EXCLUSIVE: Among the world premieres being offered at the Toronto Film Festival this week is the latest from director Ted Melfi, The Starling, which reteams him with Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. Both also appeared in Melfi’s much acclaimed St. Vincent that starred Bill Murray and which also had its world premiere at TIFF in 2014. Kevin Kline also joins them in a major role here.
Since St. Vincent Melfi has scored two Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay for 2016’s hit Hidden Figures, which represented his second major feature directorial breakthrough. McCarthy has gone on to a string of starring roles and success as a certified movie star, and notably a second Oscar nomination for her brilliant performance in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? for which she was nominated as Best Actress (her previous breakout nom came for her hilarious supporting turn in 2011’s Bridesmaids).
When Melfi called her about doing The Starling and suggested they could flip the gender of the lead role (screenwriter Matt Harris’ original screenplay on the 2005 Black List was a man), she jumped at the opportunity. The role of Lilly Maynard proves to be one of McCarthy’s finest performances as she navigates a fine line between comic and dramatic moments playing a woman trying to process grief over a devastating loss, a marriage to a husband (O’Dowd) that is deeply affected by it, and a battle with a bird whose own maternal instincts keep leading it to attack Lilly as she tries to grow a new garden. That leads her to a veterinarian (Kline) who must summon his past career as a psychologist to help her heal, save her marriage and come to terms with that determined bird.
The Starling is a moving human dramedy certain to hit the heart of audiences when it will premiere at TIFF on September 12, and then stream on Netflix beginning September 24; it will get a theatrical run a week prior. If there is any justice McCarthy’s wonderfully real and lovely performance should join this year’s awards conversation. It certainly deserves to.
The star won’t be attending the Toronto festival in person, but she recently joined me and Melfi for a conversation about the film, why they feel the timing is just right for it to come out now, and how playing Lilly meant so much to her.
DEADLINE: What was it that was so appealing about playing Lilly in The Starling? It seems like a real balancing act between the drama and comedy of it all.
MELISSA McCARTHY: I’ve said it before, it never occurs to me to think of a movie as either a comedy or a drama. I know that and the playing of it there’s different things, you lean different ways, but I always think that’s because of the character not the tone. I don’t know. When I read this, I just thought first of all everybody in their own way…I don’t know of a human that hasn’t had great loss, has had things that they think, “I will not get on the other side of this.” That’s just part of life. You don’t see a lot of things on denial and how strong that is. That if people are just like “My way of dealing with this is to not deal with it” because if you put a crack in that dam I don’t know what will happen. So instead, I will stop. Chris’ character, which he played so beautifully, went the other way. He had no stopper and it all went apart. But I just love that she was trying so hard to keep it together and then I thought what a lovely, strange thing to have this vet played by Kevin Kline and this bird that just kept literally pecking away at her. They were living these kind of parallel lives of defending what you have and trying to hold on and keep a family together and knowing how that can leave you in a minute. I just thought I did what I always try to do. I just fell in love with Lilly and the world immediately. I thought she’s complicated and she’s funny and she’s very flawed like all of us are. That, to me, is always a real chance of once I fall in love I’d like to spend some time with her and with these people. I was kind of in right away.
TED MELFI: Listen, in all seriousness, I think Melissa is one of the best actors on the planet. I know I tell her that. She doesn’t believe me but she’s one of the best actors on the planet because in my estimation it is her ability to navigate the fine line between comedy and drama consistently and to make you laugh and cry. To me, she makes me laugh and cry in this movie in matters of a minute. She’s just fantastic. Basically, I think it’s because she’s from Illinois and she’s grounded. She’s super Midwestern grounded and just kind of understands a no-frills way of being and she just gets it. She gets humanity.
McCARTHY: I mean basically I’m always trying to do something with Ted kind of constantly. We’re going to shoot in 33 days and I was like “I’ll do it.” He’s like “read it.” Switch the parts. I was like, “Okay, fine. I’ll do it.” He’s like, “Go away, read it.” I read it immediately and they called back. I was like for the third time “I’m not playing hard to get. I’ll do it.” His storytelling and his aesthetic is so good and he never lets it get…sentimental is probably not the right word, although that’s kind of what we say on set. Don’t get too much into it, which is hard when it’s tricky subject matter. But he has an ability to really keep those scales balanced in such a way that you never see any of the work and he puts so much work into it. I think how he tells his stories is so relatable because you just feel like that’s life. It’s a mess. It’s up and down and sideways. I don’t know who can’t relate to that.
