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Joe Wright hopes his ‘Cyrano’ helps people connect with others

"Cyrano" director Joe Wright peers over his glasses in this portrait.
As humans, “we were focusing more and more on the differences between people than the similarities. I thought that this film could help illuminate our similarities instead,” “Cyrano” director Joe Wright says of his musical adaptation.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Joe Wright has always felt a connection with Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which has been reinterpreted onstage and in film for decades. Although the director’s musical adaptation of the classic tale “Cyrano” may venture slightly further from its source, Wright was certain the story could offer a sense of connection for others the same way it has for him.

“I remember seeing the Gérard Depardieu version back in [1990], when I was a very insecure, odd teenager, and feeling like I really identified with Cyrano,” Wright recalls. “That feeling of not being enough. Not being lovable enough. Not being worthy of romantic love. I identified with it back then, and those are feelings that have, unfortunately, never really left me.”

A few years ago, Wright’s partner, actress Haley Bennett, invited him to a workshop production of a new version of “Cyrano” at a small theater in Connecticut. The stage musical, directed and written by Erica Schmidt, starred Peter Dinklage in the titular role opposite Bennett’s Roxanne. Wright immediately asked Dinklage and Schmidt (who are married) if they’d be interested in developing the play into a film. For Wright, it was Dinklage’s take on the character of Cyrano, traditionally portrayed as a man with a giant nose, that solidified his desire to be involved.

“Suddenly Pete in that role opened a very modern and fresh take on the piece that I hadn’t yet seen,” Wright says, “and which felt somehow truer and more authentic.”

As the team was developing the screenplay, as well as new songs penned by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, the pandemic hit. The UK went into a severe lockdown at the end of March 2020, and Wright was struck by how disconnected the world became. Watching everything around him fracture spurred the director to get “Cyrano” made. Last June, Wright called Eric Fellner at Working Title and insisted he needed to go into production immediately.

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“Even before the pandemic, we were dealing in Britain with Brexit and Boris Johnson, and in America you were dealing with Donald Trump, and it felt like the world was becoming less and less compassionate,” Wright says. “We were focusing more and more on the differences between people than the similarities. I thought that this film could help illuminate our similarities instead.”

The film shot on location in Sicily last fall and included scenes on Mt. Etna, an active volcano. Because Wright’s last two films, “The Woman in the Window” and “Darkest Hour,” were largely studio-based, it felt essential for him to get out in the world as much as possible when shooting “Cyrano.”

“We had been told that there would be no snow until February, which we believed, gullibly, and we were shooting at 1,600 feet, so there’s no oxygen, and you’re on these slopes where you put a box down and it immediately slides all the way down the volcano,” Wright recalls of creating the war scenes on Mt. Etna. “A meter of snow got dumped on the volcano the week before we were due to start shooting. That was definitely one of the most challenging but extraordinary experiences of my career. And then on the last day, the volcano chose to erupt, and we literally had to pick up our cases and run as lava was being spat at us from the goddess Etna.”

Another challenge was the musical numbers, which Wright decided to film with all live singing. That meant the cast, which includes Dinklage, Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Mendelsohn, performed everything on camera. That decision was based less on how it would sound and more on what sort of energy Wright wanted to get out of the actors.

“The original play has very long, poetic monologues throughout, which I don’t really feel would work on film right now,” the director says. “So the songs were able to stand in for those monologues and express emotion on an instinctive level. Somehow music bypasses the thinking brain and affects the emotions in a profound and subtle way. We wanted to make something that was full-hearted and tender and honest, without hiding behind irony or cynicism.”

Wright, who compares the film to a fairy tale, found that sort of honesty refreshing. It’s a deeply personal film for the director, who was inspired by growing up in his parents’ puppet theater, as well as his own youth. Crafting a film about human connection and love renewed Wright’s faith in the world around him — and in himself.

“I’m beginning to think I might be all right,” Wright says. “I don’t mean as a director; I mean as a human. I’m beginning to think that, actually, that uncool kid who thought he was unlovable might be OK.

“This is setting me on a path of the types of films I want to make. We spend our lives making this work, and the work is about growing as a human being and as an artist. Through our work we discover new facets of ourselves and new perspectives, and that’s really important. I don’t set out to make films about what I know. I set out to make films about what I want to know, and through the journey of making a film, I discover stuff that enriches my experience of life.”


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