Writer-producer-director Theodore Melfi has a different take than those who think independent filmmaking is becoming an endangered species; in fact, he tells me right now we are in “a golden age of independent film.” That might be one of the reasons he is bullish about both films he has at this week’s Tribeca Festival in New York City — independently produced movies he is helping shepherd along. On Corner Office, which stars Jon Hamm, he is an executive producer, and on American Dreamer, he is the screenwriter as well as a producer of the comedy that stars Peter Dinklage, Shirley MacLaine and Matt Dillon. Both are for sale, and the bottom line is Melfi truly believes the audience will dictate whatever the perfect form of distribution is, whether it be theatrical, streaming, digital VOD or a combination of all three.
As a director, Melfi has had experience on every level in finding great success with the kind of indie-centric, character-driven movies he has his name on, each taking its own path to finding an audience. In the case of the acclaimed 2014 Bill Murray starrer St. Vincent, as well as 2016’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, it was first with a film festival splash at Toronto and then significant theatrical releases. With last year’s The Starling, it was with Netflix, after the streamer picked up the completed film. Melfi felt good about the results all three got, and even though his Tribeca pair are not films he personally directed, he is equally invested in making sure they find the right home, targeting Tribeca to lead the way. In fact no one — not buyers, critics or audiences — had seen American Dreamer until its debut Saturday night in front of a packed house. And that was on purpose.
“We have kept this completely hidden. No one has seen it. No one has seen it in the entire country, no buyers have seen it…and no reviewers have seen it because we really, really wanted to have it be with 800 people. Like, it’s a comedy, you know? It benefits from the group,” Melfi told me just a couple of days before the premiere. For the purposes of this interview, I did see it and have to say it is the kind of quirky inspired-by-a-true-story movie that is exactly the kind of the thing studios used to release all the time, but now almost never. It is a superbly acted and very funny, offbeat little movie that given half a chance could find a grateful audience, most likely on a streamer these days, since they seem to be more open to something unquestionably original over studios, which want the pre-sold and already familiar for the most part.
Melfi says they have been working on American Dreamer it for five years. Producer David Ginsberg and director Paul Dektor came to him with an episode of This American Life they had heard. They along with Dinklage urged him to take on writing duties in addition to producing. “This is based on a true story,” Melfi said. “So, in the This American Life segment, this adjunct professor, he’s dying to get a house and dying to have the American dream, yet he can barely afford a condo, and he stumbled across this classified ad for this sprawling estate for $240,000 if there can be a live-in, and the live-in in this situation is such that he gets there and finds out that the woman is ailing and near death and cannot bear to the leave the place. She’s a widow and says, ‘You can have the place when I pass away for this incredibly low amount,’ and it’s like a $5 million sprawling estate, and he takes her up on it. It’s a dream deal of a lifetime, and he moves in to the maid’s quarters above the garage.” Melfi added that the case it was based on was about a woman doing the same deal with an old man, but in that case it turned out the guy lived for another 20 years and they became like family in the ensuing two decades. That was the nugget that inspired his script for the movie.
Dinklage was attached to the project as star and a producer, and then MacLaine, now 88, came in for what I would say is her best screen role in some time. Understandably he has high praise for his stars, pointing out that Dinklage has such inherent likability that it was important because they throw every possible negative situation at the character and he still can win you over. And as for MacLaine, he says the iconic star is a marvel. “She’s fantastic in the film, and she was a warrior,” Melfi said. “She just nonstop works, came to set professional and just loved Pete. She loved the script. She was really into the character. She had a million ideas. At one point she even said, ‘Let’s do a love scene’. She was all in and excited, and you know, the Shirley we all know and love — was just passionate about the project and a real team player. So it’s like a blessing to have someone like her on set, and someone like her with Pete, and then Matt Dillon was so great, and then Danny Glover came in at the last minute.” He called it “dream” casting.
Corner Office gives Hamm a very different office kind of office role than he ever had as Don Draper (Melfi coyly describes the part as possibly being like Draper’s awkward, maybe mentally ill brother) but still every bit as memorable in its own weirdly Kafkaesque way. Melfi and producing partner and wife Kim Quinn (who also is excellent co-starring in American Dreamer) got an overture to become involved. “The producers out of Vancouver, Dylan Collingwood and Matt Clarke, the guys over at Tilt 9, sent me the script and said to me, ‘You know, we’d love to kind of like help us part produce it.’ I read the script and I was like, ‘This thing is freaking wild,’ and I said yeah. Kim and I helped with it. We were just honored because the script was so wild and unique. You know, we all love making indie movies. I think everyone does; they seem to be the most fun and the most free. So, you know, it’s just a chance to dive in with people that we knew and loved and trusted in a project that was one like I’d never seen before.” Melfi also noted that even though it is director Joachim Back’s first feature, he is already an Oscar winner for a short, The New Tenants, he did in 2010. “And he’s a very well-known, well-versed commercial director. So you know, he obviously knows what he’s doing.”
Hamm, wearing glasses and sporting a pronounced moustache, will be the selling point for Corner Officebut it is just weirdly fascinating enough to perhaps attract a real theatrical specialty distributor that could give it tender loving care. In odd ways it reminded me in tone of a John Cheever short story, particularly The Swimmer, which was made into a movie in 1968, or even something a bit more abstract or Buñuelian. Hamm is terrific in it. Again Melfi is always looking on the bright side for these kinds of movies that need tender loving care once they get off the festival circuit.
“I’m a weird optimist. I think it’s never been a better time to make independent films,” he said. “I think because there’s so many places to put them, and you have so many streamers now that are really looking for product and can’t keep up with their own needs that if you make a good movie, there’s a home for it. So I think 20 years ago, if you made a good movie, a good independent movie, it was hard to find a place for it to go. It had to be incredible and it had to be insanely commercial and it had to get in theaters. And now, you don’t have that burden. If it’s good enough or big enough to be in the theater, great, but the streamers really offer another place for it to go and another revenue source and a great audience. So movies like this, whether they go theatrical or streaming is really up to the audience, and I think the audience decides that, and there’s just so many places to sell now and to get your movie out there that I think it’s a golden age coming of independent film. And I know I sound crazy. I do. I think it’s a golden age of independent film right now. You look at movies like Palm Springsright? You look at movies like The Starling. All those movies are made independently and sold for great amounts of money and did fantastic. They did fantastic with audiences. So I’m very optimistic about independent film. I think Netflix, Hulu, Fox Searchlight, these people, Peacock — they all need movies.”
So why was Tribeca Festival (the word “film” has been removed from its name) the right place to debut both movies? “First of all, it was a two-fold thing. Corner Office is, to me, a classic New York indie, and Jon Hamm lives in New York, and Peter Dinklage lives in New York. So, they’re both New Yorkers. So, it just felt like the perfect place to launch both movies, and we’re lucky enough and thankful enough to have gotten into the festival with both movies, but it just felt like Tribeca was the perfect place for multiple reasons. I mean, New York, obviously the greatest city in the world, is now booming post, hopefully post-COVID, and I don’t know. It just felt like these are New York films,” he said.
As for future films Ted Melfi is planning on directing himself, he has Fruit Loops with Michael Keaton, Jodie Comer and Letitia Wright expected to go first quarter of ’23 at Paramount, a dramedy set inside a state-run mental facility that he describes as less Cuckoo’s Nest and more 12 Angry Men-meets-The Breakfast Club. He also just finished a draft of Underworld, which he also plans to direct. It is based on the Don DeLillo novel and being done for Netflix (for which he did The Starling and has high praise for their operation).
Right now however it all about finding a good home for both American Dreamer and Corner Office, and that all begins at Tribeca this week.