Eugene Ashe: ‘Sylvie’s Love’

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Writer and director, Eugene Ashe. Photo courtesy of Michael Buckner.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer and director Eugene Ashe. Ashe’s newest project is Amazon’s “Sylvie’s Love,” a love story that takes place in the 1950s and 60s. Ashe tells The Treatment about how he tried to make the film look and sound like it was actually made decades ago. He discusses his use of color to parallel the emotions of the characters, and he talks about why it was important for the Black main characters to not be defined by their relationships with white people.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is writer-director Eugene Ashe. His new film is the romantic musical drama "Sylvie's Love," and one of the things I want to say about the movie is there's almost not a shot that couldn't be an old Blue Note album coming from the late 50s, early 60s. 

Eugene Ashe: Well, that's a really great compliment. That certainly was one of my influences, visually.

KCRW: In some ways, Sylvie, your protagonist, is like a lot of pop musicians, in that she was ahead of her time. It's a story of a pair of starcrossed lovers, people of color, a while back from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sylvie seems kind of anachronistic, doesn't she?

Ashe: I think choosing Tessa Thompson as the lead is a kind of meta choice. She's somebody who is so much of this time, but it was really necessary for the character of Sylvie, because Sylvie is a little bit of an anachronism for that time. But, it was also the dawn of the women's movement. So there were definitely women like Sylvie; we just don't get to see them that much in film.

KCRW: Both Robert and Sylvie, the leads in the film, are students of the culture. We meet Sylvie, and she's glued to a TV and not just watching for entertainment's sake, but actually sort of absorbing the production.

Ashe: Yes, she's obsessed with it in the way that a lot of us artists are. We listen to artists who we admire, and we try to kind of analyze and figure out how they got to that place.

KCRW: How long did this project take to come together?

Ashe: Well, I'd been writing it on and off for about 10 years and just trying to refine. The story was pretty set, but at the same time, it was just trying to get some of those perfect lines. What I was trying to achieve was to make a film that seemed like it was actually made during that time. And so the dialogue and everything about it in that way had to be just right. There were certain lines from those great classic movies that we love, and I was trying to create some of those in this movie. So it took a long time to polish it. I just kept polishing it while I was trying to make it, which was not the easiest thing to do.

KCRW: You clearly spent a lot of time working on a dialogue. We should say Rob is a jazz musician, just on his way up. And when we meet him, they're actually both on their way up. But he feels like he's a little forward thinking, too, and unlike a lot of jazz musicians of that period, he doesn't look down on pop. There's also a big period in the 50s where Doo-wop could be an intersection of R&B and pop music. So again, it's about the worlds coming together if you're paying attention.

Ashe: When you're a musician, I think you're a student of all of it. The jazz is the music that they played, but, when you go to a party at their house, they're playing Doo-wop. I wanted to really kind of get across that these were young people and that this was the music of young people. So I felt that I would be remiss in leaving that out.

KCRW: Yeah, but there is certainly a snobbery towards some pop music by jazz musicians in the 50s, but he sees her in her element at the store. She works in her father's record store-slash-repair shop, and she is dancing to "See You Later, Alligator." There's kind of a stereo mix, so it feels vivid, but also, you can see that he's enjoying this music and not just looking down on it. Even movies in that period that included jazz, the jazz musicians often looked away from pop. And I think there's kind of an eagerness in both of them that makes them connect, an appetite for more than they have in front of them. 

Ashe: Yeah, I think that it's about how passionate they are, and that they recognize passion in each other. And ultimately, even though they love each other, that's the thing about each other that they love, so they're not trying to destroy it; they're trying to preserve it. And so that's where this theme of selfless love comes from. They're not trying to put each other in a box. He recognizes her passion for television; she recognizes his passion for music. And so yeah, if the love itself is going to get in the way of that passion, then they're willing to sacrifice it, so the other person can thrive. 

KCRW: So often these kinds of movies, when it's about artists, they're driven, they don't really have any kind of generosity. These are really generous people, and I think that's where the romantic tragedy comes in. And I was wondering if you were talking about doing a few versions of it, that you really had to find a way to make them generous, so we feel what they're losing.

Ashe: It starts with just putting the audience in the middle of it and really letting them understand how deep their love is, and that's a hard thing to create, but it starts with chemistry, and Robert and Sylvie, Nnamdi and Tessa have tremendous chemistry. That was really what I was going for: the kind of chemistry of someone like Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand or Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross. I started with that idea: let me try to just get the chemistry.

