We're delighted to present the latest in our series of in-depth interviews with notable Irish filmmakers, presented in association with Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland. Here, RTÉ Culture Editor Derek O'Connor talks to award-winning director John Carney.
Watch the interview in full above, or read edited highlights below.
The Director: John Carney is the writer and director of internationally acclaimed box-office hits Sing Street (2016), Begin Again (2013) and the Oscar-winning phenomenon Once (2007). Other feature films include Zonad (2009), On The Edge (2003), Park (1996) and November Afternoon (1997), the latter two co-directed with Tom Hall. For television, he co-created (with Hall and his brother Kieran) and directed three series - plus a Christmas special - of acclaimed RTÉ comedy drama Bachelor's Walk.
What are you currently working on?
I'm kind of developing a few things, writing and developing a few different projects but not shooting anything except for stuff of my new baby on my iPhone and putting that on Facebook.
What was your path to becoming a film director?
That was a long path. How did I get into making film? I was in a band (The Frames) and we shot some videos, and I kind of saw the whole kind of backstage thing of making a video, and that was very exciting to me - shooting a rock video in Ardmore, and seeing how cameras work and all of that - and I think it coincided with a general teenage interest in films, and my parents had great taste in films. They were always encouraging us to watch those Golden Age Hollywood movies. Then I met a guy called Tom Hall, and we had a sort of shared taste in movies and I think those sort of three things combined and facilitated each other - so it's more luck and coincidence than I would say than that whole concept now of, 'This was my dream since I was 15 years old'. It seemed like an interesting life path.
You guys took a very proactive approach where you just started making stuff, as opposed to waiting around to get funding. Did that come from being in a band, or did you just feel the need to make something?
It was probably that we were around early in the days of the Film Board. That route to financing hadn't been made clear to us. It was sort of still evolving. It wasn't like a big decision that 'Hey, we're going to do it on our own. Screw the system. Let's be mavericks...' It feels good to say that now, but it would be a lie. We sort of didn't know how else to do it. We certainly didn't think that our scripts would raise money to be developed or turned into movies, so it seemed like a fait accompli to us in ways. It was 'Well let's just make our film on our own, because we've got a camcorder and some friends who want to be actors and then we'll figure out how to edit it and distribute it and get it out there...' And the Film Board obviously came on board and we did some pre-sales to RTÉ back in the day, 1990-whatever-it-was (1997). It wasn't like a big plan. Maybe the band thing had a little bit to do with it; record your own demo, and you don't need to ask anybody's permission. You don't start with a record deal. You start in a garage and then you get a record deal. So I suppose we sort of applied that thinking a little bit to filmmaking.
What were the actual challenges then when it came to the physical process of filmmaking? In terms of actually earning your chops?
If you watch the earlier films, you'll see what the challenges were. They're very clear on screen. Basic things like how to move the camera... 16 millimeter (film) works very well when you just turn it on and you shoot with a light bulb and a little bit of bounced light. It looks great. Hi-8 video in 1991 is not the same. There's nothing you can do with that format to make it look good. Our constant battle was how to disguise, how to sort of cover the tracks. How we made this movie (November Afternoon) which is, he said 'My girlfriend wants to be an actress...' She's our leading lady. Our friend (points) wants to be an actor or a songwriter, so he's going to write the music. This person wants to be a cameraman... So it's very very shaky.
Really, you do sort of realize the more you make movies that while there's John Cassavetes and a bunch of maverick cool young filmmakers that made things for nothing, generally filmmaking is a weird art form that needs to be highly resourced. It's just expensive. The second you start burning film, and that applies to HD (video) now as well, the second you start that button you're just burning up money. There's no two ways about it. The challenges were kind of obvious, and were all financially linked.
When it comes to getting more structured, how big a part does having a good producer play in terms of enabling you to do your job?
I think it depends. I think, I've been looking now. I've kind of met two very good producers from the States who I've made a couple of films with. I like them. It's an unusual partnership. I always thought I'd have a sort of partnership with a writer or a co-director or an actor. Every director thinks he'll meet his De Niro and he'll be Scorsese and it'll be a kind of a real artistic collaboration. That hasn't been the case with me at all. If anything, I have a sort of a good bond now with this producer but I think that's very lucky. I quite like the idea that certain film producers are not just in the office, but are kind of on the floor a little bit and collaborating with the director to the point that the director wants that collaboration and then knowing when to sort of stop and not get too involved. I think it's a lucky relationship. It's not necessarily an easy one.
I know you've been involved with other writer's projects, as well as your own. Do you want to mix both or is it always going to be very important to you to initiate your own projects?
