SUNDANCE INTERVIEW: Eugene Ashe, Director of ‘Sylvie’s Love’
Sylvie’s Love is a love story set in 1960’s New York. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works at her father’s record store and falls in love with jazz saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). When he goes on tour to Paris, they break up. They are reunited about five years later, with Sylvie now married to Lacy.
The film has sumptuous period costume and production design and a stunning score which is interwoven with the jazz tracks.
I spoke to writer-director Eugene Ashe in Park City about casting Thompson and Asomugha, filming on Hollywood backlots, borrowing outfits from Chanel and being influenced by family photographs from the 1960s.
I just wanted to do something that didn’t focus on our adversity, but that focused on our humanity
What inspired the movie, why did you want to write it?
I’m always fascinated by the idea of love and how unfinished business with the love of your life can put you into arrested development in your relationships. Whether they’re work relationships or romantic relationships, it can kind of mess with your head when you’re thinking of someone. I’m also fascinated with how there’s certain people in your life, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you saw them, when you see them again, you just continue. Sometimes, they’re just friendships, you know, family members, anything, but with romance, it’s a strong concept for me.
And why did you choose the 60s setting and the world of jazz, particularly?
That’s a little bit of a fetish for me. My parents were married in 1959 and looking at pictures of before I was born, looking at the pictures of them and what Black people looked like at the time, that was always fascinating to me. It kind of went into afros in the 70s and all that stuff, but seeing them dressed like this… (shows a picture of his grandmother) … look at the gloves. So this is what Black people really looked like in 1962. I was always fascinated, I have so many pictures like that, I love them. I just thought; “I want to set a movie during this time.” I would watch Mad Men or Carol and I would think “that looks like the pictures in my photo album” but I never really saw a film that had Black folks in that kind of setting that wasn’t about the Civil Rights Movement. With something like Selma – those stories need to be told – but I just wanted to do something that didn’t focus on our adversity, but that focused on our humanity.
That leads me onto asking about the production design and costume design, both of which are absolutely gorgeous. I don’t know what your budget was like…
It was not very big but I found in Phoenix Mellow, who is our costume designer, a really terrific collaborator. She’d gone to FIT in New York and I’m from New York. When I was interviewing people to do it, we talked about how one thing that has always really bothered me in period films is when the fit was not right and she did all the fitting for Black Panther and she also did the fitting for Mad Men. She worked on Mad Men with Janie Bryant doing fittings, so she is an excellent tailor. So I knew that was really going to come in handy with this. You can pull vintage clothes, they have places in California where you can pull stuff, but then you still have to fit it. If it’s just hanging on them, it’s not really going to have that look like those movies from the era had.
And we also fortunate enough to have Chanel give us five vintage gowns. So, the light blue one that you see (Tessa wear) at the start, the one during New Years, the black sparkly one…
I thought that looked like Chanel! With the white collar!
That’s right. There’s another one that’s Chanel, in the Chinese restaurant, it’s a blue one and I forget what the other two are. But those were spectacular but the fit still needed to be right, so they worked on Tessa.
Having Tessa Thompson on board must’ve been a huge turning-point, I’m guessing, in terms of the production. At what stage did she come board?
She came on pretty early. What happens in a situation like that is that once Tessa said yes, it helped us go out and get the money. So that’s pretty much how it goes down. And then of course, you have to hope that you can make it work, time-wise. She was getting increasingly busy so that’s one of the reasons why we shot in Los Angeles. The entire thing was shot in Los Angeles on backlots…
Is it the Universal backlot?
It’s Paramount and Warner Brothers and then the Disney Golden Oaks Ranch. The Warner Brothers and Paramount lots, any movie you can think of was shot there. Iconic movies were shot there and you really get a sense of history when you walk onto those backlots, you know; “now we’re making a movie, a real Hollywood style movie.” It evolved into a real Hollywood…we leaned into that…let’s make a Hollywood movie. Because we were going to shoot in New York, in upstate New York and make it more like Carol, that kind of style, more intimate, but we leaned into this whole backlot thing because of Tessa’s availability. The movie takes place in the Summer, so we had to shoot some place warm and LA was the logical choice.
