John Carney: 'I’ll never make a film with supermodels again'

The Once director on his new film Sing Street, working with Keira Knightley, impending fatherhood, and how to write a hit musical

Elisa Bray
Friday 27 May 2016 20:01 BST
John Carney of 'Sing Street'
John Carney of 'Sing Street' (Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)

John Carney is a filmmaker and musician best known for his hit award-winning musical film Once. Formerly the bassist in The Frames, Dublin-based Carney’s last film was Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. His latest creation, Sing Street, is a must-see coming of age film set in the 80s about a teenager from a rough school forming a band to win a girl.

Sing Street has had rave reviews. How do you feel about the reaction?

Well, it’s fantastic. I’m very surprised; it’s a small personal movie with no Keira Knightleys in it. It’s really rewarding.

Did you feel pressure after making Once?

Maybe deep down and unconsciously. [Once] would be the opening line of my obituary. You’ve got to move on from that and not ever try to better it, but keep doing what you’re doing, and not let it overshadow any other work that you’re doing. If you have a success like Once, it’s tempting to worry about that, but not that I give much importance to it. A few people felt that Sing Street wasn’t the same as Once, but you’ve just got to try to deal with those and give each film your full attention and try not to worry about what people have said about in the past about your work.

What gave you the idea for Sing Street?

Having formed a school band and being in a school band in the 80s. I thought a few years ago eventually the issues would be far enough in my rear view mirror for it not to be too painful for me to look back on. I just thought the idea of a kid with all the trials and tribulations of life coming to school with a guitar on his back was a nice image.

Music really was a salvation for me at school – I wasn’t a sports guy and I wasn’t academically-minded so the band saved me from an awful lot. It gave me direction and something to do. I am a version of that kid in the film. He’s not quite as good-looking as I was as a kid, obviously. I was 13 and there was a lot of bluff and a lot of pretending that I was super confident, but there was probably a lot of doubt and nervousness underneath an exterior of confidence which I realised I had to give off in order to get by in the rough school that I went to. The band was a real cover up. You can’t get into other clubs you form your own club, right?

Do you rate your early recordings?

No! Thankfully all those cassettes were recorded over. If I used the music that I played in my school band it would be more like a horror film than a musical. There was one very talented member, but the rest of us were bluffing a little bit. A lot of Irish bands were. For U2 there were a lot of U3s that didn’t make it.

How did you find the band for Sing Street?

I did a very big open casting call and put lots of ads in newspapers and got a really good casting supervisor and we went wide – clubs, music halls and competitions –and gathered together a bunch of people who had never really acted before which was the key to me, because I didn’t really want to get a bunch of kids who were actors already and have all those bad habits that child actors have.

Once I had him [Ferdia Walsh-Peelo] I had the rest of the cast fit around him as he was the lead singer in the band and all that. It really was about forming a band that looked plausible. It takes a lot of people to realise that it really is all about the lead singer. That is the truth that a lot of bass players and drummers can’t deal with. I was very much the lead singer in my school band, and it took me a long time to realise that I wasn’t lead singer material.

How do you manage to tie music and film together so well?

I’ve kind of become the unlikely poster boy for that now. The big thing for me is I wanted to make a musical but I didn’t want anyone to know it was a musical, and I didn’t want to put the word musical on the poster. So it’s a stealth musical; it creeps up on you - it doesn’t seem like one, but it actually is. I felt that a really necessary part of making a modern musical is that it doesn’t have any of the traditional recognisable tropes of the older musicals, which I love, many of them – Guys and Dolls, Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, New York, New York. Films where the music moves the drama along, it doesn’t just break from the drama, but actually the music is as important as the dialogue and moves the characters and the plot along.

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Back in the days of The Frames when you were making music videos, did you have ambition to be a feature filmmaker?

It was something that I developed around the time that I was in the band in my 20s when I was getting into movies and watching movies with a more critical eye and less as entertainment. Everyone else was off at Star Wars or ET and I was watching Godard movies or Ingmar Bergman movies or older American 1930s and 40s movies, so I think if I hadn’t been a filmmaker I probably would have been a film critic. I bought a camcorder and took it from there.

Did you ever imagine you’d make Once, and become a name in film?

I have to say I did. All kids dream very big. I did believe in myself and had a lot of confidence injected into me by my parents and siblings and a lot of self-belief and determination. It’s not courage you have when you’re young, it’s a sense of single mindedness and a sense of vocation which is quite pure.

How did you want your viewers of Sing Street to feel?

It’s very different from Once obviously. Sing Street is very much more about entertainment and fun. I wanted to finish the triptych of musical films that I realised I was working on between Once, Begin Again and Sing Street.

