Rarely interviewed or photographed, writer/director John Carney, who found huge success and international acclaim with romantic musical Once, confounds easy stereotyping. He’s no cartoon of the poetic Irishman, cutting a swathe through his native Dublin. Nor, despite spending time in LA, is he a film industry cynic, calculating which buttons to press to trigger an audience’s tears. Unassuming, lightly bearded and with a touch of the academic about him, he looks instead like what he is – a middle-class, middle-aged guy who used to be in a band but turned his back on rock because he loved making movies on his camcorder.
“We had a record deal,” recalls the 42-year-old former bassist of the Frames, in his canal-side office in a street where tiny cottages and shabby warehouses are dwarfed by the glass palace that is Google’s European HQ. “I was on a salary and was living what, for a lot of people, is the absolute dream. Yet I had this film bug. Being in a band is a nocturnal activity and I’d be out during the day making little movies on a camcorder, resentful that I hadn’t got more time. Push came to shove and I had to decide what was my priority.”
Back in 2007, Carney’s debut feature Once disarmed audiences far beyond Ireland, reducing even dragged-along boyfriends and husbands
to sniffling wrecks. Utterly beguiling and charming in the purest sense of the word, it was a romance set to music in which Glen Hansard (as a Grafton Street busker named simply Guy) and Marketa Irglova (as immigrant flower-seller and single mother Girl) stumbled into each other’s lives. And yet, it somehow transcended the romantic comedy mould. As does his new film, Begin Again, which stars Keira Knightley in her first singing role.
“Well, outside of chick lit, couples don’t just walk off into the sunset together – not in anything that has ever moved me, anyway,” he explains.
“Look at Wuthering Heights or Anna Karenina or Brief Encounter. Complex, compromised love is far truer to life. Difficult relationships and unfulfilled love are what interest me as a storyteller.”
Once also challenged the blueprint for success, in that it was resolutely unglamorous, featured no big stars and was completed on a sub-shoestring budget of just €140,000. “Early copies were passed around almost under the table in Hollywood, with baffled studio guys saying, ‘This was insultingly cheap to make and no-one you’ve ever heard of is in it, yet somehow it still works.’ At the end of the day, I have, and always will have, an Irish peasant mentality when it comes to film-making.”
The film’s audience grew largely through word-of-mouth. It even snagged an Oscar (best song for the keening love duet Falling Slowly). Then, to Carney’s initial puzzlement, came the out-of-the-blue suggestion it be adapted into a stage production. The musical won a whopping eight Tony Awards in 2012, two Olivier Awards this year and is still running both on Broadway and in the West End. “It’s become a bit of a must-see for anyone with Irish blood in them, of which fortunately there are many,” he says wryly.
All of which must surely have made him a rich man? “Spiritually rich, yes. But you’re right, I’m no longer in urgent financial need.” Asked if this has taken some adjusting to, Carney chuckles softly: “Oh, it’s always easy for an Irish man to have a few coins in his pocket, trust me. But the main thing about success is that it has afforded me time. I’ve been able to make considered decisions about work, not ones based solely on how to pay my bills. That I know is a luxury.”
The result is Begin Again (released in cinemas on 11 July), another tale of ill-starred love set to music, but with New York and not Dublin as its location. College sweethearts and songwriting partners Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) are catapulted to Manhattan when he lands a recording deal, where she strays into the path of down-on-his- luck label executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo). It’s a mutually transformative relationship with a solidly Carney-esque, rather than conventionally Hollywood, ending. In that sense, Begin Again is the bigger, more costly American cousin to Once.
Carney says he turned down may offers before choosing to make his first American movie. “Looking back, I probably had a nervous breakdown out of shock when Once was so well received. Even the most cynical, hard-assed industry types were genuinely moved by it. I knew that reaction was unrepeatable and therein lay the dilemma. I was left biting my fingernails, wondering constantly, ‘What should I do next?’” Because Once is so revered, he fears that Begin Again may meet a backlash: “Oh, you know, ‘That was so pure and beautiful but this is Keira and America and clearly he’s sold out...’”
Whatever the reaction, he says he will always want to work with cameras and actors – and as cheaply as possible. Current projects include a film set in a Christian Brothers school in Dublin in the 1980s (based loosely on his own child- hood, it will feature songs by Bono and The Edge) and a psychological thriller, adapted from the MR James story Casting the Runes. And there’s the series he’s developing for American TV. Is a permanent move to Hollywood on the cards? “What I’ve discovered is that you lose currency by being there all the time,” he smiles. “The second you leave, they want you. But when they’ve got you, it’s like they’re suddenly bored and stop returning your calls. Best, I think, to preserve a hint of the exotic.”