By Danny Peary
Begin Again fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. John Carney’s extremely engaging follow-up to the 2006 international sensation Once opened last Friday in New York City and this Wednesday begins its national release. I anticipate that it will soon play in the East End because who isn’t curious about seeing Keira Knightley sing and Adam Levine act? They, surprisingly, come off with flying colors doing both. They play a song-writing couple, Gretta and Dave, who split when he becomes a huge recording star and is unfaithful. In New York, she stays with her busker friend, Steve (James Corden, who won the Tony as the lead in Broadway’s One Man, Two Guvnors) and is about to go back to London when she is “discovered” singing at a club by a heavy-drinking, formerly successful A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Dan is estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and is on his last legs, thinking he’d never find a raw talent again. Hoping that starting her career with a hit album can rescue his career, the re-energized Dan records the semi-reluctant Gretta singing at outdoor locations around the city with a makeshift band of his musician friends. The movie comes off as a fantasy set in an alternate New York but like Once it effectively brings real emotions and issues to the surface and you’re happy to go along for the ride. And then there’s the music. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott was really unkind to the songs. Pay no attention. It’s a fabulous soundtrack and the way both Knightley and Levine perform the catchy, well-written songs in the movie is exciting. Begin Again is more flawed than Once, but it too is the rare movie you can recommend to almost anyone. I attended the following press conference held last Thursday in SoHo. In attendance were (R-L in the picture) Carney, Knightley, Levine, Ruffalo, and Corden.
Moderator: John, there was this movie that came out, Once, that was a global phenomenon. We talked a few weeks ago, when you were in Dublin, where you live, and you told me that you had the idea for Begin Again back when you were wrapping Once, but that you wanted to wait before you started working on it. Is that right?
John Carney: I did want to wait so that the two films weren’t following each other directly. I feared I’d just become the ‘music guy,’ which is what has happened anyway. So waiting did nothing for that. But I did want to wait until the story was ready. I’ve been watching the music industry change so much even since then, so I’ve developed the story on those terms. I think the print industry is the only industry that has changed to the same degree that the music industry has changed.
Moderator: And the inspiration was that when you were in high school you were touring with a band. And you thought it would be interesting to tell the story…
JCa: Well, actually I was in a band after I left high school. I had a bunch of A&R men angling for the next U2, which we weren’t, unfortunately, but Dublin was the city that everybody came to. I guess they went a lot to London as well. These A&R men were really 25-year-old guys, with coke habits and credit cards without limits. And they were sort of swarming around, bringing these band kids out to clubs and wining and dining them, just in hopes of finding the next big band. The stories they were telling us! And I just look back over my life and I wonder where those guys are now, and I wonder whether they’ve adapted to the massive changes in the industry. Still got the coke habit? Are they still trying to discover music? Is that desire still there? Even though the Internet has changed the industry, are there still music-loving A&R men on the hunt for that new magical thing? Is that magical thing still out there?
Moderator: And the first person you cast was Mark Ruffalo as a heavy-drinking, washed-up former A&R man.
JCa: Yeah, Mark was the dream guy for this role.
Moderator: Mark, do you sing at all in real life?
Mark Ruffalo: No. Well, I did sing for the movie and it was cut out. I was singing in the shower. It was supposed to be a lyric poem song. But we couldn’t get the rights to that song.
JCa (joking): That’s what I said to Mark.
Moderator: And Keira, have you sung in public before?
Keira Knightley: Yes and no! I did a film years ago called The Edge of Love and I sang a bit in that. A very 1940s kind of theatrical thing. So yes, I have sung before but it was very different.
Q: Did you take lessons?
KK: They very kindly got me some lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love. For a lot of those songs, the lyrics weren’t written until a couple of days before we got into the studio so we didn’t have the songs to try to figure it out before we got there. So it was just about trying to figure out what my voice was, because I didn’t know. He tried to figure that out.
JCa: It was fun actually. We had this really new song and she went in and sang the first few lines and we all gave a sigh of relief. We knew we can make this work!
KK (laughing): I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.
Moderator: Adam, you did this before appearing in American Horror Story. You hadn’t done any acting before. Did you take acting classes?
AL: No. I tried to take one and it didn’t go well. It was bizarre. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I was being told, because it wasn’t making me happy, but that’s a whole other conversation I don’t want to have. So I just thought that I would pretend that I knew what I was doing and hope and pray that it worked, because these people on stage with me are all very, very talented. Mark’s shaking his head because he’s angry with me. But yeah, no lessons, actually.
MR: I’m shaking my head because for some people acting is so easy. And acting isn’t easy.
