When Stella Meghie was writing the script for “Jean of the Joneses,” a film loosely inspired by the strong-willed women in her family, she’d occasionally call her grandmother with a notepad in tow. On a day when Meghie might’ve been a little too aggressive in her fact-finding, her grandmother chastised her by calling her a “spindrift.”
“I was just like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ She told me, ‘All over the place,'” recalls Meghie, with a smile. “It made it into the script.”
Meghie’s grandmother would be pleased to know that the filmmaker pulled it all together for her dazzling feature debut, a film that upon its premiere at SXSW Sunday night immediately announced the writer/director as one of the most assured and sharpest new voices the festival has ever introduced, taking her place alongside the likes of Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) and Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”).
As good as Meghie’s ear may be for dialogue, she wields an even sharper pen in telling the story of Jean Jones (Taylour Paige), the youngest member of a Brooklyn-based clan with Jamaican roots that is upset in different ways by the revelation that their long-absent patriarch has come back, only to have a heart attack at their front door. With a grandmother (Michelle Hurst) who doesn’t suffer fools and two equally fierce aunts (Sherri Shepherd and Gloria Reuben) who share a penchant for keeping secrets from each other, as well as a cousin (Erica Ash) preoccupied with her own anxiety after learning that she’s pregnant, the death gives life to a wave of backbiting over the details of Jean’s grandfather’s disappearance and what he’s owed as far as a memorial, but also a sense of purpose for the young woman who is content to delay the daunting prospect of following up an acclaimed novel in her professional life and resolving her uncertain relationship status in her personal one.
Though Paige’s incandescent performance as the whipsmart but inspiration-deprived Jean leads the way, Meghie displays a rare ability to make it feel as if all her characters lead rich, interesting lives outside the story we’re seeing. You can hear the residue of past feuds and reconciliations in the tone of how the Joneses speak to each other in their ferociously fast and cutting exchanges, landing punches cleanly, befitting of the bright, airy upper-middle class world the writer/director sets them in. Yet “Jean of the Joneses” is savagely funny, featuring uniformally killer performances from its cast and trenchant observation of family dynamics and mid-twenties malaise.
Following the film’s triumphant premiere in Austin, Meghie and “Jean of the Joneses” breakout star Paige spoke about the film’s inspiration, the years that went into creating Jean’s stylish wardrobe and the film’s distinctive look, and finding the film’s rhythm.
I’ve read you were in fashion and beauty PR before this – did the career switch actually influence the story?
Stella Meghie: I definitely had that moment where I did a huge career change. I was in New York working in fashion PR and I was like, “I’ve got to get out of this ASAP,” so I applied to a bunch of schools in London. I was like, “If I get in I’m just going to go,” so I did. I just quit and left and took that turn from PR to screenwriting. I started writing this a long time ago, like in 2008, and it’s loosely based on my family and a hodgepodge of experiences with the comedy blown out. It’s just always been in various stages and looking for financing.
Taylour, how did you get involved?
Taylour Paige: I got the script and I was like, “I want I want this.” Everything about it – I was dying laughing through it, I understood it and there are so many little things that I would go, “Oh my God, the part so funny,” because I could hear it. But I definitely worked on being specific because I didn’t want her to be Taylour and Stella was really collaborative – she let me explore her. I can be awkward, but not playing at being awkward, just “Okay, this girl is having a situation right now that sucks. If I were the extreme version of my awkwardness, that’s how would I do this.” It was also so different than the character I play on this TV show [“Hit the Floor”] and I really, really wanted to do something different and play into the comedic, deadpan humor side of me.
Stella Meghie: She’s such a good comedy actress. No one would guess until they see the movie.
When it’s a character that’s a writer, did you actually ever think about the kind of writer that she was?
Stella Meghie: The writer was inspired by Zadie Smith and “White Teeth,” which was a big influence on me when I was in my early 20s. [laughs] Damn, that book is old.
Taylour Paige: It is. [laughs] And everything [Stella] wrote in the script I researched just so I could really get into the head of being a writer. I couldn’t play this girl for a month and not know in detail, what these writers that inspired Jean have done and what they’ve said, because that’s obviously influencing … As an actress sometimes you get wrapped up in the cliché of being miserable and I just wanted to tap into every part of being this writer/artist getting in her own way.
Stella Meghie: But Taylor definitely made it hers. Zadie is very buttoned up and British and talks very softly. She’s nothing like Jean. But the turban that Jean wears all the time is very Zadie Smith-inspired. When Zadie wrote [“White Teeth”], she was so young and it was such a literary phenomenon, so there was that idea of this very young girl having to follow-up something like such an important work at such a young age.