I think the sequence where you really lean into that Hollywood feel is when they’re dancing in the street, it has a magical quality.
The casting of the character of Robert is a slightly lesser-known name, compared to Tessa, but I looked up Nnamdi Asomugha and he’s produced or executive-produced a whole host of things – The Banker, Harriet, Crown Heights, Beasts of No Nation. So how did you find him?
I’d seen Crown Heights, which two years ago won an Audience Award here (at Sundance). He was spectacular in it, Lakeith (Stanfield) is I guess supposed to be the star, but Nnamdi – I was blown away by his performance. He reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. Even though he had a Trinidadian accent, there was something to his posture. A lot of young African-American actors still have a kind of hip-hop pose that’s a little more muscular, whereas Nnamdi seemed to have the posture of a Sidney Poitier. So I thought that he may be an interesting choice and I got the script to him through my lawyer who was the lawyer of the guy who directed Crown Heights. I found an ‘in’, I got the script to him and it was a wrap. He was just like; “yeah I love it” and then he became not only an actor in it, but a collaborator. Nnamdi has produced a lot of movies, as you can see, The Banker, Harriet. So he’s a really savvy filmmaker. I know I have my name on this, but he gave me so many fantastic notes that helped the script get stronger. He’s a really savvy producer but he’s also a really talented actor. He learned how to play the saxophone.
I wanted to ask you whether it was him really playing…
So he’s playing a couple of things, just on his own really. But the stuff that’s recorded is Mark Turner – if you looked up “best living tenor saxophonist” – he’s number one or two on every list. But his solos are so good, you couldn’t fake it. I’d have had to shoot from a distance and I didn’t want to shoot it from a distance, I wanted it to be tight on him. So you feel like you’re in there with them. You know the part where Sylvie first sees him play? It’s going back-and-forth and it feels like it’s really only the two of them. I did it sonically, the other music drops out and it’s him-her, him-her and you really get that that is the moment she’s like; “OK this guy is something, you know?”
How did you go about figuring out the score? Obviously the film is filled with jazz tracks, but the score had to work well in tandem with those.
It’s interesting because Fabrice Lecomte – the person who did the score, wrote the jazz tunes that the band plays. So he wrote them, then we hired four amazing jazz guys. I was a recording artist on Sony in the 90s, so I have a lot of good strong musical connections. A good friend of mine, a childhood friend of mine – Ben Perowsky – he’s the music director for Hadestown on Broadway, he’s played with anyone you can imagine, he’s an accomplished jazz drummer. He put together the band for me because he knows everybody. But Fabrice Lecomte actually wrote the songs that the band play. And then he did all of the score, we used a 65-piece orchestra. There’s a guy called Michel Legrand who was the best in that era, so that’s what we were going for, these big sweeping strings. You feel that at the end when she shows up at the factory, it feels like the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
[some spoilers ahead]
I want to ask you about the structure of the film and how it feels like there are multiple endings, there are points where you think “they’ve had their happy ending now,” but then you continue the story. What was your decision-making process behind this?
The classic is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But it seemed a little too easy. Ultimately, it does deal with the women’s movement, that’s one of the themes. She starts out in this position where she’s almost in this arranged marriage with Lacy, we see her as the Mary Tyler Moore character on the Dick Van Dyke Show, where she’s a suburban housewife but then she gets into the job thing. But what do the dynamics look like globally, how do we get from that to now – it’s not uncommon for men and women to both be working or for women to be making more money than the man. But this was stuff that all needed to be hashed out, when you’re going from the 50s to where we are now.
So I thought, what does that look like? That was really interesting to me. So she gets her own agency, being able to have a job of her own. But when Robert comes back, now what happens? She says “I can take care of things” and he says “what kind of man would that make me?” It’s important to ask those questions because it’s also the changing dynamics of men, having to accept the possibility that your woman might be the provider. So I thought that that was an interesting thing, another subtle thing that could add some drama to it. At the end, what I love so much is that it’s her choice. I like that she goes and gets him. They’re going to figure it out together, “I guess this means we’re stuck with each other.” There’s a willingness there to work it out, to figure it out, it’s interesting to me.
Sylvie’s Love will be available on Amazon Prime Video from 23 December 2020.