The story of filmmaker and sometime musician John Carney is almost fairy tale in nature. He made a few indie films in Ireland during the late ’90s and early 2000s, worked in television for a short time, and then wrote and directed low-budget pseudo-musical ONCE, starring his friend and former Frames bandmate Glen Hansard and Glen’s lady friend and fellow musician Markéta Irglová. The film went on to be a massive indie hit, win an Oscar for Best Song, and propelled the duo (known as The Swell Season) to a great deal of success. I don’t think technically the band is still together, but the music they made at the time continues on until today in the Tony-award-winning musical version of ONCE, which is still on Broadway and touring the country.
Carney had little to do with the actual stating of the musical once he sold the rights to the story, but he’s still immensely proud of its success. But rather than take the obvious road after the film ONCE, he made a couple more micro-budget works in Ireland (ZONAD and THE RAFTERS). And then he started working on BEGIN AGAIN, which shares themes with ONCE, in that it’s a love story that isn’t exactly your traditional love story. Both are about two people at low points in their love lives who use music and the other person to push themselves back up to standing and start them on a path to romantic recovery. It doesn’t hurt that the music is absolutely beautiful.
BEGIN AGAIN stars Mark Ruffalo as a former musician turned record exec who has just been fired, when he lands up in a bar to drown his sorrows and ends up discovering a lovely young singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) singing a beautiful song on stage, moments after she’s found out that her rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine) has cheated on her. They collaborate on her first album, and the songs are tremendous, and their story of discovery and bringing the best out in each other is moving.
And perhaps just as exciting as Carney returned to the music world with BEGIN AGAIN is that the film he is currently prepping, SING STREET, is musically inclined as well, telling the story of a teenage boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s, who starts a band and moves to London, a story Carney knows very well. And did I mention that the tunes for SING STREET are being written by U2’s Bono and The Edge?
I asked Carney about all of this and more in our recent interview. Please enjoy my talk with BEGIN AGAIN writer-director John Carney…
John Carney: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi, John. How are you?
JC: I’m well, thanks. How are you?
Capone: Very good. Something I noticed in the credits that I’ve got to ask you about right off the bat. How did Judd Apatow get involved with this movie?
JC: I met him in Los Angeles. I went into his office, and I pitched him the story quite a few years ago, and he had seen ONCE, and so I was telling him about some ideas that I had for things, and this is one he really responded to. And we took it from there. We did a deal, and he commissioned a script, which I think was great, and I went off and wrote that, and we spoke on the phone and developed the characters a little bit. He was sort of a mentor in a way to the script and that process. He was great, and then we took it from there.
Capone: When I saw his name, I started to wonder how many of the exchanges between the actors were wholly scripted, and how much you gave them some freedom to maybe improvise.
JC: I would limit the amount of improvisation, but I’m also open to it. It depends on who’s improvising. Improvising is about bringing your experience of life to the character, so you have to have lived a life, I think, and you have to have something to say if you’re improvising, otherwise it can get very boring. So it depends on what actor is doing it. Some actors are great at it. Mark Ruffalo is great at ad libbing and making up lines. James Corden [who plays Knightley’s best friend] is great; Adam is actually very good. Some people are just very comfortable writing in their heads and saying the things that come to their minds, and other people prefer to fly straight and have the script there and rely on that and only say what’s in the script. So, it depends on what actors you’re working with.
Capone: This film does really feel like an American cousin to ONCE, in that both films are about these two people who are at these very low points who build each other up through music, and then rather than necessarily ending up together, they set each other up to go back out into the world and function a little more normally. Would you agree with that?
JC: I think that’s a good way to put it. I think that it is an American cousin. It’s got better teeth and it’s a little bit bigger and broader [laughs], and there’s definitely the DNA strand connecting them; it’s not a sibling thing. I think you’re right; it’s more two steps removed. Clearly, I’m still working in the same wheelhouse, and I still have some things to say about that world. So, it’s going to take a few films, if people can bare with me while I express myself. And they all have a connecting fiber between them of music and the way I see the world.
And it’s very important for me to not make depressing films, not because life is depressing enough, which it is, more that it’s important to smile and to put your best foot forward and to make some form of art that is uplifting and inspiring you to move on in life. And by that I don’t mean Hollywood endings or saccharine stuff. I think the stuff Louis C.K. is doing is as inspiring and happy making as any Hollywood rom-com, in that he makes me laugh about horrible stuff and bad stuff, and he makes me feel like I want to take steps forward and keep moving.
