July 28, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How ‘Sylvie’s Love’ got that classical backlot style

A blue gown, a chance encounter, a flame that won’t ever truly dim — these are some of the building blocks of “Sylvie’s Love,” a romantic drama set in the late 1950s to early 1960s about a young couple who fall in love, though it is never the right time for them to truly be together.

Tessa Thompson stars as Sylvie, a young woman who works in her father’s record store but dreams of being a television producer. Into the shop one day comes Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a rising jazz saxophone player who feels an immediate connection to Sylvie. Shot with the jewel tones reminiscent of classic Technicolor and staged in part on Hollywood studio backlots, “Sylvie’s Love” looks like a throwback to an earlier era, but by placing a Black couple at its center, it depicts the romantic passions and interior lives of characters that would typically have been pushed to the edges of the story back in the day.

The project was always rooted in the romantic travails of two young Black lives. But in the time since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 — it is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — not only has the world been changed by a pandemic but it has also seen an increased consciousness around racial justice in America. Both those events only strengthen what the movie was already trying to accomplish.

“The thing with period pieces for me is the ones that are most effective are the ones that do speak to the moment that we’re in. And you can’t really prepare for that,” said writer-director Eugene Ashe. “We just made the movie we wanted to make, and then it just kind of turned into this whole other thing because of the time we’re in. People are fatigued by trauma. So seeing more Black bodies being killed or hosed down, as we see in so many period pieces about the civil rights movement or slavery, people aren’t really here for that right now.

“All I have to do is open up my family photo albums to see a very different depiction of Black life in the ’60s,” Ashe added. “We still live life just like right now. We are still having babies and falling in love even in the midst of a pandemic. I’ve said kind of only half-jokingly that even Malcolm X and Martin Luther King still got married and had kids.”

Nnamdi Asomugha and Tessa Thompson in “Sylvie’s Love.”

(Amazon Studios)

For Asomugha, who spent 11 seasons as a cornerback in the NFL, the storyline of how his character had to transition from leading a jazz group to playing as a session musician for Motown, rolling with the times and career changes, was personally resonant. Ashe was a member of the R&B group Funky Poets before moving on to filmmaking.

Since retiring from football, Asomugha has been involved as a producer on films such as “Beasts of No Nation” and “Harriet” and acted in and produced projects including “Crown Heights.” Having come to “Sylvie’s Love” as an actor, Asomugha eventually got involved as a producer as well.

“The goal was to bring the type of film that our parents never got to see,” he said, “in terms of the characters looking like them and being in a glorious period and just being able to laugh and dance without worrying about all of the societal issues that were going on.

“But since [2020], the meaning of this film now — I don’t want to say it’s changed completely, but it’s enhanced,” Asomugha said. “There’s this need that I’m hearing for there to be joy at the end of this year, love at the end of this year, people working it out, people communicating in spite of everything that we’ve seen in real life this year. So it definitely enhanced this feeling of, it could be a balm for the community, just in a really beautiful way.”

“We couldn’t have imagined the timing,” said Thompson. “I had always been attracted to this idea of making a story that was set in the past, but centered on the interpersonal, as opposed to the political. That was always something that Eugene pitched me and that I thought was really compelling. And I think it has new resonance now when we are talking around Black life and how it matters and how it should be valued and centered and protected.”

Thompson has become a very in-demand actress, including roles in the television series “Westworld” and the upcoming “Thor: Love and Thunder.” “Sylvie’s Love” was originally set to be shot in late spring 2019 in New York City and upstate, but things had to be moved up because of her schedule. The East Coast in February wasn’t going to provide quite the same setting, so the decision was made to shoot in Los Angeles, finding locations and using studio backlots to stand in for New York.

Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in a scene from "Sylvie's Love."

On the dance floor are, from left, Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha and Aja Naomi King and Regé-Jean Page in “Sylvie’s Love.”

(Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios)

“People don’t do it anymore, but if it used to be done all the time and we still have those lots, it’s possible. And so that was all we needed to hear,” said Asomugha. “And it just turned out to enhance the experience so much. We were no longer making this small, independent film of these two people falling in love. We were now making a big, epic Hollywood throwback. And it initially wasn’t going to be that, but we stumbled into a really beautiful ending.”

Although Ashe had originally envisioned “Sylvie’s Love” as having the feel of more recent period films such as “Carol” or “A Single Man,” he realized the shift to filming in L.A. would change his references as well, to classics such as “Lover Come Back” or “That Touch of Mink.” “Paris Blues” had already been a point of reference, along with romances such as “The Way We Were.” Asomugha also noted how he modeled certain aspects of his performance after those of Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.”

“Long story short, I just leaned into the idea,” Ashe said of the backlot locales. “The moment I got on those backlots, I knew it wasn’t going to be ‘Carol’ or ‘A Single Man’ anymore, which was sort of the initial impulse, a sort of more intimate kind of snapshot, like a little jewel box. I was like, ‘I have to really pay homage to those movies that came before me that were shot there.’”

