Zen and the art of casting Bill Murray in your movie

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Image Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

“You know what the truth is? You don’t find Bill Murray,” filmmaker Theodore Melfi says. “Bill ­Murray finds you.”

This fateful lesson is one learned by many directors, though not all succeed in the quest to recruit the Ghostbusters and Rushmore star for their projects.

Melfi, a longtime commercial director making his feature writing and directing debutwas certain Murray would be perfect for the title role in St. Vincent, his indie comedy about a rotten, miserable old man who reluctantly discovers he’s not so rotten and miserable after all.

“He finds everything he’s supposed to be involved in by not chasing anything,” Melfi says. “If it’s supposed to happen, the person will hound him until it happens, or he’ll run into them at a bar or restaurant. He has a zen-like protocol in regard to what he does and doesn’t do.”

Here’s how the odd journey to St. Vincent played out, in three acts.

ACT ONE

The script focuses on a cantankerous old-timer named Vincent McKenna, who drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes too much (to both legitimate businesses, like his bank, and not-so-legitimate ones, like the loan shark who’s threatening him for repayment).

Over the course of Melfi’s bittersweet indie comedy, Vincent’s crusty edges begin to soften after becoming frenemies with his new next-door neighbors, a single mom, Maggie, and her 12-year-old son, Oliver. Overwhelmed by her recent divorce, a move, and a new full-time job as a hospital tech, Maggie is just desperate enough to pay the not-exactly-reliable Vincent $11 an hour for Oliver’s after-school care.

The linchpin to the whole project was finding the right actor to play Vincent. For a while, Jack Nicholson was interested in the role, which would have guaranteed a green-light from investors and attracted any number of high profile co-stars. But when Jack backed out, Melfi went all-in trying to reach Murray. His hope was that the notoriously ­elusive actor would be intrigued by the W.C. Fields go-away-kid-ya-bother-me humor and an emotional backstory that could show off his more dramatic acting chops.

Reaching Murray, however, is literally a case of: Who you gonna call? Murray is famous within Hollywood for not having an agent or manager, the usual gatekeepers for such business. But the first step in every journey to find the actor does begin with a phone number.

“There’s a 1-800 number and you call that number until you’re blue in the face,” Melfi told EW. “His voice is not on that answering machine. It’s just an old school voicemail. I left a dozen messages and never heard a word back.”

But you can’t be namby-pamby and give up. “I called for a month, month and a half,” Melfi says. “Not every day because I didn’t want to annoy him, but you know, a couple times a week. I don’t even know if he ever got the messages.” Then he found out Murray did have a lawyer who handled his business affairs. Finally, this was a real person the filmmaker could contact.

“I called his lawyer and said, you know, ‘I’ve been leaving messages. I’m trying to get a script to Bill Murray,’ He said, ‘What number do you call?'” Melfi rattled off the 1-800 number. “He’s like ‘okay, that’s the same one I got,'” the director recalls.

After cold-calling for weeks, Murray finally called back—to the lawyer. “He says, ‘I keep getting these messages. Tell the guy to send me a letter by snail mail about what the movie is and why I should do it, what it’s about, that kind of thing,'” Melfi says. “So I did a Dear Bill letter, one pager, we snail-mailed it to a PO Box on the east coast. I didn’t know if it got there. Two weeks later, he calls his lawyer and says, ‘Okay, the letter was swell, send a script, and I’ll give it a read.’ We then use snail mail to send the script to another P.O. Box on another part of the east coast.”

Then … nothing.

ACT TWO

“Two or three weeks later, the producer’s assistant gets a call from Bill, and he’s like ‘Hey, it’s Bill Murray.’ His assistant is like going to s–t her pants. He’s like ‘I never got that script,'” Melfi says. “She’s like ‘Uhhh, okay.’ We got another address somewhere else and then we mailed another script to him.”

Weeks later, Melfi was driving to a commercial shoot in Los Angeles when his own phone rings. As Melfi tells it, here’s what played out:

Melfi: ‘Hello …?’

Murray: ‘Ted Melfi …? It’s Bill Murray.’

Melfi: [Shocked pause]. ‘Oh, uh … Hi Bill….’

Murray: ‘Is this a good time?’

Melfi: ‘Yeah, it’s a great time.’ [Pulls over car to the side of the road.]

Murray: ‘I don’t know anything about you. I don’t Google people. I don’t even know how that stuff works. Who are you? What do you do? Tell me that.’

The wannabe first-time filmmaker gave him his quick pitch:

Melfi: I’m a commercial director and I’ve been writing this story …

Murray: ‘I really like this script. Okay, look, it’s Wednesday. I think we should have a coffee and talk about it if you like.’

