For director Theodore Melfi, Toronto is more than just another stop on the festival circuit. Rather it’s proven to be a resounding “go” for his career starting in 2014 when the fest premiered to great acclaim his feature directorial debut, St. Vincent. The tug-at-the-heartstrings comedy made him a highly sought after talent for other long-form opportunities, including Hidden Figures which in 2016 marked his return to the Toronto International Film Fest--albeit for just a 30-minute or so sneak peek at that film which he directed, wrote and produced. Melfi went on to earn a pair of Oscar nominations for Hidden Figures--Best Picture (as a producer) and Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Allison Schroeder). This recognition from the Motion Picture Academy came on the heels of a Writers Guild Award nod.
Fast forward to today and Melfi is back at the Toronto Film Festival for another go-around, this time for The Starling (Netflix) which reunites him with Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd who were in the cast of St. Vincent. In The Starling, McCarthy portrays Lily who along with her husband Jack (O’Dowd) has suffered the most tragic loss that parents can experience--the death of their infant daughter. While Lily somehow perseveres, Jack struggles with recovery in a psychiatric clinic. All the while Lily too is coping with a feisty dive-bombing bird that’s taken over her garden. Meanwhile concerned that Lily isn’t properly tending to her own grieving process, a counselor at Jack’s clinic suggests that she see a local therapist, Larry (Kevin Kline). Larry, however, gave up psychology awhile back to become a veterinarian--an occupation which proves relevant in light of the starling who’s wreaking havoc in the garden and Lily’s daily life.
Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, described The Starling as “a rare balance of levity and gravity, mischief and tenderness.”
Asked about the importance of Toronto to him personally and professionally, Melfi simply described the festival as his “birthing bath,” regarding himself as “so lucky to be accepted there over the years.” He acknowledged Bailey and Toronto Film Festival executive director and co-head Joana Vicente as among the best programmers in the business.
“It’s one of the best festivals in the world, if not the best,” continued Melfi. “The audience is hands down the best audience. They are just film buffs.”
Melfi was attracted to The Starling story. The script by Matt Harris had been around quite awhile. In fact it was included in the 2005 “Black List” of most-liked unproduced screenplays, well before Melfi got involved as director and producer.
Melfi explained that he has an affinity for “stories about marriage, people trying to figure it out, doing the work to stay together.” That dynamic relative to marriage, a friendship, a family relationship has long been a source of fascination for him. “Any relationship where you have to do the work to be healthy and successful is a story that compels me.”
So too does a story that can make you both “laugh and cry, that replicates life, that explores the human condition in a real way--not a romanticized way,” related Melfi who noted that Harris’ script was about Lily and Jack “going through one of the worst things that can happen to a couple, but they go through it with elegance, dignity and hope--and finally being able to get to the other side.” Melfi shared that the stories that find hope--like It’s A Wonderful Life, Terms of Endearment, The World According to Garp, As Good As It Gets--all stir him creatively.
The major change Melfi made to The Starling storyline was a gender swap. As originally written some time back, the tale had the man persevering and the woman struggling and trying to find her way. But perceptions have more realistically evolved over the past decade, noted Melfi, and the reality he’s experienced is that the woman is often the one who copes and adapts best and keeps it all together. He’s seen strong, powerful females throughout his life. “I was raised by a single mom, been married 25 years, have two daughters. I’m surrounded by strong females who set me straight on a daily basis.”
The Starling also set Melfi on a collaborative path with Lawrence Sher, ASC, an Academy Award nominee for his lensing of Joker. Melfi was an admirer of Sher’s work and its range--from the natural feel of Garden State to the popular appeal of the Hangover films to the intense character study that was Joker. “He can pretty much do anything,” assessed Melfi, adding that The Starling gave the DP a new area in which to delve--a cinematic dramedy. Melfi said that Sher was up to the task, capturing a portrait of a marriage, an intimate relationship on a wide screen filmic platform.
The creative rapport Melfi developed with Sher then led to them again teaming on Daughter, a short in Apple’s “Shot on iPhone series.”
For Daughter--which stars one of China’s leading actresses, Zhou Xun--Sher lensed sweeping panoramas, engaging closeups and single take ultra wide flashbacks on location in China, demonstrating the image-capturing prowess of the iPhone 11 Pro. Created by TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai, Daughter is an emotional story of a taxi driver’s (Xun) complicated relationship with the two most important women in her life, her young daughter and her estranged mother. The film examines the changing social norms in China and reflects on the generational differences between traditional families and modern youth. The intergenerational film--which won assorted honors, including an AICP Next Award in 2020--is a touching drama of family reconnecting for the Chinese New Year.
Daughter was produced by brother, the commercial production company founded by Melfi and his partner, executive producer Rich Carter. The Apple short also brought brother together with RadicalMedia, a global production house which provided international support for the project through its Shanghai office. This sparked a collaborative bond between the two production companies whereby brother retains its autonomy, continuing to operate as an independent boutique shop that can tap into Radical’s global operation and deep resources when needed.
Daughter also led to brother adding Sher to its directorial roster for commercials and branded content. Melfi’s working closely with Sher on The Starling and Daughter, and Carter getting to observe the cinematographer first hand on Daughter made it clear to the brother founders that Sher would be a major catch as a director. Sher also has directing experience, including on the comedy-drama feature film Father Figures (2017) starring Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons. Additionally Sher is no stranger to commercialmaking, having lensed select ads over the years for top-draw directors and brands.
Challenges, lessons learned
The Starling posed varied challenges for Melfi. The movie got underway before the COVID-19 pandemic and was finished in the midst of the health crisis. This translated into having to adapt in myriad ways during production and post. For example, working through the pandemic during a needed pickup day, a performance from O’Dowd was shot in Los Angeles while McCarthy was lensed in Australia. Their performances were stitched together in a single scene. “We learned to work in a different way,” related Melfi. “It was very inspiring.”
The Starling also endured deep loss as Melfi’s mom, Ann Melfi, as well as a VFX coordinator on the film, Diego Cardier, passed away during the production. Cardier died of COVID-19. “The human chain of events was,” said director Melfi, “sad for a lot of us...Just like in the movie, we got through it with hope. Strangely enough this movie is coming out at a time when people are looking for hope, seeing light at the end of the tunnel, hoping it’s a real light getting closer.”
Melfi noted that what he got out of the making of The Starling mirrors the message of the film. “We can accomplish anything with hard work, the will and the hope that we can.”
The Starling will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12. It will be released in theaters across the U.S. on Sept. 17 and is scheduled to go live on Netflix on Sept. 24.
(Editor’s note: SHOOT and Melfi first connected in 2004 when his spec work gained inclusion into our 2nd annual New Directors Showcase.)