Exclusive: Once Filmmaker John Carney

Once is Irish filmmaker John Carney’s third feature film and though he’s worked with the likes of Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Gerard McSorley in the past, it’s only when he turned his back on actors and made a movie with his Frames bandmate Glen Hansard and musical collaborator Marketa Irglova that Carney’s work started getting more attention.

The movie is already the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, having already won an Audience Award, and the low-budget musical tale of boy-meets-girl has become quite a phenomenon. Not bad for a movie made for $150 thousand in seventeen days on the streets of Dublin.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Carney during a break from his many business meetings as buzz on the film continued to escalate and additional screenings had to be added to the festival to meet the demand. (We also spoke with his star Glen Hansard in a separate interview.)

ComingSoon.net: You were originally going to make this movie with known actors, so how did that change to making it with Glen and Marketa?
John Carney: Basically, in preparation for this film, I had put Glenn down on tape singing two or three songs that I liked. I put that down on DVD and I was going to use that as a means of getting a particular Irish actor that I liked involved in the project. We had talked about doing a musical. I put Glen down and I had met Mar, the girl, I put her down as well, just as an interesting thing. Originally, the Czech character in the film was a little bit older and Marketa is quite young, so it was a bit of a gamble.

CS: Were they already playing together as a duo at that point?
Carney: They were playing together. They had met in the Czech Republic and Glen had worked with her and brought her over to Ireland, and they had done some gigs and stuff. So I was very excited about that, saw them play together and it was fantastic. While I had them both down on tape, and I was going to meet some actors, it suddenly dawned on me that it’s going to be hard for even a good singing actor to do quite what Glen is doing on screen, and wouldn’t it be interesting if I just… it was DV and it was hand-held and naturalistic, and f*ck the actors, let’s not use actors in this one. Let’s actually use real people and have them behave in a very naturalistic way and also, the key to it really, is there’s nobody who’s going to be able to sell Glen’s songs the way he does in the performance, so it became very clear to me, let’s just strip it down really simple and go ahead and shoot it on a tiny budget. That’s where the other actors just fell away and I decided that was the way I was going to do it.

CS: And you already had a script at that time?
Carney: Yeah, basically I had an outline for the film, about a busker and the girl and the story of the film and I brought that to Glen and said “This is the story of the film. I’m going to start writing the script, but what I really want to do is to work in tandem with you ’cause I want you to write all the songs for it.” This is before he was acting in it. The idea would be that he would give me a song and that would maybe inspire a scene or he maybe he’d fashion a song or an idea for a song that he had around a character idea, so we were bouncing back and forward with ideas over the process of writing the short screenplay.

CS: But you had some kind of outline in order to get the interest of the actor though.
Carney: Yeah, exactly. I had talked to this other actor over the phone and we were both embarking on this project together, and then it became very clear it just wasn’t going to work, for either of us in a way, because the songs are so difficult to sing. They’re really emotional. And if you’ve written a song, you just sing it. You remember why you wrote it and give it that… whereas an actor coming in and doing it, it’s hard. Actually, the actor that I had was a singer. He knew how to play the guitar and stuff, but it was too big a leap for us to take so we decided to strip it down and make it really simple.

CS: As far as the busking scenes with Glen, was it just a matter of finding a location and shooting?
Carney: Yeah, we just used three cameras, hid them away on the other side of the street, so people didn’t know what was going on. The audience that came around weren’t seeing this camera, ’cause once people see a camera, they go, “Oh film! Film! Film! ” and they behave in a different way. They couldn’t see the camera and if they did, it just looks like some students shooting stuff on a Sony. So the crowds just did their own thing , some of them passed by and it was very believable, because if Glenn takes out a guitar on Graftin Street, a very big crowd will [form]. [The Frames] are very well-known in Ireland. What helped us a lot in that was that it was January, we were shooting at 9 o’clock in the morning, so people were just kind of “What’s going on Graftin Sreet? Glen’s singing?” A lot of people respond funny, like some people would come on the radio and say, “So I see Glen back on the streets…” thinking things weren’t going too well for him.

CS: Did you both have similar experiences during the early days of The Frames?
Carney: Glen busked for years before he got a record deal, and he realized very quickly, after a few years of busking, “I’ve got to go and record some music.” He went off and recorded some music, some record companies sniffed around and he put this band together, which included me, and he got a record deal. We were kind of associated with that and that’s sort of how The Frames came together. So Glen had a good busking experience and knew what it was like to be on the streets and have to earn your bus fare home. He knew what that was like so that gave the film great authenticity.

