12 August 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTN talks to 'Begin Again' writer-director John Carney
09 Jul 2014 : Dylan Newe
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley star in 'Begin Again'
‘Once’ writer-director John Carney has yet again combined music, a seemingly unusual coupling, comedy & bucketfuls of charm to create one of the summer’s best films with his new release, 'Begin Again'.
Shot against a beautiful New York summer, the film tells the story of washed up A&R record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who stumbles upon struggling & heartbroken English songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) at a bar, a meeting which quickly turns into a promising collaboration between the pair. 'Begin Again' was released earlier this month to acclaim in the US with Rolling Stone writing, “the film hits the summer sweet spot by breezing in on waves of humor, heartache and ravishing romance”.

IFTN caught up with 'Begin Again’s writer-director Carney in Dublin just days before the release date of the film. What of the recent success of the Mrs. Brown’s Boys movie? Carney nods positively... “I appreciate what he's doing because you look at his film and you know what you're getting. I mean I'm not going to go see it and be disappointed. And I'm glad to see Irish people going out to see Irish films and I'm kind of amazed as well”.

That's what mainstream cinema is, making something that only you can make, that nobody else is going to do, that audiences know what they're getting "

John, take us through the process of getting ‘Begin Again’ made?

Well, I pitched the script to Judd Apatow in Los Angeles, I had made 'Once' and that got me into a lot of rooms over there, one of which was Judd's and I was kind of pitching projects. I told him this story about an A&R man who meets this girl singer-songwriter, she's been dumped, now in New York, where the music industry's changed quite a lot...and he really responded to that. So he commissioned me to write a script based on the outline which is bizarre becuase he's Judd Apatow and it didn't seem to be in his wheelhouse, but as it turns out he was developing 'Girls' with Lena Dunham also and so he was branching out into slightly different things, which presumably is why he picked this up. So I went off and wrote a first draft and bounced it back and forth in meetings and on the phone between myself and Judd and developed it, brought it up to where we wanted it. Then brought it out to cast, and got the financing very quickly from a company called Exclusive Media. Again more meetings with the script and telling them how I wanted to make the film, and then out to cast it.

The film has an amazing cast, including four Oscar nominees. How did you cast the key roles?

The first person to come on board was Mark Ruffalo, I spoke to him on the phone from London where he was shooting The Avengers and we just sort of connected on movies we liked, mad Gene Hackmen and Marlon Bando movies, and the way we liked to work. So he signed up quite early, then Keira got on board. The first draft of Keira's character was an Irish girl so I guess it was a bit more like one of those Irish musical couples, we won't mention any names, who went off together on tour and one gets more famous than the other, I think that idea is really interesting. Not just in music, but in the literary or art world with couples where their careers never take off at the same time, so there's conflict and possibly another test between them.

Scarlett Johansson was attached but she pulled out, and then I started to go back to the original script and think of the character, "who is she?". So I started to re-emphasise the fish out of water, the stranger in New York element, and Keira, I think plays the underdog so well in this. Even though you might come to the film thinking "how could she do that?" but when you see the way we do it you get it, that she’s struggling in this place. Then I heard that she had read the script and seen ‘Once’ so I went over to meet her and she seemed cool and she really wanted to do the film.

The film also features an amazing roster of real –life musicians including Adam Levine from Maroon 5, in quite a key role, but also Mos Def and Cee-Lo Green. How did they get involved? Did Adam Levine really work for free as he claims?

I just rang all the musicians up, got their numbers and just called them. Adam, I had heard got the script somehow. He didn't do it for a million dollars for sure, I mean he did do it definitely for a reduced fee but he did it because he really wanted to do it. I think Adam is actually one of the revelations in this film to me, and not just with the performance but personally as well. Great guy, fantastic, funny, self-deprecating Jewish kid, just like an idiot really. I thought he was great.

The film sees the characters recording an album off the cuff on the lo-fi around New York city, was shooting the film a very similar process? Did the spirit of these recordings lend itself to a very around-the-campfire vibe on set?

Haha, much less so than it seems, but just because in America you have to go through more red tape, we stole some stuff that we maybe shouldn't but America is so litigious that even if you do steal something and get it in the can they can still sue you whereas in Ireland if you shoot something you own it but in America they can sue you after the fact. So we had to be careful of that but we still stole some of it, like all the stuff at Times Square.

