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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How ‘Cyrano’ finds its musical voice from a beloved play

March 4, 2022
5 min read time

It’s human to love someone but be too afraid to share your feelings, especially when you feel something about your physical appearance would make you less desirable. That’s what makes Cyrano such a human story. The original play, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, hit the stage in 1897. It follows the title character who has many talents, which include swordplay, humor, self-confidence, and, most importantly, a way with words. And while his many accomplishments would make him a desirable suitor, Cyrano has an obnoxiously large nose, which he feels makes him ugly and causes him to lose the confidence to tell Roxanne, the woman he loves, how much he adores her.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this play has been adapted several times, most famously with Steve Martin playing a man with a large nose opposite Daryl Hannah in the 1987 film Roxanne

Cyrano though takes place in the 17th century, as its original play intends, with this version being produced as a musical, similar to its recent adaptation for the stage by Erica Schmidt. Instead of a large nose, Cyrano is short in stature and believes that his physical appearance will keep him from Roxanne. He then lends his wordsmith abilities to Christian, who falls instantly in love with Roxanne  as does she with him — but he can’t quite find the words to express his feelings.

Cyrano is a musical/romantic comedy of sorts starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Mendelsohn. It was written by Schmidt and based on her stage musical. The film was directed by Joe Wright.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from Cyrano:

1. A way with words

From the very first moment we meet Roxanne (Bennett), we understand she has a way with words. In fact, in the first scene it feels like Aaron Sorkin wrote the back-and-forth between her and Marie (Monica Dolan) as they discuss Roxanne's upcoming theatre date with De Guiche (Mendelsohn).

Words are important in Roxanne’s life and play a central role in the film. It’s no wonder that she is excited when she hears Cyrano (Dinklage), her childhood friend, mocking the actor onstage with cunning wit. He embarrasses the famous thespian Montfleury (Mark Benton), sending him offstage with little more than his lyrical language.

Writers can see how Schmidt’s use of language at the beginning of the movie is important in showing how words, or lack thereof, impact the lives of the characters and the story about to unfold.

2. Setting up the world

Cyrano doesn’t feel small despite few characters and even fewer locations; the beginning of the film even makes the world look big. As Roxanne heads to the theatre alongside De Guiche — a duke she is using to go to the theatre — she stares out the windows of the carriage and watches as the bustling world passes her by. Meanwhile Christian (Harrison Jr.) walks through the city amazed by what he sees.

This scene serves many purposes, including to express Roxanne’s thoughts on her situation, the world at large, and the convergence of two people who are destined to love each other. It also is about the romance in the air of a city filled with bakeries, eateries, street games, crowds, and theatre.

When she arrives at the theatre, it’s a culmination of the city's wealthy people experiencing the play up close to the common folks drinking beers and shuffling into the crowd to watch the show.

Writers can see how the filmmakers create a world that complements the lives of the main characters and how it sets up their internal and external conflicts, all before introducing Cyrano himself.

3. Introducing the hero

Cyrano has an incredible introduction. It starts with a booming voice from the audience chastising the eccentric Montfleury and, even after revealing himself physically, he is able to chase him offstage. He’s then confronted to the point that he must defend himself both verbally and physically and he proves to be an excellent wordsmith and swordsman.

Even after all this, Cyrano shows his humanity and compassion. What’s not to like about this seemingly flawless hero?

The compelling flaws in heroes make them human and sympathetic; something writers can take away from this movie. Cyrano stands up to his bullies but has a crisis of confidence when it comes to the love of his life. Who hasn’t thought they weren't good enough to pursue the one they love? And so, in a matter of minutes after meeting Cyrano, the audience is eager to follow this character on his journey because they see both something they would like to be and a fear they can relate to.

4. Adding lots of conflict

Conflicts come from a lot of sources in Cyrano. There are both internal and external conflicts that are constantly introduced to the characters, each one increasing the stakes as the story moves forward.

When writers break down the conflicts among the characters in Cyrano, they will see how much struggling goes into a single person.

For example, Cyrano’s internal conflict is his love for Roxanne and how he can’t conceive of her ever loving him back. Then he’s tasked with helping Christian find the right romantic words, which he knows will make Roxanne fall for him. Christian is an external conflict, and Cyrano’s helping him causes great internal conflict. Then there is De Guiche providing a large external threat via his position in life, his love for Roxanne, and his determination to have her by any means necessary.

Cyrano shows great examples of how crucial it is for supporting characters to have their own internal and external struggles that play off those of others.

5. Taking control of the adaptation

Cyrano isn’t just based on a stage play from 125 years ago; it’s based on a musical adaptation, too. It’s hard to be a writer thinking that your work will be altered and updated based on the needs of production, whether that production is a novel, play, film, or podcast series. So when it comes to adapting material based on an original piece, it’s important for writers to separate themselves from the work.

Writers can see the various adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac and find examples of how filmmakers and playwrights made it their own. Roxanne is a modern-day comedy. Cyrano is a musical adaptation. Another example is The Lion King being based on Hamlet or even Fifty Shades of Grey being Twilight fan fiction — each one is taking original characters and situations and adapting them as something different; something with their voice.

Cyrano is currently playing in theaters. For more on the process behind the film, listen to Write On with 'Cyrano' screenwriter Erica Schmidt.


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