Melfi: ‘I would love to have a coffee.’

Murray: ‘How about tomorrow?’

Melfi: ‘Oh, I’m uh … shooting tomorrow, but tomorrow night…’

Murray: ‘In New York…’

Melfi: [Nervous pause] ‘I’m in L.A. I can’t get to New York tomorrow. I’m shooting.’

Murray: ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate. How about Friday?’

Melfi: ‘Yeah … yeah, I can get to New York on Friday!’

Murray: ‘No, it’ll have to be in Cannes then.’ [Murray was attending for the premiere of Moonrise Kingdom.]

Melfi: ‘I … can’t get to Cannes on Friday … with the time difference and everything, I’d have to leave today.’

Murray: ‘Well, it’s going to be a good time …’

Melfi: ‘Yeah, I’m sure … it is going to be a good time.’

Murray: ‘Alright, don’t worry about it. I’ll call you in a couple weeks.’

Melfi: ‘Bill, is there a better number for you?’

Murray: ‘You got the right number.’

Melfi finishes this story with a deep sigh. “He hangs up and I thought, ‘I just screwed myself,'” the director says. “I had him on the phone! I talked to him! He exists! I was tortured for two and a half weeks.” Then, one day, the phone rang again.

ACT THREE

It was around 8 a.m., the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 2012.

Murray was on the line. “He goes, ‘Can you meet me at LAX in an hour?’” Melfi recalls. “He goes ‘Okay, United baggage claim. See you there.'”

Melfi speeds to the airport in record time. “I park my car. I walk into baggage claim. There’s nobody there because it’s 9 a.m. There’s a guy holding a sign that says ‘B. Murray.’ I go ‘I think I’m with you.’ He goes, ‘Yeah…?’ He has no idea he’s picking up Bill Murray.”

Eventually, the actor comes strolling down from the terminal, carrying his luggage with him. “He goes, ‘Ted … it’s me.’ I said ‘Yeah, hi.’ He’s like ‘Want to go for a drive? Talk about the script?’ I was like ‘Yeah.’”

Their destination: somewhere in the desert outside of Temecula, Calif. “He’s like ‘Okay, leave your car here.’ We drive from L.A. almost three hours to the Pechanga Indian Reservation somewhere an hour inland of San Diego.”

Along the way, they make one stop: In-N-Out Burger, to pick up some grilled cheese sandwiches. “He has the script in his bag, and we go through the whole thing on this drive,” Melfi says. “Then we get to this house on the back of a golf course somewhere in the middle of nowhere. He tours me through his house—one of his houses—and at the end of it he goes ‘Okay. This is great. We should do the movie.'”

Once again, Melfi’s only reaction was stunned silence.

“He goes ‘You want to do it?'”

Melfi says he does.

“‘You want to do it with me?’” Murray asked him. “‘Of course I want to do the movie with you!’” the director told him. “He goes, ‘Okay, then. We’ll do it.’ He gives the driver a couple hundred bucks and says ‘Take him back to L.A.’”

But before leaving, Melfi had just one request. “I say to him ‘Bill, there’s only one thing … Do you think you could tell someone, other than me, that this happened?’ He goes ‘What do you mean?’ I go ‘Well … nobody is going to believe this. I can’t really go to the studio and say, ‘Hey, Bill Murray said yes in the back of a town car over an In-N-Out burger.’ He’s like ‘Ahh, don’t worry about the business thing. Don’t let those people stress you out.’”

That was it.

“That was it,” Melfi says. “After that, he said yes, and it was a year later that we started shooting.”

He did, and word of the star’s commitment quickly galvanized the project into existence. Melissa McCarthy later jumped aboard as the troubled single mom, along with Chris O’Dowd as a friendly priest at Oliver’s Catholic elementary school, Terrence Howard as a debt collector, and Naomi Watts as Vincent’s pregnant Russian prostitute/girlfriend. Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher took the role of the little boy who gets to hang out all day with Bill f–king Murray.

Once on set, McCarthy had her own offbeat Murray encounter on her first day of shooting. “I kept thinking, ‘Please don’t freak out. Please don’t say something dumb,’ ” says the actress, a lifelong fan of Murray’s.

“Then he stormed into the hair and make-up trailer, made a beeline for me, and was turning me, spinning me. Lifting an arm, putting an arm down. He said, ‘Well, you’re taller than I thought, but you’re still pretty short.’ Literally, he looked me over like a car. It was crazy and I loved it. It made all my nerves go away. That’s a great way to meet Bill Murray.”

But pretty much any way to meet Bill Murray is a great way to meet Bill Murray. Especially if it involves grilled cheese sandwiches.

St. Vincent will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and hits theaters nationwide on Oct. 24.

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