Writer-director John Carney laments that his film Once will inevitably be the first thing mentioned in his obituary, and he isn’t wrong. The low-budget 2007 indie, featuring Markéta Irglová and The Frames’ Glen Hansard as musicians who sing together as a substitute for the relationship they can’t have, became an international hit, and won an Oscar for Hansard’s song “Falling Slowly.” The Broadway adaptation won eight Tony awards and has been performed around the world. It’s the kind of success story that naturally becomes the benchmark for all future endeavors.
Carney’s subsequent films have been very different in style — Once is a film that looks like it was captured on the fly in Dublin by a guerrilla filmmaker. (Parts of it were.) Carney’s follow-ups, Begin Again and the new Sing Street, are much more highly polished. But all three films deal with a similar theme: the power music has to communicate emotion, and even to stand in for conversation. In all three films, characters share songs to get across things they can’t say, or know they shouldn’t. In Sing Street, which opened last weekend in limited release, and is now expanding to wide release, a teenage boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) tries to impress a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) by starting a band, which quickly becomes his life. The movie is based heavily on Carney’s own high-school experiences. I recently talked to Carney about where the film departs from his story, how he feels about the Once comparisons, the Sing Street song he expects to be a breakout hit, and why he wishes he’d killed off his teenage protagonists at the end of the story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Spoiler warning: This interview touches lightly on the ending of Sing Street.
Tasha Robinson: Why was it important to you to cast non-professional actors in the lead roles in Sing Street?
John Carney: Because child actors can have a lot of very bad habits that are taught to them by acting coaches, these slightly charlatan failed actors teaching kids how to act. And then I’d just be standing on a set all day, unwinding and undoing those bad habits. You know how child actors are like [Prissy fake voice.] "My name is Murray, and I’ve been in a show! Well! I’m so angry right now! And now I’m dancing!" And it’s like, "Okay, let’s not do that." So I said "I’ll teach them my own bad habits!"
What was your audition process like? What were you most looking for?
Just for character, really. Looking for kids that had character, that had their own stories, and were able to tell stories, and communicate their ideas, all that sort of stuff, really. Somebody who has — that’s a good question, actually. Apart from musical skill, which was important, I was looking for somebody that would make me laugh. But it was a horrible experience doing that open casting call with kids, because you had to send kids away empty-handed, which I think is terrible. I wouldn’t do it again, to be honest. Because as much as you can explain to an adult why it’s not going their way, I don’t think children understand that. I think children feel the injustice of things. I think it’s not appropriate to promise something, even though you aren’t promising it literally. But to suggest that you might promise something, and then not give it, is probably not good for them. It’s nothing that I’d do again.
How important was musical talent? Are we hearing these kids on the soundtrack?
You’re certainly hearing them singing. So it was very important to me that they were able, that they had a musical background, that they were interested in music.
How familiar were they with this era, with the '80s music you were bringing into the story?
About as familiar I am with the '50s. So my understanding of my parents’ generation, the '40s or '50s — I was born in 1972 — my view of the '50s or '60s is purely through television and bits of literature. Even though I know people who lived in the '50s or '60s, it feels like almost like a different planet, because I didn’t taste it. While the '70s and '80s, I understand. Kids born in 2000 or 2002 or whatever, their relationship with the '80s is purely idea-based, all based on what they see on the internet. So I think "very little" is the answer to your question. What I figured they had was huge black holes of knowledge that I tried to help fill in a little bit, just to explain how the decade worked, the timeline of certain musical events. Their understanding was very patchy. But they loved the look, they loved the music, and they loved the craziness of the '80s. They just needed a lot of gentle research, let’s say, into the decade.
"The family dynamic is nothing like my family, really."
You’ve said this is partially an autobiographical story, reflecting your school, and your band, and the bullies you got off your back with your music, and the girl you wanted to impress. What was the biggest departure for you, from your own life story?
Well, the family dynamic is nothing like my family, really. I think that’s an amalgam of very different families I thought I knew something about, from looking in the window, or through the kids. But the biggest departure is that Conor is an incredibly handsome kid who can do no wrong, and is so full of confidence. I wasn’t like that at all. I had an inner belief in myself, but I didn’t walk around with that swagger. I didn’t look that way. The second Ferdia got the part, the film changed quite significantly. I think it's important to cut your cloth, not try to force an actor like that into saying things in a certain way. So I went with him, I went with the ridiculous confidence Ferdia has. He’s hilarious. And it’s also very current. Kids nowadays have that sort of confidence. It’s not that I used it, I just didn’t fight it. I didn't resist it.
He’s so convincing as a 14 or 15-year-old. But part of that in the story is that he’s emotionally immature and even unpleasant when dealing with other people. Were you concerned about how people would see him or relate to him?
