Interview: Once Director John Carney Begins Again

Irish filmmaker John Carney first made waves on these shores with the musical movie Once, which created a diehard fanbase who fell in love with the film’s stars Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, known musically as The Swell Season.

Eight years later and just a few short years after Once was turned into a hit Tony award-winning musical on Broadway, Carney is back with Begin Again, another movie set in the world of music, this time with Keira Knightley playing singer/songwriter Greta, who has been transplanted into New York City with her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine). When he starts achieving fame, they break up, leaving Greta floundering until she encounters a veteran A&R guy named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who’s fallen on hard times. When he hears Greta sing one of her songs in a bar, he thinks he has discovered the recording artist that can get his own career back on track. first spoke with Carney way back in January 2007 at the Sundance Film Festival where Once premiered–if you missed that interview, you can read it here–and then again at the Tribeca Film Festival a few years back for his sci-fi comedy Zonad.

We got on the phone with him last week to talk about his latest foray into the music biz through the connection between two idealistic strangers. It’s been a while since we last spoke, probably at the Tribeca Film Festival, so was this something you were already developing back then?

John Carney:
Yeah, it’s a couple years back. I think I was planning this movie back then or certainly in early discussions about it. I sort of have been working on this and a couple other things. I sort of always have a few things going, and one of them takes priority, I’m not sure why but that seems to be the way it’s gone.

CS: What was the first idea for this one? Did it start with the setting of New York or did you have an idea for the relationships in the movie?

I think the first thing that got me going was the idea of an A&R man from the ‘80s sort of marooned in the world of now in the music industry of today and I thought it would be fun to have an A&R man that really needed badly to prove himself and connect with his generation who meets an artist who didn’t want to sign a deal and was disenchanted with the music industry. Putting them close together seemed like a good starting point for a movie.

CS: It definitely seems like the music business has changed a lot, especially in the last ten years. I say that as someone who used to work in the music business, and I don’t even recognize what’s going on right now, because it’s just changed so much. Is that something you felt yourself having worked with The Frames back in the ‘90s?

It was very clear back then what a band was and when you knew you were successful or not and the Frames were never successful in that sense, so you knew that you had to do better. You knew you had to change direction in life. You knew when you had a deal, you knew when you were filling certain size rooms. You went on tour with the band for years and you got to know each other really well. You got to almost process the world through being in a band so you were writing about your experiences of being together. What strikes me that’s really interesting about bands is that a lot of collaboration… like if you take Steely Dan or Led Zeppelin or any of those bands, by the time they’re writing a second or third or fifth album, they’re writing about the world through being in a band. It’s refracted through the family of the band where nowadays, you get these kids and they’re sort of thrown together because one has a good haircut, the other has a good voice and the other has arms… and it’s bullsh*t and it’s very empty. The kids go see them and girls love them for a year of their life but it’s very manufactured, obviously as we know, and it strikes me that it could be very confusing for people that want to get into the music industry or want to be in a band or write their songs. It’s very untested and I don’t think anybody knows what happens next in the way they did back in the day. I think you got a sense of “Here’s what happens next and here’s how this might work.” That’s the side of things that’s changed more for me. It’s a bit more like movie industry now where like nobody knows anything.

CS: The character that Keira Knightley plays Greta, she’s a songwriter, and these days, someone like that would be putting out their own music on YouTube or iTunes. They’d do their own marketing and their own thing long before being discovered by a label.

Yeah, I think there’s a bit of that going on for sure. That’s kind of what she’s doing. She’s not supposed to be this big discovery or this genius songwriter. She’s just somebody who likes songwriting and expressing herself, but as you said, the lines aren’t queued in the movie but it was intended to be a genuine response to how she performs and what she likes to do. She is more comfortable singing to her cats then to an audience of people and that has a place and the question is how do you make sense of that for your life and how do you make enough money out of that to survive and continue to do what you want to do?

