Lewis Pullman, Austin Abrams & Eliza Scanlen on The Starling Girl at Sundance
Feb 16, 2023
For Laurel Parmet’s first feature film, The Starling Girl, the writer and director told a story that was “emotional and cathartic,” and one that was a decade in the making. It is centered around Jem Starling, played by Eliza Scanlen, a teenager growing up in a Christian fundamentalist community in small-town Kentucky.
At 17, Jem is helping her mother raise her younger siblings, dutifully attending church, and abiding by the strict guidelines set in place for women in the faith. Under the thumb of the community and her mother’s devout discipline, Jem finds her only respite in her passion for dancing and does so with the church’s dance group. When the pastor’s son and youth pastor, Owen (played by Lewis Pullman), returns from a mission trip, Jem is enamored by his tendency to buck tradition. When the married Owen begins paying Jem attention, the two of them become involved in a secret relationship that has devastating consequences. The film’s ensemble cast also features Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams, and Wrenn Schmidt.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
After The Starling Girl debuted its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Parmet and the cast joined Collider’s Steve Weintraub in the Collider Studio at Park City. During their interview, Parmet shares how her own experiences influenced the writing for The Starling Girl, the cast each discusses how they got attached to the project, and how they prepare for heavier scenes. They talk about being mindful of how they portrayed a faith-based community, having to cut some of Parmet’s favorite scenes to save for time, and changing the score during editing to avoid the film feeling “manipulative and overwrought.” For more on The Starling Girl, you can watch the interview in the video above, or read the full transcript below.
Image via Photagonist
COLLIDER: For the actors, before we get into the movie, if someone has never seen anything you’ve done before, what do you want them watching first and why?
JIMMI SIMPSON: That’s tough. That is so interesting. There was a little show I did called Hap and Leonard, it was like an independent television show, and Michael K. Williams was in it and Christina Hendricks. I was coming out of a really intense thing – a divorce – and I felt like I had nothing to lose, and so everything just exploded out of me. That’s what I’m always trying to shoot for. So yeah, I’d ask people to see that one.
AUSTIN ABRAMS: Maybe this one. I like the character.
SIMPSON: Shit, shit. I didn’t know that was an option.
ABRAMS: I would. It’s a great movie.
LEWIS PULLMAN: It takes me a little minute to digest. I still, every time – like we just watched this movie – and it’s hard whenever your face shows up on camera, it looks like a weird mirror memory of some weird well-shot version of your memory. So I don’t feel subjective, but I feel like in a year or two I’m gonna think Starling Girl. I just love this story and the experience was truly one of the best, most fruitful artistic experiences in my life.
ELIZA SCANLEN: I second that. I would say The Starling Girl. Like Jimmi, I didn’t know that was an option, but now I guess I have to say Starling Girl. But yeah, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a set. And felt very fruitful, as Lewis said.
SIMPSON: What about my divorce role, guys, though? That was pretty cool, huh? Anyway, moving on.
I really want to start with a sincere congratulations on the film. I thought you guys did such a great job, and you did such a great job with the material. Most people watching the interview will not have seen the movie yet. Do you mind talking about what the film is about?
LAUREL PARMET: Yeah, so the film takes place in a Christian fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky and it’s about a teenage girl who is struggling with her place in the world, in the community but plans on living the life that is expected of her, and then things start to change. She starts to question things when she sees again her youth pastor who returns from a year abroad, and things get dramatic.
I read in the press notes – and I don’t know if you want to talk about it – that you experienced something in your own life that was similar to what’s being depicted in the film. How much had you been thinking about using your real life [crossed] with art?
PARMET: Yeah, I mean I thought about it the whole time. Definitely, during the writing process, I think that was the most emotional and cathartic part of it. And then, interestingly, once we were on set and directing, it was weird, I kind of was able to divorce myself from that a little bit and just be like, “I’m the director, I’m focusing on executing the script,” and I felt a little bit removed from my experience.
Then editing, it was very emotional again. I think there’s so much of myself in all of the characters, in Jem especially, especially at that age. A lot of what happened was inspired by things that actually happened to me in this relationship and so yeah, pretty cathartic.
For all four of you, I’m curious what was it about the material and the script that said, “I need to do this, I want to be a part of this film.”
ABRAMS: Well, it was really well-written script. Really, really well written. One of my favorite scripts I had read in a long time. At the time, it was just Eliza and Lewis that were attached, and I just wanted to work with them, really. You know, and then I saw Laurel’s short, and that was really great. I just really wanted to work with people that I really liked.
SIMPSON: Yeah, the same. It was the script, the script blew me away. And also, when I read that and then saw what she can do on film with her two shorts, I was just stunned. I was like, “I need to work with this person. I can’t believe I get to be in her first feature.”
PULLMAN: Yeah, different from you guys, for me, it was the script, you know?