At the end of the day, those kind of actors treat work very much like work, they're shooting something like three films a year so they can't...there's only an extent to which they'll go. Mark was very much like one of the gang on set, he was like a kid, and he gave himself over the production in a way that was quite remarkable actually.

The film finds Greta (Keira Knightley’s character) trying desperately to preserve her purity in the music industry which wants so badly to take that away, is this the message of the film?

The music industry was so corrupt, way more corrupt than what we showed in the film because at least the film has to account to somebody, but in reality so much of it is like a circus. Give 10% to the band and shove off with 90%, a real gangster business, so I wanted to reflect that it's still in the music business, there still are gangsters operating. There still is the fact that most music we like, most popular music is created by very young people and young people say yes to everything. So I wanted to highlight that.

How does the changing nature of the film business, with video-on-demand, multiplatform release dates etc. affect you or do you think it even does?

I think it does, I really do. I mean it hasn't yet but if this film got out online or something that would kill us. So while on the one hand I'm ‘Mr. Everything should be free’ and all that stuff, actually not really. So nobody knows where it's gonna go or where it'll change. I think I'm okay because I figured myself out as a filmmaker which is that I'm going to do music films. And music films are like action films but without the explosion.

The music in the film is sensational, how did you work with established pop songwriters like Gregg Alexander and Rick Nowels in creating the feel of the soundtrack for the film?

I just got Gregg Alexander's number off a guy, and I had really liked that song "You Get What You Give" by The New Radicals (written and performed by Alexander) back in the 90's, and I always loved that song and it reminded me of summer and made me feel like I was 19 again, so I always wondered who that guy was. I thought, if you could get that spirit in my movie then we're off to the right start.

So we tried and I think we got it to a degree, I think certainly "Lost Stars" is an Oscar-worthy song but there's only actually four of Gregg's songs in the movie, one of Glen Hansard's and two of my own. But I think it does sound like it's from the same source, we did get on the same page in terms of the music. I gave them the script with a very strict outline that certain songs had to work in very particular places, it was quite prescribed. With 'Lost Stars' I went through about 30 songs before I found that one. It had to be right.

The film has already been released to great reviews in the States and Empire recently called it one of the films of the summer, how do you think ‘Begin Again’ will do here in Ireland and abroad?

I think it could do well in Ireland actually which would be really good because I've never had anything that's done well here. ‘Once’ was more international and sometimes I think the only reason people watched Bachelor's Walk was cos’ they had to, because it was stuck in front of them on RTÉ Two. But it worked once people saw it, but I mean ‘Zonad’ (Carney's last film) here did about three cents at the box office, and it's the getting seen that's the hardest thing as a filmmaker. So I hope this film is visible, and is being seen on the side of buses and that people will go see it, and have a good night and feel like going home and writing a song or playing a song or engaging with music. And internationally I have no idea!

You seem to have found your niche as a filmmaker, is that something which you’re comfortable with?

Yes, the more that I think about it, that's what mainstream cinema is, it’s making something that only you can make, that nobody else is going to do, that audiences know what they're getting, otherwise they will just wait for VOD, they're not gonna get a babysitter and drive all the way to the cinema to see some odd Irish film and they can't figure out and who's in it, it's just not the way it works anymore.

You’re just about to start shooting your new film Sing Street in Dublin which will feature music written by Bono and The Edge, how’s that coming along?

It's going great, we're just in casting at the moment so looking for this kid who can play lead, a new 13-year old face who can sing, play guitar and act. But its set in the 80's and it's kind of my story about growing up and forming a band to distract everybody and defend myself from bullies and skinheads, and I guess in a way it’s about how that led to everything else that turned out good in my life. It led to meeting Glen and being able to play bass, which led to playing in The Frames which led to film which led to Once which then led to this. I wanted to find out what the big bang on my life was for that and I think it was one day in school deciding to form a band, and that decision seems to be like a before & after moment in my life because I was probably only about 12 at the time so I wanted to write about that.

Begin Again is released by Entertainment One on July 11th.

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