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Writer/director Stella Meghie on the set of her newest feature, a romantic drama, The Photograph.

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

Stella Meghie is something of an anomaly. The Toronto-raised filmmaker has made four features in four years, a rare feat that’s rarer still for a woman of colour. After her debut Canadian feature, Jean of the Joneses, a comic love story about a neurotic writer reeling from a breakup and ending up under the care of her crazy mixed up family – which earned Meghie a nomination for Best First Screenplay at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards – she was approached to direct an adaptation of the YA novel Everything, Everything for Warner Brothers. In 2018, Meghie earned the (saddening) accolade of becoming the only black woman that year to direct a widely released, studio-backed film. Starring actor and activist Amandla Stenberg, it grossed US$61.5-million against a US$10-million budget.

Itching to return to her DIY roots, Meghie then produced her own charming romantic comedy The Weekend in 2019. Her Rohmer-esque farce saw SNL’s Sasheer Zamata play a snarky standup comedian who spends a combative weekend with her ex-boyfriend, his new girlfriend and a prospective love interest at a romantic bed and breakfast. Hilarity and awkwardness ensue.

Meghie’s fourth feature, The Photograph (out this Valentine’s Day weekend), sees her strong authorial voice deepen into something more soulful and mature. The romantic drama stars the brilliant Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield and is yet another levelling up for her career: A US$16-million dollar movie from Universal that’s produced by Will Packer (Girls Trip) and features a compelling, relatable love story between two equally complicated adults.

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In interviews, Meghie often gets asked to explain her prolific success, as if by analyzing it, we can somehow create more Stella Meghies in an industry that often fails female directors and women of colour.

Issa Rae and Meghie on the set of The Photograph. Meghie often gets asked to explain her prolific success, as if by analyzing it, we can somehow replicate her in an industry that often fails female directors and women of colour.

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

“In the same way that Canadian executives don’t take risks on certain voices, filmmakers don’t always get called up to the Hollywood studio system,” Meghie says diplomatically. “People miss the boat on emerging filmmakers every day, especially if they’re women.”

As for Meghie, fortunate timing, as well as her work ethic, talent and ingenuity have all factored in: “I’d written The Photograph before I’d directed Jean of the Joneses. Everything, Everything provided a huge opportunity, in terms of being visible and being trusted, and it just so happened that I had a backlog of scripts ready to be made. To be a successful director, you have to be a producer as well.”

In The Photograph, Rae plays May, a museum curator reeling from her estranged mother’s death. They never had a close relationship, as her mother preferred to get lost in her work as a photographer. Stanfield plays Michael, a journalist who first encounters May while working on a story about her late mother’s career. As the couple grows closer, both encounter obstacles that could threaten any millennial romance: emotional baggage, long distance career opportunities, as well as grief and generational trauma. Early scenes between them are careful and intimate; Meghie knows how to capture the first blush of attraction, as well as inherent pain in trying to be open to love. If justice prevails and audiences do the right thing this Valentine’s Day, Meghie could soon become a household name, similar to her filmmaking inspirations, which include Nancy Meyers, Xavier Dolan and Spike Lee.

“Finding love is all about where you are at in your life; your ability to be open and vulnerable,” Meghie says. “I don’t really subscribe to Valentine’s Day, but I love romantic dramas. I grew up obsessed with Love & Basketball, Poetic Justice, Love Jones and anything Nora Ephron or Mike Nichols. It’s just been one of those genres that I’m attracted to.”

In The Photograph, Issa Rae plays May, a museum curator reeling from her estranged mother’s death.

Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures

With the exception of the star-crossed teen romance Everything, Everything, which was greenlit by Warner Brothers before Meghie jumped on, your typical Stella Meghie movie often features a hyperbolically self-aware woman at a critical juncture in her life. She’s an iconic dresser (Meghie used to work in fashion PR) and is usually artistically inclined, but everything’s falling apart. The promise of a new relationship with someone hot and stable for once (the director has wonderful taste in men, having cast Mamoudou Athie, Y’lan Noel and Stanfield as love interests) forces our heroine to get it together after she uncovers a shocking family secret. The Photograph offers an evolution as both the charismatic May and Michael get equal screen time facing messy complications in their lives. During their press tour, Meghie and Rae have said they wanted to show black love on screen. Having made several films now about the topic, I ask Meghie if that’s a mission statement of sorts.

“People ask ‘is this your mission statement,’ but no one asks Noah Baumbach if he has a mission statement to make movies about [white relationships],” Meghie rightly counters. “Even when black audiences first saw the trailer, they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is for us. Finally I can see myself in something.’ And it feels almost political in a way that’s sad; it’s seen so rarely that it feels like a defiance.”

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Meghie says she makes films about her friends. Her messy heroines, played by great comic actresses such as Rae, Sasheer Zamata and Taylour Paige (soon to be seen in the A24 film Zola) could be seen as her avatar, the way all writer/directors find a stand-in for their neurotic selves. With Rae, Meghie has found a creative partner, as well as a muse. They’ll next collaborate on the high concept rom-com American Princess for Fox.

“We first met on Insecure, and I just liked working with her a lot,” says Meghie, who directed two episodes of Rae’s HBO series in 2019. (In turn, Rae is a producer on The Photograph.) “I liked the way she ran her set, she was professional and easy to be around. I always say ‘I’m looking for my Diane Keaton,’ and there’s something about Issa you gravitate toward. She’s not the typical leading lady; she’s more grounded.”

Relatability is key for Meghie. A memorable scene from The Photograph sees May and Michael arguing on their first date about who’s a better rapper: Kendrick Lamar or Drake.

“I just want Drake to know that I was May in that scenario, and that I am waiting for his feedback,” jokes Meghie, who credits her fellow Torontonian for comforting her in the dark times of making studio pictures.

“Drake fuels me when I’m in the fights of a film," she says. "You throw on Mob Ties and you pull yourself together. “

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