Capone: To that point though, it sounds like the film that you’re doing next, with Bono and the Edge helping out with the music, is along those same lines too, although maybe the next one is a little bit more personal a story to you.
JC: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It is personal. It is a chapter of my life which I definitely lived through and came out the other side of. It will be an interesting film in that we’ve all been kids, and we’ve all been in school, and we’ve all felt like fishes out of water, and we’ve all felt like we’re the only one in the room, and everybody else knows each other and we’re alone.
It’s about this kid who goes to this rather tough school in Dublin and gets bullied and has a hard time adjusting and ends up forming a very bad band to survive the realities of his situation. It’s set in the ’80s during a recession in Dublin, so it was a depressing period of time, but with these uplifting songs and a musical moments and video interspersed.
Capone: That’s right. I read somewhere that he makes some music videos of his band.
Capone: Does that start shooting fairly soon?
JC: Yeah, it starts shooting in September.
Capone: I don’t know exactly how the songs are being given to you for the upcoming film, but with the delay of U2’s album, I was worried that that would somehow delay your film as well.
JC: [Laughs] No, they’re still working on stuff actually now.
Capone: Both ONCE and BEGIN AGAIN have a very raw hand made look to them. What do you like about that visual ascetic, and what does it add for you?
JC: I think it’s interesting. I think it adds an air of naturalism to it, which I always look for in movies.
Capone: I guess the alternative would be to do some glossy, polished thing that would maybe not suit the rawness of the music that’s being played.
JC: To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to do that. The truth of it is, I actually don’t know how to do that. It would be out of my comfort zone too much.
Capone: The recording sequences here are the closest thing you get to that. They're more set pieces. They’re these joyous events, and become progressively more inclusive and uplifting, reflecting the lead characters’ state of mind. Was that by design that things get a little bit better with each new song?
JC: Yeah, they are. I think that’s true. There’s a progression in the songs and the joyfulness of it as it sort of goes along. Even though it’s naturalistic, it’s still a movie. It’s a fantasy, you know? There are elements of it that are about, get up, get out your laptop, and go and shoot your album and do what you want to do and create. That's true. That’s all there, but it’s still a fantasy film. The idea of kids singing down laneways and joining in the fun., that’s in my head. That’s not supposed to be naturalistic, in that sense. It’s not supposed to be a document of something that really happened, and I think sometimes people get confused by that, because the style is naturalistic, therefore the director is trying to tell me that this is a thing that can happen.
And I’m sure you can get some kids to join in and sing, but it would take a lot more work than that. But you’re still making a movie. That’s very important. Whereas ONCE in a way is a different thing. I really wanted to make ONCE seem like we were looking at these characters through a window, and we weren't quite hearing what they were saying and we were following two people that just met and not being privy to everything. It almost had a documentary quality to it. I really strived for that on ONCE.
Capone: Let’s talk about the music and the musicians tasked with writing this music. How did you select the songwriters? Gregg Alexander, I know who he is now, but before this I don’t think I knew the name. How did you task him and the other people that you used with writing? What were the parameters?
JC: Well, I gave them the script first, and then we talked a lot on the phone about what this film was. But it’s really just me and Gregg and Glen are the three writers. Glen Hansard wrote the song “Roses,” which I think is one of the nicest songs in the film, and there are four songs in the movie from Greg, two songs from myself, then there are a couple of other tunes. But it was very clear to me the sound of each song as I was writing the script. It became more and more clear with each draft what the tone the song should be in each case. I think I rejected about 40 songs from Greg before that last song. Yeah, it was a long period of getting stuff right.
Capone: What were the things you were trying to avoid in terms of the sound and the lyrics? That was my follow up there.
JC: The main thing that I was trying to avoid was any sense that it would sound anything like ONCE, that she wouldn’t sound like she was trying to write “Falling Slowly” again. I think the fact that the song, that “Roses” song, everybody was quite surprised when they hear that it was Glen [who wrote that song]. I’m glad for that in a way. I didn’t want it seem like the traditional guitar-based singer songwriter song.
Capone: The city of New York has always has been home to this type of damaged love story. How did the city factor in for you in terms of that?
