Stories about magical run-ins with Bill Murray are abundant: He’s bought strangers coffee, given spontaneous marriage advice at a bachelor party, and just days ago, acted as bartender in Brooklyn. For those of us still waiting for our surprise encounter, journalist Gavin Edwards has collected other peoples’ delightful tales of Murray — from celebrities and costars to regular people — in his new book, The Tao of Bill Murray, out Sept. 20.
EW is thrilled to reveal an exclusive excerpt from the book: Director Ted Melfi’s story of how he cast Murray in his 2014 film, St. Vincent. Check it out below — and if you prefer audio storytelling, we also have a clip of Edwards reading the same passage from the audiobook.
Excerpt from The Tao of Bill Murray by Gavin Edwards
It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
What’s it like trying to get Bill Murray to be in your movie? Ted Melfi had worked on the fringes of the film industry for a while and had written a well-regarded screenplay called St. Vincent de Van Nuys, about a cantankerous Vietnam War veteran who forges an unlikely alliance with the young boy next door. Jack Nicholson had flirted with making the movie, but when he passed, Melfi set his sights on Bill. His producer, Fred Roos, had also produced Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (not to mention The Godfather: Part II, for which Roos won an Oscar).
“Good luck,” Roos told Melfi. “To tell you the truth, Sofia and I didn’t know he was going to come to Japan to do the movie until the day he showed up on the plane.”
Melfi had the 1-800 phone number that Bill uses to screen his calls. He called up, listened to the generic voicemail greeting—unpersonalized by Bill—and left a message. Then he deleted it, because he was nervous and worried that he was babbling, and left another one. Over the next month, Melfi left a dozen messages, some serious, some funny, not knowing if Bill was listening to any of them.
Since Bill doesn’t have a manager, an agent, or a publicist, Melfi eventually tracked down his attorney, David Nochimson. “What number are you calling?” Nochimson asked.
Melfi recited the 1-800 number.
“That’s what I got,” Nochimson said. (Bill’s friends and professional associates have ways of getting in touch with him beyond the 1-800 number—but you don’t stay close with Bill by providing them to anyone who calls you up.)
Finally, Nochimson called Melfi with good news: Bill wanted him to write a one-page letter pitching the movie. Melfi wrote it and sent it to a PO box in upstate New York.
Two weeks later, Nochimson called back: “Bill thought the letter was swell. Can you send him the script?” Melfi sent it to another PO box, this one in Martha’s Vineyard.
Weeks passed. Bill called the assistant of producer Fred Roos and asked, “Is he ever going to send me that script?” Melfi sent another copy, this one to a PO box in South Carolina.
Two more weeks of silence, and then Melfi’s cellphone rang while he was driving down the road in Los Angeles. “Ted Melfi? It’s Bill Murray. Is now a good time?”
“Now is the best time,” Melfi assured him, and pulled over.
“I don’t Google people,” Bill told him. “That’s not my thing. Can you tell me who you are and what you do and why?” Melfi stammered his way through a twenty-minute monologue about hustling his way through his career as a commercial director.
“That all sounds good,” Bill assured him. “I’d love to sit down with you for a coffee tomorrow.”
Melfi assented: He was shooting a commercial that day, but he knew he could make time.
“In New York?” Bill added, and Melfi had to decline. “How about Friday, then?” Bill suggested.
Melfi eagerly agreed: Yes, he could be in New York on Friday.
“No, in Cannes.” Bill was going to Cannes for the world premiere of Moonrise Kingdom, but it was physically impossible for Melfi to get there. “Cannes is going to be a great time,” Bill promised, but there was no way for Melfi to do it. “Don’t worry about it, we’ll connect later. I’ll call you in a couple of weeks.”
Sensing that his opportunity was slipping away, Melfi said, “Bill, is there a better number for you, anything—”
“No, no, you’ve got the number.” Bill hung up.
Three weeks went by. Melfi was convinced that he had blown his one chance to persuade Bill and was so stressed by the whole enterprise that he threw out his back and started walking with a cane. At 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, Melfi was lying in bed, immobilized, when he got a text from Bill: “Can you meet me at LAX in an hour?” Melfi eagerly agreed, strapped on a back brace, popped a Vicodin, and drove to the airport.
At the designated baggage-claim area, Melfi spotted a man in a rumpled black suit, holding a card with B. MURRAY printed on it. “I think I’m with you,” Melfi told him.
“Yeah?” the guy replied.
Melfi thought, “Oh God, he doesn’t know anything either.”
Soon enough, however, Bill strolled toward them with a golf bag. “Ted? What’s with the back?”
