Nicola Yoon wrote Everything, Everything in small snatches over three years in the morning twilight, as her baby slept between 4 and 6 a.m. Terrified of the laundry list of things she felt she needed to protect her newborn daughter from (allergens, bacteria, viruses), Yoon imagined a world where a young girl named Maddy grows up medically unable to withstand the necessary filth of normal life. What would it be like for a teen girl to come-of-age by herself, inside her hermetically sealed home? Then girl under house arrest meets boy on the other side of the glass, and Maddy's sterile world of pressed white T-shirts and daily blood work starts to spin on a new axis.
A modern Romeo and Juliet redux, Yoon's debut young-adult novel sprang to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and stayed put. The movie rights were optioned to MGM, a script was adapted from the novel and a copy was sent to Hollywood newcomer Stella Meghie. Stars aligned, light through yonder window broke and Everything, Everything with Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson was born.
Yoon and Meghie are both part Jamaican, both Libras (even sharing the same birthday) and they vibe on a complementary aesthetic level. Meghie was just basking in the glow of her first film Jean of the Joneses (which got her an Indie Spirit Award nomination) when the MGM script appeared. Jean of the Joneses is a quirky, Brooklyn independent film that premiered to praise at SXSW and endeared itself to audiences at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – so Meghie thought she'd make another independent movie next. She sat on the Everything, Everything script for a couple of weeks. Finally, after some gentle nudging from her agent, Meghie read it and found in its pages some of the family drama and romance that had made Jean of the Joneses come to life. A spark. Meghie explains that Yoon's book "was this dark fairy tale to me. I saw it as the YA version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – it was such an interesting dynamic and tone that you really had not seen in this kind of movie before.
"I literally finished the book, put it down and five seconds later picked up my phone to talk to the producer," the director says. "I gave notes on the story and how I saw it – as if it had all sunk in! I was talking off the cuff, but when you connect to something, you can."
Meghie, who was born and raised in Toronto, did not intend to become a Hollywood director overnight. "It's been so fast I don't know that I've unpacked it," she says. "It was just serendipity with this project and with Nicola."
It would be easy to credit serendipity for Meghie's fast-tracked career, but that would discredit the director's extreme talent, which has caught the attention of the industry on every level. After leaving a career in fashion PR, Meghie took up screenwriting in 2010, producing a first draft of Jean of the Joneses at the University of Westminster in London. From there, she won a prestigious screenplay award at the Nantucket Film Festival, followed by a joint fellowship between the Canadian Film Centre and the Tribeca Film Festival.
Everything, Everything, though, represents a new opportunity for Meghie. The film was shot over 29 days in Vancouver (as a stand-in for California) and Mexico (posing as Maui), with a budget, it's fair to guess, that outstripped Jean of the Joneses by many decimals. Where did the money go? "You'd have to ask the producers," Meghie says with a laugh. "We had a set, which we didn't have for Jean, so the production-design budget was bigger. The crew was bigger. But you know, it was the same job. The stakes are higher because there's more money, but it's the same job. If you don't get the performances you need, your movie is going to suck."
Suck it does not. Meghie gets the performances she needs from Stenberg (best known as Rue from The Hunger Games) and Harry Styles-lookalike Robinson (Jurassic World) as the young lovers Maddy and Olly. Stenberg, an activist and outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter, has been vocal that the interracial relationship is an important aspect of the book and film. The need for more black women in lead roles is close to the hearts of Yoon and Meghie, too, though the author bristles at the question of why it was important to have an interracial couple.
"Maddy looks the way she does because my little girl looks the way she does," Yoon says. "And my husband is Korean-American and we are happy! We are not struggling and we certainly don't think about being interracial. We are totally in love, we are goofy and this is just life. These are just two kids who find each other and make each other happier. They just are."
Letting go of her book – watching as it passed through different hands and changed from her original vision – was hard at first. "But you see different versions of the script and then you start finding things that are new and different and better," Yoon says. "And that's a beautiful thing. It's nice to see another piece of art from something that I started."
Even though Meghie connected with Yoon's novel immediately, she takes the artistic licence needed to make Everything, Everything her own. What is subtly magical in the book is transformed into fantastical tableau – moments that telescope Maddy out of her ill captivity. "There isn't really fantasy in Nicola's book – it's magical. So I was trying to figure out how to make the film feel magical," Meghie says. "It's not just a quirky, indie film. There are huge grappling themes and I felt like the fantasy elements made the small film feel bigger."
There were practical reasons for diverging from the original text, too. Focalized through their teenaged imaginations, Meghie allows the lovers to be in the same room as their many text and online conversations unfold. These scenes of fantasy afforded Robinson and Stenberg physical proximity, "much more than if we'd kept it grounded," Meghie explains. And when you have two young, gorgeous leads like these, you want them in the same room as much as possible.
Of the cast and chemistry, Meghie thanks Lady Fortune. "We got lucky, and we had a week together to rehearse. It was kind of like a Breakfast Club. We'd get together in the morning and just talk, and then realize that we should work," she says with a laugh. "I remember once I had to take a phone call and I looked up to see Nick rolling Amandla around on a cart like a makeshift wheelchair and she was holding a plant like they were straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – while I was trying to talk to an executive. The chemistry was just there and their chemistry was very real."