spoil that. But it was nice here to play a man of God who doesn’t prescribe religion. I’ve had good experiences with priests in my life who were caring, understanding, and enigmatic men, so it was nice to be able to make fun of them for a few days. (laughs)
TM: And for me that was kind of important. Growing up my mom was Catholic and my dad wasn’t, and I grew up in the church as an altar boy. I grew up kind of mixed bag. Now I’m a recovering Catholic. Like Chris said, I always had good experiences with priests. I really loved it as a child, so I wanted to portray a different version of a Catholic priest. I wanted a more positive version. I’m not a religious person, but I think that religion as a whole get beat up constantly, and you forget that a lot of religion does good for people. And yeah, sometimes it gets a bad rap, but that was the thought behind it.
BM: That’s interesting because I think Chris plays the ideal of a priest. I think, for me, anyway. I dunno, Was that what you were going for, Chris?
COD: (laughs) Objectively, I think that’s fair.
Was that character originally written as American?
TM: No, actually!
COD: I think he was written as Italian.
TM: Honestly, I can’t recall at this point.
COD: I really think it was an old Italian man, and I gave my best old Italian man.
BM: What does that sound like?
COD: Not great! (everyone laughs)
Growing up in Boston, I really recognized a lot of people who walk, talk, sound, and act like Vincent, and I know you’ve moved around a bit and lived life, so I was wondering if there was anyone specific you looked to when playing Vincent?
BM: Well, probably, yeah. Anyone that’s like that gets into your skin. They get into your muscles and they’re in your body, sort of. When you start moving like that, some echo of someone in your life comes. Someone came up to me and asked me how much of my grandfather was in this, and I just went, “Oh my God.” My grandfather is in this.
My grandfather was a really funny guy. He was a guy who owned a light-up bowtie and he made it work. It was never too much when he did it, and it was really, really funny. He would curse his wife under his breath because she couldn’t hear so well, and he would just say all these things about our grandma that were kind of mean, but you could tell that HE thought it was funny. He would do the thing where he could pop his teeth out and make you laugh and he could tell you a story that could make you cry if he wanted to.
There’s definitely a bit of my brother in there, too. A lot of his body language is in there. I think we just pick it up from everyone that we’ve seen and we’ve witnessed.
Any day of the week you can see that guy walking around in Queens, or Boston, or Chicago, or wherever.
And, of course, I’ve had bad neighbours, so I know what that’s like. I had a neighbour once that owned peacocks. And peacocks when they mate in the summer go all night long. It was like crying babies all night, and it was just the most disturbing thing. And if you actually have babies, it’s pretty terrible. You just bolt awake in the night and you just have to put up with it.
MM: Where was this that you would be living around peacocks mating?
BM: New York. (laughs) In the boondocks. Upstate. I should make that known. Actually, my brother was the guy who would be more likely to have a problem with a neighbour. [Does a Brian Doyle Murray impression.] “EHHH, what’s the guy doing in my driveway!” (laughs) I shouldn’t have done that. My other brothers are the impressionists, not me. My brother Joel can do all of us in the family. We should get him here.
Bill, is it hard to promote a new movie when people make such a big deal out of a new Ghostbusters movie and the 30th anniversary of the original, and what does it make your looking back on that time spent making the original feel like?
BM: Well, Ghostbusters paid for my children’s education, which means they can flunk out much earlier and not have to pay their own way. It’s on a loop in my house at all times. But if you have a television it’s always on sometime.
There are some things in there that I still love to watch. We were making a lot of it up, obviously, but I just remember doing it and I could remember the exact day we were shooting in New York City. We would put on those uniforms and just walk into stores. People didn’t know who the hell we were. Some cops even thought we were somehow above them because we had better uniforms. (laughs) We had the damn car! We never stopped at stop lights. We’d just hit the siren, blow through, go the wrong way, do what we wanted to do.
