“We’d been in national lockdown for nearly four months when, on the 28th of June 2020, I received the latest draft of a film with music, which I’d been developing for over two years, called Cyrano,” says director Joe Wright. Later that day I called Eric Fellner at Working Title and said, “It’s ready. We have to do this now … I had a clear idea of how to make the film. I knew where and how and what it would look like. I knew what it was about. I could see it. I was very excited. We would create our own bubble on the island of Sicily.”
“Needless to say, Eric thought me crazy. No one would finance this now. No one was making anything. The world was shut down,” says Wright. “And so began the craziest production of my career. But in times of crisis we, as storytellers, have a responsibility to gather our community, large or small, around the proverbial campfire and try to help them heal. We do this by using the power of our imaginations to tell stories of emotional truth. To offer them light when the world feels impenetrably dark. To offer a place to connect to their emotions and a conduit to express them. A place of beauty, perhaps beauty in an ugly world. A place without cynicism or irony. A place of love and compassion.”
“I have always loved drama. All my films have asked the same central question, “How do I connect with others and why do I so often fail to do so?” Drama, to me, is an attempt to connect with others whilst at the same time an expressing of the difficulty in doing so.”
“On that June day in 2020, as we sat in isolation, it seemed to me that what we needed most was simple human connection. Cyrano had to be made. All three of the film’s central characters are attempting connection and failing to do so. All three are in love but feel unworthy of the love they seek. Their sense of self gets in their way. And yet the attempt is all.”
Film director Joe Wright felt that the time had come to make a celebration of life and love.
For, he had a meaningful story that he wanted to tell — and a classic story to re-tell, in an invigorating new way. If he could unite a cast and crew, then the process of making a movie would in and of itself be life-affirming; the finished film would be a gift to moviegoers receiving it together with the world in a stronger state. For the past couple of years, Wright had remained intent on making his next movie a new film version of Cyrano de Bergerac, the timeless tale of wit, courage, and love.
Wright had first made the acquaintance of the legendary character in the last major movie adaptation, 1990’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
“I saw it when I was an anxiety-riddled adolescent and the story, about feeling unworthy of love, had a profound effect on me. “But I couldn’t see making a new version because I could never see past ‘the nose.”
Edmond Rostand’s play is one of the most famous and enduring, explorations of romance ever told. The original play’s specification of Cyrano having a prominent proboscis had always adhered to in the decades since, whether on stage or on-screen — until a few years ago.
Erica Schmidt had adapted and directed a new musical theatre version of the piece, which was staged in different productions in the U.S.
When Wright went to see Schmidt’s staging at “the Goodspeed theatre in Connecticut and saw Peter Dinklage play Cyrano opposite Haley Bennett as Roxanne, I was incredibly moved. “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. Pete brought an inherent truth and honesty to Cyrano that I found deeply affecting.”
Wright, “immediately taken,” envisioned a joyful and tuneful expansion of Schmidt’s production into a movie that would also rediscover “the raw and real heart of the play, about how people connect.”
Schmidt’s staging of her new version was the culmination of years of theatrical development. She recounts that Michael Gennaro, then at The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, had first “commissioned me to adapt Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical in 2005. I always loved Rostand’s play — its story, its epic sweep, the world of the piece — and [the character of] Roxanne spoke to me. Also, Cyrano is ‘catfishing’ Roxanne [with love letters written under another name] and that made me want to take a new look at it. The ending of the play, its tragedy, was my way in.”
Even before Dinklage came to the role, Schmidt had re-conceived the piece’s long-held notions. She recounts, “In my stage version, it was always a Cyrano without a big nose. Typically with [stagings of] the Rostand play, you have a very accomplished and usually very handsome actor wearing a very large fake nose, talking about how horrible his nose is. I wanted to get at something real, underneath; insecurity that the character alone feels.
“I felt that there is a universal truth in that, how we all do this to ourselves and to the ones we love; we all have ‘the nose’ that we imagine the other person hates — or the thing that we blame for our not being loved or not being seen or not being understood.”
A breakthrough came in 2016 when Schmidt “first heard Pete ‘cold-read’ the play aloud. I knew instantly that his innate deflective humour — protective, defensive, sceptical — and reflexive self-loathing and mistrust was dead right for the character of Cyrano.
“Pete knew Cyrano before he played him — and, he’d never read or seen any version of the piece before.”
“Well, I wormed my way in there, didn’t I?” laughs Dinklage, who is married to Schmidt. “Erica had been working on it for quite some time. I lingered on the periphery; then, when I heard the music that had been written I said, ‘Can I do a reading?’
Two years of theatre workshops followed with Schmidt directing participating actors including Dinklage and Haley Bennett in those settings as well as at Goodspeed, where Gennaro had moved.
The path from stage to screen
After seeing the show in 2018, Wright phoned Schmidt “and said he wanted to make a film adaptation starring Peter and Haley, with him directing it and me writing the screenplay.
“I hadn’t worked in movies at all, and I didn’t think this would actually ever happen.” Yet the path from stage to the screen would prove to be swifter than anticipated, in more ways than one. For Wright had also placed a call to Working Title Films, Europe’s leading film production company which has made multiple movies with him beginning with his first feature, 2005’s multi-Oscar®-nominated Pride & Prejudice. Working Title producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, themselves Academy Award®-nominated for Wright’s Atonement and Darkest Hour, have always been steadfast in supporting the director’s vision.”
Schmidt was commissioned by Working Title to write the screenplay adaptation. She began working on the film script “between theater projects” which included another staging of her production; the movie development process continued apace so that Cyrano would, as promised, be Wright’s next project as director.
As Wright embedded himself more and more with the story’s love triangle, he deepened his own interpretation of the story. He notes, “I felt that I identified with all three of them and that [the characters of] Christian and Cyrano are two sides of the same man, and that Roxanne is questing for something perfect.”
By 2020, “we were really working on it in earnest,” says Schmidt. Given that one of the story’s eternal and universal themes is seizing the day because tomorrow is uncertain, the motivation became; if not now, when?
In addition to songs’ titles and lyrics being included in Schmidt’s screenplay — as had been done in her stage version’s text — the song score was made readily available for a listen to those who were considering participating. Newly composed for Cyrano by the Dessners with lyrics by Berninger and Besser, “Every Letter” was integrated as an original song to be sung on-screen by the three lead characters.
Director Joe Wright hopes that audiences living in a world altered by a pandemic respond to his cast and crew’s conveying the story’s “joy, kindness and tenderness — and deep emotional truths that are handed down from generation to generation.
“I hope that the viewer will receive my love through this movie, and I tried to make a movie that is devoid of cynicism or irony. Cyrano is a love letter to love.”
“Cyrano immerses audience members in a luscious and transporting experience, an epic love story,” says actress Haley Bennett. “It’s also a relatable story about people — with flaws — who want to be seen and be heard.”
Expounding on the latter impulses, screenwriter Erica Schmidt believes that “singing about love and heartache with big romantic yearning continues to feel relevant as the world continues to change.”
“Nothing’s changed about love,” reminds actor Peter Dinklage. “Love might get you into trouble, but it should always be your guide. Cyrano is trying to tell you that what is love but honesty, being honest with someone; you owe them that if you really love them.