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Stella Meghie didn’t know she’d end up in the film industry. She started off as an intern at Women’s Wear Daily before eventually landing in fashion and beauty public relations. Now, she’s on everyone’s radar as the director of one of the most talked-about romantic dramas of the year featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars: The Photograph with Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield.
“At the time, I didn’t really know I wanted to write,” Meghie said. “I didn’t know I wanted to be in the film industry until maybe my mid-twenties and was kind of fed up with doing PR.”
Meghie moved to London to attend the University of Westminster. That decision would lead her to write and direct three films: Jean of the Joneses (2016), The Weekend (2018), and 2017’s Everything, Everything — the latter of which starred Amandla Stenberg and went on to win a Teen Choice Award for Drama. She also directed an episode of Insecure in 2018. But even with three movie titles and a credit on a critically-acclaimed HBO show under her belt, in an industry where black women filmmakers are still quite underrepresented, she remains a new name for many.
The Toronto native is now splashing on the scene just as a number of black women in both film and TV — including Ava Duvernay, Melina Matsoukas, and Lena Waithe — are blazing trails in the entertainment industry. With The Photograph, Meghie joins this class of amazing black women filmmakers in changing the tide in Hollywood.
“I feel very proud that people mention my name alongside everyone you just mentioned,” Meghie muses. “Gina Prince-Bythewood tweet your trailer out and say ‘I see you, Stella,’ that’s a dream come true! These are people you looked up to and then the people you’re coming up alongside, and you’re always stronger together, so it feels exciting and hopeful that there’s a new class.”
Meghie spoke to us about everything from her professional journey, to the incredible inspiration for her new film, to her favourite black love movie. Get into our conversation below.
Refinery29: You’re from Toronto, but at one point you were working in the fashion industry in New York City. What was that like and when did you know you wanted to become a director?
Stella Meghie: One of my first internships in New York was at Women's Wear Daily working in editorial, and then I ended up working in fashion and beauty PR. At the time, I didn’t really know I wanted to write. I didn’t know I wanted to be in the film industry until maybe my mid-twenties, and was kind of fed up with doing PR. I wanted to be a little more creative and ended up, when I was like 25, applying to grad school for screenwriting. I think I was doing PR at Brooks Brothers at the time and ended up just dropping everything and moving to London to pursue screenwriting.
Had you done any writing growing up or were you one day just like, “You know what? I wanna do screenwriting!”
Yeah, no! I had written poetry, I had done some journalism. I considered doing creative writing, but I just didn’t really have the patience to write a novel. And I just was watching movies. I was becoming very obsessed with independent cinema in New York and was like, “I think I wanna do this, and if I get into school then this is it.” I luckily got into one school and just started from there.
At that point, I didn’t know that I would direct. I wrote Jean of the Joneses, my first film, while I was in school and kind of just got into directing out of necessity. Because after the script was done I just thought, “Who’s gonna tell a story about these Jamaican women? Who’s going to get it right?” There was really no one who was going to get it right because I couldn’t point to anyone who had similar experiences to me that would understand all of the nuances of it. So I just ended up feeling like I’m gonna step behind the camera. I took a summer course at Columbia. From there, that was it.
I feel like that speaks so closely to the black women’s experience. A lot of the time, we’ll step in like, “If y’all ain’t gonna do this right, we’ll just do it ourselves.”
Right! That’s always the thing, like “There, I fixed it.” We make it sound so easy, but it’s hard. [Laughs] You really do it out of necessity and then you’re showing up and people haven’t seen you on set. You have to do that casual dance of “I’m gonna fix it, I’m gonna do it,” but, you know, it’s hard work after that.
You’re still a new name for many, though you do have a few films under your belt. What has the journey from 2016 leading up to The Photograph been like for you?
I feel like it was such a long stretch of writing alone in a room and applying for fellowships and just trying to break through to — fast forward to 2015 — getting the money for Jean of the Joneses. It’s been so backpaced since then, so it’s been a strange process where it just took a really long time to get Jean off the ground. Then I kind of just grabbed hold of every opportunity I could since then. It’s been a decade of “Am I gonna make it? Is this gonna work for me? Am I gonna be able to support myself from this? Am I gonna be produced?” to really spending back-to-back years on set.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, “Maybe I should have stuck with PR”?
[Laughs] No, definitely not. I was never gonna stick to PR. I was not good at it. I would have gotten fired. It was not for me. I think sometimes when directing gets hard, I fantasise about going back to being just a writer. But I’m probably just far too much of a control freak to ever really do that.
How does it feel knowing The Photograph is finally hitting cinemas?
It feels good! I mean, it’s always a strange feeling to release it ‘cause then it’s not yours anymore; it’s for other people [laughs] to enjoy or not enjoy.
How long had you been working on it?
I actually wrote the script like five years ago before I even directed my first feature. I sold it to Universal maybe two years ago and then production started about a year ago.
What was the inspiration behind the film, and why was it a story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to tell a romantic drama set in New York because I lived there for so long, and I wanted to write characters that reminded me of me and my friends. At the time, when I was really getting into the story and figuring out the layers to it, my grandmother was reuniting with a daughter she had given up when she was a teenager and it had been so long — over 30 years, probably 40. My grandmother was just so — I’d never known her to be so regretful, you know? I had such an honest conversation with her where she was telling me how she regretted giving her daughter up. She thought the child was gonna have a better life, and she would’ve had just as good of a life or better if my grandmother had kept her. So my grandmother was really struggling with that idea as she was about to meet her.
