John Carney interview: Sing Street, X-Men, Hitchcock & more

The director of Once, Begin Again and Sing Street talks to us about his new film, getting films noticed, and Hollywood...

Well, Sing Street is just great. The new movie from writer-director John Carney, it tells the story of a young Irish teenager by the name of Cosmo, who – long story short – sets up a band to impress a girl. Yet that sells a funny, nerdy and quite brilliant film short.

Director John Carney – off the back of Once and Begin Again – made the movie. And he spared us some time for a chat about it…

Huge congratulations on Sing Street, which is one of our favourite movies of the year. It’s interesting, though, that it opens opposite a not-very-good X-Men movie this week, and they’re going head to head!

Oh great! [Laughs] That’s like Bernie Sanders and Trump!

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I did wonder how you felt about it! Lionsgate in the UK scored quite a success earlier in the year, when it programmed Eddie The Eagle against Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. And Eddie The Eagle went on to do good business.

I think it’s a great idea!

But how is it from your perspective? You put years of your life into a movie, and it comes up against a massive blockbuster. Are you conscious of stuff like that? Or are you more that you’ve made the film, so it’ll find its audience somehow?

I’m a bit of both, to be honest. I’d like to say that I’m just an artist who’s in the forge every day beating out some metal! But realistically, part of releasing a film is the big climax in a sense. In the same way that you might have an artist working on his or her poetry, or his or her sculpture, you don’t want somebody next door opening a big design centre at the same time!

The X-Men thing is a pain in the arse. Also, we’ve done the same amount of work, even though it’s a small film. Obviously there’s a lot more men and women at computer terminals with X-Men, but in terms of the movie, and the love of the movie, we’ve done the same amount of work as X-Men. It’s sort of like a featherweight getting into the ring with a heavyweight. Both are tough, both have worked their arses off, but one’s going to beat the other. It’s just a fact.

There are no musical numbers in the X-Men film…

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[Laughs] I think that’s true!

Part of my question though is the perception that film is an immediate medium, and that the judgement for success is determined very quickly. Yet I only watched one of your earlier films, On The Edge, earlier this year, and that’s over 15 years since you made it. Film is always out there.

Christ, it is 15 years. But you’re right: it’s hard to accept what you’re saying is true nowadays particularly. Yet ultimately I think of course you’re right. But we always think that everything’s going to last forever.

But maybe it isn’t: that’s the other fear. Maybe there won’t be, in 500 years’ time, a copy of Casablanca? Will the world have radically changed? God knows what’s going to happen. A meteor might come down and blow us all to bits, and we have to begin again.

There is an argument for the immediacy of a film, particular for a film like Sing Street, that’s very much based around entertainment and fun. It’s more like a gig in that sense: it’s important that people are there at the time it’s happening, which is really difficult for a small movie like this.

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You say that it’s entertainment and fun, but in itself, that seems contrary to many facets of cinema right now. I think there are small pockets of interesting smaller films that are far more upbeat than what’s stuffing out multiplexes. We’re in an era where you can barely have a superhero movie without everyone being in a bad mood. Was it a sense of fun that was always at the core of Sing Street?

In a sense it was. The film did change as it went on. A lot of filmmakers claim that this is my vision five years ago when I began, and I got exactly that vision. Which to me is crazy talk. You hire different actors, you hire 100 people to make the film with you. You work with producers. It’s going to change. And that’s part of the excitement and the journey of making the film. Seeing what you dreamt of, and seeing what actually came out.

There were points where I thought this should be more like a Shane Meadows movie, a Shane Meadows musical. But I realised I’m not as good a filmmaker as he is, unfortunately. So I decided to make a John Carney film and see where that took me!

That was a honest move, because in a sense, of these three films [Once, Begin Again, Sing Street] this is the most honest. Not honest in that it’s any more autobiographical than the other films. Rather that that was how I was feeling at the time I made it. That’s how I felt when I was a kid in school. It was a genuine attempt to remember what it was like to be that age, and not put an adult spin on it. Not try and put a narrator narrating it, and be a traditional coming of age story. I wanted it to feel that the kids in the film were making the film.

You’ve talked in a previous interview that you don’t, as a rule, likes kids’ films, and films about kids. Is there a reason for that dislike, and what kind of films were you relating to as you were growing up?

