Ask the average film enthusiast to name five black women filmmakers working today, and they will likely struggle to come up with more than a few. Narrow the criteria down to black women filmmakers working at the studio level, and their choices become even fewer, because black women are still vastly underrepresented in the director’s chair, even as industry inclusion initiatives abound. While she has three feature films on her resume (two indies and one studio) in as many years, and two in development (both at major studios), the prolific Stella Meghie remains a relative unknown for her accomplishments as one of very few black women filmmakers working at a consistent rate today.
Among the 814 movies released theatrically in the U.S. in 2018, just five of them were directed by black women filmmakers, and only one (Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time”) came from a studio. In 2017, Meghie’s “Everything, Everything” was the only studio-backed film directed by a black woman. After that, she directed the indie “The Weekend,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and she’s already at work on two new projects: With “Girls Trip” producer Will Packer, she’s currently casting the romantic drama “The Photograph”; after that, she’ll move on to the Fox-produced “American Princess,” which stars Issa Rae. Without much fanfare, the writer-director is building a distinct body of work, while managing to maintain some anonymity. But for the filmmaker, it’s very much welcome.
“I don’t think anybody knows who I am, but I like to stay under the radar, so that’s kind of OK with me,” Meghie said in an interview, adding that she operates without a publicist, and doesn’t see an immediate need for one. “I just haven’t decided to keep one, which some of my filmmaker friends think is crazy,” she said. “But I don’t know. I’m just busy working.”
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Indeed she is — and with an output that many of her colleagues would envy. Meghie’s single-minded focus is evident in her projects. “I just want to keep going, and not get caught up in anything out of my control, and establish myself and my own personal voice, because, in the end, it’s always about the next film,” she said, counting the works of Pedro Almodovar, Tamara Jenkins, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and Woody Allen as inspiration.
She’s just as reserved about teasing her projects, especially before they are complete, even though it’s a practice that’s grown in popularity with the rise of social media. “I am definitely an advocate of finishing things before you promote them,” said Meghie. “I don’t know if I’m superstitious, but my approach is, let me try to focus on the work and make sure it’s good before I start telling people about it.”
The Toronto-born Meghie actually worked in public relations in the fashion industry in New York prior to getting a masters degree in screenwriting from the University of Westminster. Her feature film debut, “Jean of the Joneses,” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2016, and received a nomination for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as two Canadian Screen Award nominations, including a nod in the Best Original Screenplay category.
She followed that up with the MGM romantic drama “Everything, Everything” (2017), an adaptation of the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon, starring Amandla Stenberg. While it was the only film directed by a black woman filmmaker with a wide release that year, but that story didn’t receive much attention, and Meghie made no effort to promote it.
In 2018, her third feature, the indie dramedy “The Weekend,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. And by the end of the year, she hopes to have “The Photograph” and “American Princess” in the bag.
Meghie didn’t dream of becoming a filmmaker in her childhood. “Growing up, I thought I was going to be a novelist and I even tried to write, but I don’t have that kind of patience,” she said, noting that support from her family was mixed when she decided to pursue filmmaking. “It wasn’t until when I was living in New York, surrounded by independent cinema culture, that I became very film obsessed, and decided to transition to screenwriting.”
It was a logical progression, given that writing was already in her DNA, although she didn’t envision making the next obvious leap: “I never thought I was going be a director at all because I had no interest in it,” said Meghie. “I just wanted to be a writer.”
That changed when she wrote her eventual debut, “Jean of the Joneses,” a personal project that she came to believe wouldn’t be safest in anyone else’s hands. “The story was so close to me and my family and I just felt like it was mine to tell, because I didn’t feel comfortable that anyone else would get all my weird references,” she said. “So I thought, no one’s going to make this the way I would, and I told my producer that I wanted to direct it, if only out of necessity.”
But it wasn’t an idea that her producer at the time immediately embraced, instead presenting Meghie with a list of directors he believed would help give the project the traction it needed to get off the ground. To her chagrin, all the directors on the list were men. “I was just like, back in the fucking drawer with the script basically, and continued to use it as a sample of my work,” she said. “And that’s what I did for a few years. It kind of just sat in a drawer and I would bring it out when needed.”
That was four years ago. She would eventually get to direct the acerbically funny “Jean of the Joneses,” a smart, multigenerational ensemble dramedy that’s inspired by her own family life, with a mostly female cast. The film was good enough for CAA to sign Meghie for representation in film and television. Since then, she has maintained an atypical pace, made even more impressive at a time when feature directing opportunities for black women filmmakers have been few and far between, especially at the studio level.
