A Cinematic Escape: Joe Wright Brings a Musical Cyrano de Bergerac to the Big Screen

Photo credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

Call him the modern-day master of the period drama. Director Joe Wright, whose award-winning films have taken audiences through Britain of the 1940s (The Darkest Hour, Atonement), 19th-century Russia (Anna Karenina), and Georgian-era England (Pride & Prejudice) turns to 17th-century France with Cyrano, in theaters January 21 from MGM.

An adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, this new version of the classic love story—based on a 2018 stage adaptation penned by Erica Schmidt, who also wrote the screenplay–makes several key changes to its source material. One: It’s a musical, with music by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of Grammy-winning band The National, and lyrics by The National’s Matt Berninger and his frequent collaborator (and wife) Carin Besser.

Two: Schmidt has eliminated Cyrano’s signature long proboscis, instead presenting Peter Dinklage (who is married to Schmidt and starred in the stage Cyrano) as the witty, lovelorn lead, who offers to woo his beloved Roxanne (Haley Bennett, also reprising her role) on behalf of another man by writing love letters for the handsome Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) that the younger man then delivers under his own name. “I think with any other version there was the feeling that the actor—however convincing—can at the end of the day sit in the makeup chair and pull the big nose off of his face,” says Wright. “Pete brought an inherent truth and honesty to Cyrano that I found deeply affecting.”

The result is a profoundly moving film buoyed by a career-best performance from Dinklage, who seems born to play a character both brash and deeply wounded by the world. In advance of the film’s theatrical release, Wright spoke to Boxoffice Pro about making a film about human connection during the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

First off, congrats on the film. I loved it, as did my boyfriend, who is not typically a musical or period-drama person.

Oh, good. I’m not really much of a musical person myself. I think the movie is almost a musical for people who don’t normally like musicals.

How did you get attached to this project, then? I know it’s based on a preexisting musical stage adaptation of Cyrano

Haley Bennett invited me to go and watch a tiny workshop production [of it] at a theater in Chester, Connecticut, which seated like 120 people. I’d always loved the story of Cyrano. I felt somehow emotionally connected to Cyrano as a character, especially as a teenager. But when I saw Erica’s workshop production, with Peter Dinklage playing Cyrano and Haley playing Roxanne, suddenly it was like a fresh, new light had been shed on an old, dusty piece of material, and I understood how it might be possible to turn that into an exciting new movie.

When I think of Cyrano de Bergerac—obviously, it’s a classic, well-respected piece of literature. But in terms of movie adaptations, the most common reference point for most people would probably be Roxanne, with Steve Martin and his big fake nose. Not that Peter Dinklage isn’t a funny actor, but your movie is much more emotionally affecting than that prior approach.

The story has an emotional and spiritual depth that I feel is often missed from the original source material. That’s not to say that I wanted to treat it with a kind of [over-the-top] seriousness, but I think it’s there in the material. Certainly, the complications of that love triangle I find incredibly moving. I see myself and my fellow humans reflected in those characters. There’s a beauty and a tenderness. I find tenderness itself very moving.

Since you have that emotional connection to the source material, I was wondering if I could get your thoughts on how you approached the ending. It’s a bit of a hard one to land, because you get used to seeing the story as a traditional love triangle, and then—I don’t know, can you spoil a play that’s 125 years old?

One of the interesting things about the Steve Martin version, Roxanne, is that it had a happy ending, and this doesn’t. I sometimes think the happiest ending available to us is simply acceptance. And I do think there is acceptance at the end of the story, you know? If one grounds that ending in that sense of acceptance, then that will hopefully see us through. It also, for me, inspires me to try and do better. I don’t think it’s a hopeless feeling. I think there is hope for the audience at the end of the movie. Hope in the story they’ve seen, but hope in their own lives, too.

When was production on this? Where did it fall in the pandemic timeline?

Right bang in the middle. We’d been adapting it for about three years. I already felt that, with the Internet age and social media and so on, there was a pertinence to the story, which I saw as being about human connection and our need, as humans, to connect with other humans, which we often fail to do. I felt that already spoke to the Internet age. Then the pandemic hit, and all human connection was literally severed. It was June 28, 2020, when I felt we’d gotten the script to a place I was happy with and ready to start production.

So I called up Eric Fellner at Working Title and I said, “We’ve got to make this movie. We’ve got to make it now.” Because of the themes of the film, but also because I knew that a lot of my friends and colleagues—actors, dancers, crew—were in Britain having a lot of trouble putting food on the table, because our government was very, very late in supplying any financial help to the self-employed, especially in the arts sector. I knew a lot of people, especially those actors who work mainly in the theater, who were having a really bad time. So I called Eric Fellner and said, “We’ve got to make this movie, and we need to do it now.” And he said, “You’re crazy. There’s a global pandemic on.” And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t care about that. Tell me, what is the percentage of likelihood that we can get this film made?’ And he said, “About five percent.” So I said, “Great. I’ll go with that.”

We went to my usual backer, Focus, and they weren’t doing anything. We tried a few people. We took it to MGM, and literally within 24 hours they came back and said, “Yes, we want to do this, and we’re betting on the future of cinema because if we don’t bet on the future of cinema, then we’re betting on the death of cinema.” I found that really moving. And so we were off. We started shooting at the beginning of October 2020, and we wrapped on December 18, 2020, on the island of Sicily. We made it in a spirit of defiance, almost, against this bleak situation that we’d found ourselves in. I don’t know if the film would be quite as passionate were it not for those circumstances.

It’s such a bright, airy film. Visually, it’s a little escape for two hours.

Exactly. A little escape that also reflects back on us, on our hearts and our need for human connection.

