Interview: Stella Meghie on Making the Most of “The Weekend”

With “The Weekend,” you start to believe that Stella Meghie can move heaven and earth — or at least the sun. In order to give a true movie star entrance to Y’Lan Noel, one of the two leading men in her latest comedy, the writer/director needed to predict the exact time in which the sun would could hit the back of his head as his character Aubrey introduces himself to Zadie (Sasheer Zapata), who is sitting on the ground of the orchard that surrounds her mother’s bed and breakfast, with the intensity of the light allowing Aubrey’s face gradually coming into focus as if indeed it were the dawn of a new day for the film’s struggling heroine, a comedian who fears she’s become the joke after staying friends with her ex (Tone Bell) and pretends she’s cool with him bringing up his new girlfriend (DeWanda Wise) for a sojourn from the city. Having Aubrey, a suave, worldly (and single) photographer, stand right in front of her without really being able to see him at first couldn’t sum things up any better for Zadie, whose observational comedy requires a hyper-awareness that seemingly doesn’t extend to herself, but the number of pages of exposition in order to get this just right or the geometry required to pull it off visually would prove intimidating for most filmmakers, but hardly Meghie.

“It was just serendipity, I guess,” she says about the shot, with such nonchalance I half expected her to brush the dirt off her shoulder. “Kris Belchevski, the DP, and I had planned to be out there at a certain time, but it was just perfectly lined up.”

Things have habit of working out that way when Meghie’s behind the camera, with her third film confirming her status as one of the best filmmakers of her generation, but also a truly singular talent. Returning to to the ferociously funny terrain of her debut “Jean of the Joneses” after establishing herself at the studio level with a winningly swoony adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s young adult novel “Everything Everything,” she exhibits a cinematic fluency that’s all too rare, with a sharp way with words that’s she’s long credited to being raised in a house of Jamaican women who suffered no fools accompanied by a knack for visual language that’s just as bold and colorful, giving her characters lives you’d want with their immaculate sense of style if only it weren’t for their messy personal business and a preternatural sense for getting in and out of a scene to maximize punchlines and elicit furious “ooohs” and head shakes from a big audience, particularly during a showstopping, awkward dinner at the inn.

That’s why it’s so frustrating that like “Jean of the Joneses,” “The Weekend” will be difficult to find, opening in only a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and New York in addition to VOD a year after its raucous premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, followed by equally spirited screenings at AFI Fest and Tribeca. The film’s limited distribution shouldn’t be equated with its quality as Meghie has made one of the finest films of the year, only deserving of its need to be discovered rather than being already widely known as a result of the writer/director crafting such a gem with truly sparkling performances from her entire cast, including Kym Whitley as Zadie’s loving yet disapproving mother. During a break in her busy schedule earlier this year at Tribeca, just following her wrapping her fourth feature “The Photograph” due out next year, Meghie spoke about taking care of some unfinished business with “The Weekend,” filming in the midst of the California wildfires of 2017 and how she brought her own heat to the sultry comedy.

How did come about?

I wrote it a long time ago. I had written this when I was staying with my mom for a little bit and she runs a bed and breakfast I thought I would direct it before “Jean of the Joneses,” because I had made something that I could direct do or die and it was very contained. I thought would cost less to make. But then I ended up getting the money for “Jean,” so I ended up doing that first. It was fun because [after “Everything, Everything”] I went back to [Kris Belchevski], my DP I did “Jean of the Joneses” with and my same composer, so it was the return to it a little bit to my original instincts of all the stuff that I write and it was a bit of a continuation of “Jean” in a way.

Is it interesting to return to a story about a woman still looking for professional success when you’ve had some?

I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t articulated it. I was that struggling mess girl for so long, so it is interesting to go back and do this coming-of-age story feeling like I finally grew up.

How did Sasheer Zamata come to mind?

