The Starling Girl Interviews: Eliza Scanlen, Laurel Parmet, & Ben Schneider

Credit: Brian Lannin, Courtesy of Bleecker Street

The Starling Girl is the feature-length directorial debut of Laurel Parmet. The film tells the story of Jem (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage girl growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community. She’s trying to come of age and understand her sexuality in an environment that stifles self-expression. Jem is drawn to Owen (Lewis Pullman), the young, cool pastor who seems so worldly to Jem. He encourages her to travel and talks to her like she’s an equal. It’s a kindness Jem has never known, but his kindness is a cover for his inappropriate intentions.

Despite how realistic and honest The Starling Girl feels, writer/director Parmet did not grow up in a community like Jem’s. Instead, she focused on what made Jem’s experience universal. Scanlen also did not grow up in a community like Jem’s and she latched onto a moment early in the film to find her footing in this world. After a dance recital, one of the church women comments to Jem that her bra is visible through her shirt.

“I, like many other female identifying people, I felt a sense of shame around my body,” Scanlen explains. “And that hot shame that she feels I really identify with and just feeling suddenly feeling so uncomfortable or repulsed by your body.”

Jem looks up to the sky
Credit: Brian Lannin, Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Those familiar with Scanlen’s previous works know that her characters tend to be a bit intense and going through a massive hardship. In Babyteeth, she’s a teenager with cancer, as Beth in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, her fate was sealed from the get-go, and no one ever has a good time in an M. Night Shyamalan movie and Scanlen’s character in Old was not exempt. So what draws Scanlen to return time and again to these daunting roles?

“I think I was lucky in the beginning to get, you know, challenging roles,” Scanlen smiles. “I like to throw myself in the deep end, I guess, and yeah, either sink or swim.”

In the case of The Starling Girl, Scanlen certainly swam. It’s thanks in part to Parmet’s stunning script. The film hinges on the relationship between Jem and Owen and how insidious the abuse is while also showing the honesty of Jem’s emotions of being swept up in this charismatic guy. In order to have viewers understand the impact this kind of relationship can have on someone that young, Parmet placed the audience firmly in Jem’s shoes.

“The crux of directing the film, was finding a way to delicately balance the intoxication that Jen feels in this relationship with the inappropriateness. And it was really honestly about grounding the story and from her perspective, you know, we’re with her 100% of the time,” Parmet explains. “It’s intimate and it’s immediate. And like, we’re with her moment to moment, so we are the audience is I wanted the audience to experience the relationship, how she experiences it.”

Laurel Parmet behind - the - scenes looking at a video monitor
Credit: Phil Parmet, courtesy of Bleecker Street

“[Jem] enjoys exploring her sexuality and there are positive she’s experiencing this opening up. And it’s exciting and and dreamy,” Parmet continues. “And so, you know, we’ll sometimes root for the relationship because even though we know it’s wrong and I wanted the audience to understand, you know, why Jem could fall for Owen and maybe fall for him a little bit at times, too, and then be like, Oh, God, wait, why did I want that?”

It’s a high wire act that Parmet manages to sustain for the entire film. That’s partly thanks to her newfound love of Red Bull that she discovered while shooting the movie.

“This is sponsored by Red Bull and product placement,” Parmet jokes, “and it’s just like a row of Red Bulls in church.”

Music played a key role in the film in part because Jem’s one source of expression is her dance group, but also because her father (Jimmi Simpson) used to be a musician. Enter: Ben Schneider from the band Lord Huron. Not only did he write and perform “Ace Up My Sleeve” with his band for the film, but The Starling Girl is Schneider’s first experience scoring a film. When asked why this film was the one that inspired him to take the plunge, he jokes, “They asked me.”

In all seriousness, Schneider has been interested in scoring a film for a long time. His earliest memories of music are tied to films and noticing how the score has the ability to invoke emotions from the viewers without the help of dialogue or visuals. Sometimes, it’s the music that fuels the emotional reactions.

Ben Schneider with his band members
Lord Huron © Anthony Wilson

“I met with Laurel…and we just hit it off,” Schneider explains. “And I really loved her vision. I read the script, and more than anything, it was just the script reading that and connecting with the story and really seeing a lot of potential and feel and most of all feeling like I could add something to this story…And thankfully, Laurel agreed, and we took it from there.”

When it came time to write “Ace Up My Sleeve,” Schneider was thrilled at the possibilities that came with the task. Since the song was meant to be written by Jem’s dad, Schneider thought about the equipment and logistics of what technology would have been available to this character’s band.

“How would they have recorded it at the time they would have been recording, you know, what techniques would they have used in the early nineties or whatever this guy would have been having his band. What bands would he have been into that he would have used for inspiration?” Schneider explains. “We did it all live like they would have done probably in that era, you know, just a couple of takes. Even if it wasn’t perfect, we said they wouldn’t have the money to be in the studio all day. We kind of got into it being a method that was a little messy, too, with the way we were doing it. It was great.”

Check out all three of Film Obsessive’s interviews with Eliza Scanlen, Laurel Parmet, and Ben Schneider below. The Starling Girl is now in theatres.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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