CS: Keira’s a great actress and I’ve long been a fan of her work in anything she does, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing before. Did you have some idea she sung before casting her?

I asked her if she was into music and if she could sing and she said she was and I tested some of her vocals out with a voice coach and he came back to me and said, “Good, we can work with this. It’s not Aretha Franklin but then again, you don’t want that.” “No, I don’t.” I wanted to cast somebody who has a sweet sort of sound to her voice, but it didn’t really matter about being a big singer. We worked from that idea that it wasn’t all about the voice. She had a voice that was pleasant to listen to and that was all that we cared about. She was a natural choice for the role.

CS: You also cast Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as her boyfriend. Although we’ve seen him on “The Voice,” for this he was put into a role in which he really needs to act. He’s generally known for his good looks, but you messed with that by having him wear glasses and a silly beard. What was the instinct in getting a real musician to play that role?

It’s nice to mix it up in a way. If it’s going to be an actress singing, it struck me that we’d have to make up with that by having a real singer in another role, someone that could blast out those tunes. It was a lot of fun working with Adam and playing with expectations a little bit and he was really game for that and not afraid to wear that funny beard and mock the music industry in a way and have some fun with the traps and tests and frustrations that arise (on the path) to becoming famous. I think he’s terrific in the film. He really makes it genuine and really ties it together and he’s fun to watch. Not that it’s biographical, but there are elements to the character that Adam brings his own deliciousness to in a way. It’s fun to watch somebody do kind of a version of themselves or bring elements to that character, it’s fun to watch that.

CS: In some ways, he’s the antagonist of the story but he’s also the catalyst for almost everything that happens. If he was still around, Greta might never do all of the things we see in the movie.

Yeah, that’s how life is, I think. You don’t plan for these things. Anybody that tells you differently is fooling you I think. All these people that say, “Oh, yeah, I always wanted to be a star and I wanted this to happen in this exact way,” it’s bullsh*t. There are so many different ways, and none of those bands, even U2, even a band that’s been around for decades, never planned that I don’t think. Everybody wants to be working, but it’s the people that see the opportunities that life presents and that breaking up or getting back together presents. That’s kind of what “Begin Again,” that title is about taking the components of your life and breaking them up and putting them back together again and seeing what you’ve got, not relying too much on plans.

CS: I assume that “Once” was a great calling card to get this cast together. Was it generally easier to get the cast you wanted for this because they would know “Once” in some form or other?

Oh, yeah. It’s definitely helped. I think they really liked the idea of being in a gently different style of movie. Yeah, I think it was easier. I think the people were eager to know what I would do with another musical film and how that would work. I think people are a lot more inquisitive than anything else.

CS: Obviously, you already had a script done before filming but as far as the music, had you worked out some of that during the script writing phase?

No, all the music came later on, actually, after the script was written so I had to plug in where the songs would go and idea of what the songs should sound like, but very very loosely. It was after the script was written that I started putting together the soundtrack for the movie.

CS: How did you end up working with Gregg Alexander? You already had the connection to Glenn Hansard and Martika for “Once,” but had you met Gregg somewhere along the way and decided to write with him?

No, I always liked his hit song from about 20 years ago, “You Get What You Give,” that was a lovely summer hit and a great atmosphere to it, and I always wondered who was the guy who wrote that. So I just got his number and rung him up and he ended up writing four songs for the movie, then there are a couple by myself and then Glenn Hansard, my old friend from “Once,” wrote one song.

CS: Which one did he write?

He wrote the one they did in the alleyway, the first song that they recorded for the album called “Roses.” Great song.

CS: Indeed. You shot “Once” all over Dublin and this one you did all over New York especially once Greta starts doing her album on the streets in different locations. Knowing you wanted to do that for the movie, how hard was it to get those locations and do that kind of thing in New York?

