Joe Wright Talks 'Cyrano,' Having A Romantic Heart & More [Interview]

The timing is always right for a passionate, cinematic romance for the ages. But in the case of Joe Wright’s musical extravaganza “Cyrano,” a lush re-imagining of Edmond Rostand’s classic “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the timing couldn’t be more perfect, when the world is still reeling from the ongoing pandemic and the isolating aftermath of the strict lockdown days of the past.

READ MORE: ‘Cyrano’ Exclusive Featurette: Peter Dinklage Talks About Acceptance, Love & Swordfighting In His New Film

A celebration of love, language and human connection, Wright’s “Cyrano” has all the signature workings of the filmmaker’s typically stunning period fare that includes the likes of “Anna Karenina” and “Pride and Prejudice”—in that regard, you can count on sophisticated costuming and luscious production design here, elements elevated by The National’s charming music (with lyrics written by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser). What you can also expect is a breathtaking performance by Peter Dinklage in the eponymous role (sans the nose), wooing Haley Bennett’s pensive Roxane and against his better instincts, helping out Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s nobleman Christian, a young romantic without Cyrano’s language skills.

Wright joined us on Zoom recently to talk about how he pulled off this wildly original version of “Cyrano,” a phantasmagoric, old-MGM-adjacent epic written by Erica Schmidt. Here’s our Q&A, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The first time I saw “Cyrano” was very special. It was at Telluride, the first in-person festival I went to in the Covid world. Being greeted by such a romantic movie about intimate connection deeply resonated in pandemic reality. So let’s start there, because your movie has more literal connections to the pandemic. I think you shot it during lockdown.

Absolutely, we did. Even before the pandemic, we’d been developing the movie for a couple of years. It felt urgent even then, because I felt like the world was concentrating far more on the differences between people, rather than similarities. So the casting of Peter Dinklage in this role felt very pertinent and powerful. And then the pandemic hit and suddenly, all human connection was severed. It really became an urgent mission to make the film in celebration of human connection, but also to talk about the difficulties of human connection, how we fail to connect and how we’re afraid of intimacy, how we’re afraid of being seen for who we are. And so, I called up, Eric Fellner of Working Title, and said, “We’ve got to make this now.”

He said, “You’ve got no chance now. Well, maybe you have 5% chance.” And I said, “I’ll take that 5%.” We ran with it, managed to get MGM to support that vision. And we went to the island of Sicily, which had a very low COVID rate. Because, it’s an island, has no through traffic and we were able to make the film in October to December 2020. And that created a defiant passion in the face of this bleak situation the world was encountering.

That must have brought on an amplified sense of shared purpose, a familial chemistry to the set.

Absolutely. And I believe that comes across, maybe subconsciously in every frame of the film. This belief and defiant determination.

I’ve been thinking about why I’m so drawn to your cinema movie after movie. I think it’s because I feel you’re a romantic at heart. Romance is not a genre that a lot of people find worthy or think of as high-brow these days.

I guess I am [a romantic]. Yeah, I think so. I didn’t set out to do that: “I’m going to be the guy that makes romantic movies.” And in fact, probably quite the opposite, I wanted to be cool and edgy and ironic. But, I probably have quite a romantic heart. I think that comes from my upbringing. I was brought up in a puppet theater, which was this extraordinary dream-like world. The problem with that was when you were forced out into the real world [you suddenly saw] people were nasty and cruel and so on. So, I think maybe the work comes from the contradiction, the conflict between the inner heart, which is romantic and the outer world, which can often be quite cruel.

You said the two keywords, cool and edgy. Your cinema understands romance is cool and edgy.

I think that there’s this sense that only cynicism and irony have the monopoly on intelligence. And I don’t think that’s true. I think there is an intelligence in trust and an intelligence in romance and poetry. It’s just maybe a different intelligence.

Your actors sing live on camera here. I loved that decision, being able to see them tapping into their core to actually make those sounds. There was a heightened sense of connection between them. What was capturing that like? What did it mean for the choreography of camera movements?

I felt that the live recording would, as you suggest, bring a level of intimacy. Also, I embrace the faults. I embrace the hearing the breath, hearing the cracks in the voices. All the emotion is carried as much in the perfection, as in the faults. That’s where the humanity lies. That’s what’s emotional. It was challenging technically, certainly. All the actors had to be very well-rehearsed. They had earwigs, so they were hearing a backing track, or often a live pianist would play along with them, so that they could lead the rhythm of the piece. And it meant that the dancers, if there were dancers in the background, they had to be working off what we call a thumped track. So, a very low base rhythm that could be filtered out in the final mix. But as long as you’ve got the timing right, the dialogue would feel natural, like the continuation of a sentence into singing. I seemed to work in pretty much all cases.

It sounds like you had a very clear idea in your head about what exactly you wanted this movie to be. Was that triggered when you first saw the stage production that Peter Dinklage was also in?

