Stella Meghie is feeling the love.
As “Sonic the Hedgehog” soared to number one over Presidents’ Day weekend, “The Photograph” made a solid $13 million. Catching up with Meghie early Saturday morning after the film’s debut, the writer/director/executive producer admitted she’d been looking at the numbers.
“I’m grateful people seem to like it, but you know, who knows?” Meghie told Variety during a phone conversation. “It’s hard to judge these things on their outcome, especially going back and forth between studio and indie [film], there’s just such different scales of what success means. It’s hard when you’re in the marketplace going up against like $100 million blockbuster films and you’re just like, ‘Where do I land? What constitutes success?’”
Meghie and the film, which carries a reported $15 million budget, also received a great deal of support from other black creators on social media, including Lena Waithe and Regina King. Meghie is proud to count many of these creatives, like Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood, as her fervent supporters over the years. “My sisters, like Radha Blank (‘The 40-Year Old Version’) and Liesl Tommy (upcoming ‘Respect’ with Jennifer Hudson), who both gave notes on film, Chinonye Chukwu (‘Clemency’) — those three women have been very supportive,” she added. “Steven Caple Jr. (‘Creed II’) I call all the time when I’m like, ‘I’m quitting the industry,’ and he just laughs at me and asks me what my next big gig is going to be.”
But for now, Meghie is focused on “The Photograph,” which tells the story of museum curator Mae (Issa Rae) and journalist Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), who fall for each other after a story Michael is pursuing brings them together. It’s an unconventional movie, more for its manner of cross-generational storytelling (the film jumps back and forth between the 1980s and present day) than the aspect it’s getting the most attention for — being a “black romance.” Though influenced by classic black films — including “Love Jones,” “Love & Basketball” and “Mo’ Better Blues” — the filmmaker has a complicated relationship with the narrative that “The Photograph” is part of some sort of new wave.
“I tend to get that question a lot about bringing it back and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know. It’s one film, I hope there’ll be more,’” Meghie said, admitting she has mixed emotions about the idea.
But Meghie does enjoy a great romance, calling “Love Jones,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” [“That’s probably one of the best-looking films of the past decade,” Meghie noted] and the Keira Knightley-starring 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice” [“Me and my friends quote this a lot because I guess we’re romance film nerds”] out as favorites. And she also credits filmmakers Theodore Witcher (“Love Jones”), Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) and Spike Lee as “canon” and her “foundation.” But speaking directly to the comparisons between “The Photograph” and “Love Jones,” she said, “I did grow up obsessed with [that film], but this movie is set half in the 80s, has an entire family drama attached to it, is about a mother who’s just died. … The story is so far and away apart from what that film is, it is kind of exhausting to kind of act like they’re the same film.”
Nevertheless, there’s both power and purpose in the inherent blackness of Meghie’s film. In fact, Meghie strove to highlight it in both the production design and the cinematography, creating a moody and intimate feel to the movie. “I feel like when you think of studio romance, you think of something very bright and I wanted the opposite.”
“I wanted this film to feel sexy and warm and dark, saturated. So it was a pretty tight color palette of these rich, earthy, you know, colors, jewel tones — there’s a lot of burgundy in the film, a lot of dark green, a lot of like chocolate brown,” she explained, crediting her cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard for finding the right look. “I wanted Issa to feel like she was almost glowing. And I wanted Lakeith to feel a little more mysterious, in a way, so we found the perfect balance of kind of shadow on his face. … So he really, you know, rose to that [occasion] to keep it dark, but still capture all the dark melanin of the actors.”
The film also boasts an impressive ensemble, including Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Teyonah Parris, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Y’lan Noel and Rob Morgan.
“The cast just feels phenomenal,” Meghie gushed of her stars. “Courtney B. Vance was like, ‘Look, there’s not a lot for me in this movie, but I want to be part of the ensemble.’ And that was the nicest kind of thing any actor [has] ever said to me. … Having that kind of supporting cast, it’s very hard to go wrong and have moments feel wrong.”
Meghie also imbued her love for fashion into the film [before she was a filmmaker, she worked in fashion PR, after interning at Variety sister publication WWD] and working with costume designer Keri Langerman to hone the characters’ looks.
“[Issa’s] so gorgeous in the film,” Meghie said. “I just saw Mae as my most glamorous and polished character that I’ve written. … We kind of found like the right look for her — [designers like] Altuzarra, Prada. I think the yellow dress is like a Mara Hoffman. She wore like Tom Ford. It was definitely designed down, but layered in a way where it didn’t look like the clothes, I hope, were wearing her. And the classic Burberry trench for the storm.”
“It’s funny for me, cause if you see me out, I’m in sweats at all times. I’ve gone to big studio meetings in sweat pants and a denim jacket and been just happy,” Meghie laughed. “But when it comes to my characters, I want them to be very polished.”
Speaking of studios, Meghie produced “The Photograph” with Will Packer Productions for Universal Pictures, crediting chairman Donna Langley for green-lighting a lot of movies that “aren’t normally pushed into production.”
“They bought my film and we were in production a year later … same for Melina [Matsoukas with ‘Queen & Slim’],” Meghie said. “She’s putting things in production and that’s the only way things are gonna shift and she’s a part of that.”
Of getting that official thumbs up from the studio, Meghie recalled, “It was a very Hollywood moment. I was sitting at Cecconi’s [an upscale restaurant in West Hollywood]. … Will Packer called me and I just remember him being like, ‘It’s Go Time,’ which is like a very Will Packer way of telling you something exciting. Green lights are so weird. It’s like I never really believe anything’s green lit til I’m on set. Like I have a strange ritual of whenever they’re sending me to location, I only bring carry on [luggage].”
The filmmaker may be superstitious, but her presence behind the camera is quickly establishing its permanence and is likely to be an inspiration for other prospective women directors, much like Rae told Variety that Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball” “made me want to be a filmmaker.”
In another Variety interview, Rae gushed about Meghie as a director saying, “I had worked with her on Insecure season 3 and I loved working with her. She did one of our most romantic episodes I would say. Just her point of view, her specificity, her direction, I just really vibed with her.”
And clearly, so does the audience. “The Photograph” is in theaters now.