Yeah. I'd like to be the kind of director who could just direct anything that comes along, like a book or a script, but actually if I'm not personally invested in it in some way, I kind of struggle with that a little bit. Like with Sing Street - I co-produced, wrote, directed, but also wrote half the music for that film. Not because I'm a megalomaniac, which I am, but not necessarily in filming terms (laughs). It's just because I know I'm going to be talking about this film for two or three years. The more invested I am in it the less boring that will be. That sounds terrible, but you go on tour with a movie around the country and you're just endlessly sitting there talking about the film and you very quickly run out of things to say, so the more invested you are in the different sort of facets of the filmmaking process, the more you have to talk about and the more interesting it is to you.
Try and make a feature film first. Forget about short films. I think they're fine for practice, but I think that ultimately we're in the business of telling 90-minute stories, or thereabouts.
I've found myself getting more involved in each project as they go along. From Once on, just hugely invested in the outcome of the film and, you know, your friends are in it. There's a lot to lose if it doesn't work. It's not just some script you got from your agent that you're reading that you're doing for the money. It's like, it happened to me, this story here. You're on set and that's not the way it happened. It's sort of a weird investment that I really like, I have to say, but I'm sure if somebody came along with a monster script like a Coen Brothers script or a mad Billy Wilder film that was like every page and every line was perfect, of course it'd be sort of a dream come true to just direct a film and not have to worry about writing it and doing the music and producing it or whatever.
On a practical level, what is the single biggest challenge that you faced as a director?
Every film is a challenge. You never get the job. In other words, you hear that story of friends and regular careers where people are like 'I got the job'. You're like, not that it's a job for life but I know I'm going to get a decade out of this job. I'm in. I get a desk. You never feel that way as a filmmaker. I remember feeling it naively at the beginning when you would get a little bit of money. For November Afternoon it was like, 'Oh I'm in the room now. I'm a filmmaker'. Then you find out at the end you're not a filmmaker. You have to prove it again and again and again. Even big film directors you and I know that are high profile names have to sort of go back to the well again, and it's frequently dry. It's never a job for life. I thought after Once, I had so many offers of films, this was easy, I could take my pick - but actually as it turns out, it took me years to make my next film the way I wanted to make it.
Then again even with Sing Street, even though that was relatively easy, you have to sort of prove yourself over and over and over again and even if you do get a free ride, if someone gives you the financing to do a next film because your last film made loads of money, eventually you're going to be called by the board and they're going to say, what the hell do you think you're doing? You're not going to get to go again. I think every film is a sort of a challenge.
Can you talk about your process, as a director approaching a project?
It's kind of different for each project, I have to say. There has been no kind of formula to the way that I've found myself getting interested in projects yet. There's been no, like Woody Allen-esque sort of thing where each year here's the film, here's the script, there's the actors. You know, sort of cyclical. It's always been chaotic and it's always been weirdly resourced from different financial backgrounds and it's almost not happened so many times and then it happens. I think I haven't yet gotten into that thing of like, roll up our sleeves, it's another movie. It's more like, roll up our sleeves, I have no idea what's going to happen in the next two years of my life. I don't know where we're going to get the money. I don't know who the actors are going to be. They might be kids. They might be unknowns. They might be my friends. Maybe we got movie stars for this film, which is kind of a challenge in and of itself. I don't know the answer to your question yet, what the system is that I get films made by.
You have no clue what you're doing?
I have no clue what I'm doing, Derek. (smiles)
What is it that keeps you doing what you do?
Well, that's an interesting one. When we did the play version of Once, that has afforded me a very unique position as a filmmaker which is I haven't needed to make another film so I haven't had any financial (pressures). Usually you make a film because you're running out of money, like 'I need to shoot something'. Weirdly, I've been in this very very fortunate situation where I haven't had that pressure for quite a while, and it's made me select the projects that I've wanted to do from a very pure and very fortunate place which is 'Do I absolutely love this, the fibre of this film, there's nothing in this that I don't like. let's get everything right because I've got time'. I'm not desperate to pay my next gas bill for the first time in my life, because I always have been. When I was in a band, it was always 'How are we going to pay for this? When we were doing Bachelor's Walk for TV it was like how are we going to do another series of this? I can't afford to pay the bank, all that stuff.
I'm fine with that being my role as a filmmaker, because my real interest in films was as an artist. That sounds pretentious, but it really was. It was the rolling up your sleeves on the ground, as a kid, and just painting or drawing. Making films felt like that to me. It felt like an adventure and time stopped and we didn't know where it ended, and we didn't go to (film) school, we didn't know how a film worked, so it really was artistic in that sense. Now weirdly I've got this window of time to be able to sit back and germinate and think about what I really want to do next. You know Begin Again was born out of that completely, and Sing Street was even more so.
