Catching Up With John Carney on Begin Again

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Photo by Michael Dunaway

Although John Carney, best known as the director of the 2006 indie masterpiece Once, doesn’t particularly like it, his new film Begin Again is inevitably going to be seen as a “next level” type of project. After all, instead of two relatively unknown (in the U.S., anyway) musicians, the new film stars Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine and even Cee-Lo. But it’s a very, very different film—tonally, structurally, visually. Although it’s also another film about two people finding each other and themselves through music, those who go into the theater expecting Once: The Hollywood Version are in for a surprise. Carney talked to us recently about the two films, about the genius of Ruffalo, and about what would have happened if Tom Waits had started his career as a contestant on The X-Factor.

Paste: Great. It’s good to talk with you again! I hope your press day is going well.
Carney: Yeah, it is. It’s exhausting.

Paste: Well, the last time you and I spoke, we were on a rooftop in New York, and we were speaking about Zonad, which you know I thoroughly enjoyed, as well as being a huge fan of Once, of course. I’m expecting that your press run for Begin Again will be a little bit different. This movie has a bit of a higher profile. Tell me about working with the great Mark Ruffalo, and how he brought that character to life in such a vivid way.

Carney: Well, you know, Mark knows people from the music industry as well as from the film industry. It was funny watching Mark because he really wanted to capture the character. He’s one of those people who is kind of like a butterfly—you can’t hold them down, not even for a second, because they’re gone. He used a lot of his personal life and his experiences. Dan is sort of a weather-beaten, experienced character. I think that Mark was really intrigued by that.

Paste: Yeah… Mark’s character reminded me of one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s an Oscar Wilde quote—“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Carney: Yes… yes. That’s perfect.

Paste: That sense of being beaten down, but not giving up.
Carney: Yeah, I think that is where Dan is coming from as a character. In that sense, I think the Greta character is like the stars. He sees her as a sort of magical twinkling of light, no matter what the situation. That’s a very appropriate quote.

Paste: The comparison to Once is going to be inevitable. I don’t want to make the whole interview about that, but I do think it’s interesting to contrast that in Once, you used musicians and sort of threw them into acting roles, while in Begin Again, you used actors like Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley and threw them into musical roles. What challenges did that bring?
Carney: I think you’re right; people are endlessly comparing the two films. But anyone who thinks this is like the big, Hollywood version of my career, or who thinks this is where I might go with my next film, is incorrect. By American standards, this is actually an extremely small film. It’s also a very personal story. It’s not a story that I’ve in any way made up. It’s a very personal piece.

And I don’t really look at Mark or Keira as movie stars. I don’t think either of them is a sellout in any way. I think Mark is a serious actor, but I also feel that he’s a real artist. Whether you are an actor or a singer doesn’t really matter. Keira certainly has that movie-star sort of feel, but she is also a regular English girl. She is a regular, normal person who wants to make interesting movies. And Adam Levine—Adam is just a guy in a band. It’s not like I went out looking for hunks or heavy-hitting movie stars.

I actually think it’s an interesting continuation of that film. It’s a different approach to filmmaking and storytelling. I’ve read people criticizing this film for being a little bit “feel good,”, and it may be a little bit hopeful and optimistic, but that’s because of the subject matter at hand, as well as the story that I wanted to tell. I really felt those emotions at the time that I was making it. When I made Once, I felt sort of bluesy and melancholy about love and music. I felt more uplifted when I was writing this film. That’s the reason why it’s the film that it is. I’m glad that you’re seeing the two films separately, like you say.

Paste: It’s like when PJ Harvey made her Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea album. Some hardcore fans were angry because she was so happy on the album. In the end, she was like, “I’m sorry! I’m just happy. Give me a break!”
Carney: Yeah. That’s exactly what it’s like. If you write a critical review for Begin Again saying that it was a feel-good, romantic kind of film, you might be right. I didn’t feel like breaking everybody up and having a somber bit of music playing. At one time, however, that was the order of the day.

Paste: You’ve made these two incredibly, lushly romantic, movies without a single kiss between the main characters. I wonder if you could be introspective for a second and kind of tell me what it is about unconsummated love that really draws an audience in? In the Mood for Love has to be one of your favorite movies as well, right?
Carney: Exactly.

Paste: Tell me about how that worked artistically.
Carney: I think that’s a very interesting question. Someone was recently saying to me, “What kind of a romantic film is it if the lead characters don’t even kiss? They don’t make love or consummate their relationship.” But in Brief Encounter, I don’t think they kiss. They certainly don’t make love. I think they just go to an apartment, then it doesn’t work. Itfeels awful, and they part.