The emotion struck me. And the thought of being separated from someone for so long that was such a big part of your heart and your life, and not having talked to them even though you think about them all the time. That thought brought me to the back story set in the 80s in The Photograph, this kind of unrequited love story between Isaac and Christina.
Being that it’s a story that’s so close to home for you, what was the writing process like for you? What were some of the feelings you were going through?
It was an emotional script to write. Of the scripts I’ve written, it’s got the biggest world, the most characters, the deepest past. I just was so enwrapped in the world and the characters as I was writing it. It was a movie that kind of fell out of me. I wrote it actually very quickly, the first few drafts. I felt like I knew the characters, and I was so invested in how the story unfolded. I’m used to writing more comedy drama, so it was a story that I had to dig a little deeper on the emotional side compared to what I normally write.
This is definitely different from any of the other films that you’ve created. I love that these photos that Mae’s mum took were the centrepiece of this story. Was anyone in your family a photographer?
No, there are no photographers in my family. But my mum, my grandma and my aunts have these beautiful photos of the past from before I was born that I’m always looking at, and wondering who these women were in that moment before I was there. I think photographs hold such mystery when they’re set in another time. They’re nostalgic and I just love the idea of entering a story through a photograph.
The photographs featured in the film captured Louisiana in such a magical light. Do you have a personal connection to it?
There’s no real personal connection, but everyone wants to shoot in Louisiana because Louisiana is magical. It’s such a beautiful place and to be able to shoot New Orleans proper, French Quarter, and then we went out to De La Croix, Louisiana to shoot the harbour stuff. It’s so gorgeous. I’ve never been so inspired shooting in a location. That was our favourite week of shooting. Nothing could beat the landscape and the people and the energy.
I want to talk about the casting because you have literally two of black Hollywood’s most popular names together on the big screen: Issa and Lakeith. Then you’ve got Chante Adams from Roxanne Roxanne. You have Y’Lan Noel, and Courtney B. Vance. Did you have in mind who you wanted to cast as you were writing the script?
This is the one movie I wrote without thinking about anybody. I was so enwrapped in the world. I think it’s the only thing I’ve ever written without people [I wanted to cast] in mind and so as we were getting [to the point of] okay, we might actually make this, it was kind of then that [I began to consider] who’s right for these roles?
Issa and I had just worked with on Insecure and it was such a sweet episode. I got to see this other vulnerable side of her that she doesn’t always show. I love surprise casting. I love the idea of people seeing the other side of Issa and what she can do. And Lakeith, you don’t think of him as the normal leading romantic guy, and then when I spoke to him he was just so romantic. Lakeith is romantic! I don’t know that he would describe himself that way, but he’s very loving and caring, and as he talked about his experiences I was just like, “Oh my God, there’s literally no other Michael.” As we stand now, it would have been a disaster with anyone else! [Laughs] Sometimes you just get very lucky, and the exact right person you weren’t thinking about shows up and saves you.
And Courtney B. Vance, oh my God! So amazing that he came on and he was just so sweet. He was like, “I just want to be part of the ensemble.” He was so humble. So I was so grateful for him to come and just do a few scenes, you know? And then because we had those heavyweights I could go to the studio and be like, “These are the new kids on the block that we have to hire and get to know please” and force them to look at [talent like] Chante Adams, Kelvin Harrison and Jasmine Cephas. I just fought for all of them. I begged all of them to be in [the film] and then I fought for all of them to be pushed through the studio system to get their spot to shine in a broader film than we’ve seen them in that had smaller distribution. It’s just such an amazing ensemble. There could be no better cast.
We have some of the best African American actors, period, established or up-and-coming. I just really zoned in on who I felt was right for each role, and I was really lucky that people like Teyonah Parris just said yes to come play around for a few days.
In terms of filmmaking, who and what are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by a lot of writer-directors. I feel like when I was in school, I was very much obsessed with like She’s Gotta Have It, Slums of Beverly Hills. Natasha Lyonne, I’m obsessed with and we’re doing something together right now. When I was a teenager, Love & Basketball and Love Jones were films that were constantly on repeat for me that are kind of burned into my psyche. All those films and filmmakers, they have helped me figure out who I am as a filmmaker and launched my voice.
You mentioned Love Jones and Love & Basketball which perfectly segues into my next question: what is your favourite classic black love film?
I would have to probably say Love Jones.
I was watching a Lil Rel Howery interview and he touched upon something that really resonated with me: the idea of black love stories versus love stories starring black people. How would you describe The Photograph within that context?
I heard Rel say that. He’s so insightful. I’m so lucky to have him in the film. I agree with what he said, I think because there’s so few movies like this with black leads, of course it’s a celebration of black love. But at the same time I’m a filmmaker, this is a film, and it’s a love story. It’s a romantic drama, it’s a family drama, and the characters are black. You wouldn’t call Marriage Story a white love story, so [laughs] it’s accurate and it’s inaccurate.
It brings a human element to it. It is a black love story because there are black people in it, but you don’t need to necessarily say it for people to grasp that.
Yeah. People take pride and connect and because there are so few [black love stories]. There’s a need to label it and I get that because black love is something that means something to the community when it’s said.
The Photograph is in UK cinemas from 6th March