Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Retuning the musical: A conversation with John Carney, director of 'Once'




John Carney is an unknown, a long, angular Irishman with a goatee, a handful of obscure credits (played guitar in the Dublin-based band The Frames, directed a few films you've never seen), and this tiny new movie, Once, which opens next Friday in Toledo and also happens to be, so far anyway, the best film of 2007.

That doesn't make this easier.

Once is a musical, one that looks as if it were made on the lam - stripped so clean of affectation, plot, and character development, it could be a Charlie Chaplin film, a sort of City Lights starring hipsters. Those would be a street busker and a flower girl, who meet, become friends, write songs (think Arcade Fire meets Wilco), and can't decide what to do with that relationship - fall in love, or start a band? The movie is so elemental that we never even hear their names.

But, do you believe in magic?

Once, which played to rapturous response at the Sundance Film festival last winter, feels so casual, so deceptively tossed-off, it bears the mark of true originality, of a found object. In other words, a tough sell - until you get someone (anyone, it's that accessible) into the theater. Carey is wrestling with this, that American instinct to say "Never heard of it" and move on. I spoke with the 35-year old filmmaker last spring. He said, "I'm trying to be as earnest and sincere about this picture as possible, but people tell me I don't sell it enough, that I'm not good with the hard sell - which I guess is what you need in America? You know, I just don't really care. I just want someone to go see it."

Bless his heart, the naif.

Q: Your two leading characters are listed in the credits as simply "Girl" and "Guy," which seems to me as distancing as the picture itself is intimate.

A: Well, it keeps them at a distance, yes. But I want them there, like a couple you watch through a window and understand only so much, but feel a poignancy to it. I didn't want to go inside them or get to know them too well. I want the audience one step removed and feeling maybe like they shouldn't be watching and listening, which builds intimacy.

Q: There's this shot I noticed where a few kids look right into your camera. The scene was clearly shot on the street without anything being blocked off for filming or whatever, and these kids look right at the lens.

A: That felt natural to me. People told me to use different takes of that, but to me it worked. It's obvious, and instinctual. It reminds people they are watching something where mistakes can happen. You don't want to change those. That can build intimacy, too. The thing is, we didn't want a lot of money to make this. You know how Hollywood dirty-downs a film, scruffs it up, then says it's "authentic"? I was shooting low budget because I would not get $1 million.

Q: You know, the funny thing about your film is how it avoids that old MGM musical rhythm where the film stops for a song, goes back to a story that we're less interested in, then we wait for the next song - which is not all that different from a porno.

A: Yes but I wanted to make a musical, not a movie with music in it. I love Singin' in the Rain and Guys and Dolls, but what I really love are the films of John Cassavetes, the homemade quality. Personally, It doesn't bother me if characters break into song, but it is a contrivance for modern audiences. I wanted to make an unself-conscious musical that didn't apologize for people singing to each other. I wasn't thinking MGM homage. I think you're naive if you're trying to show influences like that. You know how in Mean Streets Scorsese references unusual bits, like parts of musicals? The stuff he tries to pull off but doesn't quite pull off are what make it original and classic. But when he steals overtly from, like, the original Scarface, that annoys me. I don't want to prove I can make a homage. I want to be my own voice.

Q: Yeah, but Mean Streets came early in his career. Isn't there value in working in a style when you're still learning the mechanics? Ripping off, borrowing, homage, whatever, is a way of learning how those nuts and bolts suit your purposes.

A: Sure, but I don't think that's true for filmmakers. It suits poets, artists, and writers perhaps, but filmmaking is just like 90 minutes of time and you choose what to show, so why take that time and comment on other's films? Like I said, I find this job instinctual. I could intellectualize the reasons behind decisions, but in the end it's like a series of gut feelings - edited together.

Q: Why no dancing?

A: It's not about dancers.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: or 419-724-6117.

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