“Yeah, It’s been really wild,” Meghie said, considering her career trajectory to date. “I remember reading an article on how many women had made a studio film in 2018, and it was like three. I thought, what the fuck?”
Getting to direct “Everything, Everything” immediately after her debut involved a confluence of factors. “Luckily for me, after I got ‘Jean’ made, signing with CAA opened doors, and the timing in terms of things coming together couldn’t have been better,” she said. “All these other women filmmakers that I thought might get the ‘Everything’ job over me were busy for once, and all at the same time. And so I thought, this is my shot, this is mine to lose, and I saw it as a way to step into making another movie very quickly.”
Her first meeting with MGM brass wasn’t exactly seamless, she said, and she feared that she might lose the gig. While meeting with a senior executive, “I was jet-lagged and so nervous,” she said. “After I left, I realized that it didn’t go well, which my agent agreed on, saying that my nervousness showed and got in the way of my presentation.”
However, the studio later called her back to meet with Jon Glickman, its president of film production at the time. Relieved, she prepared herself for a more confident showing during the second meeting. “I honestly just gave myself such a fucking talking to, and I told myself, you know what, you’re the best for this, so if you lose it, you’ll only be losing to yourself,” Meghie said. “And so I rolled into that next meeting and pitched the adaptation, focusing on what about it I really cared for, and it ended up working.”
A week later, Glickman called, officially offering her the job. “My life was definitely changed at that point,” she said.
Should it have been a missed opportunity, Meghie’s plan B was to create for television instead, where many women writers and directors — especially those of color — have found a kinder contrast to the film industry. But the filmmaker was determined. “There are a lot of very strong women making films who are somehow being shut out of the studio system,” she said. “And I just had this feeling that I had to really go after it, because I know I can be a bully when I need to be.”
Meghie would immediately follow up “Everything, Everything” with the independently-financed chamber dramedy, “The Weekend,” which stars “Saturday Night Live’s” Sasheer Zamata as a neurotic comedian who goes away for the weekend with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. A film she expected to direct first, because of its small scale in terms of the number of locations and cast members, “The Weekend” made its world premiere at TIFF 2018, where it was met with overwhelmingly favorable reviews. Selected as one of IndieWire’s “10 Best Undistributed Movies of 2018,” it still has yet to be acquired for release.
But that hasn’t slowed her down. The tireless filmmaker is already deep into pre-production on her next feature. Titled “The Photograph,” for Meghie, it will be her most consequential project to date, one that she and producer Will Packer hope will revitalize a once-thriving sub-genre. “Before I did ‘Jean,’ my manager set Will and I up on a meeting, and we had a conversation about really wanting to make the kind of serious romantic drama with black leads that we saw in films like ‘Love Jones’ over 20 years ago,” she said.
However, the timing for both of them wasn’t quite right. “So I went away with that idea, and in the next few years, I wrote the script,” said Meghie. Packer eventually read the screenplay, loved it, and the two decided to bring it to life together in the wake of his success with “Girls Trip.”
For Meghie, there’s much at stake with “The Photograph,” which is currently casting for a 2019 shoot. “To me, this film is kind of key to my career in the sense that, it is what I’ve been working towards from the start,” she said. “To be able to direct a film that I’ve written, that’s original, with a studio budget – I’m talking real money – with a producer who has a box office track record, and to see it open wide, that’s big for me, which is why it has to work.”
From there, she’s heading straight into “American Princess,” which will mark her third studio feature. That means she will be joining a very short list of women directors of African descent with at least one studio-level feature film, including Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons, Euzhan Palcy, Angela Robinson, Darnell Martin, and Sanaa Hamri – women Meghie admittedly feels a professional camaraderie with. None of them have directed more than three studio-backed feature films, so Meghie could very well find herself in rare air, in another year or two.
“It’s hard for me to complain because I’m doing well,” she said, noting that she has even taken meetings with Marvel studio executives. “Don’t get me wrong, the industry is sexist as hell, and at the end of the day, I still look at the terrible stats on women filmmakers, especially women of color, and I don’t know how much has really changed in a frustrating environment where, time and time again, we have to prove ourselves in ways that men do not.”
To address that concern, she has started developing her own production company, Bad But Beautiful, and hopes to produce projects beyond her own gigs. She cited Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions as a model. “I really look up to the way Jordan has kind of expanded so quickly, giving other people opportunities,” she said. She expressed relentless optimism about the next stage of her career. “I can’t worry about what’s not in my control,” she said. “All I can say is that I’m a very ambitious person and I always aim to win, no matter the circumstance.”