“I threw it out,” Melfi told him.
“You gotta stretch,” Bill counseled. “You want to talk about the script? Let’s go for a drive.”
The driver in the rumpled suit escorted them to a town car. First stop: In-N-Out Burger, where they picked up four grilled-cheese sandwiches and four orders of french fries. Melfi confessed to Bill that he was vegan. “That’s an awful life,” Bill said.
Bill had a dog-eared copy of the screenplay in his attaché case; he pulled it out and they discussed it for three hours, kicking around Bill’s ideas and notes, as the town car headed south. They drove through the Pechanga Indian Reservation in Temecula, ending up at a modest ranch house owned by Bill, adjacent to a golf course. Bill gave Melfi a tour, showing off groves of trees: orange, tangelo, avocado.
Melfi excused himself to use the bathroom. “Don’t forget to jiggle the handle,” Bill told him. When Melfi finished, Bill said, “I think we’re good. Let’s make a movie. Do you want to do this with me?”
Melfi assured him that he would love to make this movie with him. But he had one favor to ask: “Could you tell someone other than me that this happened? Because I’m not sure they’re going to believe you’re doing the movie if you don’t tell them.”
After another two weeks, Bill called up his attorney and confirmed that he wanted to do the movie (which, with a shortened title of St. Vincent, came out in 2014). Melfi on his Bill Murray roller-coaster ride:
Bill is by far the free-est person I’ve ever met in my life. He lives in the moment more than anyone I’ve ever known. His whole life is in the moment. Bill doesn’t care about what happened; he doesn’t think about what’s going to happen. He doesn’t even book travel two ways. Bill buys one-way tickets and then decides when he wants to go home. Then he’ll call and say, “Hey, I think I should go home,” and we’ll figure out how to get him home. There’s no bullshit, no manipulation—it’s so honest and so pure to have someone like that around. What you see is what you get: He throws people in the pool in private and he throws people in the pool in public.
Bill stayed at a friend’s apartment in Williamsburg. And then he gave the production back all the money for hotels. He rode his ten-speed bike to the set every day: After a forty-minute ride, he’d show up a sweaty mess. He’d throw on a clean shirt and come to the set.
A lot of comedians come in and do their schtick. And Bill doesn’t put his stink on something. When he’s in a scene, nothing else exists. He brings everyone else there with him, and you have to be prepared for that ride. He’ll do anything: He’ll run, he’ll jump, he’ll scream. He’s not a hijacker: He believes improv lives within the scene.
Bill has a lot of children, so he’s a big texter. Sometimes he’ll text one word and sometimes a long paragraph. I would get texts from him while he was shooting Monuments Men—he told me when he was meeting his makeup artist in London. They designed a whole look for his physical being: He looks like an old Brooklyn war vet. When he first came to a costume fitting, I said, “Oh my goodness, you have such great teeth.”
He said, “Thank you—I just had them Waterpik’d.”
I said, “Yeah, I think they’re too great.”
He goes, “Okay.” And then a day later he had a special veneer shipped in from London.
There were times, depending on the scene, when Bill was so deep into Vin that you just didn’t talk to him. That scene when he finds out his wife dies and he falls down? That’s all Bill. I didn’t ask him to fall down: I just said, I want you to go to the fridge, hear the message, and whatever happens to you, happens to you. It was the last shot of the day.
And then there were times when Vin was having a great time, like when he’s at the racetrack. Bill stole a golf cart that day and rode around the actual track until security came and got him.
Sometimes it was challenging to get Bill to come to the set, not because he’s a diva, but because you can’t find him. He’s not trying to slow things down, but he likes to wander. If he sees a scooter and a bike, he’ll go look at it. We hired a PA [production assistant] just to follow him around, but he could lose her on command. One time we couldn’t find him for the longest time—he was in an Army recruiting center with Naomi Watts, giving autographs and hugging our armed forces.
Another time, I couldn’t find Bill, so I called his assistant Chris. Bill answered Chris’s phone: “Hello?”
I knew it was Bill, but I said, “Hi, Chris, it’s Ted—we’re trying to find Bill.”
“Oh, Bill? Yeah, he’s getting a sandwich. He found a great sandwich shop. Would you like one?”
“No, I just want you to get him the message that we kinda need him because we’re trying to make a movie.”
“Okay, I’ll tell Bill, no worries.”
He had heard about the very best sandwich shop in the Bronx. And we were shooting only five or ten minutes away, so he drove there. He came back and said, “That’s the best sandwich in the Bronx.”
Excerpted from THE TAO OF BILL MURRAY by Gavin Edwards. Copyright © 2016 by Gavin Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.