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A Song Was Only A Breath Away: Joe Wright on Cyrano

With “Cyrano,” Joe Wright delivers one from the heart—not that he ever makes movies any other way. 

Lavish, effusive, and disarmingly sincere, all the British director’s best films since 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice” have felt like love letters, written in florid cursive and stained with a romantic’s helpless tears. From literary adaptations (“Atonement,” “Anna Karenina”) to genre fantasies (“Hanna,” “Pan”)—and last year’s “The Woman in the Window,” which split the difference—his work pays suitably passionate tribute to artistic expression in all forms. 

In theaters Feb. 25, Wright’s “Cyrano” reimagines Edmond Rostand’s classic play as a movie musical; this open-hearted approach lets the unmoored emotions of its star-crossed lovers take flight in fierce whirlwinds of song and dance. The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner wrote the music, with lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser. Their brooding, intimate songcraft keeps the film’s love triangle grounded in reality, even as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography externalizes its characters’ yearning through the fine, blooming movements of ballet.

Peter Dinklage stars as the eponymous wordsmith, a captain of the guard secretly enamored of the radiant Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Competing for her affections are the malign Duke (Ben Mendelsohn) and handsome new recruit Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), who can’t find the words to express what he feels. Cyrano, however, can. And so he plots with Christian to woo Roxanne, who’s fallen for the younger man. Unburdening his own soul from afar, Cyrano hand-writes declarations of love and lets Christian claim the credit. In previous tellings, the character’s outsized nose marked him as a pariah; in this one, his short stature drives his decision to conceal the truth of his love for Roxanne, fearing as he does that society would never accept their pairing. (Dinklage’s wife, playwright Erica Schmidt, wrote this adaptation, which first debuted on stage in 2018.) 

Utilizing various stage and screen techniques, Wright conjures a theatrical atmosphere that seems to encircle and caress the characters. Its artifice only deepens the intimate force of their feelings, which are expressed in poetic verse; in one sequence, as a company of soldiers sway in time to one swooning number, their white sleeves and red vests make them resemble love letters with wax seals, or beating hearts in motion. (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design is currently Oscar-nominated.)

Wright discussed cordoning off a picturesque Italian island to film during the pandemic, crafting “Cyrano” with his own significant other, and trusting in an audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

Between “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” and “Anna Karenina,” you’ve directed your share of emotionally stirring period dramas. But “Cyrano” is also a musical, which is a first for you. In approaching the project, what about it represented a return to form, and what was a new challenge?

I really wanted to return to making a love story. It felt like the right time to do so. I felt I needed to make a film about human connection and the difficulties we face in finding it. That was important to me. But, in a way, “Cyrano” meant returning to some of the themes of “Pride and Prejudice,” right back to the beginning. I wanted to make a film that was devoid of any cynicism or irony. That was a return, perhaps, to “Pride and Prejudice” but almost also a return to something far earlier, to a childlike perspective on the world. The challenge to make a musical was certainly there. I've never made a musical before, as you say, although it felt like a natural progression from the dance-based work I've been doing, with “Anna Karenina” and also in the theater. 

And then the challenge was shooting during a global pandemic. That was an extraordinary and powerful experience for myself and for my collaborators.

I know you sealed yourself, the cast, and the crew inside the Sicilian city of Noto to shoot, approaching “Cyrano” as a film-theater hybrid. Watching it, I noticed some of the same dancers recurring in background roles. What can you tell me about operating as a theater troupe to make this film in a bubble?

Once we managed to raise the finances, which was difficult in this situation, we decided to shoot the movie on the island of Sicily, as a response to some of the practical problems. Shooting during the pandemic, the island of Sicily had very low cases of COVID, unlike mainland Italy. We felt like we might be able to create a very tight bubble there. So, we hunkered down with 350 cast, crew, supporting cast, dancers, and extras. And it was a very international group, which was important to me, given Brexit. I wanted to create a very international, pan-European group of collaborators. And then we had to deal with what the COVID restrictions meant for us. We were all tested every second day, and every day felt like a triumph, to be able to actually go to work. It created a wonderful atmosphere.

You had the actors sing live on set. What did that add to “Cyrano,” overall and in terms of the day-to-day challenges? 

It meant that there was a level of intimacy to the performances. I didn't want for people to suddenly stop talking, and then the fanfare begins, and then they start singing declamatorily, lip-syncing to playback. I wanted it to feel very close and intimate, to feel that a song was only a breath away. I liked the occasional faults: when the voice cracks, when they perhaps breathe in the wrong place. I felt that those faults would somehow convey the emotion. All that closeness created a more powerfully emotional experience.

So much of what grounds you in the realism of these characters is down to performance as well. Peter Dinklage is a definitive Cyrano. What conversations did you have about his approach? 

