Mike Fleming

Bill MurrayEXCLUSIVE: The Weinstein Company is in final negotiations to finance and distribute St. Vincent De Van Nuys, which has to be the hottest $13 million budget movie to come down the pike in some time. Numerous studios have chased this one, especially after Bill Murray agreed to play the title character. Ted Melfi wrote the script and will make his feature directorial debut, with production to begin next June. The film will be produced by Chernin Entertainment’s Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping, Melfi, Fred Roos and Don Cheadle.

Murray will 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. “It’s the worst parenting decision ever made by this single mom, but she works two shifts at the hospital and the guy next door seems harmless enough,” said Melfi. “The relationship transforms both the man and the boy and even though he teaches the kid everything about his decadent lifestyle, from fighting to drinking, gambling and how to cheat lie and steal. And the 12-year old has such a pure soul that he only extracts the good from all this.”

The genesis of the project consisted of two personal episodes in Melfi’s life. Part of it came after Melfi’s brother died tragically 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 nine. They reconnected and spent a decade 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.”

The 40-year old Melfi has been writing scripts for 15 years, and he’s got stuff going on. His draft for a remake of Going In Style has New Line looking for directors, and he’s working with Jon Favreau on the NBC series project The Mancinis, based on his unusual parents: dad was in organized crime for 40 years and mom was a nun until she met and married the mobster. Melfi has also directed over 100 commercials and makes a good living at it, but the ride on St. Vincent De Van Nuys has been unlike anything he’s seen in his career. It started modestly, with Melfi raising a small budget to make the movie because he figured it was too small a story for the studios.

“I had $800,000 lined up, but gave the script to my agents Ramses IsHak and Mike Sheresky, who said, hold on a minute, this is something special,” Melfi said. He gave them a couple of weeks. Suddenly, Melfi started getting calls from the likes of Chernin, and JJ Abrams. “It was fascinating to go from an $800,000 movie with a bunch of my misfit friends to suddenly being called by the top people in the business who believed in this script,” Melfi said. “Even though they want to make projects like this, Hollywood execs tell me they can’t because they usually don’t make money.” Chernin came aboard, and then Jack Nicholson became intrigued, and that process took awhile to play out. “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.”

Murray has a reputation for being notoriously difficult to engage–Sony Pictures chased him for years on a Ghostbusters sequel and I’m not sure they ever got a definitive no–and 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.

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 met 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 okay.”

Once Murray signed on, the project quickly gained steam. Fox Searchlight was the frontrunner, but then the package was shopped wider for budgetary reasons. Sony Pictures got close, but wanted a partner. Focus Features, which made Hyde Park On Hudson with Murray, was circling. By the time Sony asked back in after its big Skyfall grosses with an offer to fully finance, Harvey Weinstein had been given the script by his execs and entered into exclusive negotiations to fund the entire project. The deal should be wrapped up by tomorrow.

“It’s not a spec script acquisition, 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 awhile,” said Melfi. He’s repped by UTA and Infinity Management and attorneys Bruce Ramer and Kevin Marks. Murray’s repped by attorney David Nochimson.

For all of Deadline's headlines, follow us @Deadline on Twitter.