Starling Girls, Director Discuss Morally Complicated Script | Sundance 2023

Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams and writer/director Laurel Parmet also talk about shooting emotional scenes.

For Laurel Parmet's first feature film, "The Starling Girl," the writer-director told an "emotional and cathartic" story a decade in the making. It centers on Jem Starling, played by Eliza Scanlen, a teenager growing up in a small-town Kentucky Christian fundamentalist community.

At age 17, Jem helped her mother raise her younger siblings, dutifully attended church, and obeyed strict guidelines for women of faith. Under the thumb of the community and the godly discipline of her mother, Jem found her only respite in her passion for dance and did so with the church dance troupe. When the pastor's son and youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman) returns from his mission, Jem is fascinated by his unconventional tendencies. When married Owen begins to pay attention to Jem, the two become involved in a secret relationship with devastating consequences. The film's ensemble cast also includes Jimmy Simpson, Austin Abrams and Ryan Schmidt.

Following Starling Girl's debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Parmet and the cast join Collider's Steve Weintraub at the Collider Studio in Park City. In their interview, Parmet shared how her own experiences influenced the writing of Starling Girls, and the actors each discussed how they fit into the project and how they prepared for heavier scenes. They talked about being mindful of how they portrayed a faith-based community, having to cut some of Parmet's favorite scenes to save time, and changing the soundtrack during editing to keep the film from feeling "manipulated and overwrought." For more on The Starling Girl, you can watch the interview in the video above, or read the full transcript below.

COLLIDER: For actors, before we get into the movie, if someone has never seen anything you've done before, what do you want them to see first? Why?

JIMMI SIMPSON: That was hard. That was so much fun. I did a little show called Hap and Leonard, and it was like a stand-alone TV show with Michael K. Williams and Christina Hendricks on it. I'm coming out of a very stressful event - a divorce - and I don't feel like I have anything to lose, so it just blew up from me. That's what I've been striving for. so yes i will Ask people to see that.

AUSTIN ABRAMS: Maybe this. I love this character.

The Simpsons: Fuck, fuck. I didn't know it was an option.

Abrams: I do. It's a great movie.

LEWIS PULLMAN: I need a little time to digest. I still, every time - like we just saw the movie - every time your face is in front of the camera, it looks like some weird well-taken shot of your memory version of Strange Mirror Memory. So I don't think it's subjective, but I think I'll be thinking about Starling Girl in a year or two. I just loved the story and the experience was truly one of the best and most fruitful artistic experiences of my life.

ELIZA SCANLEN: I agree. I would say starling girl. Like Jimmi, I didn't know that was an option, but now I think I have to say Starling Girl. But yeah, it was one of the best experiences I've ever had on set. As Lewis said, it feels very rewarding.

SIMPSON: Guys, how's my divorce role going? That's pretty cool, isn't it? Anyway, keep going.

I really want to start Hearty congratulations on this movie. I think you guys did a great job, and you guys did a great job with the materials. Most of the people who watched the interview hadn't seen the movie. Would you mind talking about what the movie is about?

LAUREL PARMET: Yeah, so this movie takes place in a Christian fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky, and it's about a teenage girl struggling with her place in the world, in her community, but Plans to live the life people expect of her, and then things start to change. When she meets again with the youth pastor who has returned from a year abroad, she begins to question things and things become dramatic.

I read in the press release - I don't know if you want to talk about it - that you have experienced something similar in your own life to what is depicted in the movie. How much have you thought about using your real life [crossover] art? ^PARMET: Yeah, I mean I've been thinking about this all the time. Of course, in the writing process, I think this is the most emotional and cathartic part its. And then, the funny thing is, once we're on set and we start directing, which is weird, I kind of get out of it, like, "I'm the director, I'm focused on executing the script," and I feel like my experience is a little bit distant.

Then editing, and very emotional. I think there's a lot of myself in all the characters, especially Jem, especially at that age. A lot of what happened was inspired by what actually happened to me in the relationship, so yeah, very cathartic.

For the four of you, I'm curious as to what the material and the script are that say "I need to do this, I want to be a part of this movie".

ABRAMS: Well, it's a really well written script. Really, well written. One of my favorite screenplays in a long time. At the time, it was just Eliza and Lewis, and I just wanted to work with them, really. You know, and then I saw Laurel's short, which was really good. I really want to work with someone like this I really like it.

Simpson: Yes, same. It was the script, and the script blew me away. Also, when I read this and then saw what she could do in the movie with her two pairs of shorts, I was absolutely stunned. I was like, "I need to work with this person. I can't believe I'm going to be in her first movie."

