“It’s a Good Thing We Didn’t Shoot in New Zealand”: Writer-Director Laurel Parmet and Producer Kara Durrett on The Starling Girl
The following interview first ran as part of our Sundance 2023 coverage. The Starling Girl releases in theaters today in NYC and LA via Bleecker Street, with more cities to follow. — Editor
Telling the story of Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old living in a Christian fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky, Laurel Parmet’s debut feature, The Starling Girl, has been years in the making, Parmet first began writing the screenplay in 2017, soon after the premiere of one of her shorts and the wrap of another. Like her previous work, The Starling Girl positions the viewer within the complex perspective of a young woman, presented here with the additional weight of the societal expectations of a religious community. One afternoon after she is “politely shamed” (this is a town in which everyone kills with kindness) by a church member for her bra being visible through her shirt, Jem exits the party in tears and encounters pastor’s son Owen (Lewis Pullman), recently returned home from completing missionary work in Puerto Rico. Owen is in his late 20s and already with wife, but that doesn’t stop neither he nor Jem from connecting and eventually getting physically involved with one another, their sexual relationship conducted primarily in the backseat of a car in the woods.
The Starling Girl is particularly adept at showcasing the various ways in which Jem’s predicament is destined to come to a tumultuous end. It is also acutely aware of how an affair often concludes with only one of the two people being blamed, most often the woman. In trying to connect with Owen, a man in many ways less mature than she is, Jem follows her heart and is forced to pay the consequences. Parmet doesn’t shy away from the messiness involved in relationships in which a significant age gap is apparent, nor does she paint in broad strokes the fundamentalist community that judges Jem for the situation she’s in. And in its portrayal of two families (Jem’s and Owen’s) whose treatment of their children’s actions couldn’t be more different, The Starling Girl is also a film about parental support, lack thereof and the gray line between the two.
A few days before The Starling Girl made its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with Parmet and producer Kara Durrett (who was just awarded the Amazon Studios Fiction Producers Award at this year’s festival) about the director’s personal reasons for making this film, a dreaded COVID shutdown that put the start of production on hold indefinitely and more.
Filmmaker: Laurel, after your two shorts, Spring and Kira Burning, premiered and had healthy festival runs, how soon after were you writing the screenplay for The Starling Girl? What was the timeline of choosing this to be your first feature and then, subsequently, actually going through with it?
Parmet: I started writing The Starling Girl in late 2017, right after the festival experience of Spring, which had premiered at SXSW that year. I felt like everyone was asking me at the time, “What are you doing next? What’s your feature going to be?” And I told them, “I don’t know, I don’t have one yet!” I had many ideas percolating, of course, but didn’t know which I wanted to pursue. Once I sat down and thought about it, I picked [The Starling Girl], because the story felt the most personal to me and had the most immediacy in my brain. I had already made Kira Burning by that point (it would premiere in 2018), so having Spring and Kira Burning go through their respective festival runs was helpful in getting me introductions to different people and, more importantly, meeting my producers Kara Durrett and Kevin Rowe. Once I was a few drafts in with Starling, I shared it with Kara. We then went through Sundance’s Feature Film Program with the project in 2019 (I participated in the Screenwriters Intensive and Kara in the Creative Producing Lab) and also their Catalyst film financing program. Sundance Institute was super supportive of this project. We were then all set and ready to shoot in May of 2020, then COVID happened and threw a wrench into all [of our plans]. It turned into a really dark time.
Filmmaker: Did you see The Starling Girl as an extension of some of the themes apparent in your shorts? Your films have been primarily youth-focused, working with younger actors and telling stories from the POV of women younger than yourself. Was that a draw for you? I’m also curious about you mentioning that this story comes from a personal place.
Parmet: Starling definitely has some thematic extensions from the shorts, as I’m perpetually interested in stories about young women searching to find their place in the world, to find who they are while sometimes making questionable decisions [in the process]. Hopefully I’m creating their stories so that the audience roots for these characters anyway, despite some of the choices they make. I really like to explore that moral ambiguity.
