“We never thought about writing a musical. But we fell in love with it”: Bryce Dessner of the National on scoring Cyrano
From the British filmmaker behind Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), Joe Wright, comes yet another sumptuously realised period drama – this time a musical, Cyrano. Based on the late 19th-century play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand about a real-life man of the same name, the film has been adapted for the screen by Erica Schmidt, who also penned the 2018 stage musical.
At its centre is Peter Dinklage, most familiar as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, here taking on the leading man role for the first time to fantastic effect. He acts opposite the stunning, flame-haired Hayley Bennett as Roxanne, Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian and screen veteran Ben Mendelsohn as De Guiche.
Not only does the visually spectacular film demonstrate a return to form for the director, but its imagery is also backed up by exquisitely written music by the Dessner brothers from alt-rock band the National, bringing a classic tale to life afresh in beguiling soundscapes and luminous technicolour.
With a background in classical music, orchestration and film score-writing are less out of Bryce Dessner’s wheelhouse than you might think. In addition to collaborating with many artists, including Taylor Swift, he’s also composed soundtracks for The Two Popes (2019) and The Revenant (2015). However, writing for a musical did represent new territory: a prospect he and his twin were hesitant about at first. But they fell in love with Schmidt’s stage version and so began the long road to writing the songs and score, with band frontman Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser on lyric-writing duty to condense the play’s monologues – in tandem with Joe Wright shooting the film’s visuals in Noto, Sicily. In a deeply collaborative process, they even built their own recording studio on set to record the actor’s performances live. Rather than Broadway-style musical songs, they channelled more of the intimate, emotive sensibility of National records to produce tracks that weave in and out of the story seamlessly, albeit with a more direct, narrative drive, from the stripped-back Madly and No Cyrano to more grandiose Someone to Say and Every Letter.
We grabbed some time with Bryce Dessner over Zoom from his home in the South of France to hear about the appeal and the process of composing the score and writing the songs for the film, as well as chat about what is coming up for the band in the coming months.
Hi Bryce, such a pleasure to be able to speak to you. Could you start us off by telling us a bit about this project? How did your collaboration with Joe Wright come about? And what can you tell us about the film Cyrano itself?
It was an amazing opportunity that we had to develop songs and the score for Joe Wright’s adaptation of Cyrano. It really began with the screenplay written by Erica Schmidt. Schmidt is a New York theatre director and writer who had been working on Cyrano for ten years and had this idea to take the original late 19th-century play by Edmund Rostand, which is this very famous, classic tale that’s been adapted into film before. Her idea was quite special: that essentially the 19th-century poetry – or what would have been the letters, that are these long monologues and then at certain moments in the story, dialogue – would be turned into songs. Which is kind of brilliant, I think, for making Cyrano more accessible to a modern audience. And Erica and her husband, Peter Dinklage, who plays Cyrano and for whom it was really written, are big National fans. So they reached out to us quite a few years ago now and said: “Would you ever consider doing this?” At first, I was very incredulous; we never thought about writing a musical. We write lots of songs, but it’s never really been at the top of my list to write a musical. But we just sort of fell in love with it. They did a reading for us of her script with Peter Dinklage and some friends of his, these amazing actors. And it was really so beautiful to hear what she was doing with this version. It’s quite different really. And so we started developing this piece, originally for a kind of proof-of-concept, off-Broadway theatre workshop. And Joe Wright came to some of those early versions and he fell in love with it immediately. A few of the first songs we wrote he just fell in love with. And so we started talking about doing the film simultaneously as developing a version in the theatre, and it kind of went from there.
What might be some of the particular challenges but also the great opportunities involved in writing, not only a movie score but songs for a film musical? How does it compare and contrast to writing music for your band?
It’s really different, I would say. Working on something like this is also really different from scoring a film, which I’ve done quite a lot of also. But normally, a composer is brought in pretty late in the film, when you almost have the finished thing. Years have usually already gone into making the film and then the composer comes in to give it this whole other layer. In this case, the music came first, so both the script and the music were really kind of primary. We’re even executive producers on the film, so we were involved with lots of choices about how it was going to be done. And we were in the room with producers and with all the creatives, I had extensive meetings with the choreographer, with the visual designers – Joe kind of included us in a lot of that, which was really wonderful and different. Normally a composer on a film is really a small part of it, brought in late. In this case, a lot of the film was shot around the music. Even the score, really a lot of that I was developing with my brother Aaron prior to shooting. So that was fun. I mean, as a band, we write lots of songs, but they tend to be about themselves. Or they might have strands of narrative but we’re not really a narrative rock band. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who we’ve worked with, is much more narrative in her songs, whereas ours have a kind of abstract sense of lyrics. And so this was really different. It could be a beautiful song, but if it’s not pushing the story forward in some way, it’s not really serving a point. So that was a real lesson and it was really amazing to work with Erica and Joe and Peter and all these incredible artists on that. And I think our Cyrano is very different from the typical Broadway musical. There aren’t these big, needle-drop, Broadway songs. They’re really poetic, more in the tradition of how we write songs, which is kind of subtle, intimate, sometimes introverted. But they really “get you”, you know? And, in a way, I think, because of the nature of the story, the lyrics, especially of the Cyrano songs, are much more heart-on-your-sleeve. There’s something very direct about them, these very heartfelt love songs.