DEADLINE: So Ted why did you decide this film could be made by switching the gender from a man to a woman? Did it give it another layer it didn’t have before?
MELFI: Well, first mentally and emotionally. I’ve said this before, I was raised by a single mom. I’ve been married 25 years. I have two daughters and so I’m surrounded by strong women. It seems like even producing St. Vincent was a general topping. I’m always surrounded by great, beautiful, strong women. When I first got the script I’m like it’s a beautiful script but aren’t we sick or tired or isn’t it just so cliché to have a strong man holding down the fort while the woman takes a time out? Haven’t we seen that or versions of that two billion times in cinema? So to me, it was really cliché and also it was untrue. For me, it’s untrue. Any given day, the women in my life are a million times stronger than me and I’m the one crying and can’t take it, break down and go to the ER. I’m dying. They’re like, oh, yeah, you’re dying. I’m like no, this time it’s it. I’m dying. I just don’t believe in it. I just think women are so strong and so awesome and kind of the glue of the world. Then the minute we make a mental switch — we’re going to go female — I said it’s got to be Melissa. It has to be Melissa.
DEADLINE: Talk about working with the bird. Was it real? How did you do it?
MELFI: The proper term, Pete, is a maquette occasionally which is like a dead taxidermy bird, which is called a maquette. It’s called a dead taxidermy bird but it’s called a maquette. The maquette would be put in some spots where Melissa could actually see what the bird kind of looked like and then she had to do a lot of her acting with nothing, with a dot. She loves my bird voices. I would do the starling-attack bird voices, which I had researched for a long time. So, I would do those for attacking her and talking to her. I think that kind of helped her.
McCARTHY: It did. At first, it made me laugh because also he was doing it so earnestly because when he’s shooting it’s just…I mean as all good directors, he’s really laser-focused. So the first time I heard it I looked over and he’s very seriously looking into the lens but doing this crazy bird call. Then I was like I don’t want to do it without it because it really did help, and I mean this seriously. It was an irritant in a good way that it was like that damn garden. I’m trying to make something grow and be positive and then this thing is just relentlessly drawing my focus away from trying to do one positive thing. It strangely all worked well.
DEADLINE: Kevin Kline is known for turning down a lot of roles. What was it like working with him as this sort of hybrid vet/psychologist/friend?
McCARTHY: It’s such a great character. I know Kevin would roll his eyes but getting to work with him, there’s just certain people that there’s no point since I started doing this to now where I’m like I’ll probably work with Kevin Kline. You don’t even dare to think it and then to get to do that with such a lovely piece. I get to know how funny and what a sweetheart he is. If this is the fever dream on my way out I’m fine with it.
DEADLINE: Getting a movie focused on human beings is not easy these days. Studios don’t do them much anymore. How did you get this one made?
MELFI: I guess I’ve just been lucky. I mean I guess really it just boils down to luck. It started with St. Vincent, which was a movie that no one wanted to make and then Harvey Weinstein made, strangely enough. Then Hidden Figures, everyone said don’t make that movie. Why would you make that movie? No one’s going to care about math and any of it. I don’t know. I think there’s a big hole, right? There’s a big hole in cinema right now that desperately needs to be filled, in my estimation. The hole is movies about people. That’s just the hole. That’s a huge gap and so we’re inundated with Spandex and with explosions and the attention span has dropped to…we used to have 60-second commercials. Now we have eight-second commercials, now we have three-second tags. You’re like I don’t even know what happens in three seconds. So, there’s a hole. The hole is humanity. Now’s the time. I mean we desperately need to remind ourselves that stories are the way we move forward. Stories are the way we’ve always healed, stories are what tie us all together. I’ve just been lucky, and I’ve been lucky that people like Melissa and Chris and Kevin Klein and Bill Murray and Naomi Watts and Taraji Henson, they all want to do those movies. The actors want to make movies that they can feel. So, I think we just keep going. We just keep doing it and hopefully it spreads.