JC: I think the city can be whatever you want it to be really in a way. There’s so much going on. The music was really the reason it’s set in New York. I think anybody could have set a romantic film in New York, just because the city and because it’s a romance on a fool’s errand [laughs]. I don’t think that works anymore. It’s become too generic of a city especially for a straight-forward rom coms. The reason that I set the film in New York was that I was coming here a lot for ONCE. I had lots to do after that movie came out, and with the Broadway musical ONCE as well.
Capone: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I saw it when it toured through Chicago, and it was lovely, really beautiful. Other than giving them the rights to it, I wasn’t sure how much you had to do with the actual production.
JC: The producers of the show have been great, in that they were very open to my ideas from the beginning in terms of how I would imagine this might work on a stage. I was very quick and eager to tell them that I have no experience in the theater world. I’ll throw my ten cents in the pot, but you’ve got to go and do this yourselves, because I don’t particularly want to write this. I have no interest in retelling this story, and that became quickly clear to me that the best thing you could do in a way was to leave it alone, and not appear to be milking it.
ONCE has been such an amazing thing for me; I didn’t want it to seem like I was milking the thing that was feeding me. My one note for the play was trying to do what we did for the film for musical theater. My thought was, “Don’t make it into a big Broadway musical where everybody is singing and dancing.”
Capone: In fact, the one note I had here in my notes is that the musical retained the simplicity of the film, and that was the beauty of it.
JC: Yeah. That was the one thing that I asked the guys to do was to try and do for the stage what I did for the musical movie, which is to try and do a stealth musical. Try to make it seem like it’s not an all dancing thing. That’s what my job was on the film.
Capone: Speaking of being stealthy, it appears—and I’m sure that’s the intention—in this new film that the recording sequences have been shot stealthily. Did you have all the proper permits and things like that, or did you sneak a few things in there?
JC: No, we shot most of that legally. I think the one thing that we didn’t get, which was the scene in Times Square, we stole that. It was all permitted, and we made it look like we were stealing it. But you can’t do both those things, I don’t think.
Capone: Where did the idea come from to record out in the open? I don’t know if what we’re hearing is actually what was recorded. Was it actually recorded out in the open?
JC: No, no, that’s all done in the studio. That’s all mixed like it was recorded outdoors. You just couldn’t have actually done what they were doing. You could do it, but you couldn’t do a film at the same time.
Capone: Where did the idea of recording an album outdoors come from?
JC: In Dublin when it’s a sunny day, myself and my friends would often if we were recording when we were kids with our four track in our parents house, and it was a sunny day, which is unusual in Ireland, we would trail out leads and cables into the backyard, just because you wanted to be in the sun, to get outside and sit in a circle around a microphone and record a song, and in the background there are birds singing and fire brigades going past and wind on the track, and there’s leaves blowing in the breeze. It’s a very romantic and very appealing sound, and also you play differently when you’re outside. So it wasn’t that alien of an idea to me, and then I thought that’s a cool way to beat the problem of not being able to afford a studio. Every time I come to New York, you realize there is sort of a different soundscape here than anywhere else in the world.
Capone: Peppered throughout the film, there’s a criticism of the music industry today and discussion about the fact that musicians are ill treated and paid, and that the focus is off the pure music. Are Mark’s character’s thoughts on the subject similar to your own?
JC: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s clear that musicians do get screwed a lot, in the past certainly. But it’s definitely not like anything that I have...I don’t know. I don’t have anything on my chest about that. I don’t have anything to say particularly; I’m not getting revenge [laughs].
Capone: Yeah, no. I’m reading interviews with Adam Levine lately, and he’s terrific in the film, and I don’t really have any opinions about him as a musician or an actor. But it’s funny because he seems very well aware that he has detractors out there. He’s not afraid to talk about that, but his image almost feeds this idea that this guy is the great accidental asshole in the film. Talk about including him in this.
JC: He’s hard to fault, in that sense, because it takes balls to put yourself on screen and to present a character who isn’t all black or white, who isn’t all good or bad. But certainly isn’t good. He’s not just the side kick boyfriend who’s looking after the Greta character. He’s tested and he fails the test, and I’m really glad that Adam did it, because sometimes he comes under a little bit of flack for the character being too much of a douche bag or a dickhead. It’s a very one-dimensional way of looking at the character. And that’s why I have the whole scene where when he returns, a lot of what he says makes sense, and it seems very passionate, and it seems like he’s aware that he’s made mistakes, and he seems like a character who’s changing and evolving, but is also mindful of the facts of the music industry, which is now I have this job. Some people do change when they get jobs.