In terms of my personal connection to the story, I first became interested in the world of Christian fundamentalist communities while I was in Oklahoma doing research for a different project. I was attending a lot of rodeos, met a group of women from a patriarchal fundamentalist church and became interested in their beliefs, even if I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to make a film set in that world. I spent some time with these women, went to their church and soon learned that they believed that their desires were sinful. There was a woman in their church who had had an affair with a church authority member and she received the blame instead of him. When I first heard these stories, I was like, “Their world is so backwards. I’m so glad that my life’s not like this.” But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how much we actually had in common, in terms of how we grew up, our relationships with our bodies and what society teaches us to feel about our desires.
When I was a teenager, I had a relationship with a much older man. I didn’t feel like a victim at all. However, after the relationship ended, I felt a lot of guilt and like I had been a slut. I had actively pursued this guy, but I pushed those feelings down for years [after]. So when I was spending time with these women [in Oklahoma], it was a critical turning point and made me think about my relationship in ways I hadn’t before. I started to recognize the guilt that I had (and began wondering why I had it), despite the fact that this guy had taken advantage of me. These feelings of sexual shame, guilt and pursuing self-worth in men’s approval are really universal feelings for women, no matter how you grew up. I then decided that I wanted to tell a story looking back at my experience and set it in a world that, while extreme and specific, has so much in common with the culture at large.
Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned going through the different labs programs and initiatives that the Sundance Institute offered. Did the script change at all based on those experiences, receiving different kinds of feedback from your peers?
Parmet: It definitely changed, but I wouldn’t say there were any huge story overhauls or anything like that. With the Writer’s Intensive, it was more about getting more specific with the characters, deepening the connections, turning the screws on the main character more and more and adding pressure and more drama. Just making it better.
Durrett: For the Producers Lab, I don’t think the script changed too much. They definitely gave notes and feedback about pitching and how to pitch, but for the Producers Lab, it’s much more about, “How do you work with your director? How do you work with your financier? How do you make sure this film can get sold one day? How do you build the film correctly so that it can be successful?” The labs are really good at making each individual lab specific and different to whatever role you have and whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. I think Laurel’s was more of a script deep-dive and mine consisted of, “Are we shooting this in Oklahoma or are we shooting in a different state? Are we making this as a big movie or a small movie? What kind of feeling do you want the viewer to have when they leave the theater? What kind of distributor would make the most sense for this film?” In that regard, the labs were amazing in helping us get set up. We also participated in the Sundance Catalyst program, where we got to basically do a TED Talk for the film, with Laurel and I pitching it a thousand times and meeting every human being who’s ever invested in a film. We made so many wonderful connections and heard so much feedback and it was like a wonderful stepping stone to now being here at Sundance with the premiere.
Filmmaker: What led to you setting the story (and, ultimately, production) in Kentucky? Is it Louisville? Just outside of Louisville?
Parmet: It’s based outside of Louisville. That’s where we shot it. We wanted it to be rural.
Durrett: We [were expecting to shoot in] Oklahoma, then the pandemic happened. As a result, we almost shot the film in New Zealand, but couldn’t get visas for everyone.
Parmet: It’s a good thing we didn’t shoot in New Zealand…
Durrett: Oh, so good. We were trying to figure everything out but everyone was beginning to shoot in New Zealand at the time.
Parmet: It was the only place where COVID [wasn’t an issue].
Filmmaker: And it would’ve served as a stand in for Oklahoma?
Durrett: As a stand in for Middle America. We were going to address it differently.
Parmet: This was in 2020, when COVID was everywhere and nobody knew what was going on. There weren’t a lot of things being shot in the States and people were still figuring out the precautions and insurance needs and legal ramifications, but there were no cases of COVID in New Zealand.
Durrett: And we were getting pressure from our financier to nail down new dates. It was a lot of conversations.
Parmet: The film was written to be set in Oklahoma, because I’m very familiar with Oklahoma and have spent a lot of time there. However, we ended up not being able to shoot there for a number of reasons, so when it came time to find new locations, we looked at different states that offered tax incentives. I specifically wanted the film to be set in the South and to retain that Southern conservative Christian culture as a part of the milieu. When Kentucky came up, I went and scouted and just fell in love. It’s a beautiful state that’s incredibly lush and green and the people are very friendly.
Durrett: Everyone was so welcoming and there were churches everywhere.