What are some of the highlights of the soundtrack from your perspective? Maybe it’s hard to pick your favourites, but are there some tracks you think really encapsulate what you were able to do with the project? One that stands out for me is Someone to Say.
Someone to Say is the first song we hear in the film. Plus, there’s actually a melody in there that we hear at the very top, right when we see the first image. And so, in a way, it’s a theme that comes back a lot. And I think it’s important as Roxanne sings that song. Roxanne, in this version of Cyrano – which is really a credit to Erica Schmidt, the screenwriter, and then Carin Besser and Matt Berninger who wrote the lyrics – gets an expanded role. It’s not really a supporting role. She’s really a very modern, independent woman; she’s this intellectual, she’s a poet, there’s a lot of depth to her and she’s frustrated with these men chasing her. So you get that in that first song, you know, “I’m nobody’s wife, I’m nobody’s pet”; she’s kind of saying, “Don’t objectify me”. I think that song, in particular, is also this very dreamy statement about love, you know? “I need someone to love me forever”, basically, and how unattainable that is. The impossibility of that kind of love, or the hope of it. This story of Cyrano is really these three characters who are trying to communicate with each other and ultimately failing. They’re in love with each other, but they’re unable to attain that. And so that’s expressed through these various songs. Someone to Say is one of them. Every Letter as well, that’s a trio: it’s one of the most ambitious things we’ve ever done. We’re having three characters communicate, communicating with each other through song, and that song was done specifically for the film version, that was not in the theatre. And you hear Kelvin Harrison Jr, who plays Christian – he’s got a gorgeous voice – and then Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett who plays Roxanne. And I think on the score side, being in Noto in Sicily was a big influence. I was there for a bunch of the shooting and the rehearsals and it’s just this gorgeous baroque town that’s perfectly preserved. You feel like you’re in an Italian New Wave film. In fact, I think some of L’Avventura was actually filmed there. When you go out at night, there was a sort of Felliniesque carnival feeling and all this crazy baroque architecture. And so the sound of the score – it was the London Contemporary Orchestra that played all the orchestration – has these baroque flourishes of woodwinds and strings. Víkingur Ólafsson, who is one of the world’s greatest pianists, plays on the piano. There’s a cue called He Will Be Here, it comes back later, after the war when Cyrano’s injured, and it’s kind of Cyrano’s cue and it’s very much influenced by that, I would say. It has this beautiful melody, basically written on strings with piano – that piece of music was one of my favourites.
And Somebody Desperate that plays at the closing credits is actually a National song I believe. So was that nice to return to your usual music-making style and also to add something to the film from the perspective, of you as a band?
As we prepared for the film, we were writing a lot of additional songs, just to see if it would be interesting to have other characters sing. And all the songs really started with Matt singing them and they do sound beautiful that way, also. It’s very interesting to go back and hear those old demos. Somebody Desperate was a song we wrote actually thinking about Christian. But in the end, it just made sense to have it be almost like a thesis for the whole. Both Somebody Desperate and Somebody Just Like You are about these flawed characters who ultimately can’t achieve the thing that they were dreaming of and the kind of relatability in that. The film is a love letter to love and also, in terms of the times we’re living through and how tricky and difficult things have been in the last two years, I think it’s a really beautiful, heartwarming movie, and that song encapsulates the whole thing in a way. And it was nice to have Matt’s voice on it. I think, even just for us as a band, I think it’s a love letter to what we do. We’ve been so spoiled for 20 years of playing shows and always being with each other and in constant career motion – and really Covid put an end to that. We haven’t played a show in two years. So in a way, Cyrano was standing in. We were pouring a lot of energy into this. And it was also done remotely, we were not in the same room because we couldn’t be. So Somebody Desperate‘s special for us, to have that as a National song appearing at the end of the film, the punctuation on the whole experience.
I’m a big fan of Wright’s previous films and I can feel that Cyrano is definitely in the same vein. So what was it like after working on the music in tandem with the film seeing it all come together? Have you been able to see the finished product on the big screen?