No, it really kind of sunk in for me when I met with Laurel and I got the sense of how she worked, and what her vision for the project was. And knowing this is sort of like a tonal gymnastics, you know? So it’s quite an undertaking, and after I met her, it was very clear that I didn’t want to miss the boat.
SCANLEN: Before doing Starling Girl, I worked on a film that was being produced by Kara Durrett, who was a producer on Starling Girl, and she presented the script to me. Kara is an incredible producer, and anything that she would recommend I would do. Then I met Laurel and was like, “Obviously I have to do this.” And the script.
Image via Sundance Institute
If I can do a follow-up for you, you deliver such a great performance, and it’s a challenging role. When you’re reading the script, or when you got attached, and you found out you’re going to do the role, where you’re like, “Oh wow, this is really gonna challenge me as an actor.”?
SCANLEN: Yeah, for sure. I’ve done coming-of-age 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 very troubling, the sexual nature is quite troubling. It’s not just about falling in love, it’s not like a simple coming-of-age story. I don’t want to give anything away, so yeah, it felt conflicted and morally complex, and that’s what I found quite frightening about it, which made me want to do it.
When you read the script, it’s a role that is challenging and requires… When you’re getting ready for a role like this and you’re playing the person on this side of a relationship, how do you prep for that? Could you talk a little bit about that?
PULLMAN: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I really just tried to immerse myself in the world and immerse myself in all the material that Laurel was feeding me, which was incredibly helpful. I drew from experiences with some of my family friends who are pretty Christian out in Montana – the parts that I like about Owen [are] what I was drawing from them. Then, we had a week of rehearsal beforehand that Laurel really protected in the schedule, and that was, I think for me, one of the most… I was really terrified, but after that week of rehearsal I felt like maybe it was a hill we could climb. Or I could, at least.
One of the things about the film is that it deals with Christian fundamentalists, but it doesn’t portray them in anything less than… This is just who they are, it’s not going after people that believe that. Can you talk about why it was important making sure that you give everyone a fair shake?
PARMET: Totally. Yeah, I mean that was something that was important from the very beginning. I didn’t want to tell a story that was condemning or mocking these communities. It was really about trying to get into these characters’ headspaces and help… I wanted the audience to feel for them, and to see themselves in the story, you know? The oppression is there obviously, but I think it’s kind of boring to just focus on that part. We’ve seen those movies and [there are] lots of really beautiful, beautiful things about close-knit communities and faith that I wanted to portray, in addition to everything else.
I think it just makes for a more interesting film, truthfully. It’s boring when you feel like propaganda is being pushed into your face of like, “Feel this way about these people.” You want to get invested in the story, you want to take the audience on a ride and feel for these people rather than just standing 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 editing room in ways you weren’t expecting?
PARMET: I mean, nothing terribly out of the ordinary. You know, some of my favorite scenes we ended up cutting just for time. I think maybe what was unexpected for me was how we incorporated score, which there wasn’t that much of actually. Ultimately, in the end, music is a very important part of this film and there is a lot of music, but there’s… The film is a pretty emotional film. [There are] a lot of ups and downs, and I was very, very conscious of protecting… I never wanted it to feel overwrought. I never wanted it to feel melodramatic because it could very easily veer in that direction. So I noticed when we were editing, certain times where I thought that we were gonna have musical cues, I was like, “I don’t need it, man, like it’s gonna feel really manipulative and overwrought with that. I just want to be with these actors and experience the tension and the silence.” And I’m so glad.
You know, a big part of this film, what we’re trying to do is, we want the audience to be with Jem the entire time. We’re in her perspective the entire time, and I didn’t want to put too much onto her experience through music or editing. I wanted the audience to experience it without manipulation as much as possible if that makes sense, and lead them to make their own decisions about what’s going on, or feelings about it, rather. Again, it relates back to, I don’t like watching movies where things are being pushed in my face. I want to be challenged. I want to be rooting for something and then be like, “Oh wait, why did I want that?” To me, those are my favorite kinds of movies to watch.
I wish we could put up right now – and maybe in editing – but an example of a scene where the music is just so overdone to make you feel a certain way versus a moment in this film where there is no music. Exactly what you’re talking about.
PARMET: For sure, yeah. I mean, you do it all the time and editing. We’re constantly putting temp stuff in, trying it out, and there were places where I didn’t think we needed music and then we put it and I was like, “Oh it’s actually really great.” But yeah, certain scenes are just so much more powerful without it for the actors.
For the actors, this was not a Marvel movie and there’s a finite time and schedule, and I’m curious what day of the shooting schedule did you have circled as, “Oh, this is gonna be a day.”?
SCANLEN: Every day.
Image via Photagonist
Was there a day on the schedule that you really had as, “I’m a little nervous, I’m a little scared, or I’m going to have to be emotionally drained by the end.”?
