Netflix's The Starling Is A Long-Awaited Dream Come True For Screenwriter Matt Harris [Interview]

Making movies is hard. That's no secret. But sometimes getting a specific movie made is exceptionally difficult, and it takes years to make it happen. Such is the case with "The Starling," an upcoming Netflix drama starring Melissa McCarthy that has been more than 15 years in the making. For screenwriter Matt Harris, it's the conclusion to a long and winding road. Snapping the tape at the end of a marathon. Popping the champagne at the end of a race.

The script had been making the rounds in Hollywood for a long time, and even ended up on the Blacklist, a list of the best unproduced screenplays out there. It got Harris some attention along with some other jobs. Directors came and went, but the movie never got made. Then Ted Melfi ("Hidden Figures") came along, and one key decision really pushed it over the finish line. The final piece of the puzzle was a huge $20 million deal from Netflix for worldwide rights to the drama.

"The Starling" centers on Lilly (McCarthy) after suffering a great personal loss, and a battle with a territorial bird over her garden provides an unlikely avenue for her grief. 

An Oscar-nominated director. An Oscar-nominated lead. A rare Kevin Klein appearance. It's a big end to a long journey. 

I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Harris all about it in anticipation of the movie's release on Netflix this week.

The Starling's Long Journey

This movie has been in the cards for years, as I understand it.

That's true.

Very simply, as the man who wrote it, what's it like to finally see this thing come to life after all this time?

Yeah. You're right. It has been around for a while. It was named to the Blacklist years ago. And, in fact, I didn't even know what the Blacklist was when I heard that. It was a friend of mine, who was an editor, he's like, "Hey, dude. Do you know you have a script on the Blacklist?" And I'm like, "Is this why my movies aren't getting made? Are you kidding me? I've been blacklisted. What did I do?" It's funny because it's always been a nice calling card. It's gotten me a lot of meetings around town. I used to tell my wife, I'm just like, "I think 'The Starling' is just going to be kind of a nice way to get in the door, to show people that I know how to write." Because I'd been up for some other writing assignments as a result of it.

It never seemed like a film that anybody was going to make. It got close a number of times. Every once in a while somebody would come along and say, "Hey, is that script available?" Then some years ago ... gosh, I want to say almost like five years ago, it got to Ted Melfi, and he was very interested in doing it. And I was like, "Okay, sounds good." I've been there before. Then, of course, he got offered "Hidden Figures," which makes perfect sense. You go make "Hidden Figures," a huge studio film. I thought that was the last of it.

Then, a couple of years ago, I was literally driving and I noticed I had a missed call and I thought, "All right, I think he probably butt-dialed me." I'll call him back. This is a little weird. I haven't talked to him in a while. And he was like, "No, I have this opening in my schedule." The next day, we were having lunch, and we were talking about Melissa McCarthy having an opening in her schedule. He had sent her the script. She was really into it. Man, by the end of July, we were shooting. It's crazy how quickly that happened because she had to go to Australia. She had to shoot something in Australia. So she's like, "I got to be done by like September 1st." Made it happen. It's crazy. I'm thrilled that it finally got made.

The endurance and patience it takes to work in Hollywood. Have you found that working in the business has taught you more patience?

Yeah. It's funny because I kind of wear two hats. I work in television as well, I actually oversee a reality show. It's been on MTV for years. It's called "Ridiculousness" with Rob Dyrdek. It's a very popular viral video show, kind of our MTV version of "America's Funniest Videos." We'll shoot something and it's going to be on the air in three weeks. We can get something turned around faster than that if we need to. I guess I'm okay with that pace because I know that the world of film can just take forever, even when you've got the money in place and you've got the talent in place, because I've been there with that before, it can still fall apart. I'm surprised that films get made, period. It's shocking sometimes. When it does, it's kind of cool to watch everybody pull together. I think everybody has a sense that they understand the struggle. It's a bigger struggle for some films like this. Let's be honest, obviously, it's not a Marvel film. It's a little bit more difficult to get this kind of film afoot. And I think if it weren't for places like Netflix, these streaming outlets, this might not have a leg to stand on.

It is interesting how streaming has kind of opened up that whole world of mid-budget film again, or movies that just might not otherwise have a home.

Yeah. Yeah.

If I'm not mistaken about this, part of what helped crack the code to finally get this thing done is that you decided to gender flip the main character.

Yeah. It was. Melissa had read the script and was in. She was on board, and then our producer, Dylan Sellers, kind of had an inspired idea. He's like, "If we have of McCarthy, let's do even more with that character. What can we do to make it a bigger character?" And that kind of talk initially, it frightens you, because you're always like, "Oh, geez, what am I going to have to go back and rewrite this thing?" But then he came up with the idea, "What if we just flip the characters?" Ted and I were like, "Well, okay. Let's try it, and read it, and see what it looks like." So we did that, and bam, it just breathed new life into the story that I had pretty much become exhausted with, to be honest. Because it's been around for a while. I didn't feel like I could bring anything new to it. And that idea just launched it. I was so excited. It was a great idea. I was really inspired. I'm so glad that it took all these years to get it done, because it wouldn't have been this version. And I'm so happy with the version that we have, with the talent that we have. It's really remarkable.

When you first wrote it, did you have other actors in mind?