PULLMAN: Yeah, unlike you guys, for me it's the script, you do you know?

No, when I met Laurel, I really got into it a little bit, and I learned how she works, and her vision for the project. It's kind of like tonal gymnastics, you know? So it was a tall order, and after I met her, it was obvious that I didn't want to miss out.

SCANLEN: Before Starling Girl, I worked on a film produced by Kara Durrett, the producer of Starling Girl, who gave me the script. Kara is an amazing producer and I will do anything she recommends. Then I met Laurel and I was like, "Obviously I have to do this. "And the script.

If I could do a follow-up for you, you did such a great job, it's a challenging role. When you read the script, or when you start liking it, you find you're going to play the role , you’re like, “Wow, this is really a challenge for me as an actor. "?

SCANLEN: Yeah, sure. I've done adult films before, but I think what made this one particularly scary or challenging for me was the sexual nature of it. Because it's not just...they're troublesome, The nature of sex is also troublesome. It's not just a relationship, it's not like a simple coming-of-age story. I don't want to give anything away, so yeah, it feels conflicted and morally complicated, and that's what I find pretty scary about it place, that makes me want to do it.

When you read the script, it's a challenging role that requires... when you're ready to play such a role and you're playing someone on this side of the relationship How do you prepare? Can you talk about it?

PULLMAN: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I Really just trying to immerse myself in the world and immerse myself in all the material Laurel gave me, which was very helpful. I drew on the experiences of some very Christian family friends of mine in Montana — the part I love about Owen [is] what I got from them. And then, we had a week of rehearsals beforehand, and Laurel did protect the schedule, and that was, I think for me, the most... I was really scared, but after that week of rehearsals, I felt like May be a hill we can climb. Or I could, at least.

One of the things about this movie is that it deals with Christian fundamentalists, but it doesn't portray them as...that's who they are, and it doesn't go after people who believe that. Can you talk about why it's important to make sure everyone is treated fairly?

PARMET: Completely. Yes, I mean it's important from the start. I don't want to tell a story that condemns or ridicules these communities. it's really about trying To get into the headspace of these characters and help... I want the audience to feel them and see themselves in the story, you know? The oppression is clearly there, but I think it's kind of boring to focus on that part only. We've seen those movies, and I wanted to paint a lot of really beautiful things about tight-knit communities and faiths, among other things.

Honestly, I think it's just a funnier movie. It's boring when you feel like the publicity is being pushed in front of you, "Have this feeling about these people." You want to be invested in the story, you want to take the audience for a ride and feel for these people instead of standing in the back and judging.

I'm fascinated by the editing process because that's where the film comes together. I'm curious, how did the film change in the cutting room in ways you wouldn't expect? ^PARMET: I mean, nothing particularly unusual. You know, some of my favorite scenes we ended up cutting just for time. I think maybe what caught me off guard was how we combined the scores, which Actually not that much. In the end, music is a very important part of this movie, there is a lot of music, but... this movie is a very emotional movie. [There's] a lot of ups and downs, and I'm very, very conscious of being protective...I never want it to feel overwrought. I never wanted it to feel over the top because it's so easy to veer in that direction. So I noticed that when we were editing, at certain points I thought we'd have a musical cue, I was like, "I don't need that, man, like it's going to feel very manipulative and overwrought. I just want To be with these actors, to experience the tension and the silence." I'm delighted.

You know, a big part of this movie, what we're trying to do is, we want the audience to be with Jem the whole time. We're always in her point of view, and I don't want to get too invested in her experience through music or editing. If it makes sense, I want the audience to experience as much of it as possible without manipulation and lead them to make Their own decisions about what's going on, or how they feel about it, rather. Again, it's back to that, I don't like watching movies where that stuff gets shoved in my face. I want to take on the challenge. I want to stand up for something and say, "Oh wait, why would I want that?" For me, those are the types of movies I enjoy watching the most.

I wish we could bring it up now - maybe in the cut - but an example of a scene where the music is overdone and makes you feel a certain way, rather than a moment in this movie where there's no music. Exactly what you are talking about. ^PARMET: Of course, yes. I mean, you edit all the time. We keep putting improvised things in, trying things out, some places where I don't think we need music, and then we put it in, and I say, "Oh, it's really good." But yeah, without the actors , some scenarios are more powerful.

It's not a Marvel movie for the cast, time and schedule are limited, I'm curious Which day of the shoot schedule have you circled "Oh, this is going to be a day."?

Scanlon: Every day.

Is there a day on the schedule where you actually think, "I'm a little nervous, I'm a little scared, or I'm going to have to be down by the end."?

