A Genius Revealed: CHEVALIER Screenwriter Stefani Robinson and Director Stephen Williams Rediscover the Legacy and Cultural Impact of a Musical Virtuoso

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Whatever you have to say about Chevalier, don’t call it a “biopic.” Inspired by the real-life story of 18th-century composer and musician Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the illegitimate son of an enslaved African woman and a French plantation owner, whose musical talents gave him entrée into French high society, the film is less focused on adhering to the conventions of traditional biography than in telling a vivid, gripping story that resonates with today’s audiences. With its sumptuous visual imagery, lush musical score, and heightened performances, Chevalier aims to entertain its audiences as much as it wants to educate them. Boxoffice Pro’s Daniel Loria spoke with screenwriter Stefani Robinson (TV’s “Atlanta”) and director Stephen Williams (TV’s “Watchmen”) about their collaboration in bringing this artist’s story to life—and why telling it on the big screen is the best way to do it justice.

What was it about this story that inspired you to build a screenplay around it?

Stefani Robinson: I first heard about Chevalier de Saint-George when I was in high school—I want to say at about 15 years old. I read about him in a book my mom gave me. It was really important for me at the time because I played the cello in the [school] orchestra, and it was exciting to read about a Black classical musician—especially from that period. He sort of felt like a late-1700s action hero in a way. He was a celebrity, suave, knew all these languages, was good at poetry, wrote music and lyrics, and he was an amazing athlete. To me, it felt like he checked all the boxes in the “Remarkable Person” category. Everything I read about him felt like it was part of a movie. It was one of those ideas that stuck in my mind when I went on to start a professional screenwriting career. I found it remarkable that no one had made a movie about this guy, and it seemed like no one even knew who he was. That’s why it felt like the right opportunity to tell his story.

Stephen, what was your initial reaction to engaging with Stefani’s screenplay?

Stephen Williams: I first became aware of Chevalier, aka Joseph Bologne, when the script showed up in my inbox one day. Literally after the first three pages, I was hooked and intrigued and, in many ways, informed, because I had no idea who this person was. I didn’t know he existed; I knew nothing about him at all, or the world that he inhabited. Stefani did such an amazing job, not just in conceiving the notion of a movie that could be constructed around this person’s life, but in actually executing that in terms of the brilliant screenplay that she crafted. That was apparent from the film’s opening scene. It was a no-brainer for me to try my damnedest to get to be a part of telling this story.

A period piece like this, with its elaborate sets and costumes, can be a hard sell for a wide audience. But there is nothing stuffy about your movie—it’s vibrant and full of life. It has a playfulness to it that makes it easy to connect with the characters and the story. How did you go about striking that balance?

Stefani Robinson: I approached it as a movie rather than a biopic. I’m not a biographer, I’m not a historian, and I am not interested in making a documentary. I’m not interested in writing a Wikipedia page. I’m not interested in crafting some kind of podcast where I tell you about every single thing this person has done, in the order in which he has done it. I write movies. I write to entertain. That’s why I’ve resisted the word “biopic” when speaking about this movie. Stephen and I talked about this a lot, and I know it influenced him in crafting the visual style of this movie. It was important for us to tell a story that was compelling and have the truth inform the spirit of the movie—even when it’s not adhering to this sense of factual accuracy. I don’t think our approach is dissimilar from what other filmmakers have done in movies like Elvis and Malcolm X. We set out to serve the story we wanted to tell. We explore a limited period of his life. I feel if we had included every episode of his incredible life, it would have ended up being a 14-hour movie. 

What really resonated with me about this story was the idea of an artist struggling with his identity and his place within the society he was living in. You have this character in history who is incredibly well connected with the aristocracy—Marie Antoinette, Versailles, these sorts of monstrous institutions. At some point in his life, there is a shift, and he finds himself fighting in the Revolution alongside Black people, alongside slaves, fighting back against the people by whom he once was accepted. To me, that was the most intriguing aspect of his story. This is an artist struggling to figure out who he is. Our challenge was to put together a story of someone who is coming into their own self-awareness and growing up as a result. That part resonated with me in my own struggles as an artist. It’s much easier to write something you’re excited about.

