City love songs: John Carney conducts Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo duet in ‘Begin Again’
It’s the final interview of the day, and John Carney is feeling a little punchy. Seated in an overly roomy banquette for two in the restaurant of the Tribeca Grand Hotel, he attempts to buy himself a few moments in which to enjoy his late lunch. “This is an interview of you, really,” he says after we’ve spent five minutes of our swiftly eroding time together chatting about the comedic abilities of Courtney Cox vs. Jennifer Aniston; the unimaginative film selection on airplanes; and the best strange movies then screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It gives me an opportunity to eat,” he explains of his tangential line of questioning. By the time he finishes his meal, we have moved far off-course.
One can learn a lot about the Irish writer-director and his new film from the Weinstein Company, Begin Again, by giving up claims to helmsmanship and allowing the talk to travel where it will. Carney is a musician and former member of the band The Frames who made a name for himself as a filmmaker eight years ago, when his shoestring indie, Once, became a $9 million hit. A Tony-winning adaptation of the musical, about two impoverished musicians in Dublin engaged in a kind of will-they-or-won’t-they pas de deux, is currently playing on Broadway.
“That one was a very simple, pure moment, Once, and it was surprising, and it came along from nowhere,” says Carney. “Begin Again is two things. On the one hand, it’s more ambitious. It’s got more characters and it’s trying to tell a story about the music industry and about issues in the music industry. On another hand, it’s a bit less romantic.”
Having witnessed the inner machinations of the music industry firsthand when still a bassist for The Frames, Carney says he set out to imagine what the A&R men of the early ’90’s might be like today. Mark Ruffalo’s character, Dan, a dissolute record executive who hasn’t signed a successful performer in years, is the fictitious result of these musings. “I thought it would be interesting to take an A&R man who really needed to sign a new act, and pair him with a singer who was disappointed and wary of the music business and didn’t want to be signed,” Carney continues via e-mail, referring to the character of singer-songwriter Gretta, played by Keira Knightley.
He lauds the actress, who had never sung on film other than a brief ballad in The Edge of Love. “She was out of her comfort zone, and rose to the occasion,” Carney affirms. “I always wanted Mark to play the A&R man, and have been a huge admirer of his work for many years. Keira seemed like a good choice to play opposite him. They are like fire and ice together, and that’s fun to watch.”
Knightley’s “fire” is a description equally befitting of her director. Carney has strong opinions readily expressed. Both Once and Begin Again are unconventional love stories—or perhaps, per the filmmaker, they’re simply adult ones. “I think love stories should be fraught with difficulty and not resolved. Right? Because that’s what you’re doing in life. You’re falling in love with somebody not so that you can go up to the clouds and have a romantic time. You’re falling in love with them so that you can, if you’re a man, you can make them pregnant. Make them have a baby with you.”
“No, I don’t mean that it’s just a baby thing. You are ultimately going to mess someone’s life up. You’re going to make them pregnant. Or you’re going to make them crazy, or you’re going to make them jealous. You’re not going to make them go ‘La la la la la.’ Right? Like, Wuthering Heights or Anna Karenina. Are they happy? But they’re the greatest love stories ever told.”
Ultimately, “do I think it’s possible to have a love story with a happy ending? No.”
But, lest Carney’s admission keep potential viewers from the roundly upbeat Begin Again, it’s worth noting his outlook is no spoiler. “Begin Again is supposed to be a really pleasurable, smiley experience in which you come away feeling [like] I want to go record an album outdoors, or I want to go write a song, or I want to go and hear a good song. That’s what it was intended to do.”
One of the more pleasurable aspects of Begin Again lies in its balance of elements: musical buoyancy with relatable conflict. Gretta struggles with jealousy of both a professional and personal nature, while Dan and his wife (the perennially great Catherine Keener) are in separation limbo, neither divorced nor living together in the home Dan’s wife shares with their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Moments of happiness are present throughout the film, notably during those scenes in which Gretta and Dan take to the streets of New York City to record songs for her album outdoors, but the film is not a Hollywood fantasy. Carney’s feelings on the nature of happiness are similar to his views on romance, both grounded in a pragmatism that may, to his mind, be cultural.
“I think that Americans and American cinema and American stories, American relationships as well, are sort of obsessed with finding happiness. This notion of happiness is like that Holy Grail of ‘When will I be happy? When will I find that person that will make me happy?’ But it’s false, it’s an impossible thing to find.
“This whole obsession with, like, ‘Live in the now,’” also piques Carney. Platitudes that champion “Be now. Don’t look at the past, just be present” certainly “sound good. Because you see it’s Zen-like, and it’s like, I’m not worried about the future or preoccupied with the past. But we’re human. That’s important to be able to look back and forward. ‘Living in the now’ is like a dog sitting on the curb, going, ‘Life is pretty good. I can’t remember the last shit time I had and I’m not worried about the future shit I’m going to have. The sun is nice.’ But do you really want to live like that? Can you ever live like that, if you’re a superior human being?”
Of course, plenty of human beings find their motivations to sit up, or haul themselves out of bed, in the (all right, very American) pursuit of happiness. Carney is otherwise spurred.
“Well, I’m actually at my most happy, to contradict myself slightly, when I’m creatively inspired. When I’m doing something… I do find that when I’m creating something, or just wrapped in the creativity, I lose time. ‘It was five hours? Really, that went? Oh, that was so good!’ I wish I could lose more time.”
Whereas ‘living in the now’ is a mantra seemingly underpinned by the desire to embrace time in a single instant, to wield awareness like a camera and capture the moment, Carney believes it is preferable to forgo awareness of the present altogether.
“It’s what everybody’s searching for. I think a lot of people are searching for that. And a lot of people in bad jobs would love just a bit of that.”
As would many people in bad living situations. The writer-director’s next film is a semi-autobiographical musical about a teen boy growing up in 1980s Dublin, an aspiring musician who seeks refuge from his tumultuous home life in songwriting. Sing Street, recently acquired by The Weinstein Company and featuring songs from Bono and The Edge, appears to further explore a theme plumbed in Once, implicit in Carney’s aforementioned philosophy, and most overtly expressed in the original title for Begin Again, Can a Song Save Your Life? That is, the bearing artistic creativity has on our reality and relationships.
Despite his contrarian stance on the American state of happiness, Carney does hope audiences across the cultural spectrum find his current artistic endeavor, Begin Again, to be an enjoyable experience. For, “if you’ve got a movie that can do that, that’s a result."