In this interview, Hollywood screenwriter Matt Harris talks about ‘The Starling’ and the long wait before the film finally got made, his writing process, influences as well as his upcoming projects.
Hollywood screenwriter Matt Harris suddenly finds himself in a very interesting space after several years producing television, during which he also served as the showrunner of MTV’s hit series Ridiculousness, one of the longest running shows on the network. After making the rounds in Hollywood for a long time, ‘The Starling,’ based on Harris’ screenplay, finally got released as a Netflix film starring the Academy Award-nominee Melissa McCarthy, the Academy Award-winner Kevin Kline, and Chris O’Dowd. The Starling is directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, Going in Style, Hidden Figures). Also, another of his long pending screenplays, a western titled ‘Moon of Popping Trees,’ for which he was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 2002 has just finished shooting with a new title ‘Dead for a Dollar,’ starring Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe.
In this interview, Harris talks about ‘The Starling’ and the long wait before the film finally got made, his writing process, influences as well as his upcoming projects.
Q. How did you conceive the idea for The Starling? What are you trying to tell through the story?
A. The story evolved out of a nagging awareness that nature and the universe can seem very unfair at times, as evidenced by bad things happening to good people. I was interested in how we try to make sense of this, and few things seem more tragically random than the loss of a child to Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). I wanted to see how a couple survives such a tragedy and how they can find a way forward.
Q. The feisty Starling is a central character of your film. What was your source of inspiration behind the bird?
A. I felt like I needed a way of personifying the natural world’s indifference to human suffering and the idea of a territorial bird just sort of came to me in a moment of inspiration. The more I researched birds the more I fell for the starling. They are bullies, invasive and territorial and yet they also have this other dimension which is almost artistic and magical. A very complex little creature!
Q. How challenging was it for you as a writer to wait for so long before the film finally got made?
A. There were many ups and downs over the years and if I’m being honest, I had come to accept that The Starling was a well regarded script that would never be made into a film. So many times I thought it would be made that I had conditioned myself to prepare for disappointment. It wasn’t until the night before they started shooting that I actually believed this was really going to happen. I drove out to the location after midnight, saw all the production trucks ready to go the next day and realized, wow — this time it’s for real! But I should also add that it was worth the wait because I can’t imagine the film with any other actors, producers or director than those that made it a reality.
Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a favorite genre?
A. I like to think of my writing process as organized chaos. Once I know an idea has me hooked and I can’t escape it, I begin by pouring out any and all ideas for the story in a sort of stream of consciousness over the course weeks that result in a very long and very disjointed document. Once I know how the story is going to end then I know I’m ready to begin the actual writing process. I am open to any and all genres but at the end of the day I know that I’ll quickly lose interest in a story idea that hinges on a gimmick or clever twist unless it’s about a character or characters that I’m genuinely invested in. For me it starts and ends with characters. People might remember The Sixth Sense because of its mind-blowing twist but I don’t think it would have been as powerful had it not for the fact that we were so invested in such compelling characters. I find that especially true for action films.
Q. How important is a medium or a platform according to you as a writer trying to tell a story?
A. At the end of the day, story is story. I could be wrong but I don’t think it matters where the story is presented. Certainly a series offers more time and opportunity to develop character and story than film does, but only if the idea warrants that kind of attention. But it all comes back to spinning a good yarn, right? A story that holds the viewer’s attention, and, just as important to me, rewards that time and attention with a satisfying ending.
Q. Tell us about your influences and inspirations as a writer.
A. I studied literature but not film which is kind of strange to think about since I’ve always loved film and its power to make me feel all the feels. I remember thinking that I wanted to be able to move people like a film moved me. That was it. I grew up outside Chicago and they had this superstation, WGN, and every week they would have a different theme and show all of these old films — Humphrey Bogart week, James Cagney week, Bette Davis week, etc. So I watched a ton of old movies growing up and then there were films like Star Wars that just absolutely blew my mind, along with smaller films like Places in the Heart that I just couldn’t believe had such power over my imagination and feelings. Films continue to inspire me. I will see something today and still have that same feeling — “I wanna do that.” The only difference today is that I have learned that for me to write a good story it has to be one that I’m sort of telling myself first and foremost; a story that I find engaging and captivating. In other words, I have to write a film that I want to see. If I do that then there’s a good chance it’s a film someone else will want to see too.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. I wrote a western called Moon of Popping Trees which has just finished shooting but with a new title, ‘Dead for a Dollar’. It’s directed by Walter Hill and stars Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe and Rachel Brosnahan. I understand the original version I wrote has undergone quite a few changes but I am still excited to see how it comes out. WGN showed a lot of westerns when I was a kid.