I just hired a bike and cycled around and sort of got a sense of the city for a couple of months and getting locations is just getting a great crew and team behind you, which I was fortunate enough to get and a really solid New York crew who have made a bunch of films here. It was very helpful in realizing that sort of aim of the film that New York would definitely be a character in the piece and we would really on the streets and in cafes and real locations. We didn’t build anything and that was really important to the tone of the movie. Once we got the script up and running, it became clear what we needed to do and we just had a great line of producers and crew members to help realize that.

CS: Another thing I really liked the movie is the way you set up how Dan and Greta meet. It’s very non-linear and not something we see very often. Can you talk about the decision to start the movie that way?

Yeah, I think it’s more like a novelistic approach to a movie in that many novels start with one character and they get to a certain point and they meet another character and the writer will then switch track and start to talk about how that person got to that place that night. So it’s quite a traditional literary device or story structure and in movies tend to follow the more linear or subjective character and we must never break perspective with that person. There were movies like “The Barefoot Contessa” I think which was an early film to take the same scene and do it over and over again from different perspectives of characters that you’ve met and go back in time and trace their steps to the same night. I think Tarantino ripped that off a little bit in “Pulp Fiction” where you take an event and you can resurrect characters then, because they’re not dead in the other person’s story yet even if they died in their own story. For this story, it wasn’t a contrivance, it was a very natural order for the story. It was always scripted that way. “Here’s a girl playing in a club. Guy hears her song and we flashback to that morning and we find out how he got to that bar to hear that song and what that song means to him. And then they go for coffee after he hears the song and they connect, but instead of following him home and follow his story the next morning, as we normally do, you follow her home and through her telephone and video footage on her telephone, you track back with her story to a few months ago. You start to tell her story and you forget about the first night of the movie and you wind up there again. Now you go into that scene again, but you have all this new information about this character and the audience are very involved with that structure. You have to pay attention in a way or not so much paying attention as you now go, “Now I know why that line had a close-up or why that line resonated. I didn’t know what that meant and now that I see what’s happened to her in the last month and how she got here, now I understand why there was that beat or moment of romance or a connection or whatever it is between Mark and Keira” For me, it’s a very interesting way in getting two characters together in a city and also this is a film about two characters that really need each other in a way. They need to meet that night.

CS: It’s a very romantic movie, not just between the characters but also romantic towards New York and music, similar to “Once” in a way, you avoid the obvious fairy tale ending or what’s expected. You did that in “Once” as well and I wondered why you go that route with these movies?

Because I think that’s the way life is really, you know? No great story really ends I suppose, it’s just ongoing, and it would be a lie to say that when you meet your wife that it ends with you walking out of the church together, married, or walking into the sunset. It’s ongoing and you don’t know where it’s going to end. Filmmakers can only choose to stop telling the story at this point. It seems to me that America cinema keeps ending at the same point where everybody is super-happy. All the bad people have gone away. It’s very boring, and kind of a lie. I’m assuming you can go to the cinema and have a very entertaining, uplifting time, but not at the expense of the integrity of the film or building up to these happy endings. Not that my ending is unhappy, I just think that my experience of life is that people you thought you loved are actually your friend, the people you thought were your friends, those are the ones you love. It’s always surprising in that way, you know what I mean?

CS: You’re already developing your next movie, something called I believe “Sing Street”? Is another music related movie similar to this and “Once”?

It’s actually very different. It’s all about kids, so it’s very different in terms of it’s not a grown-up movie. It’s kind of like an adventure musical in a weird way, but it’s set in the ‘80s in a school with a bunch of kids and then there are some teachers and parents. But it is I suppose connected to “Once” and “Begin Again” in that it is in how music shapes your decisions and informs and helps you make up your mind about things.

CS: Are you going to be looking for new unknown actors as you did in some ways with “Once”?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re mixing it up but certainly the main people will be unknowns and it will star some great actors we’re looking at for other roles, but it will be a film full of new faces.

Begin Again is now playing in New York and L.A. and opens in more cities starting Wednesday, July 2.


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