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Behind the Curtain of ‘Cyrano’

A series of unexpected events brought Joe Wright, Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and the National—you read that right—together for a unique spin on a classic tale

MGM Studios/Ringer illustration

In 2018, the director Joe Wright settled into a former knitting needle factory in Connecticut that had been turned into a 200-seat theater to watch a musical workshop production. “I just remember weeping, actually,” Wright recalls now on Zoom, in between drags of a cigarette. “I was really shocked—that’s quite unusual for me. But there was something about Haley stood up on that balcony, with Pete beneath her, and the disconnect between these two people who really, desperately loved each other. You know?”

He is referring to the actors Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage, the two stars of what was then a Goodspeed Musicals performance of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac that had been adapted by Dinklage’s wife, the playwright Erica Schmidt, and set to music by members of the indie rock group the National. “I remember just being very affected by that, and by the fragility of the music,” says Wright, whose past work includes 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and 2012’s Anna Karenina. “And I kept on going back again and again to work out why I’d had that reaction.”

Wright was certainly not the first soul to begin searching for something ineffable upon hearing the distinctly bereft lift of a song by the National. And his romantic involvement with Bennett only enhanced his attention to the play. But it was a different relationship of Bennett’s, the one showcased onstage with Dinklage, that truly caught Wright’s directorial eye. How could it not? Playing the lead roles of brilliant beauty Roxanne and self-loathing swordsman Cyrano in the tragicomic production set in 17th-century France, Bennett and Dinklage crackled with chemistry, vibrated with words unspoken, and, quite literally, poured themselves into their roles, emerging drenched and wrung out. “Haley wept, like, massive amounts, and the snot and tears would just drip onto Peter’s face,” recalls Schmidt in a Zoom conversation. “It was disgusting and beautiful.”

One of the songs used in the musical was “I Need More,” and that’s how Wright felt, too. “As they kept on leaning into it,” he says of Bennett and Dinklage, “I was wishing that I could get closer, wishing that I was there with them and having a more intimate experience of those performances. Which made me think: Well, obviously, I need to get in there with the camera.” He approached Schmidt about adapting her adaptation for the big screen. The resulting feature film, Cyrano, premieres widely on Friday.

Both Bennett and Dinklage reprised their stage roles, including the singing. Members of the National composed the score and tinkered with the lyrics to the songs. Schmidt wrote the screenplay, the first she’d ever done, and Wright directed. It is a project made by family members who wound up collaborating—moms and dads; husbands and wives; even identical twins—and by collaborators who feel like family. Shot on location in Sicily during the first year of the pandemic, Cyrano has both an ambitious cinematic sweep and a theatrical indulgence in its every scene. There are overhead shots of the ocean lapping against a castle exterior as characters twirl in choreographed patterns. There is gilded, chipping paint on the interior walls.

Schmidt’s interest in creating a production of Cyrano de Bergerac spanned more than a decade. According to longtime theater critic Frank Rizzo, Schmidt mentioned the concept in the mid-aughts to Michael Gennaro, a theater executive she had been working with on a separate production. The story always appealed to her because of its timelessness and essential truth, Schmidt says over Zoom. “There’s a desire to be seen in your best light,” she says. “And then feeling that you’re unlovable if you aren’t—even to the point of pretending you’re someone else. I think it really is a totally human thing that’s never going to go out of style.”

Indeed, there have been countless adaptations on the basic Cyrano story over the years: on stage and screen, in silent films and in animated form, within episodes of Diff’rent Strokes and The Brady Bunch. Some are technological chronicles of catfishing; others are faithful renderings of the source material all the way down to its original French. “I love the Roxanne movie that Steve Martin did. I love the Gérard Depardieu,” says Schmidt, referring to both a 1987 modern imagining in which Martin donned a lengthy schnoz and pined after Daryl Hannah in the titular role, as well as a more traditional 1990 version with bustiers and sword fighting that earned Depardieu an Oscar nomination. (She also saw, and has never forgotten, a 2004 production in Chicago at the Redmoon Theater involving puppets, a big rig of pulleys and wheels meant to represent the inner workings of Cyrano’s mind, and a giant beam that swung from the ceiling.)

Schmidt’s personal vision involved balletic dance sequences and lots of music, but not Cyrano’s most historically prominent characteristic. “I wanted to get at the universal self-doubt,” Schmidt explained in a Los Angeles Times essay she wrote last month, and “to cut all the references to his nose.”

