This week, Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir chatted to Cyrano director Joe Wright and writer Erica Schmidt, who shared their experiences of making their film.
Unmasking the Actors
Joe has an uncanny skill to unmask actors, and bring out amazing performances. He says that he does it by making “people feel relaxed and supported and seen, and like they have ownership of the movie.”
Before they start shooting, Joe carves out two to three weeks of rehearsals. “A period of eating lunch and drinking tea and telling stories of our lives, of our childhoods.”
Rehearsals form a very important part of Joe’s process, and he insists that actors are involved. It allows them to “get to know each other and to get to know each other’s rhythms. I’m very keen on the idea of how rhythm can determine the shape of a scene.”
Music, Dancing, Fighting, Acting…
Joe said that because they’re all focussed on the same goal of expressing their characters and the drama of the film, it makes it easier to incorporate all of the elements of the film – musical numbers, dancing, fighting, acting.
“If you’re working with Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays Christian, on the scene: how does he express himself physically? How does he express himself in fighting? It’s all expression of the same soul.”
He focusses on getting actors to let their guards down, by “figuring out what the individual’s defence mechanism is, and then trying to persuade them to remove that and allow themselves, their true selves, their true creativity to come through.
You can never force an actor to do something they don’t want to do. Because if you do, they’ll be resistant and, at worst, resentful and then they’ll never do what you asked them to do truthfully, they won’t be able to take ownership of it and inhabit it.”
Collaborating With The Same People
Like many filmmakers, Joe likes to work with the same team a lot.
“With a lot of directors, the DP is the first person to come on board. With me, the designer is the first person to come on board. Sarah Greenwood and I start discussing the script. We have a secret weapon – this incredible picture researcher – we start talking to him, then he’ll send us thousands and thousands of visual references.
Joe then focusses on location scouting, as early as possible, “because it never works for me to try and force the script onto a location. And then, the DP (Seamus McGarvey) and I spend about two weeks prior to shooting going through the script, storyboarding some sequences and then we shot list.
Then we ask Sarah to give us plans of every set and we talk about the direction of the light and about blocking. We have a plan that is about 75% and then every morning I get up and write a shot list before I go to set.”
Part 2: Erica Schmidt
After talking to the incredible Joe Wright, and there is more from him on the episode, listen here. Giles and Dom caught up with talented writer Erica Schmidt.
Erica had never written a screenplay before, but had adapted the original Rostand work for stage. “I direct plays, that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years. I usually adapt things that I want to direct. And stories that I’m interested in telling.
I was really drawn to this because of a love of words and a love of poetry and how desperately all of the characters want to be loved and how they fear at the same time that they are themselves unlovable. I just really related to all of those things and really wanted to spend time living in that world.”
Erica said that in order to adapt the Rostand she “looked at every translation and adaptation that exists. I went line by line, looking at everything that’s been done before. And tried to find the heart of what Rostand was saying. What are the consistencies, what are the consistent words and what are the consistent phrases? And what’s the main idea?
While she was doing that, she was listening to Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s music. “The richness of their sound against the richness of Rostand, and then trying to take the essence of it and make it as pure as possible.”
From Stage Play to Screen Play
After seeing the play in Connecticut, Joe called Erica and told her that he wanted to make the film with Peter and Haley, and that he wanted Erica to write it.
After presenting the first draft to Joe, they spent 10 hours going through the script in detail. “Joe is very detailed oriented. I had all of those notes and then the pandemic happened and I was doing theater and Joe had projects and the band was touring.”
In June of the pandemic, Joe asked for a second draft. “So I sat down and made sure that the second draft was everything I had wanted it to be. I sent it to him 10 days later and he called me and he said, it’s ready. I’d like to send it. A week later, MGM had bought it. And three months later we were in Sicily filming. Joe really pushed hard to make it happen.”
Listen to more advice, tips and behind the scenes on Cyrano, on the episode, here.