PULLMAN: It does feel like all your scenes are hot topics on the schedule. However, there was one cut scene that was really horrific. That's my big—

SCANLEN: We can't talk about it.

PULLMAN: We can't talk about it.

PARMET: How was your first day, Lewis?

PULLMAN: Well, I don't have time to be afraid, because it just pops up on me.

PARMET: How about filming in the water at night?

SCANLEN: That was the day.

PULLMAN: It's freezing as hell.

SCANLEN: We sat in the lake, early morning-

PARMET: It was about three in the morning, and it was very hot every other day except today.

SCANLEN: We're all shaking.

PARMET: Although you can't tell. them Very worried that you'll see them shaking during the performance, but you won't be able to tell. Plus, we had an hour to shoot that scene. It's a nightmare, but it's one of my favorite scenes. I love that scene.

ABRAMS: I think independent films are always pressed for time. But for me, at least on this point, I think both Laurel and Kara are very calm at the helm, not crazy. They did a really good job of staying calm, even though we might not have that much time, and it didn't feel like pressure or pressure, you know? So I think everybody can just relax and do their job, do it better, you know? So it's really cool that they have something like this.

SIMPSON: Kara and Laurel, they steer that ship so calmly. We don't know if they ever felt overwhelmed. too crazy. It's crazy.

PARMET: That's the idea.

For the actors, since I don't want to spoil, I just want to ask a performance question, if you will. when you know you have a very An emotional or dramatic scene or a scene where you're really nervous - let's say it happens on a Monday - how early are you mentally preparing for that scene? Was it in your subconscious during filming when you first got the script? How do you prepare when you really have to deliver something someday?

SIMPSON: We don't really have the luxury of having a flow for each production. So for me it makes a difference. Ideally, it starts from scratch, and then you have time to slowly open it up. But you know, what the project needs is usually what you have to come up with.

SCANLEN: I also find that with smaller films, when there is less time and so many scenes have to be packed in one day, the intensity of the shoot can sometimes make you more vulnerable on the day. Some people enjoy doing the work and some don't, it really depends, but I've found that when you're in that environment, you have to feel so vulnerable all the time that it's easier to get those emotions. Also, some days, despite all your preparation, it just doesn't happen to you, and that's the hard part about acting.

PARMET: You are very good at it, I have to say. I mean, you know. you will see. You will all see it.

Two more people need to reply, please.

ABRAMS: Yeah, I feel like me, I don't know, you know? I'm just kind of not sure what would like to come out or show up. A lot of the time, I'm just a little surprised when it comes to emotional stuff. For me, it's kind of like letting go and feeling what's going on, because when you're trying to find -- I mean, even in those situations, but in any -- when you're trying to find an emotion it Becomes a thought, and you don't feel any emotion.

So for me, I mean I think maybe there's something unconscious that's pushing yourself in that direction, not that you absolutely don't think about it or don't think about that scene, or whatever it is. But I think there's only part of it, "I just Not really knowing what's going to happen,' you know? And you just have to let it go. At least for me, that's what I've found going on all the time. ^PARMET: That's the beauty of it. ^ABRAMS: Yes Yeah, that's the beauty of it, it can also be scary because you don't know what's going to happen, you know?

PULLMAN: I'd say it depends on the scene, on what the mood is, but I find that in the right There's a delicate balance between time conjuring a lot of pieces. If you do it too early, you'll bleed like a balloon and you'll be a little empty by the day of the shoot. So I don't know, I'm still trying to find that sweet spot.

It's funny because I've talked to a lot of people and they've said that when you're dying to someone you know and you need to paint that scene on camera, there's no right way to do it. It doesn't matter what the character likes , the show has no exact scientific basis.

PARMET: Honestly, what a big deal They all had very different processes about working with actors and working with all these talented actors. It's been great, it's been really fun for me, and it's been fun figuring out what works for each of them. Especially the rehearsal week that we have to do is very rewarding, figuring out what makes you guys tick and what will work that day. I think in our rehearsals we have to play... I do my best to create an environment where we can play and play, like who cares, whatever we come up with, it's like, "We'll give it a try .Oh, it sucks. Who cares? Anything."

I think, anyway, for me, it's the feeling of playing that inspires me the most. It kind of feels like, "There's no wrong answer right now," and I think there are wrong answers everywhere, but you know, we figured out how. And then on that day, we have a set of tools, we have a set of intentions that we know we can try and extract from what works for us. This is so much fun.

special thanks To our 2023 partners at Sundance, including display partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou and the all-electric vehicle Fisker Ocean.

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