Joe Wright spoke with Solzy at the Movies about directing Cyrano, filming during a pandemic and on an active volcano.
This interview took place during a dedicated Critics Choice Association press day back at the beginning of December. One night prior, I had the chance to meet Joe Wright at a reception following the screening. One of the things we discussed that night and touched on briefly is the big screen experience.
Cyrano stars Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn. After the Oscar-qualifying run last December, the film is finally opening in wide release.
How did you become attached to the project?
Joe Wright: Well, Haley Bennett invited me to go and see her perform the role of Roxanne in a very small workshop production up at the Chester theatre in Connecticut. I went knowing the story but not kind of expecting the full weight of emotion that I experienced seeing her and Peter Dinklage play those two roles.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to make the stage musical into a film?
Joe Wright: About the end of Act Three. I kind of thought this is something exceptional. The casting of Peter Dinklage as Cyrano breathed fresh and new air into a classic that I’d always loved.
Were there any films that helped inspire the look?
Joe Wright: Interesting question. Yeah. I’ve sort of in the past—at the beginning of the first lockdown, I spent a lot of time watching Italian neo-realist movies and a couple of Fellini’s that I’d never seen and Visconti. I guess Italian cinema in general was a big influence. We got to go and shoot the movie on the island of Sicily and so it all kind of came together.
This is your really first big musical and terms of actors singing. I mean, I know you did The Soloist. If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you would tell yourself about directing a musical?
Joe Wright: I would tell myself not to be scared of having actors sing live on set because that was something I was very worried about. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to work. I covered myself, gave myself options for lip syncing and so on. But when we were there, and when they were singing live on set, it afforded a level of intimacy and emotionality that I hadn’t expected and that I’m very proud of.
Pandemic aside, what was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Joe Wright: We chose to shoot the battle sequences up on Mount Etna, which is, as you probably know, a live volcano. We had planned to shoot it at 16,000 feet in December and were assured that no snow came until February. Five days before shooting, this huge dump of snow came down. We had to move the set down by about 8000 feet. We were still shooting at 8000 feet and so therefore, the air was very thin. If you put a box down, it would just roll down the hill. They were very, very difficult circumstances to shoot in. On the final day, the volcano actually erupted and so we had to run down the volcano and away from the spitting lava that was chasing us as we ran.
Was that your first volcano?
Joe Wright: Yeah, that was my first and probably my last experience of shooting on a live volcano.
Not just as a person but as a filmmaker, what’s going through your head when that volcano starts to erupt?
Joe Wright: How do I tell the story in the least amount of shots possible to get me off there?
In terms of the pandemic, did that affect shot selections at all?
Joe Wright: Yeah, very much so.
As in how many people can be in a scene?
Joe Wright: Yeah, I mean, as an example, we specifically built the theater set outdoors so that there would be air circulating to kind of fit with COVID protocol. My mum, who was a prop maker, made 160 leather masks that could be seen on camera. They would kind of accommodate the larger masks that could be seen on camera. There were lots of problems which allowed interesting and unusual solutions that we might not have come up with otherwise.
We were talking about this last night at the party about big screen experiences. If you had directed this in 2019 for release in 2020, is this a film that you would have delayed as long as possible.
Joe Wright: Yes. I feel that this film is very specifically designed for a big screen experience. It’s not really about the big screen, actually—you can sit closer to a TV and the TV will appear bigger. It’s really about the sound and being immersed in that kind of theater sound experience that I find really important and powerful. Also, recently, some scientific research was done and they suggest that when an audience collected together in a theater, their heartbeats synchronize. There’s something I think beautiful and poetic and powerful about that idea that we experience a synchronized heartbeat with our fellow audience members, that connects us and that’s in a way what this movie is about. It’s about our need for human connection and unfortunately, often failure to connect.
What were the biggest challenges of doing post-production during a pandemic?
Joe Wright: There weren’t really any challenges. In fact, I was lucky because it meant I got to edit the film at home. I live in the English countryside and I have a barn and we set up the Avid suite in the barn. My editor took her cottage nearby and we hunkered down and created another little bubble. For six months, we didn’t really leave the house except for walks in the countryside. Actually post, doing it that way, was really a joy.
MGM will release Cyrano in theaters on February 25, 2022.
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