Joe Wright was left in charge of a piece of history. The pressure was on. But he’s been there before.
Wright, most known for his adaptations of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as the Winston Churchill biopic The Darkest Hour, is now the steward of another cultural touchstone — Cyrano de Bergerac.
His latest, Cyrano, takes a musical spin on the fabled French play of the eponymous writer who loves despite his insecurities over his appearance.
Was Wright worried about potentially flubbing sacred text? “I try not to worry about the weight of previous adaptations or productions. I make the film that happens in my head as I read it,” Wright told The Knockturnal on the red carpet at a special screening at SVA Theater in Chelsea, Manhattan. “The balcony scene in the movie was the one in the movie that did make me nervous. It’s such a famous scene. I knew that I had to get that one right but also get a spin on it.”
Wright said he is a fan of the 1990 film adaption of the play, starring Gerard Depardieu, but deliberately hadn’t revisited it when making his version. “I didn’t want to be tempted to steal anything,” he said.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable variation from the source material and subsequent adaptations is Cyrano’s appearance. The original character is marked by his large nose, which the director decided to forego. Instead, he believed casting Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as the lead captured the essence of the character — sans schnoz.
“You didn’t need it with Pete. The nose can distance us from the emotional authenticity of the piece. As an audience you know the actor can take off that prosthetic nose and go be a guy in the bar,” he said. “There’s a kind of wink wink between the actor and the audience and I wanted to get away from that. Do something more authentic”
If adapting one of the most famous plays of all time wasn’t challenging enough, the cast and crew had to make the film abiding by pandemic restrictions.
Haley Bennett, who plays Cyrano’s love interest Roxanne, said, “We didn’t have the same kind of gatherings, the same camaraderie you would experience in normal circumstances.”
Bennett said that wearing face masks often made it difficult to communicate emotion and intimacy. And the production even floated — and later scrapped — the idea of singing across plexiglass, since crooning leads to more projectile transmission.
Bennett did find intimacy quarantining in a 17th century palazzo in Noto, Italy, where the film was shot. There, she stayed close with her family: her two year old daughter and husband, who happens to be Wright.
They weren’t the only couple involved with the project. Dinklage is married to the film’s screenwriter Erica Schmidt. And the husband-wife team Matt Berninger (of The National) and Carin Bessel wrote the lyrics to the musical numbers.
“What the film is about is fear of intimacy and allowing yourself to be vulnerable,” she said. “There’s so much trust involved when you’re working between actor and director. It was wonderful to have that already established.”
The silver lining to a pandemic shoot: Bennet could avoid frequenting the carb-heavy restaurants lining the Sicilian coast. She said, “I had to wear these tiny corsets. Luckily I wasn’t able to eat my way through Noto.”
Cyrano hit theaters Feb 25.