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Interview: Director Stella Meghie, Anika Noni Rose & Amandla Stenberg on ‘Everything, Everything’

May 19, 2017
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YA films are all the rage right now. From “Twilight” to “The Hunger Games,” millennials head to the theaters in droves to see themselves represented on the big screen. However, unless they are relegated to bit parts or sidekicks, young people of color, specifically Black women are rarely ever seen in these type of films. Stella Meghie’s “Everything, Everything” changes all of that.

Adapted from the gorgeously written novel by Nicola Yoon, “Everything, Everything” follows Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), an imaginative 18-year-old who is unable to leave the protection of the hermetically-sealed environment within her house and her physician mother (Anika Noni Rose) because of an illness. That all changes when Olly (Nick Robinson) moves into the house next door.

Recently, I got the opportunity to chat with Stella Meghie, Anika Noni Rose and Amandla Stenberg about the film, why it’s so important and what we’ll see them in next.

Aramide Tinubu: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Stella Meghie: Of course, thanks for wanting to talk.

AT: How did find yourself in the director’s chair for this film? Had you read Nicola Yoon’s novel prior to learning about the film adaptation?

SM: No I hadn’t read the book. My agent sent me the script about a month after “Jean of the Joneses” premiered at SXSW. So I really actually didn’t read it very quickly. I was like, “I’m not about to jump into a studio film.” I had another independent film that I wanted to do. But, one of my reps was like, “Did you read that script?” I was like, “I’ll do it this weekend.” I finally started reading it, and I was like, “You know what, I love this.” I looked Nicola Yoon up and learned more about her book, and I was really really peaked about everything she stands for. Then I read the book, and I just loved the book because it just had so many layers to it and just so many tones. In a way, I could see my own tone going into it. So, I ended up saying I really would love to pitch for this. A week later I was in LA pitching for it and I got the job two weeks later.

Anika Noni Rose: I had not read the novel actually, which is funny for me because I’m a pretty avid reader and I read a lot of YA, and somehow I missed it, I don’t know how. But I got a call from saying we’re doing this film, and I had been given the script, and I thought the script was really lovely and a lovely way to see a young Black girl and her mother.

AT: It really is.

ANR: That’s so rare, especially in that type of a relationship. And to see her in that type of a life space, that I just thought that was really exciting and moving. That was really what brought me to it. Then she told me Amandla was in it. That was it for me; I really love Amandla.

Amandla Stenberg: I received the script. When I received it, I kind of assumed it was for a white girl just because I saw that it was young adult and a romantic film featuring a male lead who was white, so I assumed it was some kind of mistake or something, that I had gotten it in my inbox. Also, it’s very rare for me to receive projects that are specifically written for Black girls. It took me a moment to realize that this was a project that was intentionally made for a biracial girl in the lead. When I saw that it was kind of a no-brainer. I mean it’s so rare to see roles like this and just do projects like this on the big screen. I saw how important and powerful it would be to play this character and this representation on screen that I don’t think we’ve really seen before in this way.

AT: Fantastic! I know that young adult stories are really popular right now, but there are no many with young Black girls at the center. So Stella what was you vision coming into this film? I know you had Nicola’s book as a guide, but what did you want people to see on screen?

SM: I think what I found interesting about the book was the tone and for me when I was reading it, it was really this Grimm’s Tale. It was really like this dark fairytale. I really didn’t see it as a grounded story. Even though there is no fantasy in Nicola’s book, I thought it had a kind of magical quality to it, and I thought that was interesting because you don’t get to see a young Black actress in that kind of role. I really brought that dark fairytale magic to it that if you see the movie, you get to see more of. It’s a little bit of an unorthodox telling of a YA novel. It was definitely something you haven’t seen someone like Amandla Stenberg in.

AS: These projects don’t really exist so when they do come to fruition and are widely distributed across the entire world everyone gets to see a Black girl carrying a film that is not necessarily made just for a target Black audience and is not about race. They get to see a Black girl existing, and I think that’s one of the most powerful things, the humanization of Black people, the representation of Black people in media. I think when something like that comes out, it can change people’s perspectives on life.

AT: In the story, Maddy and Ollie are able to communicate because of technology. How did you bring technology into the film in the beautiful pop-art way that it’s portrayed in the trailer? How did you decide that was how you wanted to incorporate it?

SM: I thought it was really important to portray technology as somewhat seamless in the film. I think sometimes you see films that weigh a lot on tech and it takes the lead in the film in a way and makes it more of a feature. So, I think if you’re young and you’ve grown up with cell phones and iPads and all of these things, it’s just something that is a part of your life. I wanted it to feel like that in the film; I didn’t want it to take away from what they were doing. I wanted it to be seamless in the way that they were getting to know each other. There’s a lot of texting in the book, and I didn’t think that would work onscreen. So, I ended up changing that, and that’s some of the way I brought in the fantasy to the movie. Some of the conversations when they’re texting; they’re in the same room, but I used a lot of sound cues to let you know that they are texting and not actually in the same room together. So for me, that was a way to get these kids in the same room and keep the chemistry brewing and making sure the technology was not an impediment to the viewer of getting to know them.

AT: Like we were saying before there aren’t many YA films or books with people of color at the center, and there also aren’t many love stories. There are the staples like “Love & Basketball” or Gina Prince Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights.”

SM: “Love Jones.”

AT: Exactly, that’s ’97, so it’s twenty years old at this point. So why is it important to tell stories like this with Black women at the center of them?

SM: It’s important to show Black women as whole human beings, and part of that is showing them being loved and loving others and that’s often something that is not shown. Usually, it’s about a larger struggle or not necessarily a romantic story, and for me, that’s paramount because Black women deserve to be loved and we deserve to love others and to be shown doing that.

ANR: I think it’s really important for them to know that it’s okay to be soft, it’s okay to have love in their lives, that it’s okay to be imaginative. These are never words that are ascribed to us. This film proves that all those things that are okay, even though the circumstances are different than any child would definitely be dealing with. It’s saying that even in the worst circumstances it’s okay for you to live in these worlds. I think that is a beautiful thing and a wonderful message, and so many of us did and do, but we would never verify it, you know what I mean?

AT: Of course.

ANR: It was never shown to us as normal, it was never said that it was okay. Generally, if you lived in a whimsical genie world, somebody would be calling you out of your mind somehow. Not necessarily in the past, but as something other than what you are, or questioning who you are, or the veracity of who you are as a Black girl. I think it’s very important for us to say that this too is our truth.

AT: Definitely. Stella, how did you get the cast together? Was Amandla already attached to the project? Was Anika already signed on or did you seek out these two women specifically?

SM: Everyone was on my mind. Amandla when we met she’s just so poised and intelligent and insightful, and when she auditioned, it was very obvious that she was bringing a special level of depth to this role. We were all really excited to work with her. Nick, I’d known his work, and I thought he would ground Olly and Anika I was just a huge admirer of, and I wanted to work with her. I thought she would really bring a strength and a warmth to the role in equal measure. So I got lucky with people I really thought would do a great job. I’d just seen Ana on “Narcos” and I thought she was really funny and heartful and she really brought that to the role.

Continue reading at Shadow and Act.