Director John Carney Talks New Film Sing Street

The Once and Begin Again director talks his next music-infused movie Sing Street.

Few filmmakers have captured the experience of being in a band or making music as Ireland’s John Carney. After his film Once premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it became an enormous hit, both as a movie and later as a Tony-winning musical, while also turning Glenn Hansard and the Swell Season into massive stars (they also won an Oscar for the song “Falling Slowly” taken from the film).

After 2014’s New York-set Begin Again, Carney is back in Ireland once again, this time circa 1985, for another personal story about a young man trying to win over a girl using music.

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays 14-year-old Conor, struggling to survive in the Catholic school in which he’s been placed as his parents’ marriage begins to tear apart. When he spots the beautiful, super-cool Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on a doorstep near the school, Conor’s immediately smitten and he asks her if she’ll be in a video for the band, which he basically made up on the spot as an excuse to talk to her. Along with a group of motley classmates, Conor then forms Sing Street, a band hugely influenced by the music with which Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) sets out to educate him.

Once again, Carney has found a brilliant formula of mixing music with humor and romance as he’s done with previous movies, but Sing Street is different, firstly because it’s a period piece, but also because it’s his first movie that mixes awesome tunes from the likes of Motorhead, Duran Duran, and The Cure with original songs crafted by some of Carney’s music biz friends like Adam Levine from Maroon 5 (who starred in Begin Again).

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Den of Geek got on the phone with Carney earlier this week for the following interview, where we spoke about a lot of the aspects that makes Sing Street one of the more enjoyable films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Den of Geek: Is it fair to say that Sing Street is your most autobiographical movie so far?

John Carney: No, I don’t think so. I’d say Once was more autobiographical in a way. In terms of tone and what I really believe in, it’s Once. This is an escapist, fun film. There are elements of memoir in “Sing Street,” but really only as jumping off points. Like I did go to a rough school and I did form a band and there was a girl on my street, and I did grow up in the ‘80s, but that sort of where the line between reality and fiction sort of begins and ends.

It is supposed to be a fun, enjoyable story of a kid and sort of how to form a school band and where that can go. It’s not supposed to be taken massively seriously. I think Once was much more the tone of where I was in my life when I made it, much more true to how I see things, I think.

I think I met your older brother Kieran when we spoke for “Zonad” years ago?

Yeah, I remember meeting you with Kieran. We’re threatening to write something together so we’re in the early stages of that.

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Was he a similar influence as your older brother as Conor’s brother Brendan is to him?

Both my brother and my sister. I mean, I’m the youngest in my family and that I think is an enormous privilege. I really do believe that. 

A lot of people would not agree with me, but I do see that as a privilege and an advantage for many people to be the youngest, for the obvious reasons that you have these older siblings introducing you to so many new ideas in terms of art and fashion. You don’t just have your parents telling you how it is, and I think that is a tremendous advantage and one that I’m very grateful for. I think this film explores that to a degree with the brother relationship.

How did you find Ferdia to play Conor? You obviously needed an actor who could play and sing the songs and has to have a certain charm to work in the role.

Yeah, he’s a great kid, that kid, isn’t he? We just did these big open casting calls. Put posters up and got a casting director and did various ads for kids that were interested in music that could play and sing, and he just came along and exuded this almost annoying confidence and conviction himself that was kind of amazing in a sense. It was almost wrong, but over the callbacks, he toned it down a little bit. While he still exuded incredible confidence, there were moments of puppy-doggishness about him, which the character needed which worked very well. He showed that he could crack the character in an interesting way, and he was able to play the development throughout the film.

Obviously, Ferdia is a very good looking kid, very talented, full of confidence, very different from a lot of the kids that were around in the ‘80s, but from the word go, you could tell this kid was going to be alright in “Sing Street,” you can see that he’s going to survive. Even the way that he walks into school on the first day, there’s something about him that tells you he’s going to make it.

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Do you feel that’s very representative of yourself when you were attending the Synge Street School? Do you feel you were that confident?

When I read my diaries—I kept a band diary from those days—I can’t believe my confidence. That’s what I’m surprised by, and I can’t remember it, and I don’t remember if it was an act. The truth of my feelings towards the bullies or the threats or the anxieties of the school were not displayed. I never displayed my fear and I certainly didn’t display it in my diaries or the way I wrote about myself when I was 12 or 13.

I think there was an alter-ego, in a sense. That’s the only way I can account for the way people remember me, because inside I was terrified and I was genuinely nervous, and it did feel like a prison sentence going to a rough school. I meet my old friends and they’re like, “You didn’t give any of that off. If anything, you were annoyingly confident and sure of yourself.” I do think that was a bit of an act and I think that was a good and a bad thing in a sense, because when you act too much as a kid, it kind of stays with you as an adult. Makes me a good poker player, in a sense, if you can bluff a lot.

Having found Ferdia to play Conor, did you end up finding other young actors during that process to play other roles in the band?

Yeah, they were group auditions and I was looking through everybody through those auditions and sorting through which kids were working. I was trying to put a band together, basically. I was trying to make a band that looks plausible.

Did any of these kids play instruments proficiently beforehand or did you have to teach them that?

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Yeah, they all played instruments. I tried to look for kids that had never been to acting school because they get so many bad habits. There are so many charlatans in acting school, in terms of teachers, particularly for kids, and they teach them a lot of bad habits and I didn’t want to spend half the day undoing bad habits in these kids. I wanted them to be a clean slate, so I cast them from kids who didn’t even know they wanted to be actors. I think it gave the film a sense of realism or not quite realism, just that it didn’t seem like they had agents or managers or any of that stuff.

