Radical romance returns. A staple of the ’50s and’ 60s, those films that took audiences on an epic love journey (often starring Audrey Hepburn) have been a little less common in recent decades. But writer and director Eugene Ashe is once again exploring the genre with Sylvies Love, arriving on Amazon Prime on December 25.
Set in the 50s and 60s in New York City, the film is a reminder of the golden age of Hollywood, but this time with the black characters in the center of the scene. It follows the ups and downs of a relationship between Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a rising jazz star, and Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), who is progressing in television production. Ashes’ inspirations for the film, like her own career, span multiple artistic forms. In addition to directing films, Ashe is a former record artist, architecture student, comedy club owner, and restaurateur.
He explained via Zoom how Sylvies Love arose out of this wide range of interests and cites a handful of specific inspirations. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
From the character to the overall cinematic vibe, the music had a major influence on the direction Sylvies Love would take. Asomughas’ character Robert, a member of a jazz quartet, grew out of Ashe’s dynamic with members of the 90s R&B group he was in, Funky poets. But it was the work of singer Nancy Wilson that was very influential. Ashe was born and raised in New York City, and two records he grew up listening to were The Swingins Mutual with the George Shearing Quintet and Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley. He said he would add certain songs to the script, like The Nearness of You, and his writing would be guided by them.
I looked at the Nancy Wilson album art and they looked like what Sylvie looked like in my mind, he said. The cover of Hollywood My Way, with Wilson standing on Hollywood Boulevard bathed in the glow of city lights, is one of the most notable. He showed it to his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, and his chief lighting technician, Christian Epps, and told them, the light was on.
Pictures like these brought a sense of nostalgia to Ashe as they presented a sort of crispness in the night, he said. There is a crackle when people are dressed to see a show and hold a clutch and have perfume, he added. I remember my parents dressed to do this and thought, I want to go where they go because they smell good and look great.
Photography was important in how Ashe wanted to capture the spirit of cinema. I have a lot of old black family photos that look like Sylvie, he said, but it’s always been interesting to me never to see them portrayed in a movie like this. Beyond his own family photos, he was drawn to the images of professional photographers of the time like Saul Leiter and most notably Gordon Parks, whose work was most recently honored on the HBO series Lovecraft Country. One image that has stuck with Ashe is the Parkss 1956 Department Store, Mobile, Alabama photograph of a woman and child under a colorful entrance sign.
When I first met Tessa, he said, I had this photo on my iPad and I showed it to her. He had a full picture with the colorful entrance sign. I told him, we saw this movie. I want to do this movie, and I zoomed in on where the sign had gone and it only focused on the woman and her child. We talked about making a film that was not framed by our adversity, but that focuses on our humanity.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Sylvie, whose relationship with Robert is complicated by the fact that she has a husband, leads a domestic life punctuated by the mid-century modern style. Her family lives in New Rochelle, NY, and this choice, as well as the design of the house, were all inspired by The Dick Van Dyke Show. On this show, Rob and Laura Petrie also live in New Rochelle. I grew up watching reruns and thought Mary Tyler Moore was so beautiful, he says. When Tessa is vacuuming in capri pants, she gives you all kinds of Laura Petrie. Ashe found color stills from the entire series and shared them with her production designer, Mayne Berke, to recreate the feel.
Ashe said that in the chemistry of his two lead roles he was influenced by films like The Way We Were (1973), as well as the Diana Ross / Billy Dee Williams films Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975). But his main influences are both the novel and the Paris Blues (1961) film.
Harold Flenders’ novel focuses on the relationship that develops in Paris between a black musician and a visiting professor. But the film gives these characters, played by Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll, the B plot, while adding two white characters, played by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, to advance the A plot.
I wondered what would happen if this movie was made with the black characters, closer to the original book, he says. A scene from her film is a tribute to the Paris Blues, where Sylvie sees Robert perform for the first time and falls in love with him there. The previous movie has a scene where Carroll and Woodward come to watch the musicians play. Ashe set up the plans in the same way for her scene, but said he took it a step further. I drop some of the other instruments and just focus on him playing, he says. So it becomes like this hypnotic thing, where everyone disappears and it’s just both.
A sequence where Sylvie hangs out on the roof with Robert is a tribute to the 1976 movie Sparkle, about a group of singing sisters from the 1950s. Although this movie is also set in New York City, he and Sylvies Love were shot in the same. backlot of the Warner Bros. studio in Los Angeles. Budget and schedule constraints kept Ashe from filming in New York City, but he said the background shooting actually helped solidify the style of the films more firmly.
Because of the ghosts of all the movies that were made there, you couldn’t help but do this great Hollywood love story, he said.
I think I originally envisioned a more intimate, a little more serious and independent movie, Ashe added. And then when I got on those backlots, I was like, you know, I just wanna do this drastic romance. Much of it was dictated by being in Hollywood. It made me feel like I was making a movie in 1962.
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