After his microbudgeted “Once” became a global indie hit in 2006, John Carney hatched another idea for a bigscreen musical. In many ways, “Begin Again,” which opens in limited release on June 27, is like a cousin to “Once,” which went to Broadway and won the best musical Tony. It’s about a singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) who, while breaking up with her boyfriend (Adam Levine), forms a special bond with a music executive (Mark Ruffalo).
“I actually think ‘Begin Again’ is a nice continuation of ideas,” Carney says. “It has the same DNA as ‘Once.’ But it’s a more ambitious story with a larger palette of characters.” Even though he came up with the idea a few years ago, Carney didn’t start working on “Begin Again” right away. “I wanted time to pass,” he says.
Instead, he directed two small Irish films — a comedy and a ghost story — neither of which ever secured U.S. distribution, before diving back into “Begin Again” in 2010, when he pitched the premise to Judd Apatow.
“We would have long telephone conversations from Dublin to Los Angeles, just chatting about stories we knew about people in bands,” Carney says. The director-writer was partially inspired by his own experiences: As a teenager, he signed with a record label and toured. He knew he wanted Ruffalo to play the disgruntled music exec. “He has an old-school Marlon Brando appeal,” Carney says.
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For his female lead, he toyed with the idea of casting a real pop star. “I did think of someone like Adele for a minute, but then it was like if I put Adele in the movie, the movie is about Adele playing a character, a version of herself,” Carney says. Knightley brought a dose of Audrey Hepburn to the love story, and held her own with the vocals. The songs in “Once” were performed live, but the actors in “Begin Again” croon to a pre-recorded track.
Exclusive Media financed the $9 million production, a big jump from the $120,000 it cost to make “Once” (which grossed $20.7 million worldwide). Carney insists he’s still cost-conscious. “Films are so insanely expensive in America,” he says. “I believe in making films cheap.” He recalls shooting a scene in Times Square for the picture with his stars and a handheld camera at 3 a.m., instead of splurging on extras and a crew.
Carney is working on yet another musical, “Sing Street,” based on those years he spent as a rocker. He’s casting unknowns for the $8 million film, which will include songs penned by Bono and the Edge. The filmmaker says he’s been offered plenty of Hollywood projects since “Once,” but has turned them down. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to make a film in Los Angeles or with a studio,” he says. “But I would have to make it because they wanted a specific voice.”
“Begin Again” premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where the Weinstein Co. bought U.S. rights for $7 million. Carney says he’s only made small adjustments since then, including changing the title from “Can a Song Save Your Life,” at the Weinsteins’ suggestion. He agreed to the switch though he notes the new title runs counter to his roots. “We don’t believe in beginning again in Ireland,” Carney jokes. “We fester until we die.”