“I think in a weird way, this sort of backlot, kind of glossy Hollywood thing makes more sense,” said Thompson. “And I’ll be honest, there was definitely times when I had to contend with that, because there is just a difference in performance, and I really wanted this film to speak to a modern audience. There was something about the spirit of those [older] films, a levity and buoyancy to those performances that we were really trying to capture. And in that way, I had to divorce myself from my modern sensibility.”

Aja Naomi King, left, Tessa Thompson discuss a scene in "Sylvie's Love" with director Eugene Ashe.

Aja Naomi King, left, and Tessa Thompson discuss a scene in “Sylvie’s Love” with director Eugene Ashe.

(Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios)

To create the film’s look, Ashe collaborated with cinematographer Declan Quinn, shooting on Super-16 mm, along with production designer Mayne Berke and costume designer Phoenix Mellow.

Berke, whose credits include “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” “The Princess Diaries” and “15 Minutes,” had experienced shooting in Los Angeles for New York before.

Re-creating the period look provided its challenges, from finding just the right rooftop to building sets from the ground up, such as the television studio where Sylvie eventually works or her suburban home. For Berke, the opportunity to bring to life the backlot sets at Paramount and Warner Bros., among others, was special.

“There’s a sense of history,” said Berke, “and what you also realize is that you can constantly blow new life into them. The record store, that exterior and interior at the Paramount lot had never been a record store before. It had been many other things, I’m sure, but it had never been a record store before. I suspect that now there’ll be other people who will see it and say, ‘That was the record store in “Sylvie’s Love.”’”

Nnamdi Asomugha and Tessa Thompson in a scene from the movie "Sylvie's Love."

Nnamdi Asomugha and Tessa Thompson exchange glances in front of a record store in the movie “Sylvie’s Love.”

(Amazon Studios)

According to Mellow, whose credits include “A.P. Bio,” “Mad Men” and “Black Panther,” the costumes in the film ended up being about 80% vintage, 10% modern standing in for vintage and 10% custom.

It was a challenge finding vintage suits for Asomugha, who stands well over 6 feet and has a modern athlete’s build, so his costumes either needed to be made or drastically reworked. On some elements of the costumes, Mellow was very specific.

“I’m a little method in my costume designing,” said Mellow. “I like to really start from the undergarments and using those authentic undergarments, because they’re building the body like a sculpture, and when Tessa puts on the girdle and the pointy bra, you’re all of a sudden transported to that other era. And you’re not in your Spanx anymore.

“Those details really matter. It made her stand up straight. It makes you fit into the dresses properly. There’s just a lot of elements that I think get the actor into their character and into another time period. That is so important as a costume designer to transport them there.”

Thompson had more than 50 costume changes. A few of the gowns she wore in the film were lent to the production from the archives of Chanel, thanks to the actress’ relationship with the fashion house. Though they were more recent than the period of the movie, they more than fit in with its look and style.

Thompson recalled the moment the Chanel gowns — designed by Karl Lagerfeld — arrived, in particular a blue gown for a key scene that the production had been struggling to find or make, that missing puzzle piece.

Tessa Thompson in the movie "Sylvie's Love."

Tessa Thompson in the movie “Sylvie’s Love.”

(Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios)

“And it was just incredible, just so perfect. It was definitely one of those moments,” said Thompson. “Making films, particularly these small films, feel like tiny, little miracles that they even get made. So that was definitely a moment that felt miraculous inside of it.”

“Sylvie’s Love” manages to accomplish a lot: Not only is it a beautiful, glamorous throwback but it’s also a charged reinvigoration of the screen romance because of who is being depicted as falling in love, having problems, living their lives.

“One way in cinema history of erasing Black humanity is to only show it through a really narrow lens,” said Thompson. “If it exists in a time when there was struggle and strife politically and societally, then we don’t get to focus at all on the sort of personal things that happen to characters and to our protagonists.

“And also, it’s been such a tough year for all people. I think the stories that we tell can be little portals, and this is a portal into a space that’s kind of just happy and nostalgic and not cynical, and kind and gentle.”

As much as anything else, the movie’s gentleness, earnestness and vulnerability connect it to another time.

“I miss love stories,” said Ashe. “I miss dramatic, romantic movies, not just rom-coms. And I love rom-coms, but at the same time, there are not a lot of love stories like those old classic ones.”

Through it all, the movie has a delightful, gorgeous sense of style, as its two beautiful stars make their way through a world of rain-slicked streets, finely tailored clothes and heightened emotions. Using the still-extant backlots of Hollywood’s historic studios, “Sylvie’s Love” looks to create images that were rarely seen in Hollywood’s classic era.

“We made no attempt to go overboard with the fact that we were on a backlot. We let the backlots speak for themselves,” said Berke. “You add a wet-down, some jazz music and a couple dancing, and you’ve got romance.”