One of the funnier early moments in the film is the video for the band’s first song “Riddle of the Model.” Did you have the kids shoot that themselves?

No, I shot one camera and Yaron Orbach, our DoP shot the other camera. They did not shoot that themselves. I think it’s important that you always remember the director of the show even if it looks like you’re not, which is kind of the point of the movie. That was the point of Once as well. I didn’t want my voice to appear in any of those films. I wanted it to seem like those kids were making those films themselves.

It works so well and feels genuinely like something that might be someone’s first attempt at a video.

Unfortunately, like all things in movies, nothing is what it seems and you have to fake everything in a movie. Nothing is real in a movie, so if I let them make the video themselves, I don’t think it would work.

Another difference with Once where you had the Swell Season’s songs as the core, this one you have songs from other artists like Duran Duran and great songs from the era. Can you talk about how you approached the music for this one?

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I think from the word “Go” I decided that this band were going to be a good band and that would be one of the distinguishing factors. I don’t know how entertaining a film about a bad school band would be. I think it might be funny. Once that became clear, that gave me a certain license to tell the story I wanted to tell in terms of their musical journey and their videos and songs that they’re writing. Certainly they become very good very quickly but I think that’s okay because it’s a movie and I think that it’s trying to tell a larger story about creativity.

I think it’s probably really 3 or 4 years in a band truncated into one year, because I didn’t want to fake that they were going over 3 or 4 years and trying to make these actors older, so I compressed time a little bit and told it in half a year of their school life. All the songs came out once we established those rules. It is the arc of a good band, they’re not supposed to be a bad band.

So far you’ve been pretty lucky because all the acts from your movies have been good and all of them have really good songs, which makes your movies so enjoyable. If they were bad bands or the music was bad, then it would be a very different experience.

Yeah, I mean you obviously liked the music and so did I. I think there are people who didn’t like the music like in “Begin Again,” and there were a few people that don’t like the music in this and there were quite a few people that didn’t like the Swell Season, but I love that music and I think the films can only be as strong as the worst song in the film.

What about getting the songs from Motorhead, Duran Duran, and The Cure? I assume you must have had some idea what you wanted while writing it, so how hard was it to get those songs? Was it easier to get stuff because of Once?

There was a bit of that. There was a little bit of people knowing the films I’ve made before, but I don’t know. You just stick to your guns and try to wear people down and get music in films, because some of it’s going to be crazy how much people charge for songs to be in films. There’s a lot of greed between record labels and publishers and that area.

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I think that sense when you release a song into the world, after a certain period of time, I think a song becomes a part of the world and sometimes people can get very, very greedy and particularly the richer they are, the greedier they are in terms of defending their intellectual material. I don’t think it’s fair, in a way, actually. I think there should be a set figure for music after a certain period of years for use in other things.

Like you say, a lot of it is the publishing companies who get a cut of it and they want to get as much as possible, I’d assume.

I think if you write a song and you put it in the world and you sell it and lots of people buy it and make you rich, I think that then becomes part of the world and then if somebody wants to reference that part of the world, I don’t think they should be extorted for it. I think they should pay a fee for it. I think it’s fair game after a certain period of time.

At this point, since you have a lot of cred in the music business, did that help you to put together the band that played the songs for the movie?

They’re mainly people that I’ve gotten to know over the last couple years where it’s band that recorded the music for the movie. They are my friends and people I’ve met through people. Like Gary Clark was somebody I just wanted to work with. It wasn’t like I went through a list of my favorites. He was specifically the guy I thought would get this film.

Has that band played any shows together live?

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No, just the two kids. The band did form, like our band Sing Street, but they’re still rehearsing before they do anything together, but Conor, or rather Ferdia, and Eamon (Mark McKenna) from the film can play together, and we’re in America at the moment doing different cities where they play at screenings, slightly what we did at Sundance.

By the way, what was the deal with Eamon’s rabbits? Do you know someone who liked rabbits that much?

Yeah, I just knew someone who liked rabbits, it’s just as simple as that. They’re just from rabbits. There’s no story to it.

You have a lot of challenges on this movie already but then you brought in the animals as well.

I know. Children and animals and music, and so many moving parts.

Now that you’ve done three music movies do you feel you’ve gotten that part of your life out of your system?

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I’ve explore enough of that for now, that’s for sure.  I will come back and do musical films and hopefully continuously change my music and the story of our lives and my life, that I hope continues to be altered musical influence. Certainly the story of how music was in my early life is done with the three films.

I know you were in talks to direct the comedy “Russ & Roger Go Beyond” about the relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and exploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer. That sounds like it could be very funny. Is that something you’re actually directing and might start soon?

It’s a script that I’ve read that I really love and hopefully I’ll be in the running for, but it’s very early days, yeah, but it’s a very good story and tremendous cast and that’s about all I can say about it for now I think.

It might be tough because when you do a movie about someone like Roger Ebert, who is so well loved, there will be even more scrutiny by film critics, which I’m sure you’re aware.

Yeah, that is definitely true. He was a legend.

Sing Street opens in select cities on Friday, April 15 and will expand wider over the coming weeks. (The amazing soundtrack for the film will also be available on Friday.)

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