When I say kids’ films, I mean adult trying to connect with the kids. Nothing more embarrassing than that. For me, a successful kids’ movie is Napoleon Dynamite. It seemed a film made by the people in it, it felt more organic. A connection with the subject matter at hand, and the technology that was allowing the subject matter to be made. It seemed like a bunch of kids had gone to a town that interested them to make their movie. It’s hilarious, touching and unpretentious. It’s successful because of that.

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When I was writing this one, without being too hippy about it, I had to shut my eyes and tune out who I am, as an early 40s man. And try and get back into that feeling of what it’s like to be a kid. The weird optimism and faith you have in the world when you’re a kid, that everything’s going to be okay.

That presumably stretches through to the casting, and crucially how you interact with them how they come together. I think you did open casting. From the outside looking in, I wonder – given you have people less experienced on being on a film set – do you get fearlessness in what they’ll push back to you on, or are they in awe of it all?

I know what you mean. I think a lot of this film, and the reason to make it, came from the experience of working, let’s face it, with a model on my last film. And trying to get somebody to think like an actor who wasn’t an actor per se. I found that frustrating, and a lot of time was wasted trying to get somebody to flex a muscle that they just didn’t have.

So I really felt when I made that film, working with Mark Ruffallo, who’s a real tried and tested proper theatre actor, and really trained. People like Yasiin Bey, proper theatre actors who were into the craft of film making. That was a joy. But there was a certain feeling from that film that left me wanting to go back to people who believe in the magic of cinema. Again, it sounds a little hippy-ish, but there is magic to it. You’ll find good actors are entranced by when the camera turns over. There’s a belief in that idea of the film running past the shutter, the projection of light back onto this chemical, scientific frame of film. You project that onto a dark screen in a room. There’s something magical there. A Victorian magic show feel to a film, and good actors I think really believe in that. Kids really believe in that too.

Do you find the digitisation of film works against that slightly? That people even on set go back to a screen in a video village rather than listening to film going through a camera?

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Exactly. All the more reason to reinvigorate it with magic. The fact that people can shoot on their iPhones now, and people take that for granted. All the more reason to create a feeling of magic on set.

I wrote in my notes after watching the film that I felt there was a hand-crafted feel to it, that someone bothered about the details. That you have Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s character – Cosmo – finding himself, putting more make-up on. Lucy Boynton’s Raphina, meanwhile, takes more make-up off as she becomes more honest about herself.

That’s a really good way of looking at it. That make-up is a cover up in a sense, and it can often help you find who you are too by putting it on or taking it off to different degrees. I never wore make up but I think that’s a really good point. And for both those kids – they’re moving in opposite directions – and one is older than the other too.

Was it a detail you put in the film at script level, or does that come out of working with the cast?

That’s in the script, yes. They’re the kind of things you realise when you’re writing, once you put them in, you wonder to what degree will you nail them or whether they’re picked up on by the audience. Whether they choose to go with that part of the story. For it not to be forced down your throat.

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There’s only one bit of the film that drags, for me. You’ve got one minute and 24 seconds of logos at the start – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many! Was this a case of lots of cooks, or lots of investors who weren’t hands on? How involved were they?

There’s no involvement editorially in this film, apart from myself and Anthony Bregman, the producer. There is no involvement in terms of the story. It’s not out of a sense of duty their logos are there, it’s contractual obligation. It’s just harder and harder to get financing for films!

Can I just talk about the character of Barry, effectively the bully of the film? I grew up on the UK watching Grange Hill on the telly, and on Grange Hill, the school bully was just that. But here, you pulled back and let us see who’s bullying the bully. Was that important to you? I’ve not seen someone spend time giving a bit of extra flavour to a bully before.

I’m glad it comes across. I didn’t want to hammer it home. I didn’t want it to become a big storyline. But I did want to touch on that fact. That the bully is being bullied at home.

Sometimes, though, I think there isn’t enough. I get one or two people coming out saying they think the bully story didn’t come out very well. But I think there’s enough of it.

I loved that you put the detail in, personally. I was bullied at school, and it took me 20 years to work out why the bully was bullying me.

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Why was he?

