The team behind CYRANO on keeping the text and finding the voice
A movie musical filmed in isolation, a release postponed by COVID precautions, and a source text nearly 125 years old… sound like a challenge? Not for the team behind Cyrano, the new musical film starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and Kelvin Harrison Jr., in theatres now.
Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement) and written by Erica Schmidt (Cyrano with The New Group, Mac Beth at Red Bull Theater, A Month in the Country at Classic Stage Company), this adaptation highlights the universal truths behind the story and the ways that isolation can drive us to connect.
This particular version–notable for its exclusion of the customary fake nose– was developed over many years and locations. First produced in 2018, the iteration written and directed by Schmidt was seen at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut and later at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York, produced by The New Group. Moved by the performances, director Wright brought Schmidt, Dinklage, and Bennett back together for a feature film that challenges all expectations.
The production filmed in Italy in the fall of 2020 and the team had a unique experience– working, isolated, in a beautiful city while the rest of the world still seemed to be shut down. This may have worked in their favor, though, as Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey used the expansive (and quiet) landscapes to capture a world of the past. Complete with award-nominated costuming, sword fighting, and choreography, the film is a visual delight. The story of Cyrano follows the well-known 1897 Rostand play, Cyrano de Bergerac, yet the text here doesn’t feel a bit dated. Schmidt worked alongside members of American rock band The National to turn the lengthy original script into an epic that is as light, airy, and musical as it is forthright.
Theatrely had the opportunity to speak with the artists about the journey of creating the film and the ways in which this adaptation stands out. The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
On the humble beginnings of the project:
Erica Schmidt: When I'm looking at a play that has been around forever, I read it and I read it again and then I read it again. I really try to figure out what speaks to me personally and I try to distill all of the many different things that are in all of those amazing plays into not a single focus, but a lens. It usually starts with a limitation or a challenge. Like for Cyrano, now it needs to be a musical… and I knew that there had been musical versions of Cyrano that were more traditional in the past. I felt like it was a little bit like putting a hat on a hat– the way that Cyrano is so verbose and then you're adding songs on top of that in a really traditional format? It felt like it was kind of overlong or overblown. So I thought, well, what if it's more cinematic? And it's more that the songs replace the poetry? And it was just sort of a question.
Joe Wright: I didn't really watch that first time thinking about a movie at all. I was just bowled over by the emotion of the production and the performances and the music. I remember crying my eyes out and being really shocked by that. That doesn't often happen… I went back again and again and again, and I think Erica and the others were quite surprised that I kept on wanting to go back and see it again.
Schmidt: To me, there was something sort of false about the big nose mask. Because if the character has something that they loathe about themselves physically and we, in the audience, understand that to be fake, then there's a kind of conspiracy there to be okay with it and to laugh at it… what would it be without a nose, and you know, without talking about the nose? Because we all have things about ourselves that maybe we don't say, but that we hate or fear that someone else sees and hates. It's kind of insidious in that way. So I was trying to really get at that. It's all hunches and questions. And then, you work on it again and again, and it starts to become clearer.
Wright: When I first saw the production and for two years as we were developing it, you had a certain person in the White House and we had a buffoon at Number 10 [Boris Johnson]. A lot of the rhetoric was about otherness, about people's differences. It felt important to me to make a film about embracing otherness and looking for our similarities rather than our differences.
On finding a purpose during a pandemic:
Wright: We were starved of human connection. We were starved of contact. This Zoom thing doesn't make up for it, you know? A film about the importance of human connection, of intimacy, of allowing others to see into you and being open to human connection felt more pertinent and vital than ever.
Haley Bennett (Roxanne): Joe got a draft that he was like– you know, there's no better time than now. You don't need a pandemic to feel isolated. We have to make this film now. We have to get back to work. We formed a bubble in Sicily and had the opportunity to make this beautiful romantic film about love.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Christian): There was the anxiety of going back to work and not knowing if I was going to be able to still act anymore… and then there's like… will we get sick? Will production shut down? What's going to happen here? How does it work if you have to wear a mask all day? How do we make a movie? All we do in movies is connect, so if we can't connect [physically] how do we connect [emotionally]? But it ended up working out for the best. That's what the movie's about– it's about connection.
On the addition of music:
Peter Dinklage (Cyrano): The original play by Rostand, it's very long and it's filled with incredibly long speeches. What if all those speeches were songs? Because I think everybody can relate to a love song.
Wright: All of the singing was recorded live on set to try and capture that intimacy– and the imperfections as well. I wanted to make sure that we embraced the imperfections because that's where our humanity resides, not in our perfection.
Harrison Jr.: It was a different experience. It was challenging, but it was fun… So much of the storytelling in music is about authenticity and our actual voices and not just trying to be, you know, the next “American Idol.”
Dinklage: You forgive the scratches. You know, that's part of singing, that's your soul… your voice isn't as important as what your soul is saying.
On the story:
Bennett: It's such a beloved story, and I think the reason that it resonates for audiences is because it's so relatable. We all have something about us that makes us feel unlovable and unworthy of love… It's something that I think keeps people coming back. That’s what emotionally connects people to the story.
Cyrano is now playing in movie theatres. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and is currently nominated for four BAFTAs and one Academy Award.