There’s always plenty of fun to be had at the Sundance Film Festival, but oftentimes, the films are heavy-hitting. After days of dramas and biopics that often skew to the more downbeat of subjects, it’s refreshing to find a film that is seemingly engineered to make audiences happy, to get them singing, to all but force them to dance, just by the pure force of their charm.
John Carney’s “Sing Street” is that type of a film. The latest from the director of “Once” (which premiered at Sundance almost a decade ago, launching Carney’s career in the process) is another musical about scrappy talents from Ireland, though this time around, he’s going for a younger demographic. Starring first-time actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Connor, a Dublin teen who hits upon the ingenious idea to form a band in order to make friends and impress a local girl (Lucy Boynton), the movie is a joyous, uplifting and damn fun musical that only Carney could bring to the big screen.
Indiewire sat down with Carney at the festival (incidentally, the morning after its raucous and uplifting premiere) to chat about the biggest surprises of the film, why he understands why some people didn’t like “Begin Again” and where “Sing Street” fits into his own unofficial musical trilogy.
What a night last night!
Were you there?
Yes, I was there.
It went well, didn’t it?
You came out afterwards for the Q&A to a standing ovation, you must’ve thought, “Oh, this is a good sign, these people had fun.”
That’s what you aim to do, I suppose, in making films — give people a nice evening. But it was a very, very warm response, it felt great, and it was kind of nerve-wracking coming back after “Once,” that’s a hard act to follow at Sundance. I think people enjoyed themselves and people were reminded of their youth and the kind of crazy projects that kids come up with. A lot of fun.
Your relationship with Sundance has been a really special one. What is it like to be back here ten years after “Once”?
It’s great. I mentioned it at the screening last night, but really, you can’t underestimate how important Sundance is for me and my career. Everybody to do with “Once” has just…that was the turning point in so many careers, being accepted here and doing well at the festival with “Once.”
But, specifically for me, for a filmmaker in Dublin, it’s an unlikely job, it’s very hard. I know so many talented filmmakers who don’t get the opportunity to work, and Sundance really was my launching pad in that sense, it’s given me the opportunity to make other films. I can’t underestimate how significant it is as a festival and how much it really, genuinely does actually create careers. Other festivals sort of promise that they do, but Sundance delivers on that.
You did an open casting call for the film. Where did that idea come from?
We were looking for a bunch of non-actors, I wanted to get non-actors, so that’s the reason why I did it. There’s a very specific way that child actors are, and I didn’t want the film to come off like that. I wanted the film to look like the kids themselves have made it; I didn’t want it to look good, I didn’t want it to sound good, I kind of wanted it to seem almost like a diary of putting this band together. And I didn’t want them to seem like they were prepared, so I did this open casting call and tried to get kids from all different areas of life and walks of life, and it worked really well. We put a great band of great faces and characters and musical talent together. I think it’s paid off.
For the music, however, you went with a true professional.
The main guy who wrote the music, this guy called Gary Clark, he’s a songwriter from Scotland, and I collaborated with him. He’s kind of like the “Oz”character behind the curtain, he’s the person who will take a germ of an idea and turn it into a great pop chorus hook, or a great lyric, or a great visual image. He’s the guy who does that and he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s kind of an expert at it.
We put a band together, we sort of had our “Sing Street” band of musicians who worked in the studio in Dublin for about a year before the movie, just knocking ideas around and sort of building the soundtrack up from the ground, and then I wrote the screenplay around those songs. The songs sort of formed with the screenplay, a bit like the way “Once” worked.
The film is set in 1985, but not all the songs used in it are from that year. How did you choose which songs you wanted to be in the film?
They’re all from around that period. They’re just songs that stuck out for me at the time.
I had an ambivalent relationship with Duran Duran, because they were pop-funk and I was into sort of funky American music, so they were kind of like the sort of pretty boy version of that. I wasn’t that crazy about Duran Duran and I’m still not that crazy about Duran Duran, but they are a lot of fun, and I guess in the sense it was sort of after The Beatles. They’re obviously not The Beatles, but they had that sort of British fun thing. I guess that’s why America fell in love with them.
As we see in the movie, Duran Duran music videos are still so fun.
Yeah, well they were kind of pioneers of that sort of slightly hedonistic, big-budget extravaganzas that look ridiculous now, thankfully, honestly [laughs].
Was the music video element always a part of the story?
I made so many videos when we were in bands when I was young, and it’s basically as low budget or no budget as they do in the movie, it really was borrowing your parents’ clothes and stealing props from rubbish bins and it’s just very charming. It was great fun, and it sort of…when you don’t have money, you have to use your imagination. I wanted to explore that.
I wanted to move on from just songwriting, because I had done a bit of that with “Once,” obviously, and “Begin Again.” I wanted it to become something more than just about the songs, and I thought it would be fun to have the kids steal a video camera from their school and shoot some videos, because it’s that era.
When the kids start getting into these different bands, there’s this great visual gag where they start dressing like whoever they are listening to. Was that always in the script or was that something that evolved?
That was always in the script. One of the early ideas, actually, very early before I had the script, was six shots of these kids coming into school with different outfits, because that’s what it was like back then. I remember my family slagging me off one day because I came home from school wearing a parka, and I declared, “I’m a mod now,” and they sort of sucked in their cheeks and laughed at me. It was that idea of, “Ahem, I’m a mod now just because I put on a parka,” not because I buy into any of the ideology.
