The new historical drama film Chevalier is inspired by the incredible true story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Bologne (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, complete with an ill-fated love affair and a falling out with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and her court.
Stephen, thank you so much for talking with me! I’m Mary Kay McBrayer. I’m a writer of hidden histories and I’m an aspiring screenwriter, plus most of our readers at The Archive are history buffs, so most of my questions are going to be about the adaptation of transforming history into the full, big-screen experience. Can you take me through the genesis of the film? How did it start? Where did you first hear of the story?
I first heard about the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier when I got the script. Searchlight Pictures sent me the script, by the brilliant writer Stefani Robinson, who had previously worked on shows like What We Do in the Shadows and Atlanta. She had known about Chevalier, and had been familiar with him and his life, from a very early age and had long harbored a desire to write a screenplay about him. So, she was way ahead of me in terms of her awareness of this person.
I knew nothing about him until I read her script and was immediately blown away by the richness of his life. How contemporary so many of the elements of pre-revolutionary France and his journey in that period felt. I'm connected also, on a personal level, because Joseph Bologne was from a small island in the Caribbean and made his way to Europe. He's from Guadeloupe originally. That's where he was born, and then made his way to France. I was born in Jamaica and made my way ultimately to America, where I now live and ply my trade. So, there were a lot of aspects of his life that I recognized and connected to with him.
In addition to relating to the character on a personal level, is there anything in particular you used to develop a full, rounded, contemporary character in this historical setting? Can you talk about how you made that so aesthetically beautiful for the screen?
Bologne was this virtuosic violinist. He was a composer of concertos of opera. He was a champion fencer, a marksman, and equestrian. He was a hugely accomplished individual, and yet, for reasons that will become clear in the unfolding of the movie, not much is known about him. And in fact, efforts were made to erase him from our collective history. Piecing together his life… that took a fair amount of sleuthing because there just isn't that much written about him. In fact, one of the guiding principles that we operated on was a quote by the very famous playwright Tom Stoppard, which essentially runs like, facts are facts. The truth is something else entirely and is the product of the imagination.
We set out not necessarily to make a biopic. We studiously tried to avoid many of the pitfalls that are pursuant to a typical biopic. We tried to imagine the essence of this person. The truth of his life journey that we chose to concentrate on in the course of the movie, and hopefully render it as a piece of cinematic entertainment, functions on an operatic level. The truth is, so much of Joseph Bologne life was operatic. It was defined by great loves and passions and jealousy and revenge… all the staples of opera, which felt like a cool, tonal way to approach telling the story of someone who composed operas.
I love when the form imitates the content. And I like the idea that you took what you had, sleuthed it out, and then kind of decided what the truth would be based on the facts that you found. So, how did you decide when it was okay to take the take the artistic liberties? Like, you decided we're not doing a biopic. We're not doing it straightforward, just-the-facts-ma'am. We're making it a story. Can you give me an example of how you decided which facts on which to base the truth?
Yeah, sure. I mean, Joseph's life is so rich that you could make a dozen movies about him and probably still not exhaust the fullness of his experiences. The portion that was most interesting to me, and to us as a collective creative group, was that journey that Joseph must have gone on to from a place of relative innocence to greater self-awareness and self-understanding. The facts are, at the apex of his career as this virtuosic violinist and composer, he was really close with Marie Antoinette. He was super tight with the upper echelons of French society, the royal family, and specifically with Marie Antoinette. And yet, we also know that towards the end of his life, he took up arms against her and led an all-Black battalion in the Revolutionary War against the monarchy. The end result of that was ultimately the beheading of Marie Antoinette, who had formerly been such a close cohort of his.
So, something had to have been deeply transformative at the core and at the essence of this man, and we chose to tell the story and the evolution of that musical revolutionary. Once we'd made that decision, then every other decision—working backwards, if you will—was about fueling a greater degree of understanding of that journey.
So, you decided on the main arc, and then figured out which other attributes to include to support that arc. Guadeloupe too, has such a troubled history with the French. That eight year period of freedom, and then, “Nevermind!”
Exactly, yeah. 1802, Napoleon reinstates slavery which gives France the dubious distinction of being the only European power that ever did that, abolish slavery and then reinstate it.
What advice do you have for people who want to adapt a historical event or person for the screen?
There's no substitute for having a personal, deeply-felt personal connection to the story that you're trying to tell. So, if you're going to excavate a historical character for your period, I would guess—not that I presume to have all of the answers, even most of the answers, or indeed any of the answers—the best way to go about that is to locate what that personal connection is between yourself and the material that you're trying to mine.
What do you wish people would ask you about this movie?
The question that I would like to be asked about Chevalier is, what would I hope that people would take away from the movie? I just want people to be first and foremost, entertained by their cinematic experience, and then hopefully, also, as a part of that, learn something new about someone they've never heard of, or know very little about, and as a result, emerge from the theater with a fuller understanding of our collective human story.
Chevalier is in theaters April 21, 2023.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.