TIFF 2021 Interview: Writer Matt Harris Talks Blending the Salty with the Sweet in ‘The Starling’

LV Taylor interviews writer Matt Harris about his latest film, The Starling starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, and Kevin Klien.

One of the films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was Netflix’s The Starling starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine, Timothy Olyphant, and Laura Harrier. With its all-star cast, dramedy tells the story of a couple coping with a loss and trying to keep their marriage together. It’s a story of grief and loss, but also of hope and renewal that turns the typical gender roles — a woman having a hard time dealing with the loss and being unable to hold it together while the man grieves with a strong silence — and flips it. Blending comedy and some great performances, The Starling is a film that reminds us that we all grieve in our own way, but we don’t have to go through it alone — a message that takes on a much deeper meaning after the past two years we’ve collectively lived through.

I had the opportunity to sit down with The Starling writer Matt Harris to talk about his inspiration and finally seeing his first feature film come to life.

LV Taylor: So I guess we’ll jump right in and get started — let’s start at the beginning. The script for The Starling was selected to The Black List back in 2005 — did it go through many iterations before it was finally produced?

Matt Harris: At different times, it received a lot of interest, and certainly, The Black List helped elevate it. In this town, many people need other people to tell them something’s good, and The Black List kind of does that. After that, there were a lot of people at different times who wanted to make it and got very close, so we would make modifications here and there. I remember one director working with it at one point gave me a couple of ideas that he had for the script. But once that fell through, I just kept going back to the basic script that I’d written. The most significant change came right before we shot — that was an idea inspired by our producer Dylan Sellers to swap the gender roles. At that point, I was like, ‘what are you talking about?!’ By then, I had read the script so many times that I was sort of exhausted by it at that point, to be honest with you. When I did that, it was as simple as doing a ‘find and replace,’ and while reading it, I felt something for the first time in years — it just became a new script and took on new life. It made so much more sense, and it just felt right. I was so excited I called Melfi [Director Theodore Melfi] and said I felt like this really works. I sent him the script, he agreed to it and really liked it as well. And so that was the biggest, best change we made. And obviously, when you change the roles, you have to massage some things as well. It was great. It really was nice to do that.

LV Taylor: With such a long journey to finally get to the big screen, how does it feel seeing the final product?

Matt Harris: It’s surreal. It was surreal walking out on the set that first day and going, ‘Wait a minute, these trucks and all these people are here because of something I wrote kind of quietly in the corner of my house or a library or wherever I could grab space and time between working and raising kids. I was just kind of floored by that whole experience. Then it just reaches a whole new level when you actually go and see it on a movie screen — it was very different. It’s been very satisfying. I was very encouraged when I was watching them shoot the film. You want things to be true — to feel emotionally true — and I thought that that’s what I was seeing, and I feel that when I watch the film as well. I just wanted it to be honest and real — something that people could identify with. And maybe, just maybe, feel good when they left the theater — there’s that hope there that we’ve talked about, how do we get me on certain things. That was evident.

LV Taylor: Yeah, definitely.

Matt Harris: (with a laugh) It was a thrill — that’s the answer.

LV Taylor: The main couple is so relatable — did you draw inspiration from personal experience or from people you knew who had gone through something similar?

Matt Harris: No, I’m glad to hear that. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t based on any real-life experience, except that everything we create has some sort of relevance and experience of people we know. I think I’ve always been interested in characters that maybe people don’t pay as much attention to — I would call them ‘invisible characters’ — it’s just everyday people. That’s why it was essential for me that my main character be an assistant grocery store manager in a very small town, somebody whom you may not stop to wonder, ‘what’s their life like’ or ‘what are they dealing with on a daily?’ That’s where I was really interested in going with it. That was my basis for those characters.

LV Taylor: Where did you get the idea of the actual bird — the Starling — where did that come from?

Matt Harris: I was attacked by the bird one time, believe it or not. But it was a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t call this ‘The Mockingbird’ — that’s already been taken. But that really didn’t have anything to do with it. I was kind of fascinated by this idea of a character trying to make sense out of the universe’s/nature’s indifference to their suffering. I think it is a truth that we all sort of experience at one point or another — bad things happening to good people. Why is that? Where’s the order in the universe? We turn to religion or science to find order out of darkness and chaos, and sometimes it just defies explanation. We just tell ourselves, ‘it’s God’s plan,’ or somebody else’s plan. I think we tell ourselves that just to kind of try and get beyond — so the bird for me became a representation of that indifference of the natural world to what’s going on with us as human beings. It was a good representation for that — not trying to be too metaphorical with her trying to grow a garden or healing, but it was just kind of like, what are the obstacles that she’s going to have to get past? Ultimately for her, in the end, I felt like she had to learn to live with it, not overcome and defeat it but learn to live with it. That was the victory, if you will. I think she was struggling to come to terms with those forces.

