Cyrano Director Joe Wright On Remixing A Musical, Working With Peter Dinklage And Shooting On A Volcano


by James White |
Updated on

Director Joe Wright is not a man afraid of tackling stories that others have previously brought to cinema screens – in the past, he's handled adaptations of Pride And Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Peter Pan, to name but a few. Yet he also always finds some way to put his own spin on them. Such is the case once again with Cyrano, drawn from Edmond Rostand's 1897 play, which finds lovelorn poet, solider, performer and all-round renaissance man Cyrano de Bergerac – here played by Peter Dinklage – stymied when it comes to professing his love to the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett). As she falls for handsome soldier Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Cyrano puts expresses his feelings by channelling his romantic abilities through Christian.

With the trailer now arriving, Empire tracked down Wright to talk about updating a musical version of the story for the screen, how he shot the movie during the pandemic and why you really shouldn't try to make a movie on an active volcano. Honestly, we'd have thought the last one was obvious, but needs must...

The play's the thing


Or in this case, the musical. Cyrano has its origins in a musical version of the story staged by writer/director Erica Schmidt, who created the show. The star? One Peter Dinklage, who also happens to be her real-life husband. As for Wright, he first saw the musical in its early days.

"I went up to see a very rough workshop production that Erica mounted in a little 120-seat theatre in Connecticut called the Goodspeed theatre where they develop a lot of musicals," recalls Wright. "And I’d always loved the story in the original Rostand play and I’d loved the Gérard Depardieu film, which I remember seeing as a teenager and being completely blown away by. Then I went to see this production workshop and was really rocked by it. I was really shocked by how deeply, emotionally affecting seeing Pete play that role was."

Going from Cyrano to Cyra-yes


Taken by the show, Wright asked to collaborate on a film version, with Schmidt writing the script. That took around three years until the director realised it could actually work.

"On the 28th of June last year, having been in lockdown for about four months, Erica sent me the latest iteration of the screenplay and suddenly it all clicked," Wright says. "It was, 'okay, I have to make this and I have to make this now.'' This is a film about human connection and failure to connect, and it celebrates love." There was just one teeny, tiny complication: a raging worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, which you might have heard something about. Undeterred, Wright got in touch with some old collaborators. "I spoke to Eric Fellner at Working Title and said, 'we’ve got to make this,''' and he said, 'you’re mad, the world is shut down and no one is doing anything. But we can try...' Bless him, we took it to MGM and Mike DeLuca, who had just taken over the company, said, 'we believe in the future of film, because if we don’t bet on the future then we’re betting against it.'"

Pandemic production

Joe Wright directing Cyrano

With the world at a standstill and worries about safe working conditions foremost in his mind, Wright devised a plan to make the film while keeping his cast and crew healthy. Turns out, all you need is an island, some Baroque architecture, an adaptable ensemble and a really big bubble.

"I had an idea of how we could do it given the Covid situation, which was to gather together a kind of company of craftspeople and actors and dancers and extras, 120 extras. And base ourselves on the island of Sicily, which had very low covid rates and create a bubble in this incredible baroque town called Noto there," Wright explains. "So the extras, for instance, all play different characters – one moment they’re a solider, next they’re a baker, a theatergoer. It’s this extended theatre company of artists from Sicily, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the UK, the US, Canada, Japan… this international group came together to mount this production and that was really exciting. I always believe that the process is as important as the product and the process was one of amazing creative connection in a time of shut down and inability to connect."

The Peter principal

Cyrano (2022)

Casting two of the main leads was already locked in, since Wright knew he wanted both Dinklage and Bennett to reprise their roles. And having Dinklage play a role that is traditionally taken by an actor using a false schnoz was key to the appeal, since this Cyrano is a man bursting with ability and panache, but held back by his stature.

"I wouldn’t have seen the point in doing the usual fake nose Cyrano for the screen, however much I love the story and would have liked to have done it," Wright admits. "But Peter in that role makes it fresh, modern and pertinent. There’s something very affecting. When you see an actor with a big rubber nose on his face play the role, you know that at the end of the day they can take their nose off and go to the pub and leave it behind. Whereas Peter doesn’t leave that behind, it’s part of who he is. It’s that much more emotionally affecting."