PULLMAN: It really does feel like all of your scenes are those kinds of hot pockets of the schedule. But, there’s a scene that was cut that was really scary to do. That was my big–
SCANLEN: We can’t talk about it.
PULLMAN: We can’t talk about it.
PARMET: What about your first day, Lewis?
PULLMAN: Well, I didn’t have time to get scared because it was just sprung on me.
PARMET: What about shooting in the water at night?
SCANLEN: That was a day.
PULLMAN: It was cold as all hell.
SCANLEN: We were sitting in a lake, early hours of the morning–
PARMET: It was like at three AM, and it had been really hot every other day except this day.
SCANLEN: And we were shivering.
PARMET: You can’t tell though. They were so worried that you would be able to see them shaking during the performance, but you can’t tell. Also, we had an hour to shoot that scene. It was a nightmare, but it’s one of my favorite scenes. I love that scene.
ABRAMS: I feel like on independent movies you’re really always pressed for time. But for me, on this at least, I felt like Laurel, and also Kara, were so calm in steering the ship, and not frantic. They just did a really good job of keeping calm even though maybe we didn’t have that much time, and it didn’t feel like pressed or pressured, you know? So I felt like everyone could relax and do their job, do their job better, you know? So that’s really cool that they have like that.
SIMPSON: Kara and Laurel together, they steered that ship so serenely. We had no idea if they were ever stressed out. It was crazy. It’s crazy.
PARMET: That’s the idea.
Image via Photagonist
For the actors, because I don’t want to do spoilers in this, I’m just going to ask an acting question, if you will. When you know that you have a very emotional or dramatic scene or a scene you’re really nervous about – say it’s happening on a Monday – how early on are you mentally preparing for that scene? Is it when you first have the script, in your subconscious during the shoot? How do you get ready when you’re going to really have to deliver something on a certain day?
SIMPSON: We don’t really have the luxury of having a process that will be tended to by each production. So for me, it varies differently. Ideally, it would start from the beginning, and then you have time to slowly unpack it. But you know, it’s just whatever the project requires is often what you have to come up with.
SCANLEN: I also find that with smaller films, when there’s less time, and you have to pack in so many scenes in one day, there’s this intensity to the shoot that sometimes makes you more vulnerable on the day. Some people like to do the work and other people don’t, just really depends, but I find that when you’re in that environment, you have to feel so vulnerable all the time, that those emotions are more easily accessible. Also, some days, as much as you prepare, it just doesn’t happen for you and that’s the hard part about acting.
PARMET: You’re very good at it, I have to say. I mean, you know. You’ll see. You will all see.
There are two more people who need to respond, please.
ABRAMS: Yeah, well I feel like for me, I don’t know, you know? I just kind of don’t know what’s gonna like come out or come up. So many times, when it is the emotional stuff, I’m just kind of surprised by it. For me, it’s kind of just like letting it go and just feeling whatever happens because when you’re trying to search – I mean, not even in those situations, but in any situation – when you’re trying to search for an emotion then it becomes like an idea and you aren’t feeling an emotion.
So for me, I mean I guess maybe there’s some unconscious thing where you’re steering yourself in that direction, not to say that you definitely don’t think about it or think about that scene, or whatever it is. But I think there’s just a part of, “I just don’t know really what’s going to happen,” you know? And you just have to let go. At least for me, that’s what I’ve found has been what’s been going on.
PARMET: That’s what’s so cool about it.
ABRAMS: Yeah, that’s what’s cool about it and also can be frightening about it just because you don’t know what’s gonna happen, you know?
PULLMAN: I would say it depends on the scene, it depends on what the emotion is, but I’ve found there’s a delicate balance between conjuring up a lot of debris at the right time. If you do it too soon, then you’re gonna bleed out like a balloon, and by the time you get to the shooting day you’re gonna be a little empty. So I don’t know, I’m still trying to find that sweet spot.
Image via Photagonist
It’s interesting because I’ve spoken to a lot of people, and they say that when, say you have to someone you know who died, and you need to portray that scene on camera, there is no right way to do it. It’s whatever the character might like, there’s no exact science for acting.
PARMET: Honestly, what’s so amazing about working with actors and working with all of these actors who are incredibly talented is, they all have pretty different processes. That’s so great and that’s really fun for me, and it’s fun to figure out, you know, what works for each one of them. Especially the week of rehearsals that we got to have was so beneficial to figure out what makes you guys tick, what will work on the day. I think in our rehearsal we got to play… I try to, as best I can, create an environment where we can just play and mess around, and like who gives a shit, whatever we come up with, like, “We’ll try that. Oh, it sucks. Who cares? Whatever.”
I think that, for me anyway, that feeling of play inspires me the most. That feeling like, “There’s no wrong answer right now,” and there are wrong answers I think here and there, but you know, we figure it out. Then on the day, we have a set of tools, we have a set of intentions that we know we can try out and pull it from that worked well for us. It’s so fun.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting 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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