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Joe Wright’s Cyrano — from a script by Erica Schmidt based on her 2018 stage musical, an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac — was lensed in romantic locations in Noto, on the island of Sicily. The city itself, which was rebuilt in the baroque style after a 1963 earthquake, became the primary inspiration for the film’s look and warm color palette, explains production designer Sarah Greenwood — whose six Oscar nominations include her work on Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina and Darkest Hour.
While the original story of Cyrano (played in the film by Peter Dinklage, who is married to Schmidt) and Roxanne (Haley Bennett) actually begins in France in 1640, Greenwood and Wright’s goal for the movie was to portray a more fanciful European city, set loosely in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. “The palette came out of where we were [in Noto],” she says, remembering “this beautiful stone that changes with the light.”
Cyrano first appears during a scene set in a theater that was built open-air from the ground up in a local courtyard. “Joe wanted it to feel like an Elizabethan theater, so much more rambunctious. [He also] wanted this feeling [that] all of society, all the class structures, were there,” explains Greenwood. The filmmakers additionally chose to build an open-air set because of COVID-19, as it was safer to be outside with the cast, crew and extras.
“Joe wanted it to feel like a playground, that you could actually climb all over it,” Greenwood says of the theater. “Because the theater didn’t have walls as such, you could see everything all around. It just gave it more depth.” She adds, “The design certainly came out of the space we were in. It was very steep — [we worked] with that [terrain, and added as] many layers and levels into it as possible. Also the space that we had was quite narrow. If you look at the baroque references, the stages — the prosceniums — are higher than they are wider. That really lent itself to the actual space.”
For the memorable scene in which Roxanne stands on a balcony as she listens to Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who repeats the words of Cyrano, Greenwood says they deliberately chose an understated balcony and built the interior of Roxanne’s home into the location. “She has no money left,” Greenwood explains, adding that Noto has “the most amazing balconies, but that’s not what we wanted. It had to be absolutely downplayed.”
She adds that the location was such that Christian and Cyrano were not positioned directly under the balcony, “but one layer back from the balcony,” behind a wall, as they spoke. “It was a perfect solution for a very long scene, because if you’re underneath a balcony, you’d be constantly looking up and hiding.”
Then Cyrano and Christian go to war — scenes that were filmed on the volcanic Mount Etna. “We wanted a very strong contrast to the world that we’ve had up to this point in the film. We’ve been in this beautiful, warm environment, and six months later they’re in the middle of a war,” says Greenwood.
“Etna is black, so it was an incredible contrast between the two worlds,” she adds, though snow arrived early that year. “We went down the mountain and below the snow line and rebuilt the set.” Still, it wasn’t the last of the snow. “It was just like we were being chased by this snowstorm,” she recalls.
“Then we got off Etna and it exploded,” Greenwood says of the conclusion of this part of the shoot. “We had a seismologist with us. It was all done properly, but, you know, the seismologist was saying, ‘She always talks like this’ … and then, lo and behold, she erupted. But we knew that Etna doesn’t erupt like Krakatoa [in Indonesia] or anything like that. It erupts very slowly. … [Etna] certainly served us really well for the look of the film and the look that we wanted, but it was as rough as it looks.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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