Much like its “will they, won’t they” plotline, the road to release for “Sylvie’s Love” has been its own brand of love rollercoaster. From filming on beaches and soundstages in Los Angeles (doubling as New York) to launching the film with a COVID-safe, yet romantic drive-in premiere in Malibu, Calif., stars Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, and writer-director Eugene Ashe share how they pulled off the classic romance amid modern challenges.
“You’ve got to understand how difficult it is to make a movie. It’s extremely difficult, especially an independent film, when you don’t have a studio backing [it],” Asomugha tells Variety. “It’s a bit of a miracle that we’re at this point. Now, there’s a chance to sit back and see how it touches people’s lives.”
At its heart, “Sylvie’s Love” is a love story for the purists — a tale of boy (Robert, played by Asomugha) meets girl (Thompson as the titular Sylvie). They share a summer romance, circumstances tear them apart, before fate brings them back into each other’s lives.
“This movie really speaks to following your dreams,” Thompson says. “And this is a year where a lot of people’s dreams have been delayed or they feel like their dreams are insurmountable. Being able to offer this little gem, hopefully it makes people feel less alone and [able] to reinvest in their dreams as we get into this new year.”
The indie romance debuted amid the snowy scenes of Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but so much about the world has changed since then. For example, ahead of the film’s streaming release on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 23, Ashe, Thompson, Asomugha and the movie’s ensemble cast have been reminiscing about the production virtually, beaming in from home for interviews like this group discussion for the 92nd Street Y.
The unusual quarantine-inspired press cycle has given Thompson a chance to reflect on conflicts gripping the country.
“I thought so much about the utility of story — why we tell these stories, what they offer,” she says. “I felt so lucky to get to make this movie. One thing that it wants to celebrate is this idea of love and joy. It’s incredible to offer that to people now at this time. That [audiences] can watch it in the intimacy of their living rooms together with loved ones feels like a celebration, not just of romantic love and how enthralling that can be, but the love of family, the love of music, the love of community, the love of your dreams and ambition.”
But unveiling “Sylvie’s Love” during the pandemic wasn’t the creative team’s only challenge. First came the complications of filming the New York-set tale in Los Angeles, recreating the Big Apple feel via the movie magic of Hollywood studio backlots.
“I was born and raised in New York and spent the first 10 years of my life living in the Harlem neighborhood that is depicted in the film, so I have a lot of source material,” Ashe says. “Ultimately, it’s just about capturing the essence of a place. Quite frankly, downtown Los Angeles looks more like New York in 1962, than New York does these days.”
Ashe (who Asomugha describes as an encyclopedia of Hollywood history) adds: “We’re not the first people to do it, ‘Sparkle’ set in 1976 was supposed to be all Harlem and they shot on the Warner Bros. lot in the same area that we did.”
Beyond the backdrop lies the most important element to any love story: the chemistry. Ashe modeled Sylvie and Robert after iconic screen pairings, hoping to capture the classic chemistry of stars like Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross in “Mahogany,” Sidney Poitier and the late Diahann Carroll in “Paris Blues” and Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were.” Ashe jokingly referred to Asomugha and Thompson as “Chocolate Redford” and “Cocoa Streisand,” respectively, touting their chemistry in the film as “spectacular.”
“It’s a love that really talks about selflessness, and what you’re willing to give up so that the object of your love can thrive,” Ashe says. “And being able to choose love for yourself and choose the type of life that you want to have, and what should go in your life and what shouldn’t go in your life — which is something that I think we’ve all become very intimate with over this past year.”
He continues: “With so much taken away from us, we now are kind of questioning what things we should let back in. I think that’s an interesting subject to investigate, so that was the core of the universal story I wanted to tell. [I was] just pining for those old classic love stories and wanting to see more of them with Black folks.”
Another of Ashe’s reference points for Sylvie was Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — iconic imagery that Thompson admits was somewhat intimidating to attempt to recreate.
“I certainly remember the first time I saw [Hepburn in that film] — and to be honest, that felt like a very tall order,” Thompson laughs. “Because I’ve been working for over a decade, but have not really been in that leading-lady space an awful lot. And I think that has to do with the industry, frankly.”
Thompson has been a consistent standout in blockbusters like “Thor: Ragnarok” (Thompson is preparing to reprise her role as Valkyrie in the upcoming “Thor: Love and Thunder”) and “Creed,” as well as indies like “Dear White People,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Little Woods.”
But, she explains, “there was a part of me that, as much as I loved the idea and romanticized the idea of getting the sort of ‘star treatment’ like that, I wasn’t sure that I could [do it]. They were big shoes to fill, that sort of natural poise and charisma that those starlets had at that time. [But] I love the idea of character being able to ask of me things that I’m uncertain I am capable of.”
Ultimately, portraying Sylvie was a challenge Thompson not only welcomed, but played to its full advantage. “I was so struck by Eugene’s ability to also create a character that felt very modern and didn’t feel like a throwback. Even in this time. Being able to chart your own path is not something that’s easy for all people,” she says. “So I love that Sylvia’s doing that and doing that in spades. I mean, she makes a couple of questionable choices, but I love that, too.”
Sylvie’s modern life is a byproduct of Ashe centering this story about Black love as the decade rolled over from the 1950s into the ’60s. While the film provides the historical context of racial and social politics of the era, it’s careful not to make the Black struggle the focal point. But it does put a particular spotlight on the gender politics of the time, presenting Sylvie as a working woman, a storyline that not only rang true for its creatives, but also paralleled Thompson’s journey behind the camera.
When Sylvie (by then a married mother) applies for a job as a producer’s assistant at a TV station, during her interview with her prospective boss (Ryan Michelle Bathé) she shares that, “I didn’t know that a negro woman television producer even existed, and all my life that is all I’ve ever wanted to be.” It’s a particularly affecting line that sums up the way the film, embraces and utilizes the particular nuances of life for both Black people and women during its time frame. Ashe also confirmed that he included a nod to another groundbreaking woman producer in Hollywood as a bit of an Easter egg: one of the shows Sylvie watches in the record shop is Lucille Ball’s “I Love Lucy.”
“Not for nothing, Hollywood is not entirely done with being a vaguely male-dominated space and it’s still hard to lobby for personal power,” Thompson says of the storyline. “And I feel thankful [this film] is a part of my journey in producing and that Eugene and Nnamdi both invited me into that process [as an executive producer]. I really envy the kind of actor that can be very focused on just their contribution and I’m a meddler. I’m interested in what everybody’s doing.”
“It really feels rewarding. When I look at the film, I feel a part of the DNA of the project. And that experience has really endeared me to produce even more so,” she continues. “To think of women at that time that were defying the norms of the time and their societal expectations is really incredible. And the truth is, you don’t do that alone, you have to have co-conspirators and so I’m really grateful to Eugene and Nnamdi for being my co-conspirators in this.”