Kelvin timeline


New to the cast, but by no means a newcomer, is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has won acclaim for his roles in Luce, Waves and The Trial Of The Chicago 7. Here, he plays the charismatic Christian, who woos Bennett's Roxanne with a little help from Cyrano.

"I’d seen Kelvin in Waves, a great indie movie from a couple of years ago. I met him and kind of got a bit of a man crush on him, really," laughs Wright. "He’s this amazingly open innocent with this extraordinary wonder and joy, and I felt those were qualities that could be really exciting for Christian. Our Christian is a character who is smart and very good at what he does, he’s a great soldier: he’s been brought up with one specific thing in mind, the military, But then faced with the woman of his dreams, he, like a lot of us, becomes totally tongue-tied and unable to express himself. I felt that I could really relate to Kelvin in that role."

Big bad Ben


Ben Mendelsohn was Wright's first call when he was looking for the film's romantic antagonist – De Guiche, Roxanne's rich, obnoxious main suitor. Mendelsohn played King George VI in Wright's Churchill drama Darkest Hour and the pair had clicked. But there was one big question for the director when he got in touch...

"We’d had a good time [on Darkest Hour] and I thought of him for this but I didn’t know if he could sing or not," says Wright. "So I called him up where he was in lockdown in Los Angeles, slowly going out of his mind, and said, 'Ben, Ben… can you sing?' And he said, 'oh mate… can I sing? Hold on!' He sent me this video that he shot on his phone of him making up a song in the style of Tony Bennett, like a proper lounge singer giving it some. Maybe Tony Bennett, maybe Tom Jones! Big singing! I texted him back, 'yeah, okay, you’ve got it.' It’s what the film needed, a shocking performance."

Tuned in (and out)


Though Schmidt's stage version was already filled with music, courtesy of The National's Matt Berringer, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner who worked on the tunes and lyrics along with Berringer's wife Carin Besser, Wright and Schmidt crafted a new playlist for the film along with the musicians, deciding what to keep, what to ditch and how to re-shape certain songs.

"There was a lot of work done on the songs between the forms," explains Wright. "And a lot of work done on the arrangements and accompaniments as well. There were songs that were cut, songs that were added, songs shifted from one place to another. For instance, there’s a song called 'Every Letter' which originally was kind of a solo for Roxanne and I really liked the idea of having all three of them sing it. It becomes almost like a strange kind vocal ménage à trois, where none of the characters are physically meeting, but somehow they’re all wrapped into each other musically." One other song also got a big overhaul, one from Cyrano as he interrupts a stage performance and duels with an arrogant, insulting theatregoer. "In the stage version it was just a song that was sung," Wright says. "I folded it into a sword fight, so that as Cyrano is fighting, he’s also singing this song. I wasn’t so sure about it being a rap battle, so I tried to take it away from that a little bit, so certainly it’s a very physical thing. It’s very punchy as a song."

A song of ice and fire


If you're already making your movie in the middle of a pandemic, you might think twice about further risks. Like, say shooting on the side of an active volcano. Yet Wright and his team, after securing assurances from the locals, decided to do just that. "We decided to film the battle sequence up the side of Mount Etna," recalls Wright. "We’d been told that it never snowed up there, at least not until February. So we chose this site 16,000ft high near the top. A week before we were due to shoot — they’d even moved the camera crane up there – a huge dump of show came in. Three metres of snow fell overnight. We had to improvise and move down the volcano to a lower site where the snow stopped so we could work in it. And then the snow came down again and wiped the set out! That was certainly one of the most logistically challenging things I’ve ever had to deal with in the making of a movie."

And because that wasn't enough tempting the wrath of the whatever from high atop a thing, Etna then decided to do what volcanoes do best... On our last day, the volcano erupted and we just basically ran for our lives. That was a challenge. We had to improvise around that one!"

Cyrano will be in UK cinemas on 14 January next year.

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