No, I think if anyone is looking for him to be responsible in that sense, they’re not going to find it in this film. He is just bound for his own vision, and his own journey, and everyone in the film serves that. And that just is the story I’m talking about at the moment. That’s just a particular kid I’m telling the story about. There’s nothing deeper than that. It really is the story of just how he gets on that boat at the end, that’s all it really is. How he gets over that year of his life.
After two projects in a row where it’s a significant point that the protagonists don’t get together romantically, what was it like getting to direct a happy romantic ending?
Well, I don’t see it just as a happy romantic ending. I think that’s the tone of the piece, but I think it’s more like… they’re setting off together, that’s true, but I wouldn’t say that’s some huge relationship that’s going to last forever. They’re kids. I sort of hope the scene at the end would look a little like a fantasy sequence. You’re supposed to wonder where the reality ends and the pop video begins. But people are actually taking it very seriously, and people are presuming it’s fully real, which is interesting. That wasn’t the intention.
It’s clear the scene in the gym is a fantasy, because it’s got that bright candy color, and things happen that are so obviously unreal. But in the boat crossing, you spend a lot of time establishing the physical danger of what they’re doing. It seems like if it was just a romantic fantasy, you would have just had them sail off together. But there was a point where it looked like it was going to end with them both dying in the Irish Sea.
I wish they had, in a way. I’m sorry! But there is a side of me that wishes they had. Given the difficulty of people who are making journeys, and end up dying.
"He’s like the brave captain, but it’s kind of all in his head."
That would have been a much different, darker film.
It wouldn’t have been anything if they died in the end. It just wouldn’t have been a film. It just would have been a joke, or a twist, or something.
I mean, I don’t think it’s supposed to be a fully real sequence. I think they’re supposed to be quite brave, setting off. But it’s supposed to be… it’s funny. Maybe I do want to have my cake and eat it. Maybe I do want to have a winning sequence, but… there’s an element of it that could be a music video, or a fantasy. They’re in a boat together, and it's dangerous, and they’re being rocked by the sea, and he’s like the brave captain, but it’s kind of all in his head.
Back in 2014, there were all these news stories about how you were collaborating with U2 on the film. But they aren’t credited on the songs or soundtrack, as far as I could tell. What happened with that collaboration?
They were actually very helpful early on in the film, in the development stage. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t match up. I think they were on tour, and we were shooting back at home, and it didn’t work out on a timeline. But Bono and Edge were both really helpful in terms of pitching story ideas, and talking about bands in the '80s, and talking about youth. They set up the ultimate pop band, really. So I’d be a fool not to pick their brains. You know, I was in school bands, and I was in The Frames, but I wasn't in a successful band in that sense that U2 is successful. Bono could give us a good idea of, "If this kid’s band is to succeed, here’s what it’s like." Also, the point of my film is that these kids are in a good band. They do become good, and U2 did become good. I don’t know what they were like as a school band, but I imagine they were always pretty good.
How did you end up picking Gary Clark for the project? How did he come in?
I just loved his music. I loved his music in the '80s when I first listened to it. His album Meet Danny Wilson is just fantastic. And I thought, "Well, I worked with Glen Hansard, and he wrote all the songs on Once, and I worked with Gregg Alexander and a few other people on Begin Again." And it seems to me like every great musical is a great collaboration. Even if you look at the old Tin Pan Alley musicals, it really is not just the director, it’s the songwriters that are the main selling point of the film. In a way that An American In Paris music is incredible, and Singin’ In The Rain, and Guys And Dolls. The lyricists and songwriters are as important as the directors. Or it’s just the right combination. I continue to want to explore different composers for different films, different projects, you know.
"I was in a band for my living, and I didn’t enjoy it."
What was the day-to-day like with him as a collaborator?
For me, the best songs in the film are "Drive It Like You Stole It" and "To Find You," which were completely written by Gary. They’re songs he brought fully formed to the film, from my pitches to him about various scenes. The other songs are generally my half-written ideas that he turned into a fully written idea. Like, I’d give him a verse or a chorus or a top line that I recorded on my iPhone. I’m a hobbyist. I collect verses and choruses. But I would never have the balls to write a fully complete song or album. I don’t consider myself a songwriter in that sense. I really enjoy writing songs, but I promised myself when I was younger, I would never look at music again as a means of money, or as a living. Because I was in a band for my living, and I didn’t enjoy it. So I’d bring out my library, my back catalog of scrawled-and-scribbled ideas, and he would clean them up, rewrite the chorus or change a verse. So I would have a piece of music that I had never planned to go into Sing Street, and he’d read a lyric, after we talked about a character or plotline in the film, and he would write lyrics around that plot, around that story. He’s very good at that, at telling a story through music.
You said the family in the film was completely unlike yours, and I wanted to talk about them a bit. People keep comparing Sing Street to The Commitments, partly because it’s about a band in Dublin, but also partly because you cast Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conor’s mother. I’m curious how that came about. How you decided you wanted to do that.