I love working comedians and I thought about her from the start and ended up sending her the script. She liked it and we ended up Skyping and she sent me really a nice note. We ended up signing on really quickly, and the character was there, but she just brought this additional tone to the character that wasn’t on the page.

Was there anything unexpected she brought to this that you really liked?

We were shooting [this one scene where she and Y’Lan Noel’s character Aubrey] are going to pick up food, like when he sees her outside and we weren’t supposed to go inside of the diner. Then I was like, “Could we go inside the diner?” And I hadn’t written anything, so I just asked Sasheer, “Can you just order an obnoxious amount of food?” And she did, and Y’lan’s reaction is so hilarious. Then they sat down and it was all improvised, so that was fun.

I feel like I haven’t seen strong, sensitive men like you have in your films since the 1990s, and I know you’ve said before that you were thinking of doing something in the vein of “Love Jones” at some point. Is there’s something you build the guys in your movies off of?

It’s true. I think somewhere along the way in these romantic movies, the guys became assholes a little bit. And I don’t want to see those guys. I don’t want to see women I love fall in love with them, either. And men can be created as these one-dimensional characters as much as women, and the guys I know are thoughtful. Maybe they do the wrong things at times, too, but they’re considerate human beings, so it’s important for me that all of the characters to have more than one side to them.

You have a brilliant sequence in the movie that makes that point visually as you see a conversation that unfolds between the four characters criss-crossing the orchard and they’re all crossing paths, so you get to see every side of them. What was it like to figure that scene out?

That’s probably one of the more stylized bits of the movie, and I thought since it’s a movie set in one location, essentially, that was our version of an action sequence, hearing what all these people are thinking, talking to people who necessarily haven’t seen them talked to before in the movie, and having that build up to the discovery and the confrontation [with] everything being put on the table. That location was so great and it just had all these different nooks and crannies to it. It was fun to do because I just always imagined this walk and this back and this forth and these quick conversations. And actors were just so great. It’s probably my favorite part of the movie and Robi Botos created this amazing, complex jazz piece for that part to get the complexity of it.

Did you always have the clarinet and piano in mind for this?

Yeah, I’d always pictured jazz over this movie, so I just went back to Robi and we played a lot of music to each other — there was pan-African, reggae, all kinds of different music from different time periods and different cultures. I always find some sort of theme music as I’m writing and write to it, so I played that [for Robi] and we went from there and then came up with a lot of great original pieces.

Was it an exciting challenge to figure out one location to do this in?

Yeah, it had to be right and we got lucky. We looked at a bunch of places, but this place popped up pretty quickly and just had a few different houses on the property and an orchard and hiking trails. It was in this canyon in Malibu and it also had an east coast feel to it, strangely. But LA was on fire for a large part [of the shoot]. It was like we’d drive home through the mountains and see fire raging in the background. And Sasheer was like, “This is not for the east coast people.”

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming?

We shot it in 13 days. It was a really short shoot. But we shot the dinner scene in all one day, and we actually did use the full day. We used about eight hours to shoot and we used two cameras. That was the only time of the film we used two cameras to pick up the pace and for me, the dinner scene had a first act, a second act, and a third act, so it just trying to figure out with the time we had, how we could shoot each of that separately and we split it up in the way that I shot it. But the cast was phenomenal. I was just in awe watching them do scenes.

What was the premiere in Toronto like for you? That audience was raucous.

Yeah, it was just a blast because it’s home. I’m from there. My family was there. The whole cast was there and I just was really relaxed, and it was fun. Doing “Jean,” I was just like you don’t know what’s going on. It’s your first film and you’re just happy to be there and struck that you’re there whereas I feel like with “The Weekend,” when I go to these screenings, I can really revel in them and realize how great it is.

This may be semantics, but how did you settle on the credit “A Stella Meghie Picture”?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s all so silly, but then you feel like it is, so you do something. Who knows? It’ll probably be something different on my next one.

“The Weekend” opens on September 13th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and New York at the Cinema Village. It is also available on VOD.

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