Interview: John Carney Talks ‘Begin Again,’ Awards, and the Music in His Work

John CarneyFor director John Carney, music is an integral part of his work. It’s an unsurprising statement considering the Irish-born director has already helmed two successful modern-day musicals, 2006’s Once and this year’s Begin Again. Once was a critical and commercial success in 2007 with “Falling Slowly” nabbing the Oscar for Best Original Song. After that success, Carney took a seven-year break before Begin Again, a movie with similar romantic and musical sentiments. With Begin Again’s Oscar campaign in full effect (there’s talk of nominations in Original Score, Song, and Best Actress for Keira Knightley) and the film’s recent release on DVD and Blu-ray, Carney took time to talk to Awards Circuit about the film, where he fits in the pantheon of musical directors, and his future aspirations.

Coming back to the world of musicals provided a challenge for the Carney, as he knew comparisons would fly between his last effort and his latest. “I was aware of the fact [that] I was operating within the same wheelhouse.” It wasn’t surprising to him that the two films would “inevitably be compared,” but it wasn’t anything that worried him. The distinction which best differentiates the two is their respective use of music, something Carney always tries to keep as an element within his films. For Once, “it was different in that I knew the music Glen Hansard writes and I manufactured a story with his music in mind. [Begin Again] was an unknown. It was more experimentation and we recorded the music right up until the end of filming.”

Carney believes, if anything, the two films “sound” different. An idea best exemplified by listening to “Falling Slowly,” the Academy Award-winning film from Once and “Lost Stars,” the Adam Levine performed track that could win Best Original Song this year. I asked Carney about working and casting Levine, best known as the front man for his band Maroon 5 and one of the judges on NBC’s The Voice, as Knightley’s musician boyfriend, Dave. Carney always planned on casting someone with a musical background. He explains, “I did want to mix it up. I always thought the character of Dave would be a musician or have a background in the music world because Keira isn’t a singer. I wanted to balance that. I wanted one person with musical credentials and no one has more than Adam Levine.” It is this balance, especially, between the world of professional music and the more indie world of Knightley’s character, Greta, that Carney hoped to get “right.”

One element where the balance wasn’t right was the film’s title. Originally named Can a Song Save Your Life?, the movie received an 11th-hour begintitle change to the shorter Begin Again. I asked Carney about his thoughts on the name change and whether it was a studio mandated issue or general fear that the title was too wordy. He says neither factor played into the decision to change the title, but more than the title asked a grander question than the film seeks to answer. “I was slightly uncomfortable about…setting the movie up as answering big questions. It’s [a movie] more concerned with asking questions than finding answers.” It was feared that such a lengthy title, complete with question mark at the end, would leave audiences wondering if the film was “setting up to find all the answers.”And economics didn’t help as Carney states, “We felt it would divide audiences.”

It’s interesting the role technology plays in Begin Again, being a helping hand to the characters, because technology wasn’t my friend during my interview. The recorder I was hoping to use ended up failing on me, causing me to resort to writing the interview by hand. As I feverishly typed Carney’s answers I struggled to maintain the line of questioning. Thankfully, Carney decided to turn the tables on me, asking me what I thought Begin Again should be nominated for! I hated to admit my fangirl adoration for Levine and his song – which I’d already admitted to Carney was utterly infectious to his agreement – but chimed in to say it was worthy of Best Song and that Knightley did present a good character worthy of a nomination. Despite his asking, Carney admits he never enters a film production with awards on his mind since there’s a tendency towards wondering “will lightening strike twice?” “We’re aware of it, but that’s a dark path to go down…you can start second guessing.” However, Carney sees the film as “valid” and hopes there’s room for nominations, particularly for leading man Mark Ruffalo, the man whom Carney built the entire cast around. “Mark was top of my wish list…from very early on we built the cast around him.”

After making two successful musicals, does Carney plan on staying within the genre for the foreseeable future? It certainly seems like he will for now, with his latest film, Sing Street closing out the director’s “triumvirate” of musical based features when it’s released next year. “I’ll always do [films] with a musical theme” but he’s not against “excluding” other genres like horror. “If I did a horror film I’d have loads of fun!” Speaking of horror, Carney cites The Omen as a great film utilizing music within the horror genre, which led me to asking Carney where he sees himself in the pantheon of musical directors that stretches all the way back to the 1920s. Carney calls his films “stealth musicals,”  where the music comes upon the audience gradually. While Carney appreciates the musicals of the past, “I take those films quite seriously,” he finds today’s musicals have less room to introduce songs so “you have to know how to approach the craft of the songs.” Carney hopes that both his musicals end up aging well, and one day enter the pantheon of other legendary musicals.

Ultimately, Carney hopes to continue using “music in a meaningful way,” even if he works in different genres. So far he’s doing well with the style he’s perfected. Whether Begin Again goes home with something or nothing, the music remains and John Carney has certainly carved out a niche as one of Hollywood’s new leading musical directors.