But that was such a big experience for me. I had to leave town after that. I didn’t know how to handle it. I got out of the country. It had a great effect on my life in terms of what I could do if I wanted to, but not always do what I was most comfortable with, you know?
Back then we didn’t take movies quite so seriously. We used to do them just to perform in them and because we liked the work. Now we do them because… well, I don’t always know why. But back then working with that whole crew with Harold Ramis, and Danny, Ivan, Annie Potts, and Moranis, these are just people you would love to be trapped with for a few months. It was just true hilarity all the time. And we really just had everything going for us from having a great cameraman in László Kovács to probably the greatest production designer in the world in John DeCuir. But people like Annie Potts and Rick Moranis are people I never really see anymore, and I watch the movie often for them and to remember what it was like working with them on those days.
You could go in every day and feel free to try anything you wanted to do and just perform for each other all the time. When you do that, it’s a gas. I mean, it’s like how we’re all sitting down here with you now. We’re just performing for each other right now. You’re just stuck with us. But we’re amusing the hell out of ourselves! (laughs) But when you have a job like that it’s great.
It was a fantastic time to work in. Studios were still run by guys who made movies for a living. Now it’s different kind of people who are running the show, but back then there were real movie people coming up to you who appreciated what we did . You never get that now, or at least it’s a lot more rare.
What’s it like transitioning to older roles where you’re seen as a bit of a mentor to someone younger?
BM: These kinds of things are interesting because I’m an older more mature fella than I was, right? So working with younger directors like Wes Anderson or Ted Melfi it makes sense that I would play a father, uncle, neighbour, or something like that. So they say they can get a kid who kind of looks like they could be little Ted Melfi or something to represent the director as a child. It’s kind of great because you often end up working with people with some real talent, and chances are if you were born a child – which I assume you were – you probably had a parent or a parent figure in your life at some point. So you just act like your father, grandfather, uncle, something like that. If I keep on living, I might probably play a grasshopper or something if some grasshopper grows up to direct a movie and they need a father figure.
I heard that you actually teared up a bit at the premiere when you saw it with an audience. Was it more emotional seeing the film or working on it?
BM: I don’t know, I think we were all moved by the movie in some way and we all saw the film in various stages up to when it was finished. The final work that Ted did on it really cleaned it up. The film really rolls. And I mean, I’m in the movie, but I think it works. I got emotional from that. I was crying. Then I realized that if the lights come up and someone sees me crying, my career is finished.
But yeah, there were some emotional moments during the filming. I loved singing the song at the end. There were a few days like that. I remember I had to fall down a lot, and it had to be sad and not funny. That was hard. Then there was everything with my wife, which when you find out about that, you need to figure out how to get to that place.
Jaeden, you have to play a character who’s heavily influenced by being around Bill’s character and at certain point you have to prove yourself smarter than Melissa and Chris’ characters, so how did you as a young actor adapt to having to act smarter than these guys and how did you two feel about working alongside Jaeden?
JL: It was super fun to work with Melissa because she seems like she would be an awesome mom. It was also cool to be able to see her in this role and to be serious with her, too. And Chris was just terrible to work with. (everyone laughs)
COD: You’ve been harbouring that for quite a while.
JL: I have.
COD: Ever since I made the kids were stupid comment he was just waiting for that opportunity.
JL: (perfectly deadpan) But really, it was fun to work with Chris… kind of. I mean, you know, he likes to joke around. (everyone laughs)
MM: It was really great to work with Jaeden. I know at that age I never would have had that concentration level. I was complete spazz back then, so I was just impressed with how prepared he was all the time. I love how kids are always aware of what’s going on even when we think they aren’t, so to play something like the scene we have together at the end is great to do with someone who can figure that out. He played it beautifully. It’s an amazing performance for any age, and for this to be his first movie is pretty remarkable.
COD: I think he did a beautiful job, like Melissa said. He was incredibly focused and hard working, but at this point I just see him as competition. So as much as I enjoyed his performance in this film, I truly hope it’s his last. (everyone laughs)