Parmet: Yeah, there are a lot of fundamentalist communities in Kentucky, so it didn’t feel like a stretch to move the story from Oklahoma. I felt like [setting the film in Kentucky] would still be truthful to the story. Of course, we made changes to the script to make it “Kentucky-specific.” It wasn’t just like a plug-and-play situation. We made adjustments to the script and production design and even to the music. I wanted the story to feel as authentic as possible, so we didn’t want to shoot Kentucky for another state. It was like, “If we’re going to shoot the film in Kentucky, it should be set in Kentucky.”
Filmmaker: Did you have any other worries once the film was put on hold due to COVID? Was there a long holding period where certain elements had to be sacrificed or where you had to pivot completely? Or, some time later, were you able to essentially pick up where you left off with everything still in place?
Durrett: I’ll let Laurel answer this but I do want to say that there was never an “if.” We were always going to make this movie. When the shoot [was canceled] in 2020, Laurel and I called each other, crying, but had a very beautiful conversation about the idea that no matter what, this movie was going to happen. Whether it was going to get made in a year or 10 years, the movie was going to happen.
Parmet: And I was very grateful for that sentiment and needed to hear it. Kara always made me feel like she was my partner, no matter what, and that was important to hear when the film fell apart. It was a dark time, and I didn’t know for sure when it was going to happen. I’m so grateful that we shot it when we did, because we ended up finding new partners for the project that were supportive of my vision and who wanted us to make the movie that we wanted to make. I couldn’t imagine a better fit for the film.
Durrett: During production, we kept saying how there were so many different versions of this movie along the way, and we knew that when we finally reached the end, [we would land on] the one that was right.
Parmet: This is the best version it could have been. Those two extra years really gave me time to think about how I wanted to direct the film and just be in the right headspace. When we shot the film in 2022, I think I was a better director then than I was in 2020.
Filmmaker: What was the experience of your first initial days of principal photography? I assume this was the largest cast and crew you’ve ever worked with, so did the the role of “director” turn out as you imagined?
Parmet: It was a joy. I was so happy to finally be getting to make the film and it felt right, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t feel out of my league in the slightest. I felt ready, but those first few days were stressful. I mean, I think we got shut down for four or five hours on our third day due to a thunderstorm and we were freaking out about keeping to our schedule. But I was like, “Man, I’m just happy to be here!”
Filmmaker: Some of the film’s initial scenes feature knowing glances between Jem and Owen at parties and at community gatherings, all the while you work to keep them apart, albeit at very close distances. I’m curious as to how you wanted to introduce these two characters. Of course, Jem and Owen have their initial interaction in the opening minutes of the film on a staircase outside, but many of their later interactions come via shot/reverse shot interactions at various [group outings] where they have to be discreet. I was curious as to the initial ways in which you thought to introduce these characters to each other and to the audience.
Parmet: My credo for the film was to always remain within Jem’s perspective. The entire film is from her perspective, that the viewer experiences the connection [Jem has] with Owen via how she experiences it. I was very cognizant of how we could best shoot those early scenes in order to get inside her mindset and experience what she’s experiencing and always be with her. I think it was less about trying to establish some unspoken connection between Jem and Owen and more about rooting the viewer within Jem’s perspective and recognizing the intrigue and interest that she has towards him. That was my goal.
Filmmaker: Were you also directing for certain kinds of body language and nonverbal cues? For example, how Jem interacts with Owen is quite different from how she acts around younger men, like [the character] Ben Taylor, who’s actively courting Jem and where there’s a different kind of uncomfortable vibe apparent. Did you find yourself providing direction pertaining to body language and where things could come through sans dialogue?
Parmet: I tried to do as much as I could, without dialogue, to communicate those things. I think body language is definitely something that Eliza Scanlen and I talked a lot about, especially as [the character is] a young woman growing up within that community. [The women] in that community are so aware of body language, especially as it’s their responsibility “not to lead a man into temptation.” As a result, that dictates a lot of how women interact with men who they’re not married to or who are not within their immediate family.
Pertaining to the early scenes with Owen, we talked a lot about the ways in which Jem could still find a connection to him, to be close with him, all the while making sure not to get into trouble when everyone’s watching everyone in these communities. Women are policing other women about how to dress and how to behave and that was something we always talked about.