Acting with the opposite of self-doubt, Schmidt took a chance. She wrote “a pretty long email,” she says, to a band whose mumbling music was constantly tumbling around in her mind and explained that she’d love to use their moody tunes as the beating heart of a stage production. The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, responded, Schmidt wrote in the Times, and said: “Never underestimate a big nose. Let’s talk.” Berninger was, it turned out, a fan of Martin’s Roxanne too. “He understood Cyrano’s self-loathing and shame,” says his wife and collaborator, Carin Besser, in a Zoom conversation. “And he really thought that would be sort of a fun thing to delve into.”

Berninger sent Schmidt several hours’ worth of musical snippets—sketches and heartbeats and melodies that the band had noodled around with over the years, then abandoned or otherwise set aside. Inspired by this cutting-room-floor treasure trove, Schmidt set to work writing a draft of her play that specifically incorporated the music. She then invited another (far more skeptical) member of the National, Bryce Dessner, to come by her house for a glimpse at the result.

It wasn’t until Schmidt was preparing for Dessner’s visit that her husband, Dinklage, who was reaching the end of shooting his star-making Game of Thrones run, offered to read the role of Cyrano. Schmidt was initially reluctant, she wrote in the Times, wanting to keep her work separate from his. But she knew right away that it was the right fit when he began reading: “It was as if I’d adapted it for him,” she said. Dinklage later explained to Yahoo that his involvement helped eliminate something that had always bugged him about other takes on the story. “For me as an actor, I loved Gérard Depardieu, Steve Martin, and all the stage productions I’d seen,” he said, “but mostly what I saw was a handsome actor in a fake nose who got to take it off once the show was done. And you were very aware that it was fake, so it overtook the piece, for me.”

When Dessner saw firsthand both Dinklage’s reading and the way Schmidt’s work had incorporated the National’s music, he was sold. And with Dinklage and the National’s involvement, the other big piece of the Cyrano production soon fell into place. “I was living in New York,” says Bennett in a Zoom conversation, “and I wanted to get involved in theater, because I’d never done it before and it scared me.” She called her agent and told her to look for any stage-based opportunities—“it doesn’t matter what it is.” The next day he called to say that there was a musical theater workshop looking for someone to perform the role of Roxanne in a Cyrano de Bergerac table read. When she showed up, “the National was there, and Peter was there, and some incredible theater actors were there,” she says. “I at once felt like a rock star and a groupie at the same time.”

Luckily, she had something in common with the band. “We’re all from Ohio,” she says, “so we got along quite well.”

Playing Roxanne, Bennett glides through the film adaptation with an airy, chin-up strength that is of a piece with the structured-yet-billowing garments she is strapped into. In a world of total constraint, her heart still visibly pounds. (Eyes up here, pal!) Playing her friend-zoned old pal Cyrano, Dinklage is miserably and understandably smitten. As De Guiche, Ben Mendelsohn sneers beneath a powder wig and snatches every scene. And then there’s Christian, a handsome newcomer to town played by the actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. He, too, is transfixed by Roxanne, a bit more optimistically and naively than Cyrano.

Harrison hadn’t been part of the stage production. By the time he joined the project, Wright and Bennett were the parents of a toddler daughter; Wright and Schmidt had gone back and forth on the screenplay for some time, a process that was rapidly accelerated in 2020 when Wright found backing for the film. (Schmidt spent 10 whirlwind days perfecting a near-final draft while on COVID-19 lockdown at home with Dinklage and their two kids.) Even the props and arts departments had familial ties: Wright’s mother and sister helped build and operate some puppets that were used in the movie. And then there were the other professional relationships that long predated Cyrano. “A lot of my closest friends,” says Wright, “I consider family.” That includes designer Sarah Greenwood, whom he met some 35 years ago, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, with whom he’s worked for decades.

As a result, Harrison sometimes felt like his character: surrounded by people who already knew and loved one another. “I’m always looking for things I can grab on to that feel real,” Harrison says on a Zoom call. “[Christian] being the new guy coming into a new space, needing community, needing friends, looking for love, I was like, well, maybe that would be me right now. I’m the new guy!”