Yes, it was really seeing Peter as Cyrano, without a nose and the authenticity and the immediacy of that performance. He brings an entire life experience to this role.

And then seeing him opposite Haley Bennett, who has this incredible emotional availability. She’s, I think, one of the most profoundly emotional actors I’ve ever worked with. There’s a tender fragility to her Roxanne, and yet a striving for something more, to quote one of the songs. What normally happens and happened with this movie is that I start with certain visions, impressions of the movie. And then the tentpole moments, do know what I mean? Then, “Oh, I’ve got this moment. I’ve got that moment.” And then, it’s about working out what happens between them. Filling in and finding solutions. Generally, a lot of directing is about finding solutions to problems. But one of the moments that I really thought I could see it cinematically—actually I thought would be given so much more power in the cinematic form—is the battle sequence. I immediately knew what I wanted that to be.

What about Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is terrific as always. I’m wondering what you saw in him for the role of Christian.

I saw Kelvin in “Waves,” which I was a big fan of. Normally, Christian is this dullard but I didn’t want [my] Christian to be like that. I wanted Christian to be innocent and kind and trusting. And he becomes tongue-tied when he’s faced with the love of his life. He is not unintelligent. He has great emotional intelligence and all of those qualities are found in Kelvin. He’s the kindest, loveliest guy you’re likely to meet. And has this wide-eyed wonder at the world. And that felt right for our Christian.

Just thinking back about “Cyrano,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement”… the period movies that you made. You can obviously see the period in it but also sense different eras through it. They seem to blend the classic with the contemporary.

Yeah. Even more so in “Cyrano.” I think with “Pride” and “Atonement,” one was aiming for something more kin to historical authenticity. With this movie, I was certainly exploring something that was more about a fantasy of a period, rather than a period itself. As you know, I’m sure, the original is set in Paris in 1640 that would somehow be more of a dream space. I guess because it’s a musical as well. A lot of the references were from between 1640 and 1720.

There’s a big shift historically, between the middle of the 17th and early 18th century. Especially, in terms of Warcraft. In the 1640s, you’re talking about the Three Musketeers, if you like. Later, you are talking about uniforms and all of that stuff. The costumes especially very much reference Alexander McQueen and contemporary designers’ work. Not at least because the music is contemporary as well. It would’ve, I think, felt odd if the film had been entirely historically accurate, and then had electric guitars in it.

So, when you have that freedom of movement between periods, what does this mean for the crafts team? When you’re talking to the costume designer and production designer for instance, what is their jump-off point with this freedom?

Well, we are very lucky. [Production designer] Sarah Greenwood and I have this secret weapon: Phil Clark. Although maybe I shouldn’t give his name away, because everyone will want one. He’s a visual researcher. The beginning of our process is talking to him, giving him lots and lots of ideas. We research some images, we send him ideas, talk to him about the script, talk to him about the visual world we want to look at. And then he comes back with thousands and thousands of pictures, period paintings, photographs from as early as possible. Contemporary work as well; photography, in particular. And then, we sift through those and find individual images that excite us, colors that excite us, textures…atmospheres… And then we start creating a mood board which we use as a communication tool with other members of the team.

This is something you mentioned in Telluride. I think you were shooting the film by an active volcano, correct? Could you talk about that extremely intense-sounding experience?

It was really intense. So, the first three acts of the film of the five-act structure, we shot in Noto, which is this incredible Baroque masterpiece in the center of Sicily. It’s this honey-colored stone. It’s a very rich, deep experience to represent the feeling of falling in love. And then we hard-cut to something else. And I was looking at what that something [opposite] might be. There was Mount Etna and we went, “Oh, well, that’s the opposite.” It’s this black grit and volcanic rock. So, initially, we had chosen a spot that was just below the summit, at 16,000 feet. And we built a set and put up a camera platform and moved a 100-foot Technocrane up there.

We’d been told that it wouldn’t snow before February. We believed them. As I told you, maybe there is [a different] intelligence in trust. So we trusted them. And then, four days before we were due to start shooting, a meter and a half of snow dumped on our set and made it completely inaccessible and unshootable. So, we had to pick a spot in very short notice, a bit lower, at about 8,000 feet. So, the air is very, very thin still, and it’s vertiginous slopes.

Every time you put a camera box, they roll down the hill. And we had no set. So, Sarah Greenwood had to improvise. And we had no camera crane, because we couldn’t get it down. So, everything had to be shot from a tripod, which was interesting in its limitations, to try and think minimally. And then, we managed to achieve pretty much most of what we tried to do. And then, on the last day, the volcano erupted and yeah, that was really frightening. That was, “Pick up the camera boxes and run.” And everyone was fine, but yeah, that was certainly one of the most challenging experiences of my shooting life.

Shooting during COVID and by an active volcano! You are probably the only director who can claim those two things happening together on their set.

Yeah, I’m sure I am. [Laughs]

“Cyrano” is in theaters now.