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Cyrano filmmaker Joe Wright had long mused about tackling a fresh screen interpretation of Edmond Rostand’s classic century-plus-old play Cyrano de Bergerac, the tale of the admired but solider who, inwardly deeply insecure about his prominent snout, expressed his hidden feelings for his love Roxanne by putting his words in the mouth of her handsome suitor Christian.
He was enraptured by the 1990 film version starring Gerard Depardieu. “I saw it when I was an anxiety-riddled adolescent and the story, about feeling unworthy of love, had a profound effect on me,” says Wright. “But I couldn’t see making a new version because I could never see past ‘the nose.’ ”
It wasn’t until Wright learned of theatrical writer-director Erica Schmidt’s innovative musical production of the Cyrano story, which found an alternative way into the source of the principal’s reticence and punctuated the raw, romantic emotions with an absorbing series of songs composed by members of the rock band The National.
“In my stage version, it was always a Cyrano without a big nose,” says Schmidt. “Typically with [stagings of] the Rostand play, you have a very accomplished and usually very handsome actor wearing a very large fake nose, talking about how horrible his nose is. I wanted to get at something real, underneath; an insecurity that the character alone feels.”
“I felt that there is a universal truth in that, how we all do this to ourselves and to the ones we love,” she adds. “We all have ‘the nose’ that we imagine the other person hates — or the thing that we blame for our not being loved or not being seen or not being understood.”
When Schmidt first heard her husband, actor Peter Dinklage, read her version of the play aloud, “I knew instantly that his innate deflective humor — protective, defensive, skeptical — and reflexive self-loathing and mistrust was dead right for the character of Cyrano,” she says. “Pete knew Cyrano before he played him — and he’d never read or seen any version of the piece before.”
“On stage, I left it to the audience’s assumptions — and Matt [Berringer] and Carin [Besser’s] lyrics — to address the character’s insecurities without ever overtly addressing Peter’s size. He’s [played it] very raw and real, and not flouncy at all,” recalls Schmidt. Dinklage headlined the workshopped stage production alongside Haley Bennett as Roxanne, which brought it to the attention of Bennett’s husband, Wright, who swiftly embraced a film adaptation as his next project, with Schmidt making her screenwriting debut.
One of Schmidt’s tasks was to deliver a more fully realized Roxanne, with agency and agendas of her own. “[Audiences] have struggled with the idea that Roxanne can’t be smart if she doesn’t see the truth about the letters,” she says. “But she has desires, including to believe in this narrative that she has crafted in her own head. I think you have that on the one hand, and on the other that she is a strong woman — and that both things are possible at the same time. … Roxanne almost resents the words ‘I love you’ because it has been said so many times [to her]; she wants it said in a different way.”
She also reshaped the role of Cyrano’s compatriot and romantic rival Christian, making him endearing, admirable and earnest in his quest for Roxanne, and oblivious to Cyrano’s own disguised passion. “I really feel for Christian,” says Schmidt. “To my mind, the character is a fighter and an honest young man; he just has no ‘game’ with the ladies.
“I’m hoping that people will understand where all three characters are coming from; all each of them wants is love,” she adds. “Singing about love and heartache with big romantic yearning continues to feel relevant as the world continues to change.”
Click below to read Schmidt’s script for the pic, which MGM and United Artists Releasing bowed in an Oscar-qualifying run in December ahead of a February 25 theatrical release. It already has a Golden Globe nom for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Dinklage has a Best Actor nom from the Critics Choice Awards.
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