Harrison was excited to work with Bennett, a luminous actress who seems poised for a true breakout. “I respect Haley so much as an actress,” he says. “I remember the last movie I saw before the pandemic was Swallow.” (In which Bennett plays a wealthy but unhappy pregnant woman who begins craving, and eating, increasingly horrifying everyday items.) “I really liked her and was also, like, freaked out by her.” On the set of Cyrano, he was fascinated by her process: “She had a scrapbook of memories from Roxanne, all these different little clips,” he says. (She did something similar while working on Swallow.)

“I read a lot about punks and the Age of Enlightenment,” says Bennett. “I wanted to infuse a real punk ethos in Roxanne.” Wright says that he sought to keep a respectful remove from Bennett’s process, and that he tried not to get too familiar in the course of working together. “We didn’t want others to be able to suggest that we were anything less than strictly professional,” he says. “So it was quite—kind of a little bit stiff, maybe.” He mimics himself courteously saying “Good morning,” as if to a passing stranger.

Schmidt says that while she had worked with her husband closely during the play, “when it was the film, he kind of went off and worked with Joe. I guess it never felt to me like we were all—we weren’t all sitting around having dinner together as couples.” Still, there were some perks to being related. Screenwriters aren’t always brought on location, but Schmidt traveled with Dinklage to Sicily. She has fond memories of driving around the island, listening to Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore albums, both of which were cowritten and produced by Aaron Dessner, and also of getting conscripted into some small, fun ad hoc movie duties. “Joe made good use of my being there,” she says. “‘Could you write a speech for Roxanne to give in the poetry salon?’ And I was like, it would be my heart’s joy.”

Schmidt wasn’t the only person to dabble in a new-to-her form of expression when she adapted her first screenplay. For Besser, a former New Yorker fiction editor who first met Berninger at a bar in Brooklyn, working on the movie represented new leaps along what has already been an improvised path. Over the past decade and a half, Besser’s influence in the National has deepened; once and always a muse, she has increasingly had a more overt role in the music, contributing lyrics in addition to counsel. With Cyrano, she found herself writing lyrics for different characters for the first time and also recording far more than usual: The demo tapes required multiple voices, after all. Usually, “when I write with Matt, I’m not really singing,” Besser says. “But in this process, Aaron was singing, Bryce was singing, I was singing, Matt, I mean, everybody.”

While it may not be obvious from the film’s recent commercials, Cyrano is a lovely palate both for the National’s gloomier fare, like “Madly,” and for the songs that gesture more toward pop, like “I Need More.” As Besser puts it: “The movie kind of plays almost like an album, in the sense that it really builds toward the full bloom of a song,” she says. “And that song, for me, is “‘Wherever I Fall.’” A drum-beating wartime ballad that comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, the song introduces new characters (one of them is played by the Irish songwriter Glen Hansard) with heart-rending specificity. “They’re really coming to terms with what love has actually turned out to be, and what it has meant, and how it has nurtured them or destroyed them,” Besser says, describing both the song and the gist of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac writ large. In Cyrano, there is always something crumbling, and always something being built, right up until the plaster dust and scaffolding in the background of the final shot.

Wright’s impetus for making Cyrano may have been that he wanted to crawl inside the imperceptible space between Bennett and Dinklage and magnify what he saw, but in making the film, he didn’t shy away from zooming back and going really, really big either. That song “Wherever I Fall” is part of a portion of Cyrano that was shot on Mount Etna, a live volcano that was simultaneously covered in snow and burping up hot lava during the movie’s shooting window.

“I would advise filmmakers never to make a film on a live volcano,” Wright says. “The air was incredibly thin, so I couldn’t really breathe. And also, the volcanic sand meant that you would put a foot down and then slide down and then try and climb back up and then slide down and try to climb back up and slide down.” After everything the production had gone through to shoot on a foreign island during a pandemic, Wright now had to scramble to shoot a battle scene before losing the light. The gambit paid off: Etna is a backdrop that makes for stunning scenery, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Dinklage’s Game of Thrones. Most of all, it makes the case for the kind of cinematic scope that isn’t possible within the confines of a theater’s stage.

“It was freezing,” says Harrison. “One day we looked out the window and we could see the thing sparking up lava and erupting. And we were like, ‘We gotta work today?’ And they were like, absolutely.”

Even when adapting Cyrano into a film, after all, the show must go on.

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