In Stella Meghie’s film The Weekend, Sasheer Zamata plays the loose-lipped comedian Zadie, who is subjected to a picturesque weekend at her mother’s bed and breakfast along with her ex-boyfriend and current best friend Bradford (Tone Bell.) Everything’s cool, except of course the fact that Bradford’s gorgeous, put-together new girlfriend Margot (DeWanda Wise) is also along for the ride. As the trio frolics along the pretty California vineyards that surround the house, along with a new visitor Aubrey (Y’lan Noel), the sunny getaway turns sour when Zadie and Bradford bicker over leftover feelings for one another.
The Weekend draws a lot of its comedy from its awkward scenes, with Zadie as an endearing heroine who can’t keep an embarrassing story or comment to herself. “Is this Little Women?” she asks, incredulously, after her mother tells her she should get married. The dry comedy was built in part from Meghie’s love of the French New Wave, where romantic relationships can often become triangular as lovers are pitted against one another.
Meghie made a massive debut with her acclaimed 2016 indie film Jean of the Joneses and from there went right into becoming the only black woman in all of 2017 to direct a wide-release studio film with Everything, Everything. While The Weekend is a bounce back to her indie roots, she’s still exploring the studio system having just wrapped her forthcoming new movie The Photograph, which stars Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in the romantic drama that switches between “the past and the present with two intertwining love stories.”
Jezebel talked to Meghie about how The Weekend came together, jumping from indie to studio films, and where her comedic sensibilities come from.
JEZEBEL: When did you first get the idea for The Weekend?
STELLA MEGHIE: I actually wrote it awhile ago. I was staying with my mom and she runs a bed and breakfast. I wanted to write something kind of contained about this character who was maybe a little difficult and complex. My mom did go through a divorce when she was running her first bed and breakfast so I guess I stole a little bit from her life.
Creating a movie with a character who is kind of messy or complex, as you put it, what drew you to write a character like Zadie?
The women I know are layered and can be the most annoying people that you love. I love the one-liners and for her to be a comedian it kind of lends itself to her always kind of confronting issues in her life in this deadpan, comedic way, trying to avoid it. It’s a little bit of a fantasy though because, you know, I have comedian friends and they’re not delivering one-liners all the time, at all. [Laughs] But I think fictional wise it gave me more liberties. I love working with comedians. We had Sasheer [Zamata] and Tone Bell and Kym Whitley and they’re all comedians and there was so much they could add.
Did any movies inspire The Weekend?
I think I sent Claire Denis to all of the actors which was probably pretentious. Just all of those great, French New Wave films set in the pastoral, idyllic countryside where people are having these existential conversations and romantic dilemmas. When I was in school I was very obsessed with [Éric] Rohmer so the film was probably influenced by him with much different characters and culture involved.
You said you wanted to write something very contained. Are you attracted to awkwardness as a screenwriter?
I am. I flip between introvert, extrovert all the time and I think all of my characters are a bit like that. They’re very closed off but at the same time performative which can be awkward sometimes. It’s fun to see imperfect women, when you don’t have it all together and aren’t all kind of pulled together at all times. Sometimes I think my dialogue is very stylized in a way and [I like] actors who are going to make that feel kind of as natural as possible and kind of be able to slip into my world and make it feel grounded.
Where do you think that stylized dialogue comes from?
Comedy-wise I take from my family. My aunt and my grandmother and my mom, to me, are very funny and I don’t think they’re trying to be. Their timing and the way they tell stories and the way they make fun of you is very engrained in how I write. And then so many different kinds of films come together; I love Spike Lee and I love Rohmer but I love Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. It all kind of blends together in, I hope, a unique way.
You mentioned Nora and Nancy. Do you see The Weekend as a rom com?
I see it more as a comedy with romantic themes. I don’t know, maybe I should say it’s a rom com, it’s just that they now mean something that they shouldn’t. I think when people think of a rom-com they think of something very broad, they think of particular women and particular men and I don’t think necessarily The Weekend slots into that. I probably feel more comfortable saying it’s a comedy and a romance. There’s really a coming of age aspect, a late coming of age aspect as well.
Yeah, I love that line in the film where Zadie asks her mom why everything can’t all be about her, and her mother tells her that ended when she entered her late 20s.
I think nowadays people are coming of age later in life. I didn’t know I wanted to be in film until I was like in my mid-twenties so that was a whole kind of switch in my career and life trajectory. To me that’s “coming of age” as much as whatever happened in high school to me.
Was there a singular moment that made you want to pursue film professionally?
I was just kind of getting into independent film and living in New York. I was also watching a lot more independent film and exploring film in a way that I hadn’t before. I just knew I wanted to do that. One film that definitely inspired The Weekend a little bit was Sideways. I remember watching that in New York when I was still working in PR and feeling this is really what I want to do, I want to write stories like this about characters I find interesting. I was kind of unhappy in public relations, I wasn’t very good at it, and I needed to find what I was going to be good at.
You said you wrote The Weekend a long time ago. Are you currently sitting on older scripts you want to be made?
I have scripts in the vault but I don’t know if it’s anything I’m going to end up making. But I’m always kind of thinking about the next story and writing down thoughts. I wrote a lot before I made any films, so some stuff is maybe not relevant to the things I want to make at the moment. I write a lot.
This might be technical, but what’s your schedule for writing?
No, I remember I went to a brunch with Nancy Meyers and the group of us demanded to know her schedule. [Laughs] It was really helpful. When I’m writing something I take to it like it’s a 9 to 5 and I wake up pretty early and I write from 8 to 4 and have a page count I like to hit each day.
You released your first film Jean of the Joneses in 2016. Do you feel like your approach to filmmaking has changed since then?
I think for that movie I was really running on all instinct and I still kind of direct that way too, in terms of camera and direction. I think now I probably have a few more tricks and more experience in terms of how to attack a scene. It becomes more natural, stepping on set and figuring out where to put the camera and what lens to use and what the lighting should be and how to communicate with your DP. I have stronger thoughts about what’s working.
The Weekend is also coming off of a bigger studio film like Everything, Everything. Did you take anything from that experience into this film?
When I was doing Everything, Everything it was such a quick jump from indie to studio. I felt like I couldn’t necessarily rely on my instincts, it felt like there was more pressure for the film to look a certain way and reach a certain audience. It doesn’t matter what the budget is or what the distribution model is, you should still just be directing from instinct and making it yours.
When that pressure is there, how do you make sure you’re getting what you want?
I think the key is to just surround yourself with the people who are going to support you. It’s hard to direct a studio woman and you have to make sure that your crew are people who are going to support and advocate for you under all circumstances. I had a really wonderful crew on this one that supported me. You need that scenario to make a film that you’re envisioning.
I read an interview with you were you said you don’t have a publicist and you like the idea of staying “under the radar” as a filmmaker. Does that still hold true for you?
Probably not because at a certain point you probably need a publicist because people call. [Laughs] But, I think it stays true that the work matters more than the publicity. I just think sometimes you can get kind of caught up in the lifestyle or the image of a director and it’s just not what gets the movies made, you know? It’s about having the work to back up whatever profile you have.