Interview: ‘Begin Again’ director John Carney on making another ‘stealth musical’

Director John Carney, best known for "Once," has returned to the musical film genre with "Begin Again." Credit: Getty Images
Director John Carney, best known for “Once,” has returned to the musical film genre with “Begin Again.”
Credit: Getty Images

Seven years ago Irish musician-turned-filmmaker John Carney watched as his little film — “Once,” starring Glen Hansard as a street musician trying to record a song — blossomed into a phenomenon. He’s returned to the genre with “Begin Again,” in which he relocates to New York City to tell of a desperate A&R guy (Mark Ruffalo) working on an outside-the-box record with a shy musician (Keira Knightley). For Carney, the film is a way to explore a changing industry, one where it’s harder than ever to earn a living.

What was the motivation for returning to musical film?

The story is what appealed to me. I don’t really sit down thinking something should be a musical. I sit down and think about what I’m trying to get off my chest.

Like “Once,” though, this isn’t a traditional musical. The songs rise organically from the narrative and the whole thing is realistic.

They’re stealth musicals, aren’t they? They not like Broadways musicals where the dialogue is there to join the dots between songs. It’s the other way around. The songs are there to connect the characters and to further the plot, to develop characters.

The focus this time is on the music business. One thing it brings up is how do musicians these days actually make a living?

That’s a huge question and one that in this film is just asked as opposed to answered. I would not make any great claims to answering that question. It’s quite a sensitive issue for a lot of artists I know. A lot of people in this field feel their being taken advantage of, or it’s assumed their work should be done for free. If a plumber comes to your house to fix your toilet, you have to pay him. There’s a big onus on musicians to write for free, to write on spec. You hope your song gets in a movie and then you might get a licensing fee.

Keira Knightley (left) and Mark Ruffalo (right) play a musician and A&R guy who team up in "Begin Again." Credit: The Weinstein Company
Keira Knightley (left) and Mark Ruffalo (right) play a musician and A&R guy who team up in “Begin Again.”
Credit: The Weinstein Company

Like several artistic businesses, the industry is changing in part because there are some who are willing to work for free?

Who wouldn’t be? If you were 16 and someone said, “You want a song of yours in ‘Dexter’ or some new TV show?” — I would have done it for free. I would have done it for the kudos and the credit. Someone did a poll where they discovered the lowest paid job statistically in Ireland is acting. We have Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy, but we also have thousands of actors on stage breaking their balls every night for very small amounts of money. It seems music is going in that direction.

You also focus not only on a musician but on an A&R guy, who is not treated like a slimy greed monster.

I just felt like exploring what it’s like for someone for whom this business was not only how they paid their mortgage, but it was their reason to live. The discovery of new music is like the discovery of new lands. I know that sounds a bit pretentious, but that’s what it’s like for a good A&R man. When you see an A&R man dragging around their band and showing them off and having them play everywhere, you can see someone who’s like discovered an island. They want to put their flag on it. It made me quite sad and sorry for those guys to think that excitement of going to a club and hearing a band was changing so much — that their jobs are in jeopardy.

What is it like making a movie about musicians with actors who aren’t primarily musicians?

It’s nice to mix it up a little bit. Sometimes it’s nice to have an actor who’s singing or a singer who’s acting, and not have everybody doing what they’re comfortable doing. Keira was outside her comfort zone by having to perform a song or play the guitar. While Adam, who is completely comfortable with that side of things, you couldn’t stop him from singing or playing, was more nervous around the acting side of things.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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