It was literally me sitting back and saying 'What's the most appealing thing that I want to do?' And I was like 'Well, I love that school story...' That was funny, being in that school when I was twelve and getting a hard time from these kids for being in a band, and for precisely the things you see in the film, wearing a long scarf and being a bit eccentric. That's a funny film, and I can sort of build that and put that together in a funny way that can really mean something to me and then I can talk about it for years afterward, because I sort of experienced it, as I was saying.
You have the tools. You don't really have to worry about the technology of how to make your film.
What about practical advice? Someone making their first film comes to you to look for advice. What do you tell them?
Well I get about 20 of them outside of every screening. A young guy, it's invariably a guy, and he comes up and he's 18 and he goes... He calls me Mr. Carney, which is weird. He says 'Hey Mr. Carney, I'm a young filmmaker. What advice do you have for aspiring film makers? I read on Wikipedia that you just went out and made films on your own and I'd love to get your advice...' What I say to them, I don't know if this is actually good advice now that I hear it, but if I had what you have now as a filmmaker I'd be beside myself with excitement. You have a phone that can shoot HD. You have a Mac that can edit. Like, do you know how hard it was making an edit, just one picture edit, on two VCR's in your parents house? On VHS, where you'd press play on one - you'd record and release them both and each cut would be like a hideous splice and getting the music on a different track was impossible.
You have the tools. You don't really have to worry about the technology of how to make your film. You really just have to worry about who you are as a person, and what story do you want to tell and what your life was like or who your boyfriend or girlfriend is, or what last night was. You can really focus. I would have love to have been there when I was 19. You look back at myself and Tom's films from that era, they're just such a constant challenge to even get it so it's not cracking up on the screen visually, and the sound is awful...and Nowadays, it's considerably easier to make a reasonably good looking film for very small amounts of money. I'm like, 'You're already in a great position.'
My advice to you would be try and make a feature film first. Forget about short films. I think they're fine for practice, but I think that ultimately we're in the business of telling 90-minute stories, or thereabouts. Can you keep me entertained for - because I know you can tell me a joke and then go off - but can you keep me here for an hour and a half? That's an amazing sort of talent, and it's something that you need to cultivate and you need to get right ultimately. If you want to become a filmmaker you kind of have to keep the plates spinning. It's like, I often say it's like when you meet a girl in a bar and you can tell her a joke and she'll laugh, but it's not like TV, where you go to the bathroom and you come back and it's a week later and she's like 'Oh you again...' I have to keep you stimulated and entertained and I have to try and keep this going for like an hour and a half. It's impossible. It's an incredibly hard thing to do.
That's what I've found as a filmmaker was the hardest of all things to do, to try and keep people from adjusting themselves in their seats and checking their watches like 40 or 50 minutes into the film. I think that a realistic piece of advice for young filmmakers is to think in those kind of slots, think in terms of ... In the same way people would say if you were making TV in America, like The Sopranos thing, think in terms of four-act structures, not three-act structures. Think in terms of that break to sell a Buick in the middle of the thing. It really helps to know: is it a half-hour comedy or is it an hour-long drama? Is it an hour-and-a-half feature or is it a four-hour long Fassbender movie? To know the kind of format, that's my big thing to young people when I meet them now. Don't worry too much about tracking shots and crane shots and this and that. You've got an amazing phone there that can shoot. The film is going to look grand, but can you make a connection? Can you set something up here and make a connection here and in the middle keep me occupied and entertained?
What do you think that Irish film brings to the table? What is it that we have to offer?
I'd say paradoxically what's turned out in our favor is when we stopped being Irish and we stopped being in the '90s so obsessed with who are we as Irish men and women. Like 'What is the ground and the fields and the IRA and The Troubles? What does that say?' Once we stopped doing that, I think that's when we had sort of a breakthrough in filmmaking. Like, I don't see Once as an Irish film. I think it worked because it was quite a universal story. It's about a guy with a guitar who meets an immigrant. They can't be together because of the way things are. Now it's made by a film director who knows Dublin, and that's important. It's important to know what you're talking about, and to know the setting of where you are and for that to be believable, but apart from that really the stories that I think are working in Ireland are from people who have stopped scratching our heads and wondering who we are.
For example, A Date for Mad Mary or Young Offenders, they're just the craic. Current, smart films that are well made, and that are just about right now. We, you and me - I'm putting us into the same age bracket here - we worry about ideas that our parents worried about a little bit... Who am I? What has the potato famine got to do with me? It's got nothing to do with you whatsoever. This generation of kids, they couldn't care less about any of that, and they're right to. It's like time has just clicked over into a point that nostalgia is a different thing than it was for me and you, and right now I think Irish cinema is very sort of hip and very sort of forward-looking and charming and not concerned with those sort of ideas that held it back a little bit. I think that's a part of why there's kind of a moment happening. That's what I think Irish cinema brings, paradoxically, its sort of non Irishness.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Find out more about the Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland here.