Stephen Williams: The first thing I want to say in response to the question is just how blessed this entire production was to have Stefani be at the center of all this. She articulated everything perfectly, to the point where I feel like my only real response needs to be “Ditto.” Like Joseph, I’m from the Caribbean myself—different countries, but similar trajectory. He was far more conversant with his particular choice of an art form than I am in mine, but there were many aspects of his story that I connected with intimately. It felt like a journey that I had been on myself, a journey of someone trying to come to a sense of self-awareness. A closer kind of connection to who they are, essentially. There’s a lot going on in this movie: the music, the Revolution, the historical period. But what really attracted me to the project was the story of someone who feels outside of the world they exist in and their hope that, through exertion and ambition, they can make sense of that world and come to a greater understanding of themselves.

What became very clear when I read the script, and as I acquainted myself with what little exists about Joseph’s life, is how in many ways what was transpiring for him in mid-1700s France could be happening today. There was something very contemporary about his life journey, about his circumstance, about the social context in which he found himself, and about the way in which he felt he needed to be exceptional in order to make sense of his place in that world of French aristocracy. That guided our approach to the visual syntax of the movie, keeping one foot planted in the authenticity of the period it’s set in, but at the same time rendering it in a way that feels immediate and immersive. Something you can connect to and that still feels contemporary. Finding a happy balance for that tone was the challenge we set for ourselves. That’s what we collectively tried to bring to the movie.

This industry, historically, has not given people of color many opportunities. Decisions in Hollywood are made by people who do not reflect the diversity of their audience. There’s this sense of being an outsider that I believe is shared by anyone of color working in any part of the film industry today. How did Chevalier’s story resonate with your own experiences in this business?

Stefani Robinson: I feel like Stephen and I are incredibly close because of our experience in telling this story. The opening scene, where Chevalier interrupts a concert given by Mozart, is emblematic of this movie’s spirit, emblematic of what Stephen and I have done in our careers and what we’ve aspired to do with our lives. That opening scene in particular does a lot of work in telling us about Chevalier’s life and his legacy. He has been referred to as the Black Mozart, and to bring him into direct conflict with the actual Mozart in that first scene was very important to us. It’s a cheeky, rebellious confrontation in the “F– you” sort of way that feels confrontational and silly. It’s clearly not based on historical fact; we are taking total liberty with the material. That scene is completely ripped from an alleged incident in which Eric Clapton was playing with Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, who was in the audience, came up to the stage and asked to play. That speaks to the echoes of these remarkable people in history—it doesn’t end with Joseph. It’s Prince. It’s Hendrix. It’s all these really incredible artists and people, Black artists and people, who have been forced to elbow their way into history and literally rip the guitar—or in the case of our movie, the violin—from the hands of whoever is playing it. Stephen and I can probably go through a laundry list of experiences in which we have felt this exact same way and had to work harder in order to make more noise and confront the status quo. Whether that’s done subtly or overtly, many people like us share a lot of stories in which we have this common understanding.

Stephen Williams: What’s so brilliant about the screenplay that Stefani constructed is that the scene we’re talking about, that opening scene with Mozart, is a haiku in a way. It’s a distillation of everything that the rest of the movie is about. The rest of the movie is an elaboration on the dynamics transpiring in that opening scene. It’s true that there are specific areas in which Stefani and I, and many other people of color, will connect to the subtextual dynamics in that scene. But what’s also true is that, hopefully, if done properly, this specific feeling becomes universal. I think all of us can, hopefully, connect with people in those circumstances where they feel like they’re not being fully seen. Connect with the fact that their portion of the story is not being fully included, that the story that is being presented to the world is only a partial rendering of what the real and full narrative could and should be.

At the Movies

Having worked on marquee shows in what we’d call the “new golden age” of television, what inspired you to make Chevalier into a film best enjoyed on the big screen?

Stephen Williams: There are very few people working in [television] that are not inspired by movies. Behind closed doors, everybody’s references are movies—and there’s a reason for that. The visual grammar of movies is so globally persuasive that it in many ways mirrors the experience of being in a secular church. The viewing experience that happens when you are in a cinema, when you are denied distractions like your phone or putting something in the microwave, it all contributes to the communal experience of cinema. It contributes to a deeply immersive experience that influences the way in which you think, the way in which you feel, and the way in which you act in your life outside the confines of the cinema. For me, movies are the highest version of visual narrative storytelling, which is not to say that I in any way look down on or denigrate television or streaming as a medium or way of consuming stories. Ultimately, I was forged in the fire of cinema—and I remain a loyal acolyte.

Stefani Robinson: Stephen is absolutely right. I don’t think there’s one piece of television that I’ve worked on where film hasn’t been the primary inspiration for everything that we’ve done. That still holds true today, [watching a film in a theater] still feels like a sacred experience.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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