Stella Meghie made her feature debut in 2016 with Jean of the Joneses. Now, a newly minted Academy member with four films under her belt, this writer-director is taking on an ambitious new project: Whitney Houston’s life story.
Stella recalls the days she would play basketball in high school and listen to “I’m Every Woman” to get herself hyped for a game. Or sit in the back of the school listening to the Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale soundtracks.
“It’s so strange to think that the teen girl with ‘I’m Every Woman’ playing over and over in her head, running down the hallway, now gets to direct the movie about Whitney’s life. That is very surreal.”
The film, titled I Wanna Dance With Somebody, has not yet been cast, but shooting is slated to begin next spring. Sony Pictures picked it up for distribution this week, announcing a Thanksgiving 2022 release.
“I think this is the film I’ll probably get off Twitter for because she belongs to so many people in their hearts,” Stella admitted. “I feel a great deal of responsibility to do right by her, do right by her family, and by the fans whose lives she’s changed and been there for. You just want to believe that when the movie has been finished, if she was still here, I would be happy for her to come and see it. That’s my guiding light.”
This film would mark the director’s third studio-backed feature, a milestone only a short list of Black female directors have achieved.
Finding Her Way to Screenwriting
Stella began her career in public relations, after post-undergrad internships at Def Jam and Women’s Wear Daily brought her to New York from her native Toronto. New York is where she says she became a cinephile.
Growing up, “I was more into capital-E entertainment, going to see Batman. After I moved to New York, I got a little more cultured and hung out with a lot of artists, and so ended up getting into more independent cinema.”
At the same time, she yearned to do something more creative. “I was trying to write a novel and I was becoming obsessed with independent film,” she said, and that left her deciding between going back for an MFA in creative writing or an MA in screenwriting. She ended up applying to universities in the U.K. after missing all the U.S. deadlines. When she was accepted into a screenwriting program at the University of Westminster, she “just got on a plane and went. It was so strange waking up there and being like, ‘Okay, I’m studying screenwriting and I live in London.’”
That’s where Stella penned Jean of the Joneses, which would become her “true ‘calling card script.’” The story follows a woman in her mid-twenties named Jean and her Jamaican-American family of strong-minded but fiercely loving women. After Jean’s estranged grandfather dies unexpectedly at their doorstep, tensions rise and old conflicts come to the fore.
“I did Tribeca Film Institute, Nantucket Screenwriters Colony and a bunch of fellowships with it,” Stella said. “When I moved to L.A., I ended up selling a few shows into development and they were all based on Jean of the Joneses as a sample.”
Stella soon found herself moving back to Toronto, broke and living at her mom’s bed-and-breakfast. “I was just writing every single day like someone was paying me, even though no one was paying me.” That’s when she became determined to make Jean herself. In the middle of the winter, she thought, “I can’t imagine someone else directing this. I can’t imagine someone else getting the tone I want, getting these Jamaican women how I want them represented.”
The financing ultimately came through—and shooting would begin four weeks later. “In retrospect, I’m glad that it took as long as it did because by the time I shot it, I was so much more settled into how I wanted it to look and what I wanted the cast to feel like. We shot it in 17 days.”
Stella had taken a summer directing course shortly after grad school. If she was going to direct her script, she wanted to know the ins and outs beforehand. Luckily, she met the right DP, Kris Belchevski, whom she also worked with on The Weekend, her third feature. “When you meet those connections where you just click in and you get each other, then you really have to hold on to those people,” she said. And, to her surprise, the process on set was instinctual. “It had been sitting with me for so long I just knew every single shot I wanted to do at that point.”
Making a Studio Feature
Stella debuted Jean of the Joneses at South by Southwest in March 2016, just after #OscarsSoWhite had gained momentum. “There was definitely a shift in mindset, like, ‘Okay, we can’t just keep erasing Black directors, Black writers, Black stories,’” she recalled. “It was a good moment to be trying to break through because people were realizing you should be looking for a young Black woman to direct this story about a Black young woman.”
Two months later, Stella signed with CAA, and the first script they sent her was for Everything, Everything. She instantly connected with the book and its writer, Nicola Yoon. “It was a beautiful story about a young Black girl and this teen dark fantasy,” she said. Everything, Everything would become her first studio feature. The initial meeting with MGM, however, didn’t go as planned.
“I completely bombed it,” Stella said. “Bombing means jet-lagged, not having your presentation with you because you thought your producers would bring it, waiting for the execs to download it and then sharing his screen … It was not a good first impression. I also was just nervous because I literally just made this small film and had barely taken any meetings, much less pitched to studios.”
Nerves aside, MGM wanted a follow-up meeting. “I gave myself a talking-to because I knew I would probably be the best to tell the story. I went back in, closer to my normal confidence levels, and just really said why I loved the story and why I was right for it, and then things turned around.”
Everything, Everything, which starred Amandla Stenberg and was released in 2017, was the first of Stella’s two studio features (so far). But, indie or not, the pressures on any set are the same. “It’s the pressure to make something that’s good. When it’s a studio film, there are just more voices involved, so there are more conversations about why you want to do things and if it should be done a different way.”
Shaking Things Up
As Stella’s career has taken off, she’s remained determined to maintain control over her voice and her stories, and to “protect my art.” That’s why she launched a production company called Bad But Beautiful, inspired by the title of an Eartha Kitt album. “I loved what it said and what it meant,” she said.
“As a woman, you can’t always be the good girl. You can’t always be likable. Sometimes you gotta be a little bad. You gotta be able to shake things up. That was the feeling behind it: mixing art with a little bit of strength.”
It’s a sentiment she finds in the strong women around her and one she imbues her characters with. In making Jean of the Joneses and The Weekend (set at the protagonist’s mother’s bed-and-breakfast), Stella turned to the women in her life for inspiration. “Those characters are really pulled from my aunts and my grandmother and my cousins, even though they can’t see themselves in it,” she said.
Even The Photograph, her latest film, which stars Issa Rae in a tale of unrequited romantic love and is “probably the most removed from my life,” is inspired by a family story. As she was developing the film, her grandmother was getting ready to meet the daughter she had given up when she was very young and hadn’t seen in 40 years. Though it has a romantic bent, the story is ultimately one of reconnection. “I think all my films end up evolving into stories about mothers and daughters,” Stella noted.
Stella has taken turns writing, directing, and writing-slash-directing. And while she’s spent the past few months slowing down and putting pen to paper, she’s still drawn to the instinctual nature of directing—which is what makes her next project so exciting.
“It’s fun to be at a point in my career where I can work with very good writers so that I can make the choice if I want to write or not write.” I Wanna Dance With Somebody is in the hands of screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody). “It is great when you get to a point where you’re like, ‘This Oscar-nominated writer can do some heavy lifting at his desk and then we can talk about it and collaborate and then I can go direct it.’”
This film will place her among the likes of Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood, Black female filmmakers who also have three studio features under their belts.
“It can be very emotional to make a film, so it really has to be worth the amount of pushing a boulder up the hill that it takes to get something good,” Stella said. “I have to feel like I have the passion it takes to stick with this story for the next two years and fight for it to be great.”