Some people are like writing for a newspaper, and then they’re editing that section, and they can no longer have exactly the same relationship with the people that they had before. I know a film critic in Dublin, who was my friend, and he became the main critic in the newspaper, and he doesn’t return my calls anymore. Because I know he’s going to be reviewing my films, and I know he’s going to be doing a piece on my films, and he’s not going to come to the card game anymore, and that’s a shame but a fact. I get it. I understand why we can’t really be hanging out just chewing the cud, and slagging films off in the way we used to when we were students, because now we have jobs. I’m a director and he’s now the chief critic, or whatever it is.
So likewise, I think that Adam brought a great sense of color and depth to the character, and he also brought a lot of his own story and a lot of his own life in the music industry and peppered it over the character in a very cool way. I’m very grateful to him and all he’s brought to the role.
Capone: You've worked with actors that happen to be able to sing, and you’ve worked with musicians who are learning to act as they go. Was there one that you enjoyed more, or found more difficult?
JC: I’m not sure. I think that when you’re working with actors all the time, like full on with a group of actors in a room, it can be exhausting. Because they’re so serious, and they’re so serious about their work as well also. But I like the idea of mixing it up a little bit, and throwing real people into the equation. I like that David O. Russell thing, where suddenly you see Louis C.K. or that Martin Scorsese thing, where he’ll throw non-actors or real people into films. I think there are a lot of real people in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. I think there’s a lot of real people in Truffaut movies. And then you’ve got your actors, of course, because you need them. I think the idea that everybody has to have like 10 years of experience acting and knowing what that is, I’m not sure if that’s true.
Capone: I know that when this film played in Toronto, it had a different title [CAN A SONG AVE YOUR LIFE?]. What’s the reason for the title change? Was that a Weinstein decision?
JC: The title was never really officially the title of the movie. It was more a line I had written down to remember what to write about. It became the title on the piece of paper that I was sending around to people. It was a title that seemed to me that it was biting off more than it could chew. Having a big question mark like that after a film was like, “Oh we’ll have all the answers,” and I didn’t want anybody coming to the film thinking that we were trying to answer any big questions.
Capone: Or what if the answer’s No? That’s the scarier part.
JC: Exactly. The answer is clearly Yes [laughs].
Capone: I think one of the beautiful things about the film is that you could take the music out, and there’s still a perfectly viable story about people there. I think it’s certainly enhanced and made better by the music, but there’s still a great story there. Was that always in the back of your mind as a goal?
JC: Yeah. I think that’s true, actually. I think it is very important, particularly from modern audiences that you could do that. You could have the non-musical version and it would still stand out in the way that many of the great musicals of the past don’t have that. Some of them do. I think that some of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is some of the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t have a great, great story, but it’s got a good story, and the story is a coming of sound in movies is a good story. You could watch that without the musical numbers, and it would still be something interesting. But something like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS or something is useless without the songs and set pieces and the numbers. The story is just the thread between the set pieces, just to have something going on of a romantic nature there.
So I think for a more modern audience, you need to have an independent story that will work on it’s own terms, and it has a beating heart and is working alongside the music. But I think that’s well put. I’m glad that you think that, because I often thought there’s too much drama in this, and there’s too much going on, and I need to cut it back, and there are too many characters. But as it turns out, it’s helpful to have that going on. It’s helpful to have the Hailee Steinfeld story; it’s help to have Mos Def be so involved. In a musical, he’s have like two lines, but here he’s the whole character. So I agree with you.
Capone: Are you going to start getting calls from Broadway people again on this film? Or would you be hesitant to?
JC: [laughs] I think it would make a great musical, but I wouldn’t want to dare think that it would be as successful as ONCE has been, which is this huge hit. But yeah. I think it would make a good musical story, recording an outdoor album and something set in the music industry, I think would be interesting. The songs are great.
Capone: It’d be more of a production, and might be a little more difficult to keep simple maybe. But I’d go see it.
JC: Well great. I’ll keep you to that in five or six months.
Capone: John, thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It was great to finally talk to you.
JC: You too, man. Good to talk to you. Good luck with the piece. I look forward to seeing it. Take care.