In Cyrano, Emmy winning actor Peter Dinklage helms a gripping period musical from award winning director Joe Wright. Wright worked closely with screenwriter Erica Schmidt to transpose Schmidt’s stage play of the same name, an iteration on the 1897 Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac, deciding to utilize the sombre sounds and lyrics of American rock band The National to delve into the image of poet Cyrano de Bergerac. Awards Focus spoke to lyricist Carin Besser and composer/songwriter Aaron Dessner about their incredible journey on this project and the challenges of making Cyrano amid the pandemic.
As the production morphed from play to film, almost all of the songs were replaced with new material. This was an impressive feat for the four grammy winning songwriters and composers of The National, including brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner who supplied the music, while husband and wife duo Matt Berninger and Carin Besser wrote the poetic lyrics that often reveal the deepest truths of the characters. “What was so fun about the collaboration was when we’re working on a song as The National, there’s a feeling that it could go a number of places,” shares Besser. “In this case we had either Erica or Joe give us a structure to play inside of in terms of what the character is trying to solve, or if a character is lying to themselves, and what causes them to lift off into melody.”
The retelling is set within the baroque cityscape of Paris with the famous wordsmith Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) delivering his wordplay and swordplay with a normal nose but from a shorter height. The change in Cyrano’s appearance for the film inspired the composers to explore how the songs integrated into the setting. “These songs feel like they always existed,” explains Dessner. “They have this classic, modern feel. The Baroque town where the film is shot gave us a lot of clues musically because its stunning, and the music took on a more classical sense, which comes from my brother (Bryce) who is a composer and great orchestrator.”
Cyrano’s stature renders him unworthy of love in his eyes, but it doesn’t stop him from pining for his cherished friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett). When Roxanne falls in love at first sight with the handsome Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Cyrano – resigned to never being more than friends — instead devotes himself to helping her new suitor win her heart in lieu of his nefarious adversary De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). “We wanted a generic sounding love line, and something so weird and intimate that it had to be somebody’s unedited thought,” notes Besser. “Matt and I wrote a lot of lyrics because we could write a song that was completely self-loathing for Cyrano. There’s nothing you could say to him that he hasn’t already said about himself.”
Cyrano’s original song submissions capture the full range of emotions felt when one falls in love. With “Every Letter,” lyricists Matt Berninger and Carin Besser perfectly ignite the butterfly inducing anxiety of excitement when two people start falling in love. Co-songwriters Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, who also scored the film, write a brilliant arrangement that accentuates the vocals of Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. “One of our principal ideas was that the poetry of Cyrano would live in the songs more than in the dialogue, and each one does serve a narrative purpose,” shares Dessner. “The challenge was always getting the song to work inside the scene.”
The score, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, has just been released via DECCA Records, and includes the haunting end credits song,“Somebody Separate,” in which Cyrano feels the pain of a love that’s not returned. The song is performed and written by Matt Berninger, Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner, with additional accompaniment from renowned pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, and emphasizes Cyrano’s inability to share his hidden longing. “At some point we realized that Bryce could take these songs and turn them into string pieces, starting small and getting big,” adds Dessner. “Joe embraced this classical sound with a modern production that incorporated drum elements and modular synthesizers beneath the orchestra.”
Cyrano, which will be released in theaters across the US on December 31, is a soaring tale of connection, compassion and love, exploring the idea of being afraid to be seen, and of intimacy and rejection. “It was nice to have someone like Joe who was leaning into the sentiment and not afraid to be bolder and grandiose at times,” concludes Dessner. “We’ve been saying it’s an anti-musical, but it’s not… the songs are just more internal.”