John Carney goes urban musical Once more

‘Once’ director John Carney’s new film has been dubbed ’Twice’ as it is about a couple making music around a city, this time New York, but he says it is part of a portfolio

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 12:09

Take heed of the American press and you could be forgiven for believing that John Carney ceased to exist for most of the last decade. Can it really be eight years since that director’s Once charmed Sundance, scooped up international raves and – as unlikely as an Irish battleship shelling Beijing – won an Oscar for best original song? So the calendar tells us.

In that time, John has been busy. He directed two low-budget features: left-field comedy Zonad and spooky drama The Rafters. He brought a handful of larger projects close to production. But, so far as much of the wider world is concerned, Begin Again, a delightful musical idyll starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, must stand as John’s “belated follow-up” to Once.

“Well, I would like to say that I was biding my time,” he says. “And that I didn’t want the two musical projects to be too close together. I did have two or three things simmering at once. There was a Fox film called Town House with Amy Adams and Zach Galifianakis. Then the studio pulled out.”

There are various sub-narratives to the Carney story that often go unexplored. Over a decade ago, the Americans courted him following the completion of two experimental features – November Afternoon and Park – made with fellow Dubliner Tom Hall. Carney’s third proper feature, On the Edge, a drama with a young Cillian Murphy, emerged quietly in 2001.

“I was aware of how quickly these things can go away,” he says. “I felt that if it did all fade then I would still have this one thing that’s my own project. And that’s what happened. I wasn’t working all the time at Begin Again, but I was chipping away at it constantly.”

A tall man with plenty of prominent features – from some angles he resembles a more Celtic Vincent Cassel – Carney admits to certain insecurities, but nobody meeting him for the first time would conclude he lacks confidence.

Raised in leafy Dublin 6, Carney played alongside Glenn Hansard, star of Once, in an early incarnation of The Frames, before going on to invent a place for himself in the then moribund world of Irish film.

Hall and he shot November Afternoon and Park for pocket money with the most basic equipment. Working with Kieran Carney, John’s brother, they then went on to register a notable success with the series Bachelor’s Walk for RTÉ.

He makes things happen. So, it always seemed likely that the big US project would come to pass. Begin Again has, to this point, gone down very nicely with the critics. If there have been mutters they have concerned the picture’s similarities to Once. The earlier film starred Hansard and Markéta Irglová as a couple making music amid busy Dublin locations. Begin Again has Ruffalo and Knightley doing something similar in New York City. At least one reviewer has referred to the picture as Twice.

“Yeah, I’m getting my balls broken about that,” he laughs. “Somebody once advised me to specialise. Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself. Think of them as paintings that will hang on the wall. People can then assess them when there are 10 of them. ‘This one’s annoyingly like that one.’ And so on. I see Once and Begin Again as a series of musical films. There will be more. That’s not just an attempt to get myself of the hook for apparently repeating myself.”