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Melfi: Real-life characters drive bigscreen stories

10 Screenwriters to Watch 2012: Ted Melfi

In the mid-1990s, Ted Melfi was working as a cook in an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. When a young man with a screenplay asked him if he produced, he said, “Yes.” The next thing Melfi knew, he was in the indie film business.

Over the years, he produced several low-budget films, directed one feature and numerous shorts, and eventually became an accomplished commercial filmmaker (noted for MTV’s “Pizza Guy” and FedEx’s “Clones” spots.)

“I’d like to think I put my time in,” says the 41-year-old Brooklyn native, who now has several bigger projects about to go forward: The Weinstein Co.’s “St. Vincent de Van Nuys,” starring Bill Murray; a Warner Bros. remake of the old-folks caper pic “Going in Style”; and an NBC TV pilot for Jon Favreau called “The Mancinis,” based on his own life growing up in 1980s Brooklyn with a mobster father and a mother who was a nun. “It sounds like a punch line,” admits Melfi. “But I’m most attracted to stories about real people, real issues and real problems.”

Also based on his own life experiences, “Van Nuys” chronicles a young boy who finds an unlikely “saint” in a curmudgeonly next-door neighbor. “It’s essentially about how the little things we do for each other become bigger things down the road,” he says. Collaborators praise Melfi for his “unusual compassion,” says “Van Nuys” producer Jenno Topping. “Plus he’s just extremely funny and unpretentious.”

“What really sets Ted apart,” adds WB-based producer Donald De Line, “is his ability to make you immediately care for his characters by instilling them with an authentic voice and inner life — (that) honesty allows it to transcend the page and become real.”

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