CS: Obviously, Glen and Marketa had already worked together on their music, but was there anything from their own relationship which was brought to the characters in the movie?
Carney: No. Maybe in a subtle way, that onscreen we can’t define, maybe that’s for sure. No, the film was scripted but I was certainly very open to, you know, “If you can say something better than I’ve said it, you win.” It was a question of who cares when. If you care enough to fight your corner and get the line out, it’s not Shakespeare. I’m not going to stick to my line. It’s not a play, it’s a naturalistic film, so it would be obvious to me, the ers, ums and ahs that make dialogue, the way we’re talking now, sound natural. I just can’t stand in a film when you know the people are acting.

CS: I’ve seen a lot of those kinds of movies here at the festival.
Carney: There are a lot of them here, there’s a lot of them in the world. It’s very hard to tell an actor, “Stop acting.” It’s easy to tell a non-actor, because they’re embarrassed when they act. They get ashamed when they do something cliché, whereas an actor is happy. I’ve been criticized a lot recently for being down on actors. I’ve been bitten by actors in many ways, because sometimes actors’ egos just don’t suit the kind of work that I’m doing. But I love actors, and I love good acting. I love what actors do when they’re good, and I’m a big acting fan.

CS: You have a great gimmick of sorts in having Glen and Marketa to perform their songs live. Were a lot of these songs ones they’ve performed before making the movie?
Carney: Yeah, there was a few that were written that I wrote scenes around. Mainly they were, and in fact, there were fewer songs that Glen had written, that I had asked him to write and said, “Could you write something like this?”

CS: I’m really interested to see how the movie will help their music and vice versa.
Carney: Yeah, I think they’re a nice companion kind of piece. But you see, the classic musicals were made in that way. You know, MGM would go, “We own nine of Gershwin’s songs, what are we going to do? Can you write a story around them?” And they’d stitch together a story, and that’s why they’re so bloody good. They got good writers who seemed to love the music. If you look at “Singin’ in the Rain,” it’s a great story, it’s a funny story, it’s very, very well-written and it happens to have eight or nine fantastic songs. It just baffles me how good films like that are.

CS: But you don’t really see your movie as the classical movie musical we’re so used to.
Carney: That’s what I think is one of it’s successes is that you don’t feel, “Oh, God I’ve had to listen to eight or nine songs tonight at this film.” You go out feeling, “I just heard some music and some lyrics, I saw a reasonably good story, it was very simple, I felt for the characters.”

CS: You don’t even feel odd when Marketa walks outside and starts singing along with what’s obviously a studio-produced track.
Carney: I guess that’s the only moment in the film that was a contrived, musical moment. I think the reason it does work is because we allow it to happen. She’s listening to the music to begin with, so now we’re inside her head. We don’t hear the cars going by, because she’s listening to that music on her headphones, so now we’re in a subjective world and we’re hearing what she’s hearing.

CS: I was curious about the studio experience and how it was depicted in the movie, since I’ve spent a bit of time there myself.
Carney: Did you mention that on your Blog? Someone mentioned that they spent a lot of time in the studio and that it was authentic. Well, I have spent a lot of time there, and like the idea of the car test, you’ve done that exactly. That is so much fun. That’s what I found, in bands, just the real rapport, when you’ve done some work and you go out and drive around Dublin at dawn. That’s why I like the beach scene. They just head out to the beach; they don’t even really know each other. It’s very simple.

CS: Can you talk about your Sundance experience? This was the first movie you’ve brought here, right?
Carney: Yeah, first film. My instinct is to say that this is a dream come true and it’s amazing. I guess I was wary for a while of the Park City screenings, because it’s industry and it’s people who are eager to see films. They’re going to applaud anyway, maybe. But we had a screening in Salt Lake City last night, and I believe, everyone tells me that you can judge how your film is going to do in Salt Lake City because it’s real people who don’t have any agenda. They were turning people away at the door and they hung around for an hour and a half for the Q & A and listened to songs and they applauded. It was just an amazing experience. The whole thing here has been a real justification for making this film. This is really what we did this for.

CS: Everyone has really loved the film, but it’s such a small movie in terms of scale that it doesn’t seem like one of those movies that a studio might jump on because of that.
Carney: I think the studio and industry people here can’t believe it in a way. It’s kind of like, “How does this work?” But definitely, the bigger boys are really interested in it, in theory at the moment, and some in practice, which is brilliant. That’s amazing to me. I really did think when we made this film that we had made a film that very few people would want to see or maybe only people who are interested in music would want to see, and it turns out to be something quite different, which is great.

Once opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, May 16. Also check out our interview with the film’s male star Glen Hansard of The Frames.

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