Breaking onto the global stage with 2007’s Once, a minimalist Irish musical which took the Oscar for Best Song, writer/director John Carney has had great success with a string of original musicals, including the Mark Ruffalo-starring Begin Again, and his latest, the Golden Globe-nominated Sing Street. In tandem with La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle, Carney is among a select few revitalizing the Hollywood musical.
Sharing certain influences with that director—Singin’ in the Rain being one—Carney finds no conscious narrative, or trajectory, running through his directorial offerings to date, though it can be tempting to apply one in retrospect. Speaking with AwardsLine, Carney clarifies his personal ties to Sing Street, the benefits of working with non-actors, and the process of putting together music for the film.
Sing Street is a semi-autobiographical story. What made you want to tell it?
Really, only the school part is semi-autobiographical. The rest of it is a bit makey-uppy and a little bit of a fairy tale. I did go to a rough school, and I formed a band and stuff like that. It’s not a personal story in that sense, it’s more like a fairy tale—it’s basically revenge on all the guys and teachers in school that I didn’t like.
Where were you in 1985, the year in which the film is set? Were you already exploring music and storytelling in the way you are now?
I was in high school and I formed a band around ’84, ’85, trying to impress my siblings, actually, frankly, but I never managed to impress them much until a lot later. That was the idea of it, I think. I wasn’t a great student. Not that I was a great musician, either, but it was a little band of brothers. A little band of misfits in school, which I think is what all bands are, in a way.
In viewing your films, it seems that your inspirations in music are wide-ranging. What would you say is your mission in musical storytelling?
Not to undermine your question, or anything, but after you make a few films, you begin to see a pattern emerging, and it’s tempting to put a name on that, or use it to suggest that there was some great plan behind it, which I’d be lying if I said there was. I certainly see that it appears that way, but it would be too easy for me, I think, to say that this is like a mission statement. Unless it’s my unconscious, or something. Consciously, I’m just trying to use music, really, honestly, in a way, maybe because of the gaps in my storytelling abilities. Sometimes music can be the bridges between ideas, or good set scenes, that I struggle with maybe as a writer. I really don’t know.
I certainly have no mission statement per se, other than I like music and I like films. I responded, when I was young, to films with strong musical stories or set pieces and I’m working that out as a filmmaker a little bit, but it seems more like a trademark than I think it is, or a brand.
Were stage musicals ever something that interested you?
No, I never really went to stage musicals. I don’t particularly like them, actually, I have to say.
The last stage musical that I loved was The Producers, or something like that, just because it’s so funny and the music is great in it, and it’s just a great evening out. Generally I find those stage musicals a little bit ersatz. A little bit hard to swallow.
How did you go about finding your young leads? Without spinning another narrative, it does seem that you’ve found great success in building films with talented unknowns—with Once, for example.
There’s definite similarities in that. Sometimes you can go on a big, long journey to try and find an actor and you realize that they were there at the very beginning, you just didn’t see them as an actor, which was certainly the case with Glen [Hansard]. I looked at various different actors, some of whom passed on the project, and I thought, “Well maybe I just won’t make it, or maybe I’ll make it with a musician.” Glen had written some songs for the film and I talked him into doing it.
Likewise with Ferdia [Walsh-Peelo]. He was one the of the first kids that came into the room, and I sort of thought I could do better, but then I realized that he ticked all of the boxes of what I needed for that role, and I should cast him. He wasn’t really an actor, he was more of a musician, really. I thought I might be able to find an actor that could pull it off, but as it turns out, the whole band, in fact, in the film are non-actors and never really acted before.
Did you investigate the music scene in Dublin for casting purposes?
We looked everywhere. We looked in boxing clubs, and we looked in music schools, and we looked in high schools. There’s no rock that we didn’t turn over to see, in the search for the characters. Really it was just, I formed a band. I put together a group of kids that looked funny and likely, and unlikely then, in another way. In the way that bands are interesting groups of people, and the thing that keeps them together is very interesting, and the things that draw young, usually men, together in school. It’s quite interesting. I went on that instinct and I felt, this looks like a reasonably plausible outfit. That’s really my only big casting criteria.
What does the process of working with non-actors entail?
It changes from film to film. What I ask actors to do is, use your experience as an actor, and your experience on set, to not act on my set, to be yourselves. I’m really looking for you to do very little, actually. Certainly on my films, they don’t really demand much of people, of actors.
It’s like getting the best drummer. If you want somebody to do a simple 4/4 beat for a rock song, you get the best drummer who could do a million other things, but he’s not doing it on your record. Sometimes that works, but sometimes you want an amateur to come in and do something. If you listen to Stevie Wonder records, a lot of the drumming on Stevie Wonder records is really naïve. It’s because it’s Stevie Wonder drumming himself, and as a drummer, he was very amateurish, and that really worked for the song, because there’s something in the personality of the way he does it that tells you that it’s real, and it’s part of the bigger picture of the music he wants to create.
Sometimes the time is right for a non-actor and sometimes you need an actor. In Sing Street, I mixed it up. There’s a lot of non-actors but there’s also… Jack Reynor and Aidan Gillen are two great actors. Don Wycherley is another great Irish actor, with these kids, and that spawned something interesting, because everybody’s game goes up somehow on set.
You worked with songwriter Gary Clark and a number of other collaborators in creating the film’s music. What was that process like?
The general thing was to try and not create a parody sound, something that just sounded like the ’80s. A lot of people sent me in songs for the movie once they heard the brief, and it sounded like they had gone into the studio and try and sound like an ’80s band. It didn’t work because they weren’t thinking about the song, they were thinking about the production, or the sound, or the lyrics. We decided, let’s make as good an album and as good a soundtrack as we can, and then we can finesse it and build it. Once it’s built we can tear it apart and then produce it in a certain way, or add certain lyrics that sound reminiscent of that period.
The first thing about a musical, I think, is that the music is strong enough on its own. It doesn’t require the story or the images. I grew up watching George Gershwin musicals and A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. All those songs are classic American songbooks. They don’t need any pictures to accompany them, really. It very quickly struck me that a musical is only as good as its worst song, in a way.
You have a track record as a music video director, and the film uses music videos almost as a framing device, in the interest of plot. If you’re not consciously reinventing yourself, Cosmo certainly is, through these very videos.
I think that being in a band is probably a little bit like that. You’re experimenting with identities. I remember when I was in a band, when I was 17 or 18. My family would come along and see the band, and it was awkward, them seeing a side of me that I was not comfortable with at home, or was a bit of an act. I was just a bass player in a band, but I felt that, a bit like in school, in a way.
I think that the school band, for me, was a real joyful, creative period in life, and also one in which I could experiment with different ideas about ourselves and who we were. One day you’re this, and then the next day you’re something else, until something sticks.
What we wanted to do with that was to create a song that was very different from the rest of the movie, because the songs in the film are telling a story, and are part of a sound of a particular band. Also, we used a bit of ’80s music from Duran Duran and The Cure and stuff, so we didn’t want to go out with another ’80s-sounding song. It had to sound like a modern, original song.
I had listened to the melody of that song and the music for it, but I’m a terrible lyricist. Glen and Adam threw in a bunch of ideas and we knocked them around and emailed back and forth until we had a narrative that sounds like, “Maybe this is like Cosmo, 10 or 15 years later. This is him as a 35-year-old man, as a maturing act.”