Writer Stefani Robinson is an admitted overachiever. In 2016, on the strength of a spec script, “Lola and the Afterlife,” about the ghost of dead girl stuck in limbo in Boston, she landed a meeting with Donald Glover on FX series “Atlanta” and was promptly hired for the Season 1 writer’s room. The day before she turned up for work, she had been grabbing coffee as an agent’s assistant.
She was the youngest member and only woman in the writers room, joining a team who already knew each other. But it was Robinson who landed a writing Emmy nomination for Season 1; the show took home two WGA awards. While she continued on “Atlanta” until the 2022 Season 4 finale, executive producer Paul Simms also took her with him to co-showrun 2019 TV series “What We Do in the Shadows,” based on the quirky vampire film by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi.
After juggling the two shows, Robinson finally quit “Shadows” in 2020 — she had a feature to make, one about another overachiever.
At a casual get-to-know-you 2017 meeting with Searchlight Pictures, production executive Meredith Milton asked the then-24-year-old Robinson if she had any movie ideas in the works. She hadn’t prepared a formal pitch, but offered up someone she had always hoped would be at the center of a biopic: Joseph Bologne, a notable Black 18th-century French composer, violinist, and eventual colonel of the Légion St.-Georges during the French Revolution. He was a favorite of Marie Antoinette, who dubbed him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, though he was nearly lost to history.
Milton was interested and asked many questions. “She couldn’t believe that no one knew who this guy was,” said Robinson during a recent interview with IndieWire.
Searchlight developed her script for “Chevalier” and, in 2021, put it into production with TV director Stephen Williams (“Lost,” “Watchmen”) directing and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Elvis,” “Cyrano”) starring as the violin maestro who, in the opening scene, challenges Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a violin duel — and wins.
That audacious opening sequence captures the flavor of what Robinson had in mind for the entire movie. She’s a virtuosic comedy writer, after all. “I wrote shows with vampire dick jokes, I am not an historian,” she said. She described the movie she set out to make. “It was operatic and fast-paced, ‘Amadeus’ meets ‘Purple Rain,'” she said. “I didn’t want to write a Wikipedia page. The whole point was to capture a feeling, a little like a fairy tale.”
She soon realized, as many TV writers do, the difference between the relative freedom on freewheeling hit shows such as “Atlanta” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” and the laborious trek from script to screen for a movie intended for theatrical release.
“We’re in an amazing time,” she said, “I’ve been on projects where I could move freely and do whatever I want. I’m grateful. It’s a dream come true. A lot of my professional life has been very dreamlike. I went from working at a desk at an agency to a writers room. This weird, crazy show did well. I had permission to be creative and fun, it’s kind of surreal, I don’t know how it happened. I’m fortunate, but I worked incredibly hard.”
That “Chevalier” launched in Toronto 2022 with all the bells and whistles of a Searchlight movie is an accomplishment. (Its Metascore is a respectable but not stellar 66.) Ultimately, Searchlight deemed the movie not worthy of Oscar consideration and booked it for an April 21 opening.
“Chevalier” first entered Robinson’s orbit in high school, when her mother gave her a book that included Joseph Bologne. It was at a time when Robinson was inhaling Jimi Hendrix and Prince and making connections between them and the rock star Chevalier was in his time. “It was insane this person existed, a person so singular and extraordinarily talented and also Black living within a white cultural context,” she said. “It was astounding that I never heard of this guy.”
Chevalier stayed with her “my whole life. There was something cinematic about him.”
After studying screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston, Chevalier always hovered in the back of her mind. After she got the script assignment from Searchlight, Robinson continued working on “Atlanta,” and began doing rough outlines and research. By 2018, she was juggling “What We Do in the Shadows” as well, and worked on a season of “Fargo” during a break from “Atlanta.”
In early 2020, things kicked off on “Chevalier” in a significant way and continued virtually during the pandemic. She wrote some 20 versions of the script before production commenced in the Czech Republic in September 2021.
“That’s the biggest difference,” she said. “In television, you don’t have the luxury to write the same thing over and over. The writing didn’t feel different. Whether or not I was in a writers room, I was always writing at home alone. A lot of the ‘Atlanta’ scripting process was a solitary experience. Each project demands its own set of rules and process.”
On “Chevalier,” Robinson worked closely with her director. “Stephen Williams comes from TV,” she said. “He was used to a collaborative dynamic, he was open and we had a partnership, the two of us were representing the film. It was a writers room of two. We’d discuss the script, go over every scene.”
The trouble with “Chevalier” was there was so much to include. The story starts as the young son of a slave and a plantation owner overcomes discrimination at a posh Paris school by performing better than everyone else. Bologne rises up in the court of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), but over-reaches by trying to take over the Paris Opera and falling for an opera singer (Samara Weaving) who has a venal, racist husband.
And when his father dies, his mother (Ronke Adekoluejo) comes to live with him, a promising development that feels undernourished in the movie. “I wanted more of everybody,” said Robinson. “The character of Joseph’s mother could have her own movie. All these characters are rich and vibrant and complicated, within the confines of a feature film.”
Robinson identified with Chevalier’s struggle to be perfect. “He was a true, undeniable workaholic who tried to excel at everything, wanted to lead the Paris Opera, a position that he thought belonged to him,” she said. “The divas of the Opera wrote a petition and he didn’t get the job, He was Black, they would never submit to a Black person, it was unheard of. I remember feeling those feelings, I knew a lot of extraordinarily talented Black people — you go over and above to excel as a means to protect yourself. You have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to own what’s yours. The true reality is it doesn’t matter how good you are. I bought into that idea: work hard, make good grades, write my ass off, lean in, make myself perfect, somehow I’ll be untouchable. It’s a faulty armor, an illusion. In that moment, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you aren’t going to get the Paris Opera.”
It’s no surprise that Robinson has directing in her sights. Tinal result of “Chevalier” is not exactly the movie she first imagined. “It’s an open secret, the stuff of Hollywood legend, made up since the time I was a child falling in love with cinema,” she said. “The one thing you learn when you watch movies about movies, is that writers in feature films are fourth-class citizens, often replaceable.”
In truth, while the film industry talks a good game about seeking originality and taking risks, distributors are often afraid of taking moviegoers too far away from the known and the familiar. “I’ve been told time and again [originality is] what people are wanting,” said Robinson. “But it’s been my experience sometimes that it’s not what people want. They want name recognition, a lot of the time. I’ve been rewriting many features. It’s always the same thing. ‘We don’t understand this choice, it’s not funny enough here, do it more like this, we want more x, y, or z over here.’ That’s my experience.”
In the feature world, Robinson got notes. “They weren’t egregious or unreasonable,” she said. “But notes in general come from fear or caution, at the same time they’re supportive, dedicated executives, passionate about telling great stories. It’s a weird time, the industry is shifting, you can’t point blame at any one person or process. So much is shifting rapidly, everyone is experiencing a bit of whiplash, hoping their job will be there tomorrow. Everything is a risk and investment in time, money, and energy. I’m sensitive to that.”
She added, “But at the same time, nobody knows what’s going to work. If everyone knew what was going to work everything would be a hit. Time and again, everything that is a surefire thing is not the case. And there are surprises all the time. What makes the job so fun is you don’t know what’s going to resonate or why.”
A Searchlight Pictures release, “Chevalier” is now in theaters.