Yeah. It's interesting because I remember one of the first directors who [I] worked with on it, we talked about the age of the characters and what that means. If you come in with older characters, it feels one way. I remember Topher Grace was somebody that was interested at one point and they were talking to him, about him and who would we pair [him with]. It would have been a young couple at the time. It felt for both of us like that's about, "Well, a young couple can get through this." A young couple can survive this type of thing and move on. Youth is on their side. However, when I originally wrote it, I really thought of it as a couple who had tried to have kids, were told they couldn't have kids and they were okay with that. And they were making their life together without that. And then that old "Jurassic Park" line, "Nature finds a way."

Suddenly, wham! They have a child and then, bam, just as quickly, that child is taken from them. Nature's way as well. That felt to me more on point with the theme that I was going to try and explore. That sort of chaos and nature's indifference to our suffering, and how do we reconcile that as human beings? That's what I was interested in exploring. Those questions that we ask ourselves, "Why me? How do I get beyond this?" Not get over it, because I don't think you'd get over it.

Melissa is a huge talent. She works a lot, as she should. But Kevin Klein, we do not get to see as much anymore these days. I like everyone else on the planet, but I love Kevin Klein. How on earth did this become one of the things he said yes to? Because he's so selective these days.

It's funny. He told me, he goes, "You know, my nickname is Kevin Decline." I said, "Yeah. I haven't seen you a while." I don't think he left New York. He really embraced the script. He really embraced the role. He actually went so far as to contact a local veterinarian, and went in and watched some procedures, so he could feel that character. I think he liked the heart of the story, and I think the chance to work with talented people, like Ted, and Melissa, and Chris [O'Dowd]. I think people really watched Chris O'Dowd in things like "Get Shorty," [and] you realize what a talent he is. He's a really fine actor. He really is. He does a lot of stage [work] as well. I think in his world, in that community of actors, I think they understand what a talent he is. The chance to work with people like Chris and Melissa, it was a big deal.

I don't have any idea what level of control you had over what elements of the process but I thought the soundtrack was awesome.


In particular, Nate Ruess did a song for the soundtrack, and he's actually like my hometown hero.

Oh, cool.

I grew up in Arizona. He's about the closest thing you would get to a Bruce Springsteen from Arizona. Did you have any sort of say over the soundtrack?

Only in as much as we talked about it. I have no say-so. To get into the weeds a little bit about screenwriting here for a second. I have soundtracks that I listen to when I'm writing. There are many differences between writing for film and say, writing novels. But one thing is you're trying to see the whole picture. As you're writing, you're trying to see the entire film as it plays out. You're imagining the scene, and you're imagining what kind of music, that type of emotion is going to be coming out of this. There were some pieces of music that I found that were remarkably close to some of the soundtracks that I had in a Spotify playlist that I was using. I was blown away by how close they were. I can't remember if I sent them that playlist. I doubt it. I was happy with the music. We talked about more acoustic pieces and trying to keep it contemporary, as opposed to too much dramatic scoring.

Big Movie, Big Changes

You've got a guy like Ted Melfi directing this. You've got Melissa McCarthy. You got Kevin Klein, and you've got Netflix behind it. I know you said originally when "The Starling" was on the Blacklist, "Oh, this was just kind of a calling card. It could help." But now the movie is actually made and it's coming out, it's going to be on Netflix. You have an enormous, incredible team on it. Have you noticed any bump or anything in your professional life now that it's actually becoming a reality?

Yeah, for sure. The publicist who's listening in right now in this conversation. I've never had a publicist before. It really has sort of put me into a different lane. It's really interesting because, just in screenwriting, I won a screenwriting competition a while back, for the Academy and Nicholl Fellowship. I had won a Nicholl Fellowship. It's pretty prestigious in the world of screenwriting to win one. So I was like, "Okay, I guess I know what I'm doing." Then I got to the Blacklist with "The Starling," and got a lot of meetings, generated a lot of interest, but nothing like what I'm seeing actually getting the film made.

What can you tell me about "Dead For a Dollar"?

"Dead For a Dollar." It was formerly "Moon of Popping Trees." It got renamed to "Dead For a Dollar." [Director] Walter Hill, Christoph Waltz, Willem Defoe. Yeah, I was really impressed with that as well. Especially getting Walter Hill because, in the world of Westerns, "The Long Riders," if you're a fan of Westerns– I know Quentin Tarantino has talked about Walter Hill quite a bit as an influence on him and his action. He's tremendous at Westerns and action. So to have him on board– I think basically it's a guy struggling. He feels a little bit lost, out of time, is what sets it in motion. It's like a bounty hunter-type character. I'm really anxious to see what he does with that.

Is that something we can expect to see next year?

Yeah, definitely. They just wrapped filming in New Mexico.

Just as we're kind of sort of bringing us in for a landing. The movie's coming out. Especially with streaming these days, there's so much to watch. There's so much to consume. Who do you most envision this movie is for?

That's a good question. Obviously, I wish I could say everybody needs to watch this movie. You're right. Who's going to watch this? It's so hard to say anymore, right? I have teenagers who watch "Hawaii Five-0" reruns. I'm like, "What?" I never know what they're going to like. They liked "The Queen's Gambit." We all did, but it felt like a much more mature drama than I would've given them credit for initially to watch, but they did, and I was just blown away. It's hard to put audiences in and pigeonhole them anymore.

I just hope everybody will– I know it's a lame answer, but I really do hope everybody gives it a try. I feel like certainly the older [people who are] enjoying it, I've gotten feedback from some people. I do feel like there's a little something there for everyone. You and I both know a good story, one that sucks you in, then spits you out at the very end. You don't even know you've been in that ride. Those are the best, so it doesn't really matter.

"The Starling" arrives on Netflix on Friday, September 24, 2021.