'The Starling' on Netflix: Director defends the 'hope' in Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd movie which has been panned by critics

·6-min read

Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and director Ted Melfi are back together for The Starling, after working together on 2014's St. Vincent, in the new emotionally charged film The Starling (releasing on Netflix Friday, Sept. 24th).

After suffering the tragic loss of their daughter, Lilly and Jack Maynard (McCarthy and O’Dowd) navigate working through their grief, while also trying keeping their relationship intact. As Jack is away at a mental health facility, Lilly is left alone, holding down the fort in their familial home. She starts to do some gardening to keep herself occupied but Lilly gets into a vicious battle with a bird that frequents a tree on her property, a starling to be specific, which eventually leads to her own personal healing, with the help of a veterinarian she meets, played by Kevin Kline.

It’s certainly a film that will likely appeal to some people who want to watch movies to have a nice cry, mixed with a few giggles, but many critics who saw the film, particularly during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), slammed it, specifically for being too unrealistic, lacking depth and the predictability of the narrative.

Melfi defended the film to Yahoo Canada, saying that although it’s become “sexy” to not leave the audience with a hopeful message at the end of films, there’s certainly merit in that kind of storytelling.

“We get critics that say stuff like, the movie has too much emotion,...[it] has too much kindness, has a happy ending,” Melfi told Yahoo Canada. “I don't know anyone on the planet that doesn't want a happy ending.”

“At the end of our lives, I don’t know anyone that goes, ‘you know, I wish I had a bad ending.’ Right? So that's not what I do. I dive right into it and I believe that...hope is what's clearly lacking in the world.”

He stressed that “filmmaking is a responsibility” and messaging in movies does have an impact on people’s lives.

“I think filmmaking is a responsibility, people don't want to say that but it’s a responsibility,” he said. “What you leave an audience with has impact and we are lying to ourselves if we think that's not the case.”

“This is a story about hope and we lean into it, and we make no apologies for it. If you don’t want hope, don’t go see the movie.”

"The Starling" Chris O'Dowd as Jack, Melissa McCarthy as Lilly. (Karen Ballard/NETFLIX)
"The Starling" Chris O'Dowd as Jack, Melissa McCarthy as Lilly. (Karen Ballard/NETFLIX)

Originally, the story of O’Dowd’s character and McCarthy’s character were flipped in the script by Matt Harris, something Melfi indicated he changed because he thought it was too “cliché” and “boring.”

“I felt it was very clichéd and kind of boring and old to have the strong man at home holding down the fort, and the woman, who couldn't handle the situation, taking the time-out,” he said. “I felt like I've seen that a million times before and it felt like an old concept.”

It was that change in particular that led Melfi to contact McCarthy and O’Dowd, to get them both on board.

"The Starling" Melissa McCarthy as Lilly. (Courtesy of NETFLIX)
"The Starling" Melissa McCarthy as Lilly. (Courtesy of NETFLIX)

'We would throw things and I would make insane voices'

While the movie is definitely a drama, it’s no surprise that putting two actors together who have great comedy skills brought forward funny moments as well, including a lot of physical comedy on McCarthy’s part. But she did get some assistance from Melfi who would throw things and actually make bird sounds at her.

“We would throw things and I would make insane voices,” Melfi explained. “She at one point had a phone ring that was my starling cackle.”

“I had researched it, I was super proud of it. The first time I did it off camera, I didn't tell her I just did it, and she was just like…’what the hell is that?’ So she got used to it and it became this, she calls it a delightful annoyance.”

One thing is certain, that McCarthy and O’Dowd have great chemistry together, and seemingly really enjoy each other’s company

“She's just really top quality,” O’Dowd said about McCarthy. “I've been lucky enough to work with loads of terrific actresses and actors but Melissa, she has such a wonderful presence on set.”

“There's always a fucking taco truck or a running joke, or special t-shirts that she's getting made. She can be like a camp organizer and then she's like zoom, [right] into the reality and depth of the role that she's doing.”

For O’Dowd in particular, Melfi thinks people don’t truly know the “depth of his ability.”

“A great actor understands material, a great actor can really interpret material, can pick up material and go, ‘I know what this is,’” Melfi explained. “If you have someone like that, you have to get out of the way and you have to allow them to be, and so Chris needed very little on set.”

“I like to create an environment [that’s] inclusive and light and fun and happy on set because I think that's where the best work comes. Bill Murray would always say this, on the set of St. Vincent, he'd say, ‘stress is the death of art,’ and I will always remember that.”

"The Starling" Daveed Diggs as Ben, Loretta Devine as Velma, Chris O'Dowd as Jack. (NETFLIX)
"The Starling" Daveed Diggs as Ben, Loretta Devine as Velma, Chris O'Dowd as Jack. (NETFLIX)

Chris O’Dowd found it hard to leave his character behind

O’Dowd explained that he did have conversations with Melfi about the tragedy that Jack is dealing with in this movie, and specifically how to show his struggle with depression.

“He's a person that's dealing with various cycles of depression throughout his life and...we wanted to make sure that the depression itself was active, that it's not just sitting around not doing anything, it's like, actively pushing him down, and making him incapable of making good decisions,” he said.

“I think we played with that a lot, to try and keep even this person who has rendered himself away from the world, still have an emotional dynamism.”

O’Dowd recognized, particularly after watching the film himself a few months ago, that he did get “caught up in it.”

“I've got two young kids and I suppose if you drive to work every morning, when you're trying to get yourself into the mindset of somebody who has been through this kind of unbearable tragedy, you have to imagine the worst things imaginable,” he said. “I found it hard to leave that behind, I think.”

“But it always felt truthful in the moment, which is a testament to Ted’s sensitivity and what a genuinely kind of open working experience it was.”

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