KCRW: I was aware of the movie-ness of it; there's a point where Sylvie is explaining why she's working at the store. And it's almost like Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey" trying to explain the scavenger hunt, where she's just talking and talking. And that's part of the charm of it, as well. I wanted to ask you about writing that speech because it seems like it's one of these things that's really hard to write and not make seem self conscious.

Ashe: Yeah, you're talking about when they first meet, and she's sort of rambling. I mean, that was just one of those moments. It is hard. I worked on that for a long time, and then a lot of it is in the look, and it's also just the pacing thing. I wanted her to sort of rattle it out. And, my note to her was that you've done this a million times. Guys come in, not only about the sign, but because, you know, you're cute.

KCRW: Talk a little bit, too, about the casting because both your stars are producers on the film.

Ashe: Really it started with Nnamdi Asomugha as someone who goes from being a Los Angeles Raider and is married to Kerry Washington, but he had produced a couple of films. He was a producer on "Harriet," another film called "The Banker" with Sam Jackson. I had gotten in touch with him through my attorney and got him the script, and he pretty much called me the next day. At that point, I hadn't seen "Crown Heights," which is the film that he was in, so I didn't really know him as an actor.  And we started talking, and I immediately liked the guy and thought he was really smart.

I really was interested in Robert's character, and being a Black man, it had to be a sense of vulnerability in his character that I really wanted to get across. He's a former football player; he's six foot three, so I think it's really powerful to see him be so vulnerable. When I met him in person, he reminded me of Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. He just had this way about him that reminded me of the old Hollywood actor. And so I was like, yeah, this is the guy. And then with Tessa, she just has this ethereal quality in her interviews a lot. When you see her in interviews, she really is just this very poised person. And I felt that even though in her other acting roles, she often plays a tough person, like, she played Valkyrie in "Thor", but I just felt that she really embodied what I was going for. I was trying to get a cross between Diahann Caroll and Audrey Hepburn. 

KCRW: It's funny you said Jimmy Stewart because I find myself thinking of the scenes with them in the store, almost being reminded of the old film "The Shop Around the Corner" with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. There's something interesting when you take those kinds of archetypes, and do it with people of color during that period, and not have them be defined by their relationships to white people.

Ashe: Yeah, that was a really crucial thing with this film is that, not only were they not defined by their relationship with white people, but they also weren't defined by the trauma inflicted on Black people during that time. Often when you see a movie set in that time, it's going to be dealing with the civil rights movement or it's going to be dealing with a struggle in that time. 

KCRW: There are shots like after a date they have where he's talking about a first kiss, and he jumps over the rail. It helps to have somebody who's six foot three to do that, but also, that felt like a very Jimmy Stewart kind of thing for you to do.

Ashe: You know, it's really about being able to recognize those moments when they're happening. It was scripted for him to do that, but I didn't know he was gonna leap up an entire flight of stairs in two jumps.

KCRW: You can see, again, that the first third of the movie is about eagerness, I think, between the two of them. They're both eager to start careers; they're both eager to explore the arts; they're both eager to be adults, really. And if we look at it act by act it's almost about the maturation process.

Ashe: Yeah, it is. And I mean, overall, the arc is about that even though they're reaching maturity, their love for each other doesn't really change. They have grown at sort of a similar rate, so that they wind up in the same places, and they wind up being a good match for each other.

KCRW: It's a movie that's full of people. They're not the only two people in the movie, and so you're laying out characterization for the Countess, this woman who clearly is based on quite a few people. You introduce people and you let us know who they are pretty quickly, and I wonder if part of that comes from just working on it for so long.

Ashe: There are a lot of things that I had to leave on the cutting room floor; otherwise, I would have had a three-hour movie. A lot of that is also baked into every moment that they're on. There was more footage of them and there are more scenes where they were able to establish character. So I think that even in the absence of some of those scenes, it's just like I said, it's baked into their character, so you really get a sense of who they are. Because they had so much backstory, and they had other things going on. And I was able to kind of flesh out the characters really well. Like I knew who they were and then the actors playing them knew who they were, like the Countess is a great example. 

KCRW: I want to talk about the way you use costume to delineate character.  There's a shot of Sylvie when she's standing in a hotel lobby framed in a doorway, that could be out of the 1960s Universal Audrey Hepburn movie.

Ashe: You know, whenever Sylvie and Robert come together, blue is the color that we really use to show when they're reuniting or when they first meet or when something important happens in their relationship. It filters out into the production design. We had an overall palette of primary colors and secondary colors that we go to, to try to really get at that Technicolor Cinemascope type of look that we were trying to get.