I do believe that Sing Street is a movie that I would’ve liked to have been around when I was young. I think it will encourage kids to do what they want to do and believe in themselves a little bit and have some more fun at school. Growing up in school was hard for me. I think that films need to serve some purpose other than just entertainment.

How significant was it to make the film in Ireland?

I had just come back from making this far bigger movie in America and I was a bit disenchanted with working with certain movie stars in that movie and I wanted a break.

I didn’t enjoy that experience of paparazzi and fabulous openings. The movie star world is not something that ever appealed to me. I like working with actors and I wanted to come back to what I knew and enjoy film-making again – not that I didn’t enjoy Begin Again but Keira has an entourage that follow her everywhere so it’s very hard to get any real work done, and so I was very ready to come back to Ireland and make films that nobody cared about who was in it or any of that crap.

I think the real problem was that Keira wasn’t a singer and wasn’t a guitar player and it’s very hard to make music seem real if it’s not with musicians. And I think the audience struggled a little bit with that in Begin Again. And as much as I tried to make it work I think that she didn’t quite come out as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter. So I really wanted to work with musicians and actors that could play their instruments properly and sing and stuff like that.

So you learned a lot from making that film.

Yeah, I did. I learned that I’ll never make a film with supermodels again.

Mark Ruffalo is a fantastic actor and Adam Levine is a joy to work with and actually quite unpretentious and not a bit scared of exposing himself on camera and exploring who he is as an individual. I think that that’s what you need as an actor; you need to not be afraid to find out who you really are when the camera’s rolling. Keira’s thing is to hide who you are and I don’t think you can be an actor and do that. And working with the kids on this film and real instruments there was no hiding going on. It really was a bit of a journey of self-discovery for the actors in Sing Street and that appeals to me.

So it’s not like I hate the Hollywood thing but I like to work with curious, proper film actors as opposed to movie stars. I don’t want to rubbish Keira, but you know it’s hard being a film actor and it requires a certain level of honesty and self-analysis that I don’t think she’s ready for yet and I certainly don’t think she was ready for on that film.

The soundtrack really captures the sound of the 80s. How was the songwriting process for you?

We just worked on it for a long, long time coming up to filming. And we took a long time developing the songs and making sure that the songs didn’t just say ‘80s’, but that they were actually valid tunes in themselves.

Part of the reason for doing it was that I had an iPhone full of tunes and lyrics and half written ideas that needed to go somewhere and in a way I fashioned them from those ideas. Once Gary Clark came on board, Gary was my Glen Hansard [frontman of The Frames], he was delivering these phenomenal songs and melodies and great lyrics. ‘Drive it Like You Stole It’ is completely penned by Gary. And it’s the best song in the movie by a mile. It sounded 80s and in a sense sounded so derivative to begin with, but then goes off on its own fantastic voyage and becomes what I think is a potential hit record.

I promised myself 20 years ago that I would never do anything involved in music that wasn’t fun. I’d never turn music into my living again because it’s sacred to me. It was great fun doing Sing Street.

How exciting was it to watch the film coming together and hearing the songs? Did you feel like you were a teenager in your school band again?

A little bit like that. There is a certain joy on a film set when you know or suspect what you’re making is going to be appreciated. I remember having that with Once, and to a degree having it with Begin Again. There was one moment in Begin Again where Keira and James Corden write this little song drunk together at a keyboard and that moment I think the purest moment in the film because it was in the bedroom.

The idea that Proust wrote all of his books lying in his bedroom it just seemed for me a really interesting place to start a big musical film. So when we were doing that scene I really felt that this was something that people could really get behind and enjoy.

So if Sing Street completes the triptych of musical films, should we not expect any more from you?

I have nothing musically in me at the moment, no. I’ll probably make some sort of drama next or comedy drama, just because I don’t have a store of musical ideas at the moment. You have to have a soundtrack before you have a film for a musical. All the great musicals were built around soundtracks, like Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris was written around George Gershwin’s back catalogue; they have songs and then they build the drama around them.

What inspired you’re the music and lyrics on your iPhone?

I was reflecting on my life, as a filmmaker who has some success. I guess I was thinking about how did this all start and to whom do I owe something of this good fortune. And also myself and my partner were trying to have a baby, and at the time that we made Sing Street we were going through a bit of an emotional minefield and I was finding myself a little bit more vulnerable and emotional when I would sit at the piano or guitar. Good songs and good ideas for music generally come when you’re a little bit sad.

And everything’s great right now in my life - we’re having a baby, the film is out, and right now you find me sitting on a bench in Dublin in the sun not having a profound thought from day to day. I have no creative urge in me whatsoever and it’s actually quite nice.

Sing Street is in cinemas now. The soundtrack is out on DECCA now

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