You mention the turban and you said at the premiere, you spent four years researching and collecting the wardrobe Jean would wear. Was that part of figuring out the character?
Taylour Paige: Big part.
Stella Meghie: Because of the fashion background, it really mattered to me what all the ladies looked like, so they all had their style icons. It helps when one of your best friends is a costume designer. Clothes can’t make a woman, but I wanted Jean’s look to really stand out and Avery [Plewes, the costume designer] was just always sketching. In the script, I had little notes about the leopard coat or the baseball cap, and she kept some of those elements, and then just added all her talent and creativity and deconstructed some of the stuff I said and made it into something really cool.
Taylour Paige: It’s funny because in the breakdown when Jean’s described [in the script], she’s described as gawky and I just went in like myself because I kind of think I’m gawky. Then it was interesting to see everyone else’s interpretation of gawky. People were playing it, like gawky, nerdy or [with] high-waisted skirts with socks. It was actually fun when the Avery called to ask me what my sizes were and what I was thinking for Jean. I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe Gap.” She goes, “Let me look at your Instagram.” Then she goes, Okay, no. We’re not putting you in Gap.”
Stella Meghie: [smiles] I love Gap.
Taylour Paige: There’s nothing wrong with Gap. [laughs] But Jean was a little bit more elusive than wearing a label with something on it.
Stella Meghie: We did a lot of high-low. We had a thing about reusing the same outfit a few times, because that’s normal.
Taylour Paige: Pairing things with different things. Pajama shirts.
Stella Meghie: We went through a number of pajamas to get to the right pajama set.
Was it tricky to get the rhythm of this? The timing really is remarkable and I wondered whether you found out on set or in the editing?
Stella Meghie: Both. I was working with a lot of comedians – Sheri and Erica are comedians, so their timing is just… [perfect]. When Taylour auditioned, she had great timing. That was one of the things that [got my attention]. She did this really long scene that [ultimately] got cut, but she was just so quick with it. [The script] was really dialogue-heavy and she was able to make it sound natural, like all the women did. The few times we wouldn’t get it, I’d be like, “Just break it up. Take a beat there.” Then we had a fantastic editor. I would want things to go long and he would cut them to lose all the air and we found a good place in the middle. I don’t know. I’m very musical, so in the editing room, the frames were beats to me and timing was definitely important to me just to make it feel good. The long scenes matched with shorter ones and that was definitely something I went in knowing with the editor.
There’s also a really clean and bright aesthetic, which is quite effective. How did that visual style come about?
Stella Meghie: You can ask my production designer – I had a strong vision for how I wanted it to look. We found some great locations and certain things had been in my mind for a very long time of how I wanted them to look. I just held to that on set. My [cinematographer was really fantastic and we had a lot of the same taste and references. We just sat down and shared photos of some of my favorite photographers [such as] Alex Prager and Philip De Lorca – I pulled a lot of different people, compiled it onto a Tumblr and just was like, “These are the things I’m thinking of.” Especially as a first time director, being able to communicate with my DP, sometimes it’s just easier to show a collage of photos of what you see for a frame so they can get the mood. Then [we talked about] what I was looking at for different scenes – how I wanted them to look and feel and we’d talk about it emotionally and map it out.
Was there a particularly crazy day on set?
Taylour Paige: We had a few, but overall, things did run.
Stella Meghie: We had a location fall out once. [Taylour] didn’t know.
Taylour Paige: We were shooting in Brooklyn on location,and I had a 5 am call time. Then I get a text at 4 in the morning [saying] “Hey, hold off on that. Someone got shot. We have to change locations.”
Stella Meghie: I was like, “Man, Brooklyn, come on.” We found a great location.
Taylour Paige: It’s indie film, it’s the uncertain. It just made it feel like, “Wow, I’m really making a movie. We don’t know what’s going to happen today.”
What the premiere was like for you?
Taylour Paige: It was magical. I was just trying to stay present, like, “Wow.” I hadn’t seen it, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought, “My heart’s going to fall out of my chest.” So nervous.
Stella Meghie: It was like a party in front of the Stateside. We were just excited. We were in front of the marquee just geeking out, having our moment. We all worked so hard.
“Jean of the Joneses” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 15 at 6 pm at the Alamo Slaughter and March 16 at 4:15 pm at the Alamo Ritz 2.