Writer-Director Eugene Ashe on Classic Love Stories and 'Sylvie's Love'
January 18, 2021
Craving a distraction from the 24-hour news cycle, I had the opportunity to find sanctuary in Amazon Prime's Christmas Day release, Sylvie's Love, about a woman working at her father's Harlem record store in the late 1950s who meets an aspiring saxophone player that upends her outlook on life and love.
The film is both a love story and a tribute to old Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, writer-director Eugene Ashe drew upon a number of classic films as inspiration.
"I've always loved a classic Hollywood story; the big, sweeping ones, like The Way We Were, Mahogany, Paris Blues... The chemistry between the characters, chance meetings, and the themes of 'unfinished business'. Those big Hollywood endings, the melodrama and the pacing, the framing of big, beautiful shots on Super 16. Those films were definitely an influence on me when I was writing Sylvie's Love and I wanted the end result to mimic the feel of the great classics."
And Sylvie's Love definitely delivers on the promise of a truly epic love story. "Sylvie's Love is really about unfinished business and how love can change one's course in life. The lead characters in this film may be Black, but these are universal themes that transcend race; it's really about how we show our humanity to people," says Ashe.
The film also perfectly embraces the late 1950s, whisking the viewer to a different era which is reflected in the script's snappy, well-paced dialogue and the grand action shots of New York City. It was a time of change, and we, the audience, are taken on a journey of character evolution with Ashe's dynamic and passive-to-active protagonist, Sylvie.
On the film's lead, Ashe remarks, "Sylvie with anyone other than Tessa (Thompson) is a different movie," says Ashe. "She brought exactly what I wanted and what the script needed. She brought to life the world building that was on the page."
In classic fashion, Sylvie's Love draws on both internal and external antagonism. It's more than just a love story and the struggle that follows the ups and downs of "true love." In Sylvie's Love, the antagonism is broad, it's not just "girl can't have boy." A major antagonistic theme in the story focuses on the lack of freedom for women during that time, and the desire for free agency. Sylvie's conflict in loving Robert (played by Nnamdi Asomugha) requires the character to undergo a point of view shift, which is the turning point in Sylvie's understanding of her place (and self-power) in the world.
From a script's structural point of view, Sylvie's Love's is a near perfect replication of the black and white, epic dramas with the story shifts embracing classic pacing. Ashe, who comes from an architectural background, discussed the process of how the vision on the page changes from inception to completion of a film. "Do it on the page... A screenplay reminds me of a floor plan of a building. It's a map for what the film can be. Writers need to remember your finished product will be a different thing on the screen, but you want to get the vision across to the reader on the page. Things will change, because filmmaking is fluid, but if the visual elements and ideas are on the page, your blueprint will hold up."
Ashe also talked about his unique writing style. "I work backwards, the edit is the final rewrite. Directing is gathering everything you need for the edit, so the beginning (the writing) is the most freeing. I can write things and never show them to anyone. Writing gives you the freedom to fail. Movies are a collaborative effort, open your work up to people, get the critique, but as a writer, also allow yourself to fail."
Music is definitely its own character in Sylvie's Love, and Ashe wrote the script with a playlist that included many of the songs heard in the final film. He worked closely with the film's composer, Fabrice Lecompte, to create the "character" of the film's score.
Ashe has a long history with music. Formerly a recording artist on Sony Music's Epic/550 label as part of the R&B band Funky Poets, Ashe has amassed three Billboard charted singles and a platinum record, but he turned his attention to writing music for television and film.
"My mother would play music while she was hanging out, relaxing on the weekend. My dad listened to Thelonious Monk & John Coltrain. The music [in Sylvie's Love] was really created with the intention of — with the characters and the imagery — being a true snapshot of what was going on at the time."
Sylvie's Love is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Written by: Vanessa KingVanessa King is an NYC-based producer, screenwriter, and professor who has worked in development with top-level industry talent for nearly two decades. Her work as a writer has received numerous awards, having earned her recognition from industry bodies including AMPAS/Oscar’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship (feature) and Sony Worldwide Entertainment’s Emerging Filmmaker Program (TV Series). In 2005, she co-founded the New York Screenwriters Co-Op, New York’s only free-to-the-public screenwriting workshop with over 2000 active members. Vanessa is faculty at Gotham Writer’s Workshop (NYC) and Staffordshire University (UK), where she teaches both television and screenwriting to students, beginner to post-graduate. She recently was Showrunner of the TV pilot “Two Roads”, a concept she co-created and co-wrote for Sony’s VUE Network. Vanessa is passionate about diversity and inclusion within the industry and was a consultant on Final Draft Screenwriting Software’s Diversity and Inclusion product build. She’s a board member of the Diversity List, amplifying top scripts written by female-identifying and BIPOC writers. She is a judge for the Hip Hop Film Festival, The UCLA Graduate Screenwriter’s Showcase and The 24 Hour Film Festival. She was named one of The Huffington Post’s 13 Women To Watch and for three consecutive years, has been named to Vanity Fair’s “Downtown 100”, a list that recognizing New York’s top networkers in the entertainment industry. Originally from Canada, she lives in New York City.