Director's Chair: Joe Wright — <I>Cyrano</I>
Issue: November/December 2021

Director's Chair: Joe Wright — Cyrano

British director/producer Joe Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed that up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, Anna Karenina, Pan, The Woman in the Window and the Oscar-winning Darkest Hour.

Now the master of period pieces, whose credits include The Soloist and Hanna, has taken on a very different challenge – the beloved epic love story “Cyrano de Bergerac”, re-imagined as a musical in the tradition of the classic MGM movies that celebrate romance lyrically and visually. And there's a further twist; instead of an actor with a large prosthetic nose, it stars renowned actor (and four-foot five-inch tall dwarf) Peter Dinklage in the title role opposite Haley Bennett as the beautiful Roxanne.

For this new adaptation, scripted by Erica Schmidt and filmed in Sicily, Wright assembled a behind-the-scenes creative team that included frequent collaborators — Oscar-nominated director of photography Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina, Pan), supervising sound designers Craig Berkey and Becki Ponting, and editor Valerio Bonelli (The Woman in the Window, Darkest Hour).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director talks about making the film, battling snow and volcanic eruptions, and his love of post. 

Given that this is such a beloved classic, were you nervous about taking this on?

“Not really, though I was very aware that we were doing 'the balcony scene' as we shot it. That probably gave me the most sleepless nights in terms of the original productions and other movies, but we found that great location and it all just seemed to fit. And then the idea that I could have Pete against the wall and Haley way behind on the balcony, and use a split diopter to keep them both in focus at the same time, really opened up that whole scene for me.”

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“For a start I wanted to get away from that huge nose, Pinocchio sort of thing, as I feel you're always aware that it's an actor wearing a rubber nose and that you know he's going to take it off at the end of the day. So I felt there's something very affecting about Pete playing Cyrano, that it's just so natural and authentic, and a very personal, intimate and vulnerable expression of who he is, as well as who Cyrano is. And I wanted to make a very heartfelt romance, and it's also a fantasy of a period and place.”

Haley and Peter are so good in the principal roles. What did they bring to the project?

“Pete brings this honesty and immense soul to the role, and Haley brings intelligence and a huge heart to it, and she's the most emotionally-open Roxanne I've ever seen. The character can be a bit of a cardboard cut-out, and I think that goes back to [the original playwright] Edmond Rostand. He almost mocked the idea that a woman should be into literature and have a rich intellectual life, and it was probably due to the times he was living in — but it's not appropriate today.”

What were the main challenges of pulling all this together?

“Doing a musical and period piece is always full of challenges, but then we also had to deal with COVID. We'd been developing this for a couple of years, and back in 2020 when the script was all ready to go, the producers told me we had just a five percent chance of getting financed because of the pandemic. And our usual backers weren't doing anything, but luckily Mike De Luca and MGM agreed to finance it, so off we went to Sicily, which had a very low COVID rate and was a place we could create an isolated 'safe bubble' for our actors and crew. And to further make it safer, we had a group of extras who played multiple parts, and my mum, who's a great puppet-maker, made 160 commedia dell-arte leather masks for them to wear on set, which limited the infection rate. And in the end we only had one COVID case.”

Did y ou do a lot of previz?

“No, I storyboarded it all myself as usual. I had to use it on Pan, but I didn't like it as I found I was constantly trying to make the shots look just like the previz, and it felt very un-creative for the way I work.”

How tough was the shoot in Sicily?

“We shot for 54 days and we pretty much did it all in Noto, which is this amazing and beautiful baroque town built out of pink stone that almost looks like a set, and that was the easy part. And then to shoot the battle scenes, we actually went up Mount Etna, which turned into this terrifying and crazy adventure. We were at 16,000-feet, it was freezing and way below zero, and we're working on this slippery black sand, and all the snow isn't VFX — it was real. We'd been told it never snowed up there till months later in February, and we were there in December, and I had the whole battle sequence planned out against the black sand and it was going to be very graphic. The week before we were due to start shooting on Etna, the heaviest snowfall in 20 years hit us. And then on the last day, Etna erupted and chased us off. She'd had enough! Get off! And we also had freezing rain mixed with ash and soot, so there was more drama on Etna than anywhere else. It was mental. But all that did give the battle scenes this otherworldly feel and look I'd wanted.”

How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?

“I'm always thinking a lot about post when I'm in prep, so it's really part and parcel of a film from the very start. When I'm imagining a scene in script development or storyboarding, I'm thinking of all the elements — the moving image, the sound, how it's going to cut, what visual effects might be needed and so on. Cinesite did them and we had quite a lot – several hundred, with a lot of roto and compositing work on the sequences we shot on Etna, and then a lot of the usual clean up you have to do for any period piece like this.”

The film was edited by Valerio Bonelli and it’s your fourth collaboration, including The Woman in the Window and Darkest Hour. How did that relationship work? Was he on set?

“We first met on the ‘Nosedive’ episode of Black Mirror, and he's done every project of mine since, and we're very close. So he was with me in Sicily, and he's cutting while I shoot, and every night and weekend I spent with him working on the edit and figuring it all out. He's a very emotional editor with an incredible technical facility, and integral to the whole process, and I rely on him to tell me when I'm missing some coverage or shot, so he's a great collaborator and sounding board during the shoot, as well as in post.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“For a start, we were in total COVID lockdown during the edit, which was great for me, as I live in the country in Somerset, England, and I converted a barn into a cutting room, and Valerio moved into a local cottage and we worked from home the whole time. That was a really wonderful six months. As for the challenges, unlike a lot of films, the story structure on this was always very solid, but the detail of the edit was incredibly complicated, especially in terms of the songs. Valerio worked so hard to make sure that the songs were always moving the story forward, and we had these infinitesimal edits to the vocals. And as all the song vocals were recorded live on-set, editing them, though it looks simple, was so complicated, and it included some time-stretching as well as time-reducing.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker and working with supervising sound designers Craig Berkey and Becki Ponting?

“I'm always very involved in the music and sound, as it has always been half the film experience for me. Back when I was at art school making little art films, it really taught me a lot about how sound and image work together, and how filmmaking is all about rhythm and time, so it’s really crucial to get the sound and music right, and I have a great team. 

“Craig Berkey, who did my first film and every one since, is our supervising sound mixer, and he's Canadian and does a lot of the sound effects editing at home there. And thanks to all the technology today, working that way is so easy and fast. And then he comes over for the big mix, which we did as usual at De Lane Lea in London. 

“Becki is my dialogue editor. Becki is like the unsung heroine of all my films. She's dialogue edited everything I've ever made and is an absolute genius, but her work was especially important on this one in terms of the breath, the dialogue, and how to integrate the dialogue with the music.”

What about all the singing? How early on did you decide to shoot it all live, and why?

“We decided to do it all live from the very start, to give it a sense of intimacy and to not disrupt the flow from dialogue into a song. I didn't want any fanfare before a song, but to have it fully integrated into the action. And I felt any tiny little faults you get with live performance also give you the emotion this needed. This was my first musical, but I didn't see it as really that different from my other films.”

The DI must have been vital. Who was the colorist and what was involved in getting such a beautiful look?

“We did it at De Lane Lea with my longtime colorist Pete Doyle. He's based in New York now, but he came over for it, and he's very involved from an early stage. He doesn't just turn up at the end and start grading, and he and Seamus and I worked very hard on the grade. He brings a great integrity to the whole process, and I love the DI and the whole finishing process and how specific you can be and how much the film can change from one pass to another.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

“It did. I had a very specific vision for how it should look, feel and move, and I relished diving back into telling a love story which I hadn't done for a while.”