There’s genuinely no relationship to The Commitments in this film, other than the fact that it does have songs in it. There really is no homage to The Commitments, no connection to it. A lot of writers see that, and who wouldn’t? But it’s actually not there at all. The Commitments was never a significant movie to me. It’s a perfectly good film, and a good script. But it wasn’t something that moved me as a kid. I was a film snob when I was that age. I would have steered away from The Commitments when I was 19 or 20, whenever it came out. Obviously people are going to draw comparisons, because there are so few films made in Ireland, and so few musicals. But I’d say you could just as well compare Once to The Commitments. You’re not going to get much out of that, either.
The Commitments and Sing Street couldn’t be more different. In The Commitments, they’re a cover band, doing cover versions of old soul songs. That’s fine, and it’s very funny and enjoyable. But we’re telling the story of a creative process, and of fashioning and shaping and hammering love songs to get the girl to improve your life, to get off the island, and to be a success. And what’s great about The Commitments is that the band isn’t a success. They implode, which is a very truthful story. Sing Street is a fantasy film about the American Dream, in a sense. It’s just dressed up as an Irish film, but he’s punching the air and heading off, in his head. My film is about a really great band, and I think the songs in it are really great. Like, I think "Drive It Like You Stole It" is going to be a massive hit.
So casting Maria was just a coincidence? Were you just familiar with her work? How did it come about?
I think Jack Reynor [who plays Conor’s brother Brendan in the film] liked her for the role, and I listened. When I’m talking to actors in my films, and they’re like, "What about this? What about this?" I like to listen to them as they connect to their characters, and to the film. She was on a list, and I knew her through friends, but there was no nod to The Commitments in casting her in the film. Someone even said the other day that there are rabbits in my film, and the main character in The Commitments is called Jimmy Rabbitte. Well, okay…
And you’ve said Eamon’s rabbits in the film came right out of real life. The actual Eamon you knew as a teenager kept rabbits.
Yeah, he had lots of rabbits in his house, and they became kind of a mascot for the film. And I also asked myself, "If I put a bunch of rabbits in a film and I don’t explain it, will people ask about it?" And then they do, and that’s kind of funny.
"I am certainly grateful for being the youngest in my family, and having three great siblings ahead of me, guiding."
Speaking of Jack Reynor, he’s such a highlight of the film. How did that character develop?
He’s based on a personal story, but he’s also kind of everybody's big brother. I think he personifies the characters in life who are sometimes brothers, or a sister or an uncle, the cool older person who can do no wrong in your eyes, who you kind of think is is there to serve your childish dreams, because you’re young. And then you get older, and you’re surprised to see they have their own story, their own doubts. You kind of thought for a while that they were put on this Earth to guide you, in a sort of Star Wars way, like to give you the Force. I think a lot of people have that character in life. I am certainly grateful for being the youngest in my family, and having three great siblings ahead of me, guiding. I think I did move in their slipstream, and I am very grateful for coming in that position in the family.
Given the success of Once on Broadway, what’s the likelihood that we’ll see Sing Street or Begin Again as a musical?
I could see Sing Street happening in that sense, but that’s academic until it does well at the box office as a film. I think it has to be something before it’s a play. But I would love to do that. I don’t think that would have worked on Begin Again, even though people wanted it.
You said people could compare Once to The Commitments, but people have also compared Once to everything you’ve done since. Do you feel a pressure from that?
I think it’s lazy journalism. But I’m completely okay with it! I think it’s obvious that I think it’s very tiresome. It’s an easy way to make copy, to say, "It’s not as good as his first film," or compare it to my first film. I think people thought I was an amateur when I made Once, because it looks so amateurish. That they were delighted with the idea that someone made something on a camcorder. That’s not the real story. I’d been making film for 10 years before then. I’d been making TV professionally for four years.
The look of Once, the whole idea was to make it look like the actors were making the film, but anybody who actually bought that story was not doing their research, not even looking into the movie. So then when other films come after that, for lazy journalists, it explodes the myth of what Once was. And they go, "Oh, he’s actually a filmmaker, and this one has actors in it, like Keira Knightley." But I also did a film with Cillian Murphy before Once, and with Stephen Rea. I have lots of experience in making TV and films, and Once is just one part of that. I mean absolutely, Once will be the first thing mentioned in my obituary. And of course you need to identify the things in your career that are significant. But to compare everything to Once? I don’t mind journalists going through the whole canon of your work, but limiting it to Once? I have no personal problem with it, but it’s a bit tiresome.
Is there something else you’d rather have carved on your tombstone, or as the lead in stories about you? Is there something you’re prouder of?
No, I’m absolutely fine with that. It is the turning point in my career. It’s the thing that’s allowed me to make more films, and it’s allowed me to travel, and it's allowed me to buy a house. [Laughs] It’s allowed me to not worry everyday about finances. And as an artist — I won’t say artist, but as a creative person — that’s a massive, massive consideration. Every painter and poet and artist and musician wonders, "Can I afford to continue to do this?" And Once is the thing that allows me to make films.