Joe Wright has style. He’s the kind of sumptuously visual director you either love or hate, which may explain why a Best Director Oscar nomination has eluded him so far, even when his signature period dramas land Oscar nods galore, from literary adaptations “Pride & Prejudice” (four, including Keira Knightley for Best Actress), “Atonement” (seven, including Saoirse Ronan for Supporting Actress), and “Anna Karenina” (four, including Costume Designer winner Jacqueline Durran) to Winston Churchill war picture “Darkest Hour” (six, including wins for Best Actor Gary Oldman and Best Makeup and Hair).
The British director also takes fliers on movies that occasionally miss the mark, such as Los Angeles homeless drama “The Soloist,” Disney fantasy “Pan,” and Hitchcockian thriller “The Woman in the Window,” a Fox orphan that previewed badly and was sold by Disney to Netflix during the pandemic.
The director didn’t waste any time jumping into a new project. He’d nurtured the idea of making a movie of “Cyrano” since 2018, when he went to see his partner Haley Bennett play Roxanne in writer-director Erica Schmidt’s Goodspeed Opera House musical re-imagining of the Edmond Rostand classic “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage in the title role — without a prosthetic nose.
“The idea was to have the character not talk about what they feel is unlovable about themselves,” Schmidt told IndieWire over the phone. “To me, that felt obvious: We all feel something about us is hideous. Peter’s size has nothing to do with what makes him successful in this role. The things that make Peter right for this role are his intelligence and his wit and facility with language. He has something in common with this character: ‘I don’t trust you’ll see me for who I am.’ Which is different from feeling unlovable.”
All of Wright’s films center on his characters’ struggles to connect, so it makes sense that he’d respond to Cyrano, who expresses his love for Roxanne by writing her witty love songs for the inarticulate Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) to sing. Schmidt enlisted The National to work with her on a sung-through musical. “I wanted the songs to be the heartbeat and the poetry of the piece, because Cyrano is a poet and a wordsmith,” she said. “The songs are about unrequited love, and simultaneously, these grand notions of self.”
Wright responded to the musical the moment he saw it. “I saw it in my head immediately,” he said after the movie’s premiere at Telluride. “And I knew what it should look like and sound like and feel like, that there was a part of my own life experience that I could express through that story, and I wanted to return to the core of the work that I had started out making. I felt like some films I’ve made were exercises. And I could invest my heart and the child in me into that story.”
In effect, Wright gave himself permission to be sincere. “I’m not a very cynical person,” he said. “And I don’t like irony. I admire it in others but I don’t admire it particularly in myself. It’s not where I come from. And it’s important that I make work from the heart, now more than ever.”
That’s because Wright is still reeling from the bad reception to “The Woman in the Window.” After poor previews, Tony Gilroy replaced original writer Tracy Letts, and Wright had to supervise the reshoots. “It wasn’t the film I intended at all,” he said, which “was more brutal, stylistically, it was an expression of another side of me, which is angry, and that didn’t go down well. So there were too many cooks. And I certainly did not have any control whatsoever. It would have been the type of film that a group of people would have really loved and then a group of people would have really hated.” Disney wound up with neither.
“Cyrano,” for better or worse, is all Wright. “I just have to make films that are from my core, from the place where I come from,” he said. “Sometimes I want to be cooler than I am. I’ve reached a point in my career and my life where I can just be who I am, and not try to be any other kind of director, and just accept myself, and trust that that’s enough for other people, and that it’s OK.”
Once Wright had secured cooperation from Bennett, Dinklage, and Schmidt, who agreed to adapt her musical for the screen, he sought a home for the project. Schmidt expanded the scale of the opening section and pared back the wall-to-wall music. “Joe wanted it to be more cinematic,” she said. “I see the movie as completely different. It is his telling and retelling of what I did onstage, it’s his aesthetic.”
Only when Michael DeLuca took the reins at MGM did Wright find a taker for his $30 million period piece (produced by Working Title). In August 2020 they moved swiftly to fulfill Wright and long-time production designer Sarah Greenwood’s dream of shooting a movie at the Medieval town of Noto in Sicily. The international cast and crew came together during the pandemic in a quarantine bubble. Dinklage and Bennett already knew what they were doing; Wright brought back his 30-year chum, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and asked “Darkest Hour” star Ben Mendelsohn to play the rapacious DeGuiche. “Can you sing?” Wright texted him. Mendelsohn responded with an iPhone video of himself in his house singing.
From the start, Wright saw how to turn the “Cyrano” stage musical into a movie. “I was fascinated by the idea of Pete playing Cyrano,” he said, “and by Pete and Haley’s chemistry. Because they’re such very different types of actors. Haley’s more Method. Pete’s a very technical actor with an enormous soul. But he’s spent a long time in theater. I wanted to create a space for Pete to lay down his defenses and allow the gentler, simpler side of himself out, and allow him to be a romantic lead, which he was wanting, but was scared of. It’s just creating a space where actors feel like they’re trusted and loved and that they can lay down their defenses.”
Wright first bonded with Bennett at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016, and kept meeting her again over months. He had admired her scenes in “The Magnificent Seven” and “Thank You for Your Service,” he said. “I’d seen the seed of [her talent] but I felt like she’d never been given the platform.”
While Dinklage is accustomed to being directed in stage plays by his wife, Bennett felt more exposed working with her partner. It was an “incredibly intimate experience,” she previously told IndieWire. “And intimacy is sometimes absolutely terrifying, because as human beings, we want to be impressive to our partners. It feels like working without skin in a lot of ways … like I’m walking around skinless.”
Part of that exposure involved having to sing live on set. “What I like about tackling things I’ve never done before, is that I don’t know the rules,” Wright said. “And so I can make the rules out for myself. I definitely knew that I wanted the songs to be sung live. So that there was that level of intimacy. And I liked the idea that the voices wouldn’t be perfect, that we’d hear the cracks in their voices.”
