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Interview: John Carney "Begin Again"

Jose here. When I learned I would be talking to Begin Again director John Carney, I had to promise myself that my interview wouldn't just consist of me begging him to reshoot that scene where Greta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) put on their headphones and walk through NYC, using me and Keira... 

...because as magical movie moments go, that one takes the crown this year. You'll be relieved to hear that I did talk to him about other things when we spoke about Begin Again, which is now out on DVD. We even get the last word on which songs will be campaigned for Oscar nominations. 

JOSE: Begin Again is actually the only film that I paid to see more than once in movie theaters this year...

JOHN CARNEY: Sorry, can you say that once more, I didn’t hear you.

JOSE: Yeah sure, I was just saying your movie is the only one I bought tickets to more…

JOHN CARNEY: [Laughs] That’s fantastic and I was joking, I heard you the first time, but wanted to hear you say it again.

I really meant it. The last time I went, I had literally just been dumped by someone, so in trying to make myself feel better, going to see Begin Again seemed like the only option.

I’m sorry, but I’m glad you went again, that’s very sweet!

Keira Knightley and John Carney

This mostly made me wonder if you intended to make the film as the equivalent of “listening to your favorite record” when you’re feeling blue for example?

Oh that’s interesting and it’s funny you say that. Mostly I think that musical films are more like albums in the way that they make sense anywhere, you don’t necessarily have to follow the plot each time to just tune into that bit you love, like an album.  [More...

Which is unlike most films where you have to be in the mood and follow the plot when you rewatch it. So I think that you’re right, generally speaking musical films can do that, and with both Begin Again and Once to a degree, I’ve met people who tell me they watch the same scenes over and over again, which is kind of the way I grew up with listening to albums and watching musicals.

Plus you’re also a musician, which I guess might come in handy when you’re editing.

I’ve always wanted to make films that satisfied me as a musician, as much as a filmmaker, so I’m trying to find that balance, which has been an interesting journey. I remember when I started out people said “there’s too much music in your film”, so in order to get rid of that problem I just decided to make films with even more music and fully commit to that.

You’ve said your particular kind of musicals are “stealth musicals” because you don’t need to suspend your disbelief and the music is part of the characters’ lives, but what traditional musicals influenced yours?

Very specific ones, like A Star is Born which is great and also a stealth musical, in how you have to remind yourself that you’re watching a musical. I also love Guys and Dolls, New York, New York, which I watched on repeat a lot for two to three years when I was in my twenties ...Willy Wonka is a great musical too. But I guess Star, Guys and New York were a little bit where Begin Again comes from.

Please do a My Fair Lady remake with Keira.

Oh yeah, I’ll pitch it to her! I’m sure someone’s mentioned the idea to her before too.

Mark Ruffalo could be Professor Higgins!


Can you elaborate on how you came up with the Russian doll structure of the film? I thought it was interesting how you used cameras and cell phones as portals of sorts to go back and forth in time in the lives of your characters. 

I’m glad you thought that, cause it was the one thing that made me nervous and that structure was a challenge, because we were asking the audience to bear with us while we took them places. I like the use of technology in telling a story and using these elements to show the past, especially since we’re always using our phones, tablets and computers. Even a dictaphone is interesting, because you’re listening to yourself in the past. I find that very often different parts of you are in different machines; sometimes I’m looking for a note on my iPad and I remember I actually left it in my computer.

So between this element of editing yourself throughout the day, and that scene with Keira and Mark literally creating a soundtrack to their day as they walk around New York...can we say that in a way Begin Again is also about the process of making films?

Yeah, I think it is. That’s quite observant. The way we live our lives has changed an awful lot in that sense. Growing up I remember it would sometimes take me weeks to find a piece of music I liked, and the availability of music and how we share it nowadays, has changed the way in which we connect to people, so I wanted to look into that. But you’re right about the filmmaking, I hadn’t thought about it too much, so I’ll have to mull that one over…

Once and Begin Again are both incredibly romantic and they have in common the fact that the leads never engage in any kind of sex. Is it because you’re more interested in using artistic creation as a unique kind of romance?

I guess now you can say I am, at the moment I’m interested in that connection involved in falling in love and creating things at the same time. Those things have always been intertwined for me a little bit. I’ve never gone up to someone at a club or at work because they’re pretty, but because they’ve done something that appeals to me and that I think I can understand. My relationships with people always have more to do with what they’re creating, instead of how they look.

