The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner spoke about working on Cyrano while being in two different countries during the filming.
Joe Wright directs from a script by Erica Schmidt. The music is composed by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner. Cyrano stars Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn.
After its Oscar-qualifying run in December, the film is finally opening in theaters on February 25.
I was looking up your Wikipedia page and one of the things I saw was how it said that your being Jewish and the liturgy melodies has impacted your composition. Can you expand on that?
Aaron Dessner: It’s funny. Well, first of all, we were raised Jewish and I love so many of the liturgical melodies that we knew as kids. I think I said it in an interview at some point and it’s just been there ever since but it’s not something either of us actively think about. I’m not sure that it’s a—maybe at some point. I do make a lot of circular meditative—I think I kind of rock myself, comfort myself when I’m playing music. To me, that reminds me of certain davening and singing prayers. That’s what I always liked about going to High Holiday services or something where you just feel this kind of quality in the music.
Bryce Dessner: It’s a spiritual and also an interior feeling, maybe, almost mantra or something.
Were there any that consciously or subconsciously made it into the film?
Aaron Dessner: No, I wouldn’t say that any actual Jewish melodies made it into the film. But yeah, it’s sort of—every experience we’ve had as musicians, whether it’s you’re a kid singing on Kol Nidrei or something to now, like Bryce writing for crazy orchestral pieces, it all kind of combines into this tapestry that we’re drawing on.
When it came to the film, how did the pandemic impact your typical process for recording?
Bryce Dessner: A big thing was we were in different places. The two of us, we weren’t together but we are in different time zones, which is interesting. Aaron’s in upstate New York and I live in France. We were able to kind of tag team, relay race, and handoff. He would work and then finish. By the time I woke up in the mornings, we were kind of—instead of working 10 hour day, we were working a 20 hour day or something. It ended up being quite and—because we’re so close and we know what our strengths are—we also have different gear and different kind of skill set, it ended up being a very powerful process.
Similarly, the technology in terms of remote recording has advanced monitoring orchestral sessions. For instance, with the whole score was done at Abbey Road in London. Joe was in the room, the music editors were in the room. Because of Covid, we couldn’t be there. I was running the session via Zoom and via Audiomovers, which is an incredible technology that makes really—it’s almost in a way to be in a in a really good listening environment, with some distance and it ended up being kind of a really interesting way to do it. That was something that we got used to. It was great to be on set for the rehearsals, to really coach the actors, and to be in the room with them. That really, really helped kind of getting it closer to what it became in the film.
Can you talked about the rehearsal process?
Bryce Dessner: The rehearsal process was mostly—we did do sessions. Aaron did some sessions in upstate New York with Peter. We had been through doing this as a play with Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett so we kind of knew their voices. The songs were written for them. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays Christian, was a whole new kind of discovery. He’s really good musician, actually, so it’s really interesting to write for him. Ben Mendelsohn, who plays De Guiche.
When I went to Sicily in the weeks prior to shooting, it was kind of about getting them to engage and own the songs. One big thing Peter mentioned earlier today was singing quieter. That was a huge discovery because he’s a stage actor and he’s kind of a big presence of dominating a room and singing to the back of the room. He sings and he has this kind of thespian feeling, but then actually, the quieter more interior sounds in his voice are really fascinating. That’s key to what the film became and we discovered that in the rehearsals.
I haven’t seen the stage musical so what was the biggest change in terms of music, in terms of choreography, or anything like that in the transition from stage to cinema?
Aaron Dessner: I would say the biggest change is the score. In the theater, the entire thing was underscored by music. All the dialogue, there was constant music and none of that music is in the actual film. The score is entirely new to the film and much more specific in terms of creating dynamics and setting tone. It sort of functions—it eventually came to us that it feels like a river of sound where the sound was ebb and flow out of this overall sound world that that we created. But it’s quite different—I would say that Erica’s theatrical version was more modern in the setting. This is obviously set in 1640s and has this Baroque feeling, and ultimately, the score and the songs and the production of the songs took on this kind of Baroque modern feeling that we were really, really excited about. Originally, we wrote these songs into kind of simple folk songs. And then eventually, Bryce was taking a lot of that and then we were rewriting them to take on this kind of almost classical complexity in places where there’s a simple framework for a song, but underneath that is this sort of more composed depth. A lot of these things came with the film, It was much simpler in the theater.
In terms of the score, did you all compose that before production, during production, or after production wrapped?
Aaron Dessner: All of it, really.
Bryce Dessner: Joe wanted to hear it before he shot the film. It was more important than the visual design so he was really pushing us to write a lot. I think that the score is as important as the songs, really. It’s almost more operatic or something in a way that it’s this musical piece that basically is through composed. It’s part of why they don’t function as normal pop songs. People might say, Oh, it’s not memorable in a way. But actually, just wait for it. They sink in—they bury themselves into the whole cinematic environment. We were really working. There were things that were composed in the last days of post-production and there were things that were composed in the score before they shot the film, and all of the above. Quite a lot of stuff was written in Sicily on set so it was interesting the way that all unfolded.
MGM will release Cyrano in theaters on February 25, 2022.
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.