In a way, in life, a kiss can sort of ruin a lovely moment. There’s this moment, regardless of whether or not you’re a woman or a man, when you feel this attraction and connection. Sometimes, a kiss would take away from the moment. I think that’s true in life. And, I also think it’s true in cinema in a way. It’s not that I’m trying to be chaste or anything! There’s no … I don’t know… Catholic guilt in this movie. I love a good kiss in a film. I think it’s essential for certain types of films. But this is really a film in which the romance grows out of collaboration and music. I felt that a kiss would look a little bit wrong.

Paste: I think it’s interesting that the film has a kind of stealth feminism to it. It has a female protagonist, which is unlikely enough in film culture. But also, Knightley’s character sort of strips away the elements—almost like a Jane Austen heroine—she strips away all the things that are constraining her. And then there’s that great shot of her riding her bike at the end. It’s such an actualizing moment. It was a moment of freedom. How conscious were you of that thread running through the film?
Carney: This is something that men rarely think of, but what is it like to be a woman in the music industry? When you start thinking about what women in the music industry have to put up with—in terms of what to wear, how they should look, how they should sound, how they should appear — it’s a massive range of issues and questions. It’s hard enough being in a band or being a musician anyway! To add sexuality to that is very hard. I’ve known women who have really hard times evaluating things like, “Did I get this because of my looks?”

Men never have to think about that … never. I mean, can you imagine writing a really good song and trying to get it picked up, and then your manager wants to sleep with you, and the record label wants to put your face on every album, and they want you to change your clothes so you’ll be sexier. It makes it hard to evaluate what your own music and lyrics mean. It makes you question whether or not music is just one element to your persona. You begin to ask, “Is it about my looks? Is my image okay?” I think the music business is a very strange place for a woman to be in, and I wanted to examine that. I think Keira does a good job of expressing that in her face without every really saying it.

Paste: I also like that her character was not the most likable person. There were moments where, as an audience, you get annoyed at her type of character. But, somehow, it’s okay.
Carney: A far as the annoying part, I absolutely agree with you. It’s funny because I’ve received a few reviews where people say, “She’s kind of annoying.” They seem to be missing the point. The point is that this girl is learning and trying. But, yes, she can seem like a pain in the ass sometimes. I’m not just saying she’s some sort of genius and people should listen to everything she’s saying; her character is supposed to be finding herself. Some people don’t get that.

The first song that she sings in the club, the one where Paul sees the instruments come alive—it’s supposed to be about someone seeing the potential in something. It’s not supposed to be Judy Garland singing an amazing song. If that’s what it is, he’s not that great an A&R man. To pick an example from my own past, if that song is “Falling Slowly,” then we all know that it’s a genius song, and he’s no better an A&R man than the barman is. And likewise, she’s learning as she goes. She’s learning to shut up a little bit and stop opinionating about everything, and that she’s not right about everything. She’s a tricky, funny, faulted character, but I think that’s what makes her real.

Paste: Totally. It’s life. In respect to the quality of the songs and what he hears in them, most stories about musicians are stories about rocketing to super-stardom. I love that this movie centers around a victory that is not having the number one record in the world. In fact, it’s set up so that, in this movie, having a number one record is almost a false victory. The true victory lies in finding that truth and that collaboration. I thought that was really cool.
Carney: I’m glad that you’ve taken that from it. That’s exactly what I feel about the film, too. Adam’s character is a truly great performer by the end of the film, and good luck to him. He’s very natural on stage, and he’s earned that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he has triumphed. There is so much room for so many different acts and people, and recluses or agoraphobes, for people who don’t sing amazingly well, and are clunky, and who don’t play the guitar well, but who have something really interesting to say. There is room for everyone.

It’s happening more and more on big shows like The X-Factor. Shows like The X-Factor are full of moments of a mother bringing her kid to the stage, and—it’s the same gimmick each time; it’s like, “this person looks so unlikely to be a pop singer.” But, then they get up and open up their lungs and sing, and it’s incredible, they have this amazing voice. But I think, no they don’t have an amazing voice. That just sounds like Michael Bublé. So great, this person can do a very narrow idea of what great singing and great performing is. But, what if Tom Waits was on The X-Factor? Back in the day, I don’t know how that would feel.

Paste: Or Bob Dylan. “Can you please stop singing through your nose, Bob! You’re never gonna make it if you sing that way!” Or Neil Young. Heaven help us if if Neil Young was on The X-Factor.
Carney: Exactly! Unless you can do that thing … that Michael Bublé, Beyoncé thing … then you’re never going to be a superstar. But all that is is vocal chords and training. It’s not some God-given thing. Frank Sinatra didn’t just have a great voice; he had an incredibly character-like, strange and wonderful voice. And like we were just saying, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young—there’s such a wide range of different expressions of your soul through your voice.

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