KCRW: I also was going to ask you about the way the color red registers in it because you use it sometimes for its warmth, sometimes to have it shout out like it does in that scene where we meet the Countess in the club.  It's a complement in emotional terms to a lot of what they're going through.

Ashe: At the same time, with the Countess, I wanted her to be this flame in the middle of this  blue environment. So yeah, red has warm tones and it has cooler tones. I think with the exception of that scene, a lot of times we use it for this pop of excitement. The Countess is one of those. We also have her in green a lot because she's the money. 

KCRW: The movie is suffused with music. I mean, it's basically a musical in a lot of ways. You're working with Frankie Pine on the music. But the music is just so vast a spectrum, and we're aware of the way you use pop in this. When they really connect in a big way, it's to the Jackie Wilson song "To Be Loved,” which is an operatic moment in the movie, isn't it?

Ashe: Yeah, it really is. I like to use those kinds of needle drops that are iconic like that, but then there's also stuff that's a little more esoteric. These days, for certain generations, Nancy Wilson seems like big pop. But then Fabrice Lecomte, who's the composer, had the challenge of trying to bridge all of those really cool, iconic songs with the underscore, and also the original tunes that he wrote for the Dickie Brewster Quartet. And we really wanted those tunes to sound like something that guys from that time would be playing. Often people just haven't gotten the music right in jazz pieces that I've seen, so we were really kind of careful about that.

KCRW: I was talking about eagerness in the first third of the movie, and we could hear the eagerness in that music because that's a very advanced reaching towards sophistication count in that music.

Ashe: There's a tune in there, it's only in for a second called "Be Back in Five," which does that; it's an intrepid thing to be playing at the time. One other thing we did with the Dickie Brewster Quartet, though, is since Dickie Brewster is the leader, we tried to write all the tunes from the point of view of the pianist, even though Robert is the star, and just show how he's sort of like the reluctant star, and he can't help with being drawn to him. So we wanted the solos to have a lot of energy and power to them. That kind of overtook these beautiful melodies that are piano based, but the solos really stand out.

KCRW: The movie does so many things. It's romantic comedy; it's melodrama. It's a bit of social realism, and not just in terms of race stuff, but what it's like to be a young person. When there's a transition in the culture, when women are stepping into the the workplace in television, and also being a young person watching TV in the 50s, and wanting to be taken seriously when that's kind of a silly thing, and breaking away from a more rigid form of jazz and something that's a little more experimental and more about the individual. The movie, it seems to me, is about ambition, both artistic and romantic.

Ashe: To add to what you were talking about, about the sort of break and change in the culture, also, the death of jazz into this kind of pop, into, this kind of jazz, when it stopped being the music of young Black folks, Motown coming in, I thought was a really interesting thing to get across.

KCRW: There's so much subtext really in the movie, like seeing the stuff that Erica Gimpel does, and her posture around her daughter. Did you find yourself saying, well, maybe I need to peel back a couple layers of onion and just let people be able to register what I'm doing?

Ashe: A lot of things are scripted, and then you start to shoot it, and you realize that you may not need as much dialogue, and you may not need as much to get across the idea. Erica's posturing: I mean, when she walks in like that, there's just so much that she doesn't need to say. You know who she is immediately. And it's funny, she's got her mother's gloves on; she really knew that character, and she came fully formed. So that was really kind of great.

KCRW: That also really sets us up the difference that you're talking about because Robert doesn't have parents and Sylvie's got parents, and we can see the two poles she's between. You don't really tell us how successful a musician her father actually was, but he clearly has some affinity for that. We can sort of see how she arrived at being the person she is, by coming from those two parents, but also, that he's trying to prove himself because he's really on his own.

Ashe: Yeah, one thing we talked about to Nnamdi about that character in some of the backstory that's not there is that he worked in a record store in Detroit. We're often creatures of habit, so he goes back to working at the auto factory, and it was like, he's already worked in a record store, so he knows what he's doing. He immediately takes to Mr. Jay as a father figure, which is really important. And Mr. Jay is really fan-boying out on him. He loves to be around musicians. But when you look at Sylvie's mother, it's interesting, because she's actually a working woman with her own business, but yet, she's trying to get her daughter to be her star pupil, and married well, and just be a housewife. Maybe that's something that happens generationally: you know, parents are like, well, I already married a failed musician. I don't want you to do that. 



Rebecca Mooney