As you’re making Cyrano, you’re seeing all these films continue to get pushed down the schedule, to in some cases go day-and-date or bypass theatrical entirely. Were you having conversations about that, about how this film would be released? Was there ever any question that it would be theatrical?

There was never any question from [MGM’s] Mike De Luca and Pamela Abdy, and indeed [MGM board chair] Kevin Ulrich, that the film would receive a theatrical release. They believe strongly, as I do, in the theatrical experience. The collective experience, you know? And I think so far they’ve been proved correct. They seem to be doing OK.

Have you had the chance to go back to cinemas much since they reopened in London?

Yeah, very much so. I think it’s really important. And I love it. There’s been recent scientific proof that when you collect an audience together in a theater, their heartbeats actually synchronize. Literally. Which I’m sure we are aware of subconsciously, if not consciously. I think we feel that. Sure, you can have that synchronized heartbeat at a music concert or even in church, but for me, my church is the cinema and storytelling. I feel that experience when I’m in a theater with other people. I feel like I’m connected to them, and that together, we’re collectively connected to the story we’re being told. If it’s a good one.

And if it’s a bad one, you’re connected too, just in a different way. We’ve all been to those screenings.

Yeah, that too! But also, the other thing, there’s a lot of talk about the big-screen experience. To me, yes, it’s about the big screen, but it’s also about the big sound experience. The totally immersive experience of the 7.1 surround sound system, or even the Atmos system, which I love. To feel fully immersed in the wonder of that bass and that treble is something quite different from the home experience, where if you’re lucky the sound is coming out of a couple of decent speakers. But that’s rare.

I forget the name of the song—the one with Glen Hansard [musician and star of Once] and other soldiers singing before going off to war. It’s very somber and touching. The way it’s filmed isn’t flashy. You need to be immersed in it through sound.

Absolutely. I’ve tried to make a film that isn’t flashy. I feel like, as my career develops, I’m more and more interested in the challenge of apparent simplicity and how difficult that is, how challenging it is.

I was flashing back to Anna Karenina watching this—they’re both very fluid, dancerly films.

I always conceived Anna Karenina as being a ballet. It was choreographed by the same choreographer [as Cyrano], Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is a dear friend and absolute genius. The most incredibly focused artist I think I’ve ever worked with. That felt like a ballet, and this feels like a natural progression from that work.

What was the first movie that you went to see, after things opened back up?

The first movie I went back to was Cruella, with the kids.

Both that and Cyrano have just amazing costumes. I love a well-costumed movie.

I loved that movie. I recently saw Don’t Look Up. I love that movie. I love comedies. I love the Judd Apatow comedies. I was excited to speak to [Don’t Look Up director] Adam McKay the other day, because he’s the guy who directed Anchorman. That’s a fucking masterpiece.

Reminds me of how Christopher Nolan is a MacGruber superfan. It doesn’t seem like it would fit, but y’know, the man has good taste.

My taste is eclectic. Just because I often make literary adaptations and period movies—which is a whole other subject—my taste for movies is certainly not that narrow.

Well, since you brought it up, is there something in particular that drives you toward period dramas?

I see them as being fantasies. I don’t really see them as reenactments of a past. I was brought up in a puppet theater in London, and we did fairy tales. There’s something of the fairy tale about the period movie. I can invent worlds. I like the whole kind of—without sounding like an egotist—the world-building thing. I feel constrained by contemporary life and contemporary drama. I find it difficult to—my imagination feels constrained by contemporary life. Everything has to be real, you know? Whereas with a period fantasy/fairy tale, my imagination is freer, and I can take greater leaps of imagination and faith. That, to me, is really exciting.

But also, there’s something I find personally reassuring when I realize that people in the past have gone through similar difficulties and experiences. It makes me feel less alone and more understood. It helps me.

I also think cowboy movies are period movies. I think sci-fi movies are period movies. They’re just a future period. I’d love to do a sci-fi movie one day. I think they’re all period movies. Being English, I’ve tried to break down, a little bit, the walls of what is considered a “British period movie.” Not least because I think there’s a perceived reactionary—even, dare I say it, conservative—persona of period movies. And I’ve tried to fight that from within and reclaim the past for a good, old-fashioned Democratic Socialist like myself.

And, in Cyrano, for the outcasts, for the misfits, for a woman who doesn’t want to get sold off to a man she doesn’t love—who wants more out of a romance.

Absolutely. I remember reading Atonement, the novel, for the first time and for the first 90 pages feeling like I was in a very traditional English period novel and not really understanding why I should be thinking about this as a movie. And then suddenly—on, I think, page 96—Ian McEwan uses the C-word. It hit me like an atomic bomb. I suddenly went, “Oh, wait a minute, this is something completely different. I need to sit up and pay attention here, because this isn’t what I thought it was.”

Your adaptation hit that note in exactly the same way.

That’s why I put a giant typewriter sound on that specific word, because I wanted it to sound like a bomb, too.

To what you said about fantasy world-building: I remember reading an interview with Keira Knightley about how she’s drawn to period dramas because they have more complex, meaty roles for actresses. And—unlike in a lot of modern movies—her character probably won’t be sexually assaulted.

It was interesting. With Cyrano, it felt—I feel like [Cyrano de Bergerac playwright] Edmond Rostand didn’t show much respect for Roxanne in his writing. He mocks her literary aspirations. He calls her literary group “des Précieuses,” which means “the precious.” This idea of these precious, fussy women who are interested in words. One of the things that Haley and I were determined to do was to turn that around and make sure that our Roxanne was given some proper agency within that love triangle and within that society.

Photo credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

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