Filmmaker: Dance and diegetic music also factor heavily into the narrative and there’s a specificity to the choreography [early in the film, Jem becomes tasked with leading the church’s all-girl dance troupe] as well. How did you factor in those elements playing a role?
Parmet: Music plays a huge part in the film, it’s a big part of my life, and so I wanted to find some way to incorporate it. The music and dancing are a means of self-expression for Jem. It’s the way in which she expresses herself. It’s also through music that Jem is able to connect with her father. Music is their shared language and it’s through music that Jem recognizes her father’s own struggles and the sacrifices he felt he had to make in order to connect with God. It makes Jem question if she wants to make those same sacrifices, if it’s even possible for her to enjoy dance while still being connected to God. But why does it have to be one or the other? Jem’s choreography also changes over the course of the film. When she’s given the dance in the beginning of the film, that dance scene is very by the books, safe, and what’s expected of in the church. It’s nothing flamboyant and is very much just directed towards praising God. But later, when Jem is given the chance to choreograph a dance for the troupe, she takes it as an opportunity to express herself and gets in trouble for that.
Durrett: When it came time to [search for] a choreographer, we [considered choreographers] from New York or LA or somewhere else, but then Laurel was like, “We should be using girls from Kentucky who are already a part of these dance troupes.” We found this incredible young woman [Paige Leigh Landers] who’s like, 18 or 19, and who was cast as one of the characters in the movie, and she choreographed all of the dances overnight and sent videos to everyone [to learn].
Parmet: And music played a really big role as well. We had an original song written by Lord Huron for the movie, which I loved, and [lead singer and guitarist] Ben Schneider also composed the score. There are also a couple of songs in the film in which I’m singing with a few friends of mine, as the songs would’ve been too hard to get the rights to, so we just sang them ourselves. They were sung with friends that I had played music with in high school and that was a fun part of myself to bring into the film.
Filmmaker: Laurel, you’ve previously spoken of the rush you get when a scene you’re directing turns out either exactly as you had pictured in your head or it becomes something entirely new that you couldn’t have predicted beforehand. I was curious if you both had an example on this film where something either changed or came up that you couldn’t have planned for ahead of time. How did that event or occurrence ultimately benefit the film?
Durrett: Would you say logistically or creatively?
Filmmaker: More logistically, but perhaps maybe an instance where logistics influenced the creative.
Durrett: We were shooting through storm season in Kentucky and it was the stormiest season of any place ever [laughs]. I don’t know how many days we got shut down and had to sit around and wait for the generators and lights to turn back on, but something very beautiful happened, which is that everyone on the cast and crew became close friends as a result. The cast was so supportive of one another, hanging out together on weekends, and I think a lot of that came from us sitting around waiting for the storms [to pass]. I have these amazing photos of [the cast] playing Bananagrams in a green room while we’re waiting to film and Laurel and I are pulling our hair out while they’re laughing and talking about their lives and why they wanted to [work in] film [laughs]. I think it created a kind of bond that shows up on screen as there’s a familiarity amongst the cast [who make up the] family of the Starlings.
Parmet: And a trust.
Durrett: A familiarity and a trust, even between Eliza and Lewis, whom, because they so often found themselves sitting around and waiting on set, when they had to jump back into a scene, they were ready. We were so short on time, but there was no bad part of our cast or crew, which is a rare thing.
Parmet: I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a scene between Eliza and Lewis that, when we started rehearsing it on set before shooting, I was like, “This is not working. It just doesn’t work.” It felt too cute, too twee, and it didn’t fit with the rest of the style of the film. The scene originally involved dance but we ended up cutting the whole dance bit, well, just taking a little piece of it, and making the scene more about the silence and palpable tension, with no words. It’s much more powerful a scene than it used to be, which was originally like a sort of silly dance scene. I’m so glad we shot it the way that we did, as the scene would’ve sucked otherwise. Now it’s one of my favorites in the movie.
I also want to say that Kara has been a big part of the development of this film, having been on the project from the beginning. She grew up in a similar environment to the one [depicted] in the film and was an important barometer for truth in this world. She really was an important partner for that, so I want to give her creative credit.
Durrett: Well, we’re lucky it’s a good movie. If it were a bad movie, that credit would be…
Filmmaker: An indictment.
Durrett: [laughs] Yes, exactly. I’m lucky that she’s talented.