Luckily, because we were involved the whole way, I was there. Valerio Bonelli, who’s the editor, would be editing at night. And so I would get dailies every day, I would see what they would shoot. And that was really gorgeous, you know? The film is just beautiful, I think it’s Joe’s most beautiful, visually stunning film, for sure. It also does have more in common, I would say, with his classic films, like Pride and Prejudice or Atonement or Anna Karenina, those kind of period films, because of the costuming and the visual design. It was just wonderful to see. He’s a very intentional director, he really knows what he’s going to do with every shot. He has the whole thing planned before he even gets to set. It’s really, really been well thought through, and that included trying to envision what role the music would be playing. I have seen the film: I was there at Telluride festival where they premiered it with a lot of amazing people there to see it, you know, Kenneth Branagh was in the room. And then also in Rome at the film festival there. That was beautiful, the film got a 15-minute standing ovation. Typically I’ve been told Italians don’t like musicals, it’s not in their culture, but this one they responded to. Maybe this kind of anti-musical musical is right for the Italians! But anyway, yeah, it’s been wonderful to be there.
What do you hope that people will take away from watching a film? It feels like people are really ready for a movie like this that is incredibly cinematic, transporting and heartwarming. And as you mentioned, Wright’s done something slightly different with it than perhaps people have even seen in the theatre or previous film version. Plus he’s put Peter Dinklage in a leading role where he’s formerly played supporting characters before.
I think the importance of human connection and speaking what’s on your mind. The play has a timeless quality of Greek tragedy or Shakespeare or something. It’s a tale that we can obviously, like those classic pieces, just see over and over again. And then it is cathartic and it is very pure. It’s not an ironic, cynical movie. I would say National music tends to be a bit more ironic or rhetorical at times, but this is really sincere. I think, just leaving any judgement or opinion at the door and coming in with an open heart feels like the right way to experience the movie. It’s a beautiful escape because it’s into this magical world, it has its own world. I do think Peter is a leading man, he’s such an incredible actor. The more you’re with him, the more you realise and are surprised, and so this is such an incredible showcase of him: he’s singing, it’s really absurdly virtuosic his performance and just all the emotions and humanity that he’s able to bring, as are many of the other actors, including Haley Bennett as Roxanne.
Can you tell us some of the other things you’ve been working on? You mentioned of course working with Taylor Swift but you’ve also written the soundtrack for Come On, Come On starring Joaquin Phoenix, correct?
Yes, over the past couple of years we have been working on a new National record, which I’m excited to hopefully get deeper into in the next little while when we’re gonna see each other, so that’s exciting. Then Come On, Come On is a film that we did the music for also, my brother and I, that is directed by Mike Mills, who was involved in the last National record. I Am Easy to Find originally started as a short film starring Alicia Vikander that Mike shot, and we created an album. We did both the score and then he helped produce the album. So we had this ongoing relationship with him. He’s lovely, it’s basically like being in a band with one of your friends. He’s just this nervous, really fun, weird, creative guy who can labour endlessly over details. Then Come On, Come On: it’s a beautiful movie in a very different way. Very simple, simply shot in black and white. And it’s basically the story of Joaquin Phoenix and his nephew, who’s nine years old, going on this road trip. And it’s just beautiful and very human and extremely moving. And funny. And then the music for that is – you know, Cyrano has 80 minutes of music, I think Come On, Come On has 30 or so. But in a way, it took us as long to do. It’s this really new sound world, a combination of electronics with woodwinds, clarinets and flutes. It has a really creative sound to it, both kind of strange, but very emotional. So that was really wonderful. It’s rare to be involved in two such incredible films at the same time with such talented directors.
And so when do you think your next National record might come out? And what else is on the horizon for you guys as a band?
I’m not sure when new music will come to be honest. But, you know, we are working on it. And it’s all very exciting: it kind of feels back to the classic National sound in a way, which was really just the five of us, and it has a lot of energy in it. Maybe it’s like bursting out of the closed doors of Covid or something? I don’t know. But we’re excited and I would think it would be imminent at some point. We do have a concert scheduled for next summer. By then it will have been the longest period of time, I think, by times two, that we’ve ever not played a show. So even right now, we’re at two years, fully two years since the last National show, which is in 20 years the first time we’ve ever done that long.
Does that feel very strange? Did it really make you appreciate playing live before? Or maybe it was nice to have a break?
For a while, it’s been nice to have a break. We all have young children, I have a four-year-old and so being home to see him grow up – two years with a four-year-old is half his life! – I’m very grateful for that, despite all the hardship that Covid has brought. But it’s been hard to work, it’s been difficult. I think in a way, the band is like a family. And you take it for granted sometimes. We think: “Oh, it will always be there.” But actually, it’s quite fragile, you know? And the truth is, is it won’t always be there. And so I think that we, on some level, miss it and there’s a real sense of “oh, wow, will it come back?” But also an appreciation for what it was. We’ve been spoiled for the better part of the last ten, 20 years, just playing the most incredible experiences. In England alone the number of like, memorable concerts that we’ve had, you know? So I don’t take any of that for granted. And, hopefully, we’ll do it again.
I’ve no doubt you will! I think we’re all out of time but it’s been an absolute pleasure to speak to you, thanks so much.
Photo: Shervin Lainez
Cyrano is released nationwide on 25th February 2022. The Cyrano original motion soundtrack is released via Decca Records.
Watch the trailer for Cyrano here: