With his 2006 breakthrough movie Once, filmmaker John Carney turned the streets of Dublin into the setting for a tuneful fairy tale, the kind of place in which an Irish street busker and a Czech immigrant could magically meet-cute on a corner and literally make beautiful music together. Now, the 42-year-old director hopes to do something similar for the dream-paved blocks of Manhattan with his latest project: Begin Again, the story of a singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) who tags along with her musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) when he’s skirted to New York City via a major-label deal. A chance encounter between Knightley’s heartbroken troubadour and a down-and-out A&R man (Mark Ruffalo) at an open-mic night leads to second chances for both the female songbird and her new No. 1 fan. (The film’s original title put the salvational aspects front and center: Can a Song Save Your Life?)
“I really see the music business as just another business,” Carney says. “For a lot of musicians, it is us versus them — the great artists and the evil corporate organization. I don’t really have that. I didn’t want to make a film about people just making music or falling in love; I wanted to make a film about the weay the industry works as well. But it also struck me as an interesting challenge to go back to that idea of somebody coming to a new city, and they have a little dream…they’re just not sure what it is yet.”
Carney spoke with Rolling Stone about teaching Keira Knightley to sing, why a stage version of Begin Again would be “hilarious,” and cycling around New York City to prepare for the shoot.
I understand you were partially inspired by the A&R guys in the Nineties in Ireland, looking for the next U2. What were those guys like?
That was the last period of huge A&R deals, and those guys had quite a lot of power — as well as a lot of money. They were being flown over first class to Ireland to find the next big thing, staying in swanky hotels; they all had big credit cards and drugs. These guys were all looking for the sound that was continuous with U2. That was the one thing they wanted, and I think a lot of great bands got ignored. It’s like a mining town: Prospectors coming after the rush, or during the rush, and trying to find that little yield.
How did that inform Mark Ruffalo’s character?
He was really into that idea of the British A&R man. Working with Mark was my attempt to reconnect with those people and imagine where they are now. Where are those 19 year-old guys from 1990? Are they married or divorced? Have they had kids? Did they end up in prison? Presumably, these folks don’t have a record label anymore — so how have they adapted?”
And how much did you draw on your own experiences?
Quite a bit, actually. I had a good three or four years when I was younger, where I was in the band — The Frames — with Glen [Hansard, from Once], and watched as he signed a big record contract. I got a very good inside look at how the music industry works. But then I went and did movies, so I had quite an interesting relationship with it. It didn’t screw me over or sting me too bad the way it did to a lot of people.
You wrote the script before you wrote the music, right?
I did. I wanted to do something different from the way I did Once — to work the music around the story, instead of the other way around. It’s better when you’ve got a script that works and then try and think, now what does [Knightley’s character] Gretta’s music sound like?
How involved were you with the process of songwriting?
More than I’d like, I have to say. I ended up writing two songs for the movie. Glen Hansard had written a song and then [New Radicals singer] Gregg Alexander wrote like three songs for the movie, so it was an interesting mix and match of styles and tones.
Keira Knightley has said she was nervous to sing. What guidance did you give her?
I just put her into a room with a voice coach. I got her to sing once for me and was like, she’ll be fine. This character was never really about having a great voice, it was more about the idea of what she was saying.
What did having someone like Adam Levine mean for the part of her musician boyfriend?
I think he brought a lot to it. He has a large amount of experience in the music industry himself, so what that meant is that when I went slightly wrong he could correct me on certain things. There are lots of similarities between him and [his character] Dave in terms of the business that they’re in.
Speaking of rock stars, you’re about to start shooting Sing Street with Bono and the Edge. How involved are they on the project?
I think they’re going to write a couple of songs for sure, and they’ve been extremely helpful in discussing the musical aspects of the film. It’s going to be set in the Eighties, and obviously U2 were extremely prolific then, so they’ll bring that sense of having been there. Whether they’ve be involved more than that is unknown, but they’ve certainly been great sounding boards; Bono has been very helpful with fleshing out the characters and the story as I’ve sort of pitched the project to him over the last few months. I’m looking forward to getting some great songs together.
How has he been helpful with story?
He’s just a guy that likes movies and he knows about storytelling. But I think a lot of musicians know about that kind of thing; I think a gig is a story, an album is a story. Most people that write lots of music have some sense of a three-act structure.
Is he drawing on his own experiences?
No, because it’s not that type of movie. This movie is about a kid that forms a school band, and even though U2 were a school band, it is a very different film. Neither he nor the Edge will be appearing in it, either; they’re just musical advisors.
Once has won eight Tonys. Would you like to see Begin Again on stage?
I think that would be hilarious. Then again, the idea of Once being on stage was sort of hilarious, and when the producers pitched the idea, I was like yeah, great — like that will really happen. And they made it happen brilliantly so…never say never. I very much doubt lightening strikes twice in life like that. But I would be more than happy to pick up the paycheck [laughs].
Did you spend anytime in New York’s clubs, or in the Brooklyn music scene, to get a sense of what’s?
No, not at all. Making a film in a city that you don’t live in requires that you know it to a certain degree; I just bought a bicycle and cycled around New York for months, and got to know it that way. I didn’t want it to be too much of a scene thing or anything like that. I wanted the film to have a certain innocence to it as well. You know, the characters aren’t from New York, they’re coming to the city to live their dreams and do their thing. There is a certain naiveté that goes with that.
Given that the record industry has changed so much, the notion that could someone go to Manhattan, play at a bar and get discovered…how much of this is wishful thinking?
[Laughs] I’m not saying this is a bar that A&R men frequent all the time. But I think that anything is possible, and it’s likely that if you have a good song, it could get heard by somebody. That song will find its home. Trust me.