Wright’s love of theater goes back to his dyslexic, insecure childhood, before he discovered literature, when he took refuge at his parents’ puppet theater. “My dad’s in the first frame of the film,” he said. “There’s two puppets hanging up. My dad made those in 1948. To go back, [the movie is] like my parents’ puppet shows. It’s a return to those fantasy worlds that they created that are full of human insecurities, and failures, but they’ve always been told with an aesthetic beauty, really. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
That’s why the look of the movie reigns supreme. For “Cyrano,” Wright reconnected with his 30-year chum McGarvey (after working with Bruno Dubonnelet on his previous two films), and they brought on young cinematographer Kate Arizmendi (“Swallow”). “I was back to using much longer lenses,” said Wright, “and a much more observational style of camera work, like I did on ‘Atonement.’ But I’d gravitated more and more to much wider lenses, which create a more proscenium frame. Kate introduced a freedom and was offering stuff that Seamus and I might not have been thinking of.”
“Cyrano” is crammed with references to other films, including Wright’s. The opening sequence with Roxanne traveling through the town, trapped in her finery in her fancy carriage, looking at the world outside her window, borrows from “The Darkest Hour,” when Winston Churchill drives along looking at his constituents walking by on the street.
One of Wright’s favorite shots in the film shows Cyrano’s point of view at the end of the movie. “He looks up and sees the lint in the light,” he said. “And that’s an homage to Jane Campion. I remember when I was like 17, 18 and I saw her short films. There was a short film she did in black and white. It’s 33 years since I saw it, but I remember a shot of a man lying on the floor, looking up at lint in the air. And thinking ‘Wow, that’s amazing. That’s filmmaking.'”
His other favorite shot in the movie is nothing complicated. “Peter and Haley sat on the bench at the very end, and it’s a deep two shot. And we’d rehearsed it and we’d stripped it back and got them to strip it further back and keep it simple as possible in their performances. And then my operator is next to me there, an amazing Italian focus-puller. I sat on the floor with my hand on his leg and squeezed every time I wanted him to pull focus; he pulled from one to the other. And we just sat there, this little circle of us engaged in this moment, and everything else was gone. And it was just a camera focus puller and me and two actors sitting on the bench, and I’d squeeze and he’d pull and then squeeze and pull, this perfect little circle of filmmakers. I like extravagant shots. But they’re not the point for me. It’s always the close up that is the point. The human face projected at 20 feet is always more interesting than a five-and-a-half minute, big shot in ‘Atonement.'”
Wright has never gotten over the continuing debate over that swooping long take of British soldier Robbie (James McAvoy) arriving at the chaos unfolding on Dunkirk beach. Was it justified, or did it call attention to itself? “I love that shot,” he said. “Around the time of ‘Atonement,’ an interviewer said to me, ‘Why did you do that shot?’ And I’d been doing interviews for days on end, and I was green. And I didn’t know that what you said would be recorded for all, on the internet. And I said, ‘Oh, I just like showing off.’ And that bit me, because that was so far from the point of it. And now it’s still out there, that, and it freaks me out, really. Because you have to be careful what you say. But that was never the point.”
So what was he trying to do, exactly? “It was actually practical,” he said. “I had one day with 1,000 extras. And I wanted to honor those extras. They were from a town which just had a big steelworks close down. And they had all just been made redundant. And I wanted to gather that group of men together to honor that collective experience, and to honor their fathers and their grandfathers and to say, ‘You are worth something.’ I was so young and stupid.”
These days Wright, who just turned 50, is trying to pull back his baroque tendencies. “I went off on a little adventure with a more theatrical style of filmmaking, especially with ‘Anna Karenina,'” he said. Right before the start of filming the Tolstoy drama, Wright had abandoned multiple locations in Russia in favor of an elaborately controlled theater set. This time, he embraced a location shoot in Sicily. “I’m returning to what’s important,” he said, “to the core of my love of filmmaking. And so the film starts off as this big lavish baroque thing and then slowly becomes simpler and simpler until the last scene, which I conceived as being quite minimalist and returning to a simple ‘I love you.'”
For “Cyrano” Wright combined choreographed set pieces in the ornate theater and court, deploying hundreds of extras (dancers from a Cornwall theater troupe), with stunning intimate moments where his roving camera closes in on actors’ faces. “We put everything in front of the camera,” he said. “I refuse to allow winnebagos and ahi tuna for lunch. I tried not to pay people too much, frankly. I, everyone, Working Title, took a pay cut to make it. But also I felt like it was important to make for the crafts people. Because they needed to work.”
Wright’s tour de force set piece comes near the end when the troupe traveled to volcano Mount Aetna and shot an intense two-week war sequence in brutal sub-zero conditions. “It was 16,000 feet above sea level,” he said. “So there was no oxygen and you are working on a volcano so you’re working on sand. And, it was about minus 15. And the weather changes fast in the mountains. It was really tough.”
The movie’s most extraordinary emotional moment is sung in a dark cave by a bearded Glen Hansard (“Once”) and newcomers Sam Amidon and Scott Foland, The National’s cathartic song of love and loss, “Somebody Desperate.” “Everyone was worried about achieving what we needed to achieve,” said Wright. “And that song didn’t have any main characters in it. And the studio is like, ‘You can cut that song.’ ‘No, no, no, no, that’s the heartbeat of the whole film.’ And so that shot, which starts with the wide shot that pans between the different singers, and then pulls all the way back to reveal Pete and Kelvin, was conceived so that they couldn’t cut that song. Because if I folded it into the drama, which obviously they weren’t going to cut, then no one could do that.”
“Cyrano” opens in select theaters on January 28 and wide on February 4.