A couple of reasons. It was an all-boys school, and he was hiding his sexuality, something he was struggling with. And then in his own home life, one of his parents was very old style, and would have – and did – react very badly to finding that out.

That’s interesting that you say that. I had a scene written which we didn’t do in the end, which I’m annoyed we didn’t now I’m hearing your story.

One night, in the midst of all of his bullying, Cosmo would have been watching Top Of The Pops again with his brother, and Jimmy Somerville comes on. And he’s looking at Jimmy Somerville with his green puffball jacket and his skinhead haircut and he suddenly flashes in his head to Barry, who has a similar look.

Because in my story, Barry was gay. And he goes to Barry, and there was a scene where Cosmo stands up for himself, and says you’re either going to kill me, or you’re going to accept what I’m saying is true. And it’s that you’re gay, Barry. And it’s fine. And you’re being hammered at home because of it by your dad, because he’s an arsehole.

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I went to a boys’ school. There were 90 people in our year, and not a single person was out. Simple maths tells you that something isn’t right here.

Would a sequence where someone is confronted with their sexuality fit in a mid-80s film, though? Pride, for instance, was a film that was very evocative of the feeling towards homosexuality at that time, and I wonder if it’s a conversation where even a year or two would make a difference?

That’s true. The idea was that Cosmo was ahead of the time in that sense. That’s what it was like in Ireland. We saw the music videos of the time and so many people came out.

I don’t know Irish television, but did you, for instance, get the same AIDS commercials? Very heavy, very dark, and with a press that was calling AIDS ‘the gay plague’.

So a ‘don’t be gay’ message?

Effectively. I fully understand why nobody at my school came out. To have to weigh up which does you the most damage: to hide yourself away, or tell everyone who you are?

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Right, right. That’s interesting.

You also touched on the notion of big brothers in the film. I’ve seen you’ve talked about this in other interviews, and so I know you’re the youngest in your family. You dedicate the film to brothers everywhere, but was that the catalyst? Was this always a brothers film? You’ve talked about how things evolved.

No. It wasn’t the original story at all. The original story was very much the story of the kids.

I came up with this story years ago, on a tube in London looking at this boy with his guitar and his mate, and thinking that was so much fun. I remember that so well. I thought that’d make a great film, so I began tinkering away with that for years, but the brother character got developed over time. As did the Raphina character. The original premise of the film was very simple: a kid forms a band to solve his problems.

I’m interested in your views on cinema as it stands, and how people watch films. Robert Zemeckis did a film last year, The Walk. And he blatantly made it for IMAX screens. There’s the bit in that where they do a tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and watching it I felt genuinely queasy. But also, I couldn’t help but think that most people would watch it on a mobile phone.

I watched that at home, and I didn’t really understand the film.

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I get that. I can’t see how it’d work on a smaller screen.

Yeah. I almost think that those films, that if the directors had real balls, they’d insist on them only being released on IMAX screens! It’s like going into a hotel bedroom to see the Mona Lisa. It needs to hang on a wall in a big room!

But then you need a George Lucas-size bank balance to have those balls, and even he didn’t do that!

That’s true. But I think every filmmaker is having this discussion we’re having right now. Every filmmaker has to be going ‘what the fuck is going on?’

Even with Sing Street now, it’s proving super-hard to get traction in America with this film. The reviews are really good, and the exit polls are way better than Once and Begin Again. But to get people to go into a cinema to see an Irish film that’s a musical, with a relatively unknown director and cast? It’s hard to get people to commit to it.

Your statement at the beginning of this conversation I believe ever more truly at the moment. It’s ever more pertinent. We have to look at films in terms of their longevity.

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And yet, just before we started talking, I found a website for the Japanese release of Sing Street. I don’t know enough of Japanese culture to have a proper idea of how well the film will go down there, but it does strike me that the furthest thing from your mind when you were shooting would have been a Tokyo multiplex?

[Laughs] It was always my key concern!

I think if I’d made a film, I’d be interested to sit in a Japanese cinema and see how the cultural reaction differed.

Yeah. It’d be interesting to see how it plays. I would hope they’d like the music, and the idea that music breaks down all boundaries.