I thought that was a funny idea to have almost like a montage of: Now you’re Cure-heads, now you’re goths, now you’re Spandau Ballet. That was a lot of fun, putting those costumes together was a lot of fun.
The kids are so young, what sort of appreciation and understanding of ’80s music did they have when you started filming?
I had to sort of open up a few avenues. Kids now know the ‘80s very well. I guess it’s like…when I was growing up in the ‘80s, I guess [for them] it’s like the ‘50s was [for me]. It is 30 years ago.
It was more like little nuances of the ‘80s that I sort of put the kids onto, subtle nuances that they didn’t know about. Not just Duran Duran or The Cure, some more obscure artists than that, some more experimental ‘80s music from England and America that helped them see the other sides of the coin. Not just the sort of commercial Duran Duran story, but also all the different little not-so-successful versions of bands, the one-hit-wonders or the more avant-garde ‘80s music.
The film gives you the chance to put on some very big musical numbers, like “Drive It Like You Stole It,” which is both a musical sequence and a fantasy sequence.
That was the whole “dream big” thing, the idea that this kid is never going to make videos like that, that’s not a guaranteed thing, but in his head. His brother has given him that permission to think big.
There’s the story in the film of the things that you can’t make work in your life, you make them work in your imagination, so his parents show up, Jack [Reynor] shows up, all the characters that aren’t actually going to come to his school gig in reality come in the fantasy sequence. He resolves all the issues in his life with his headmaster and the bully; all that stuff is fixed in the fantasy in his head.
That’s kind of how I lived, I think, a lot. I sort of fantasized how I would fix something before fixing it.
It’s quite charming in that sequence, his brother is the hero of the story. At the end of the film, there’s a dedication “For Brothers Everywhere,” that I think really moved the audience.
Yeah, that worked. That was sentimental. Most of us have siblings that we look up to and who guide us. Siblings are so different from parents in that sense as well. Getting permission from your older siblings is a huge deal as a younger sibling, being facilitated and allowed and understood in a way that your parents can’t quite understand you. Your parents have to put up so many red lights. In a sense it really is a sports movie, his brother is his coach in a way, and he has his own difficulties himself.
You get that in Jack Reynor’s big scene, where he explains to Connor that he paved the way for him in the family.
That played in a funny way. I thought everybody would get that that was a serious scene, but there were a few laughs. I don’t know why I got that slightly wrong, or maybe I should’ve put some music over it to sort of tell people, “Oh, no, this is serious.” They didn’t quite know. That to me is a great piece of acting from Jack Reynor, he encapsulates that idea very beautifully.
Were there other audience reactions at the premiere that surprised you?
Let me think and answer that honestly. It’s hard to tell at the festival, because people are sort of giving you a lot of the benefit of the doubt sometimes. But I think that it’s a funny film; it’s not a comedy, I’m not trying to be funny, I’m trying to be truthful and part of the truth of kids putting on those shows together is that it’s very funny and tragic and likeable, and the laughs sort of come from that.
The only thing that surprised me was…it’s hard to make a film that goes from laughter to poignancy and to try and sort of move without upsetting people’s ideas of what the film is. I think it was a nice screening, I think there was a nice flow to it.
Sometimes things can be a little heavy at festivals, so to have a film like yours really lifts the mood.
We’re like the puppy of this festival so far [laughs].
That’s a good thing to be.
Well, right now, I could use some feel-good movies. To me, the serious films are like Ingmar Bergman films, they’re the films I love. Being heavy just for the sake of being heavy…to be heavy, you have to be kind of a genius in a way, and I’m not the genius. I can entertain people with a sweet, likeable film, and that’s what I’m doing at the moment. But I find an awful lot of films that are intentionally, wilfully bleak and depressing, you have to be a genius to make those films work, because you’re bringing somebody through, in a dark room, this range of incredibly deep, complex, sad, moving emotions. You have to know how to do that tastefully, and I find an awful lot of films now sort of fall short of that mark.
This obviously feels very similar to “Begin Again,” which didn’t quite hit the way “Once” did. Were you surprised by the way some people reacted to it?
I think people reacted well to the film, actually. If you look online, it has 87% or 83% [on Rotten Tomatoes] or something, it’s not bad. It’s just that there were people who remember the bad reviews for that movie, because they stand out a little bit.
In all honesty, if I went to see “Once” and I really liked the low-budget, tattered quality of it, and then the same guy made a film with Keira Knightley in it pretending to sing, I would probably say, “He sucks.” I’d probably rap him on the knuckles, which is what some reviewers gave me, some audience members gave me that. I get that, and a film director has to understand that.
But I’m trying something different with this. You don’t want to see an exact replica of “Once.” It is similar, but I’m just experimenting with a few different muscles and seeing if I could do this. You’re reacting with audiences also as a filmmaker, it’s an ongoing journey. I like when journalists are respectful of that and get that this person is sort of making a canon of films, and we ought not to sort of just shit on it because we didn’t like this film as much as the one before. It’s not about that, it’s about putting together a canon of work, and as a filmmaker, you take hints from audiences, screenings and reviews, and you try and make a better film the next time, but it’s an ongoing mission statement.
Are you going to do another musical next?
I don’t know what I’m going to do next. Have a baby is what I’m going to do next. An actual baby as opposed to a musical baby.
There are a few things. I’m thinking about a TV show, a film maybe where music plays less of a role in. I see “Once,” “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street” as sort of a little canon of movies, a little thing in itself.
Like a trilogy?
Yeah, like a trilogy!
“Sing Street” premiered last week at Sundance. The Weinstein Company will release it sometime in 2016.