Peter brings an extraordinary authenticity to the character that is unlike any previous iteration. He is who he is. And he brings that with him, like any great leading man. But there was something incredibly powerful about watching him fulfill a career-long dream, to play a romantic lead. That was a real honor to witness. He's extraordinary, Peter. He has a giant soul. And he has this fierce intelligence and compassion. But there's also a guardedness there, and all of that plays into and can be utilized for the character. That's not to say that he's just playing himself. Performance, I think, is an act of extraordinary imagination. It's difficult to put into words, frankly. 

That’s fitting.

In a way, that's why actors act, and directors direct, you know? Because that's our form of speech. 

You’ve previously collaborated with Haley Bennett as an executive producer on “Swallow,” and you two are romantic partners. “Cyrano” marks the first time that you've directed her in a project. For a project this sweepingly emotional, how did that personal connection influence the style in which you were directing the film?

It's important to say, firstly, that Haley was involved in the project before me. I first saw a very rough workshop production at a tiny theater in Connecticut—the Norma Terris Theater, in Chester—and I was blown away by her performance. I asked her if I could approach Peter and Erica [Schmidt, the playwright,] and she gave me her permission. And so that's how it all started.

I always try to get to know my actors but, obviously, when you're directing your significant other, there's a level of intimacy and love that comes across. I wasn't conscious of it while we were working. Like we were on “Swallow,” we were incredibly professional. But, through watching her work in “Swallow” and other films and seeing her preparation on other projects, I knew that there was a whole well of emotion and ability that had never been mined before. I was very excited to be able to bring that to a wider audience. 

I know that Haley is as good as anyone out there, basically. And I wanted the audience to be able to enjoy that performance. I also really think she brings a great intelligence to the role. Roxanne is, in other versions, often quite wimpy and not very interesting. And, honestly, I think that stems from Rostand’s lack of respect for Roxanne as a character. He mocks her literary ambitions in a way that I find a bit unkind and disrespectful. Haley and I really worked to make sure that she was a character worthy of the affection of these two men—and worthy of our love, too. She’s a very modern Roxanne, grounded in historical specificity. 

What was it like working with The National? Their songs as a band express regret and longing on such a deep level; it was cathartic to see their music deployed in this context. 

I've always been a great believer in preparation. Nevertheless, you have to be even more prepared when shooting a musical. The songs need to be carefully worked out and storyboarded in a way that dramatic scenes don't always have to be. You can respond more in the day for a dramatic scene. We prepped “Cyrano” within an inch of its life. 

I worked very closely with Aaron and Bryce Dessner and also with Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, who wrote the lyrics. Some of the songs were similar to how they’d been in that original workshop production that I saw, and others were unrecognizable. We questioned every single song; we questioned its place in the film and made sure that it had as much meaning and relevance as possible. I really like working with musicians who haven't done it before, as was the case with the Chemical Brothers on “Hanna.” It's great because you get to see your process through their eyes, as if you’re doing it for the first time. Sometimes, that highlights old habits that should be let go of, and it also brings new opportunities to the process. Each step of the way was an exciting challenge.

You spoke earlier about wanting “Cyrano” to be devoid of irony, which leads me to ask about another recent project of yours, “The Woman in the Window.” That film engages with voyeuristic psychological-thriller tropes and their visual languages in a way that feels very ironic, to the point of deconstruction. Your approach to artifice in storytelling has always fascinated me. How did approaching a project that utilizes it as ironically as “The Woman in the Window” compare to the more earnest, uplifting theatricality of “Cyrano,” for you?

Primarily, my concern is with telling stories about humans and how we connect—or, so often, fail to connect. That’s the top layer. But beneath that, I am interested in form and in filmmaking, pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, questioning the boundaries and the form itself. I’ve wanted to engage the audience’s participation, if you like—by which I mean the participation of their imagination. Although I love realism and especially the Italian neo-realists, I sometimes wonder that we’re filling the screen with so much reality that the audience is having a very passive experience. I’m trying to get the audience to have a more active, participatory experience with the films I’m making. That’s the intention, though it all sounds a bit highfalutin. 

It makes sense, though, given your inclination toward theater. So many film adaptations of stage productions neglect to consider engaging the audience as an essential element. 

I’m always trying to keep the audience in mind while I’m making a movie. We’re engaged in a wonderful pact, which is the suspension of disbelief, and I’m interested in questioning the nature of that relationship. But not always! To be honest with you, I more and more feel like I’ve been on a theoretical journey, and that I’m coming home to something that is perhaps less theoretical and more emotional. 

Part of that was wanting to make a film that was without cynicism and without irony, because cynicism and irony are so often used as protections. I wanted to drop that protection—my own—and for audiences to be able to engage directly with the heart of it, using their imaginations and their emotions. Or at least I hope so. It’s f**king scary. [laughs] But I hope so.

“Cyrano” opens in theaters Feb. 25.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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