You talked about your film struggling to get traction. I spoke to Kenneth Branagh just after he’d done Cinderella. And he was off the back of three big commercial movies – Thor, Jack Ryan, and Cinderella. And he talked about how the three films he’d made before those he was equally as proud of, but barely anyone watched them. Thus, he wanted to make a few films for a bigger audience, thus took the bigger projects.

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So where do you sit? Relying on longevity, or the attraction of a bigger audience now?

I don’t know where I sit with that. Hollywood is a seduction. The film industry out there is so much a business, and so much an industry. It’s hard to separate out what we’re talking about here.

If you walk into the BFI library in London, there are beautiful shelving units of gorgeous Artificial Eye movie releases going back over decades. It comes across as the cinema being sold as a meaningful, cultural art form. Not just entertainment in the IMAX. In Hollywood, it’s the exact opposite. Nobody cares about any of this. Films are like hamburgers. Nobody gives a shit what they’re like on video on demand in five years’ time. It doesn’t matter.

But as a filmmaker? You’re absolutely right. A filmmaker – in all those high power Hollywood meetings where it’s all about box office – the filmmaker has to be privately thinking yeah, but how’s this going to seem to my great grandchildren? Are they going to say that my great grandfather was an awful charlatan? And a sell-out? Or are they going to say he made good stuff?

That’s the thing that Hitchcock managed brilliantly. How to keep the backers happy, whilst making great artistic films at the same time. If you look at Hitchcock films, he’s making two at once. Shadow Of A Doubt, all of the beats of that happen in two ways. The first way, the sophisticated piece of visual storytelling, almost like silent cinema, in which 10% of the audience figure out what’s going on. And then just after that there’s the Hollywood version where it’s hammered home.

He was smart. He was saying I want to make films and I want to have a lavish lifestyle, and have a lavish budget. And I’m not going to alienate my backers by being too esoteric or obscure. But I’m an artist. I’ll be obscure, and then I’ll give them a slice of cake. He was a master of suspense, and also of having a brilliant career that spans five decades, and also produces very high art.

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Where does Sing Street leave you, then? If the call comes in tomorrow, a big franchise movie is offered to you that’d make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, and take half a billion at the box office. And it’s that, or a smaller film that’s not seen by as many people, but perhaps affects someone’s life profoundly in a way you may never even know about – I say this having gone back to On The Edge, all these years later. Which would you choose?

Well firstly, it’s encouraging [we’re talking about On The Edge]. When you make smaller films that seem like flops you do go ah fuck.

But I think I’m definitely old enough and wise enough, and not too broke, to pick the latter of the two. I don’t think – not that I’d get offered one – a big Hollywood franchise movie. I think it’d undo the good work that I’ve done, and have been doing. Building my own – for want of a better word – trademark or stamp. It’d be fumbling the ball on the yard line to make a big Hollywood movie right now.

And I think it depends what age you are. I think I’m old enough now to have the wisdom not to be dazzled by the Hollywood machine!

But then you were directing Stephen Rea in your late 20s! I see you often get asked if it was the success of Once that changed your life. Yet I wonder if being on a film set with an actor of Rea’s calibre – and Cillian Murphy’s – so early in your career was more of a mindset change for you?

I know what you mean. That was probably the film that gave me the taste of what it’d be like to have the money to make a film, and tell a different type of story. Once was definitely the gamechanger in terms of oh okay, you can make what you want and reach audiences.

The reality of it is though that the bottom, bottom, bottom line of filmmaking has to be that you want to reach audiences, not that you want to work. It’s not poetry and it’s not art in the same sense as other art forms. It is a commercial, audience-attendance gig.

And really, my life if good when I have a film out, and I’m changing, and I’m responding to what people are saying in the press, or in taxis.

When I don’t have a film out, I feel a bit lacklustre. Even yesterday, I was sitting on the South Bank in London, having a coffee, looking out at all these people. And all I think about when I’m out is how can I say something that matters to people? How can I tell a joke that people will laugh at? Or tell a story that’ll get people’s attention? Even when you walk down the road and you see a busker. He’s singing and nobody is listening. You kind of go, c’mon man, make them listen. Figure out a way of turning some heads. Make people stop when they’re walking. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and it’s so fulfilling when they stop.

John Carney, thank you very much.

Sing Street is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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