Kaleem Aftab meets John Carney, director of Once, a beguiling Irish rock’n’roll romance movie that’s aiming to follow in the footsteps of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty
If you thought all musicals were kitsch, cheesy and dated, then think again. At this year’s Sundance festival, Once – a small Irish indie film about a Dublin busker who falls for an East European immigrant cleaner – turned everyone’s preconceptions on their heads. Rather than having his characters burst into song at random intervals, director John Carney (pictured above) has expertly spun his tale so that the music becomes an organic part of the plot.
When the Czech cleaner asks the Dubliner questions about his love life on the top of a double-decker bus, he responds with a song in a scene that highlights how uncomfortable it is for him to express his emotions. It just seems natural and real that he would sing his response to her. Carney admits that he’s not a fan of musicals per se. ‘I like about 5% of musicals ever made. I wanted to make the kind of film that I would watch myself, but that would include all these songs. An old-fashioned musical done in a modern, handheld independent style.’
Until 1993, Carney played in The Frames with folk musician Glen Hansard. Having come up with the idea for this film, he approached his old friend to write the songs while Carney envisaged Cillian Murphy as his lead actor. Hansard had previously made two small Irish movies, Zonad (2003) and On the Edge (2001) with Murphy and was well into the advanced planning stages for the film when he realised that Ireland’s rising star wasn’t right for this picture.
‘I’m mates with Cillian and stuff, but it just suddenly dawned on me that actually I should get singers that can’t act and try and get them to act rather than the other way around because I know I can’t get actors to sing. The songs had to be really authentic.’
The solution was staring Carney in his face. ‘Glen was in the process of writing some songs for the film when we decided it would probably be better if he took the lead role in the film. For the female lead I had met Marketa Irglova through Glen. He knew her parents and she had sung and played at a couple of parties here in Dublin. I cast her really early on in the process as I’d always anticipated that I would get a non-actress in that role.’ The connection between The Frames and celluloid has always been a strong one. One of their early songs was called ‘Fitzcarraldo’. For the film, Hansard dropped some of the harder rock elements of their music and concentrated on raw folk ballads, three chords and the truth, the type of music you would expect a talented and unheralded busker down on the streets of Ireland to play.
With the music, setting and cast in place, Carney delved into his own life for the story that would weave all the elements together. ‘My fiancée lived in London at the time I wrote the script and I was kind of drifting around the streets of Dublin thinking about what I was going to do with my life, wondering if I would go over there with her or stay and try to make it in Dublin.’
At the same time Carney was witnessing a huge influx of immigration into Ireland: ‘I guess because I was isolated here on my own, I felt I kind of identified more with immigrants than I did with the native Dubliners.’
Carney decided that the romantic leads in his film should never actually become an item in the classic movie sense. Instead he wished to focus on the connection between two people and how it affects their views on relationships. ‘I was intrigued by the idea that you can have a romance with someone without betraying your partner,’ says Carney. ‘You can have a relationship with someone who you didn’t go all the way with and didn’t betray the love of your life. And that person ends up being someone who kept you on the path to righteousness rather than betraying your girlfriend. Afterwards you can say to your girlfriend: “I met this amazing woman and even though I’ve been changed by her, I’m back and everything is OK.”’
The Dublin of the film is also a romanticised portrayal of the city. It’s a Dublin of yesteryear, unspoiled by wine bars and the excesses of the economic boom. Carney enjoyed bringing his favourite places to the fore. ‘The places in the film would be my stomping ground here in Dublin. I would have tried to woo many girls in Waltons, unsuccessfully. The locations are the older Dublin, the more 80s Dublin, before the Celtic Tiger and the wine bar mentality.’
The success of Once in the United States, where it has taken $8m at the box office and been one of the best reviewed independent films of the year, led to Hansard’s hero Bob Dylan asking the singer to support him on tour. Americans, it seems, have fallen head over heels with Carney’s film in the same spirit to which they took to similar indie success stories such as Billy Elliot and The Full Monty.
After filming is complete on a comedy co-written with his brother in the Irish countryside the director is taking the plunge and heading Stateside.
‘I guess the situation is that once Americans get interested in you I think it would be kind of foolish to ignore it,’ he says. ‘In one way I’m tempted to do that, but you really can’t go on making small Irish films for an Irish market. You have to keep one foot in both camps and just make good films. Americans tend to have a lot of money, have a healthy industry and make a lot of films. I happen to think there is room there for my voice too.’
General release from Fri 19 Oct. The soundtrack is out now on Canvasback/Sony.
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