LV Taylor: You did a nice job of blending light comedy with the serious subject matter — how are you able to balance the two without taking away from the weight of the story itself?

Matt Harris: It’s funny. My grandfather used to put salt on watermelon when he’d eat it, and it’s crazy. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it…

LV Taylor: My grandfather used to do that too.

Matt Harris: Right. And I think it makes it taste sweeter, doesn’t it? I don’t know if you ever tried it, but I did, and I was like, well, he’s right, somehow the salt hitting your tongue can make some watermelon taste sweeter. So I feel like it’s a little bit like that with the comedy, the drama, and the heavy subject matter. We’re going to give you some sweet here so that when you do taste the salt, if you will, it really has an impact. I think there’s really only so much you can take as an audience when you’re watching the story of reading the story. You need to lighten it up, but I also wanted that to feel real, and I think there’s some absurdity in everyday life. I was just trying to take advantage of that and use it for a little bit of relief.

LV Taylor: Makes sense. You kind of touched on this a bit before, but you had some heavyweight actors in this film. How did it feel to finally see these characters brought to life — and brought to life by the likes of Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, and Kevin Kline? That’s serious.

Matt Harris: Yeah, and then meanwhile there’s like Daveed Diggs, Timothy Olyphant, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, and you’re just like, ‘what the heck is going on’ when you walk out on set. That’s Laura Harrier — does everyone know that’s Laura Harrier?! It was humbling, to say the least because they were reading the script, and they liked what they read, and they wanted to be a part of it. It wasn’t a super high-budget film at the time before they sold it to Netflix, so it was very gratifying and a bit frightening. If I’m being 100% honest here, a bit terrifying that they signed on to this — but it felt good, and that made me feel okay, so they see the story that I wrote, they get it, and they want to be part of that. I think it’s important that it’s done well enough for them to be a part of it. I felt like it was in really great hands with Ted Melfi as a director — I really liked what he’d done with Hidden Figures — so I had that confidence in him and his ability to bring this to life as well.

LV Taylor: So we know that this was written, pre-COVID, pre-pandemic, but given what we’ve all collectively gone through in the past year and a half or so, what do you hope viewers take away from this film?

Matt Harris: I’m glad you’re relating to the last two years — the pandemic and the tragedy of all that, and everything we’ve had to deal with, right, not just the pandemic. I do hope that there’s a sense — I don’t want to be glossy that ‘oh you know we can all come through this on the other side,’ but I think at some point, we look for that negotiation to ask ‘okay, so how do we start to begin to get beyond this — because we want to get back to it beyond this — a new normal, if you will. I think we’ve all been changed by the events of the last couple of years — socially, medically, and everything. I’m also really happy that we’re now talking a lot more about mental health. I think the courage that we saw during the Olympics will move the needle — people don’t understand how much that’s going to move the needle when people step forward, openly discuss their struggles which have always been there. Mental health struggles are nothing new, but we kept them in the shadows a bit more, we’re reluctant, maybe felt embarrassed, felt like it was more of a sign of weakness or a lack of will, if you will. And now we realize no, these are just as much a health issue as anything else that we’re dealing with. So both of those, I feel like, are topics that would be great to see an audience walk away from and feel some sort of sense of hope, you know — there’s nothing wrong with that.

LV Taylor: One final question for you. I know that you have another script in the works. Are there any other projects that you’re currently working on that you can actually talk about?

Matt Harris: What’s in the pipeline for me that I can actually share about? I’m working on some things that I’m really interested in. I’m writing about a character — kind of a young guy trying to fit in who makes some questionable choices to impress others and then becomes a victim of those choices. It deals a little bit with some illegal activity. I don’t want to get too deep into it, but I’m always curious because we all try to fit in, right? So what are the lengths we’re willing to go to fit in and to feel? Why do we choose some groups that we want so badly to identify with over others, even at the cost of our own well-being? I do find that interesting. So, it’s a little bit of an initiation story — it’s a bit of a comedy bit of a thriller. That’s what I’m working on these days.

LV Taylor: Well, I look forward to seeing everything of yours in the future. Thanks again for taking the time out to chat with me today. Definitely appreciate it.

Matt Harris: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

THE STARLING IS AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON NETFLIX ON SEPTEMBER 24, 2021.

Written by
LV Taylor is an entertainment attorney, freelance writer and film lover. With previous experience in the music, fashion publishing and sports worlds, LV works with all types of creators and creatives helping to build and protect their brands and artistic visions. It is through this work that LV cultivates her love for film and writing. Her love for film was ignited in middle school as a drama student when she first discovered Turner Classic Movies and fell in love with classic Hollywood. LV is also a budding producer having produced a short film with more in the pipeline. She believes in the power of a beautiful or engaging story that allows one to see the world from a different point of view and speak a common language. LV shares her passion for film and good storytelling through her writing and reviews for sites such as AwardsCircuit.com and Musings of a Streaming Junkie.

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