While he was filming his latest movie Begin Again around Manhattan, Irish director John Carney couldn’t help but notice the cabs flitting past. Many of them were outfitted with ads touting the Broadway version of Once, a stage musical based on Carney’s last film, the beloved indie picture about two songwriters in Dublin who come together to make beautiful music.
“Here we were, trying to make a film about underdogs fighting the good fight for music, and we’re being reminded that Once is now a big Broadway show,” Carney says, marveling at the irony. “That was very odd.”
The impossibly romantic Once — which starred Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames and Markéta Irglová, neither of whom had acted professionally before — was shot without much fanfare over 17 days for the equivalent of around $160,000. Carney, a bassist for The Frames in the early 1990s, famously shot street scenes with a long lens because he didn’t have permits. But despite its humble beginnings, the movie struck a chord with American audiences and earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Falling Slowly.
Begin Again shares DNA with Once, but they’re different films, starting with the fact that the new movie, which opens Wednesday in South Florida, comes with a bigger budget, professional actors — and bigger expectations. The movie stars Keira Knightley as Gretta, a songwriter trying to find her voice in the wake of a bad breakup with her pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine). She’s discovered at an open mic night by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck music industry executive. Without the financial means to make a demo, the traditional path to courting a record company, the two embark on a plan to record an album on the streets of New York that will incorporate the ambient sounds of the city.
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“These are the people who don’t fit in,” says Carney, who wrote the script and then wrote the songs to fit the sort of music Gretta would write. “They’re the people who aren’t Michael Buble or Judy Garland. They don’t have all that in-your-face talent, but they’re valid songwriters, and they still have something to express. ... Once was about the guy and the girl, and their talent is clear. Falling Slowing is going to be a beautiful collaboration that moves people. But I didn’t want to do that again. This is about the compromises musicians and businessmen have to make to create something, the changes and adaptations you have to work with as opposed to the American dream of ‘never compromise.’ ”
This time around, Carney employed two professional actors as leads — but he did need one of them to sing. Knightley’s wispy voice is in tune with the movie’s demands: Gretta, who expresses herself eloquently through lyrics, isn’t a confident performer, especially at first. (Later in the film, she delivers a steely yet heartbreaking “drop dead” song into her ex’s voicemail.)
“She doesn’t sing in that big Mariah Carey way,” Carney says. “It’s a quiet voice, a delicate one. You listen to the lyrics. Keira was great for the part because she understood the role was the anti Voice, the anti X Factor. On those shows, everybody who has a great voice conforms to a narrow place. I’m not sure how well Tom Waits or Bob Dylan would do on those shows.”
And speaking of The Voice, its coach Levine proved a good foil for Knightley in his role of Dave, the singer who becomes a star and can’t quite manage his relationship and fame.
“Adam is a natural performer, and Dave is so comfortable with an audience,” Carney says. “The audience matters so much to him. He feeds off it. Gretta is more happy singing for her cat.”
To scout the locations around the city at which Gretta and Dan and their crew of musicians would record, Carney decided to move to New York for a time. He explored neighborhoods the old-fashioned way — on his bike, discovering where the nearest dry cleaner was and where to find the best bagel. His travels paid off in Begin Again’s gritty, natural feel.
“I tried not to seem like we had millions of dollars and were closing down streets,” Carney says. “It wouldn’t have worked for the story or for me. We wanted the same creative atmosphere we had on Once. Some days were harder than others. Most of the cast enjoyed that rough and ready approach to filmmaking, where you jump out of the van, film a scene and move on. That’s the way I like to make films. It’s that childlike approach to writing or painting that sort of makes it part of your life as opposed to work.”
Carney sees Begin Again and Once as pieces of a larger puzzle; he wants to make a series of films exploring music, how it gets made, how it brings people together, how it reflects time and place and emotion. Next up is Sing Street, about a Dublin boy who moves to London and starts a band (U2’s Bono and bandmates are consulting). But Carney’s also interested in the idea of making musical movies in Paris or Prague — or maybe just roaming around Europe by train.
“I’ll definitely make a bunch of films about music,” he says. “There’ll be five or six, and then we can compare and contrast them. I see it as an ongoing preoccupation. It’s the area where I can express myself, through music and film together.”
Because here’s the thing: In whatever form it’s delivered to us, live or via CD or digitally, music will always be around and part of our lives, Carney believes.
“Musically is naturally in the world all the time anyway. The wind blows through the grass and trees in a certain way. It’s very primal in us. It will always play a vital role for us, despite all these questions of ‘Is rock and roll dead? and ‘Has the Internet changed music forever?’ ”