DEADLINE: How hard is it to find these kinds of scripts, Melissa? And once you do are they hard to get made?
McCARTHY: I think yes to all of those things. I think I seek them out, certainly. Even with the comedies [her husband] Ben [Falcone] and I make, we get a lot of criticism because for some reason it bothers people. It’s okay when you do it in a more dramatic way but when you make a comedy with pathos somehow you’ve broken the rules and people strangely get very upset about that. I’m like I don’t know how to tell a story or be a character that doesn’t have highs and lows, that doesn’t have good days and bad days. I don’t know how to play it. I guess I could if I was a robot, but I still feel like wouldn’t the robot have some bad days? I think you just have to fight for it. You have to fight when someone’s like, “Can’t you just jump ahead to this?” You have to fight through every process of it. You have to fight while you’re making it, you have to fight in editing to keep the humanity in because somebody always wants to go “just get to the good part.” I think when people watch it, I think the business is trying to predict how people will watch things. When you give them something that represents them or someone they know and they see other people going through both good and bad days I think you immediately can fall into that story. I think people will always like that. It’s a fight to tell that kind of story.
MELFI: I will say, Pete, thank God for the streamers. Thank God for Netflix because Netflix has, I believe, all the gold in Fort Knox and they can take a gamble. They can go let’s make the $8 million, $10 million, $15 million people movie. We have an audience for that. So, the streamers I think have saved the indie business and are saving the indie business because the mid-level movie like this was dead five years ago, seven years ago. It was like a drought. Where’s As Good As It Gets? Where’s Terms of Endearment? Where are these movies? Now that you have Netflix, Netflix will take a chance on them because actually they can afford to economically and they can afford to because they know they have the audience that’ll watch it.
DEADLINE: Neither of you can be there this year, but can you talk about what premiering at Toronto again means to you?
MELFI: I guess Toronto is the only festival I’ve ever known. I was blessed and lucky enough for them to accept St. Vincent and that kind of started it. I was blessed and lucky enough for them to preview Hidden Figures and kind of launch it and here we are again four years later or whatever. We have The Starling up there. I think the audiences in Toronto are just among the best audiences in the world. They’re just film fans and film lovers. I mean you remember that night with St. Vincent. We were all crying because after the movie everyone, they were just crying. They stood and it was such compassion and love for the work that you go this is what I’m doing this for. I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for other people. That’s the job of a filmmaker and an actor. We are doing it for others and to actually receive back from them is the greatest gift in the world. You go, “Okay, finally.”
McCARTHY: I remember how overwhelming that was for St. Vincent and Bill (Murray) was right behind me. I think from how visceral the response was to just see this story about people and humanity and flaws and how great they can be. I remember we were all pretty choked up. I just remember we were walking to the front. Bill nudged me in the back and all of us were crying. He goes, “For God sake’s we’ve got to stop crying. We can’t cry at our own movie.” I was like, “Right, Bill.” But it was a wonderful feeling. You like the story, too. That’s why we all did it.
DEADLINE: And although you shot this film two years ago before Covid hit the world, it is now coming out with a pandemic still raging. Does it take on even more meaning now?
MELFI: A hundred percent. I mean the movie’s about a couple getting through something that is impossible to get through. Covid’s impossible to get through. I mean we lost crew members, I lost my mom. I mean everything happened in this two-year span for the world. The movie is about getting through. How do you get through? How do you find the light on the other side? Ultimately, to me, it’s an essay in hope. It’s an essay in how people put the work in, put their heads down, commit to getting through even if they don’t know how. Get some help, talk it out, and end up on the other side. They end up better and you feel like there’s healing. That’s what the world needs right now.
McCARTHY: One hundred percent. I think now, I mean it’s an evergreen story of getting through something hard, and fighting for something that you know is worth fighting for. The entire planet has gone through the last two years where I think it is the unimaginable, and it doesn’t have to be the same story line. It’s the same feeling. It’s the same fear and worry, and knowing that everybody is feeling that and that even when you think there is no other side, there always is and you just have to fight for it. If that’s not more relevant now then I know nothing.