Do people ever tell you that you need to make darker, more cynical films? I remember a lot of criticism for both these films came because they were so sweet, and don’t get me wrong, I love that Begin Again feels like a Bing Crosby film for example, but it’s rare to see that sort of innocence in films nowadays.

It’s interesting, I think both films could’ve been darker, but the movie that wants to get made is the movie that gets made. As you’re editing it the film tells you what it wants to be and to force something upon it just to make it darker wouldn’t have been good. It’s a sweet, easygoing film and that’s not to say I don’t often see the darker side of things, I can be quite cynical about some things too, and I’m certainly cynical about certain types of music...but I’m sure I will develop some fangs eventually in my filmmaking [Laughs].

When I realized that Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals had written a lot of the music in the film, I couldn’t help but see parallels between him and Keira’s character (who incidentally reminded me of Carole King), in how they were all songwriters first, who became pop stars.

I think in the film Greta is more of a writer than a performer and she even says that. I was more interested in the idea of a singer/songwriter who was more interested in writing the songs than performing them. I love great singers and I think being a great performer is a great thing, but when you get those together is when the real magic happens. But Greta is definitely not that, she’s a writer and that’s what the film is about I think.

Do you know what songs you’ll be pushing for the Best Original Song Oscar?

We’re pushing for two songs; you know the one where the instruments come to life, “A Step You Can’t Take Back” and then also for “Lost Stars” which you can hear at the end of the movie. What are your favorites?

I’d have to say “Like a Fool” and “Coming Up Roses”.

Oh yeah, Glen’s [Hansard] song is great!

But I love the soundtrack so I could go on forever really.

We’ll have to talk again soon then.

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Reader Comments (16)

I'm really rooting for this film to get a nomination (or 2) in the Oscar race. I enjoyed the film when I saw it, and found myself thinking of it long after. It's one of those films that is charming much like Keira Knightly's singing isn't overpowering but is affecting.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Great interview! :)

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterT-Bone

This interview is *so* cute. Thanks Jose. I love that Carney has such a good sense of humor. and I love the sweetness of his films so I dont want him to go dark. We have plenty of those auteurs.

November 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Seriously unbelievably adorable interview. I'm a fan on the strength of Once, and I really need to get to seeing Begin Again.. this is a top-notch advertisement for it, and a pleasure to read. :)

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Lovely interview. I still haven't seen Begin Again. But Once really hit me heard with how the music was so seamless with the dramatic elements of the picture. I like what Carney said about musical films being like albums--a string of emotional aural captures, if you will.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Ha, I'm listening to the soundtrack now! I so enjoyed this gem of a movie. Thanks for posting this interview.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Cute interview, and thanks for asking what songs they're pushing-that will help in creating everyone's Oscar predictions. :)

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Yes! Everyone needs to see this movie, I honestly have been watching specific scenes whenever I'm in a bad mood, and it's like "The Sound of Music" and "Singing in the Rain" in that aspect of how it always makes me feel better. It holds a very high spot among my favorite films this year and I loooooved talking to John about it, he was the best.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Another New York, New York fan! Very cool.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Thanks for reminding me of the sweet joy of Begin Again. Also saw Imitation Game last night and am officially swooning for Keira these days. I want to know what secret recipe she found in herself recently to be "suddenly" so loose and confident on screen. Doesn't it feel like she's found some higher acting gear?

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

Tom -- totally this is why i'm glad she did A DANGEROUS METHOD. sometimes you have to risk looking like a fool to enter a new creative zone.

November 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

And speaking of musicals...

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I'm totally on board with Lost Stars getting a Best Song nod.

and i'm glad that both Once and Begin Again avoided the two leads having sex because in both cases, it would have done a complete disservice to the story and the characters (*especially* in Once). Plus, it's nice how both films come off so natural and intimate.

Kudos to John for being able to get such performances out of people like Glen, Marketa and Adam who aren't known for their acting.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

I adore this movie and I loved your questions! It won't make many top tens because it's sweet and unpretentious, but it definitively be in mine.

I demand Golden Globes noms for Mark and Keira. Foreign press members: You've got the category. Use it.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Begin Again is already one of my favorite movies this year!

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

This interview should be an extra on the DVD! :)
I thought Begin Again was one of those rare movies that get exponentially better as it moves along until the very end (or ends). I thought Keira's character to be one of the best female characters of the year. A woman who is not defined by any men in her life. I loved her work ethics and her openness. She made it seem easy, but there was so much work behind it. If there was any justice she would bump out Pike out of the race.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Goodbar

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