Moderator: And James, you’re now in Into the Woods. And you’ve been a singer for quite some time.
James Corden: Yeah, I’m a professional singer. It’s my trade. I’m joking – not at all. But I have a theory that all rock starts want to be actors and all actors want to be rock stars, so I spent my whole school life forming boy bands. I was in a boy band called Insatiable. We were quite big in the Buckinghamshire area, you might know. We had a song that I wrote, called “Girl Are You Ready?” We thought it was amazing, but in hindsight I think it sounds a bit rapey. It didn’t work out for us. But since Adam’s heard some of Insatiable’s stuff, I think we’re going to hook up for some tracks. I think we’ll most definitely go forward.
Adam Levine (straight-faced): I look forward to that.
JCo: It’s a big surprise but I can share it with you guys. We’re going to be called Maroon 6.
MR: And Satiated.
Question from Journalist: Now that you’re all wonderfully successful, was it easy or hard to go back to that experience of being a struggling artist?
MR: It wasn’t my favorite place to be, so it’s not easy to go back there.
JCo: Mark really committed to the alcoholism aspect of the film. Because at the time I was on Broadway, I would shoot in the afternoon and get in a car and whisk across town to do the play and then quite often go back afterward and shoot quite a lot of the montage stuff. And it was a great time when we were on the subway shooting this montage scene, and Mark said, “You must be exhausted from just doing the play, you must really need a drink,” and he was holding a Starbucks cup, and I said, yeah, I could really use one, and he passed me this Starbucks cup and it contained a vodka tonic. I really thought, well, this is the greatest moment of my life. I’m drinking booze with Mark Ruffalo while watching him film on the subway.
JCa: A little anecdote to that: the first AD comes up to me on the film set and says, Mark and James are both drinking alcohol–they think we don’t know, but we do know!
Q: Can Adam and Keira answer that question too about whether it’s hard to go back to play a struggling artist.
KK: I’m an actress, so yeah.
AL: You know, my character is kind of in the midst of becoming successful, and it was a very specific time when it happened to me. I was probably tempted by some of the same things that Dave is. My story’s very different than his, but it was very easy to tap into what it was like to experience all these things that we never expect to experience. When you’re a musician, I don’t know if you’re ever very sure of anything. You never know what’ll pay the bills–you don’t care about that as much as you care about playing music. So this guy is just overwhelmed, and so was I, so that was pretty easy to play, actually. I believe that had something to do with why John called me. Very few people get to experience those things and I think he thought I’d be able to articulate it for the camera. It was all John telling me what to do the entire time.
Q: Did you say yes right away when John called you?
AL: Yes. Fuck yes, I believe..
Q: Adam, now that you’ve gotten a taste of acting, where do you want to take it?
AL: I have no idea. All I know is it was really fun. It was a dream experience. I don’t think I could have done it [without these people up here.] This sounds really kiss-assy, though it’s really not meant to be, but I love these guys–all of them. They were so nice. I had no scenes with Mark, and the first day I got there and was trying on my clothes for the film, and he was so welcoming and warm and sweet. He and John and Keira and everybody made it easy. It was just one of those things, I don’t think it can get better than this, so I might not ever make another movie! There’s no way it can surpass this as far as how much fun I had, it was a blast.
JCo: It stops being fun after the first movie!
Q: And, Adam, how did you tap into and relate to your character?
AL: I wanted to treat this guy, Dave, like a totally different person from me, even though it was impossible, because I literally don’t know how to act. So I was like, okay, some of me is coming out here, it’s not fucking possible that’s not going to happen. Referring to my character, like I said, there was a very specific point in my life, where I thought, “Oh my God, you know, I’ve made it!” There were fifty of those moments, I’ve been so fortunate in my career. There was a time probably in the early 2000s when our album went platinum, when I said, “What, are you kidding me?” That was when I partied too hard and did a lot of stupid things and that is part of who Dave is. I was that guy.
Q: Keira, did you draw on anyone for inspiration for Gretta.
KK: I didn’t, no. The part wasn’t based on anything for me, we just sort of worked on it from the character’s point of view, like “Okay, this is somebody who doesn’t like fawning, she’s just somebody who really likes being in the background.” It was just about finding what would work for me.
Q: What about the inspiration for Dan?
JCa: I had a really good conversation early on, years ago, with Mark. Mark, you were shooting somewhere in Ireland, and I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten your phone number and I rang you up and we had a discussion about this character. And we ended up talking a lot about 1970s movies that we loved, like The French Connection with Gene Hackman. We we were trying to find what the vibe might be like with this guy, and a bunch of late ‘60s, early ‘70s films were references.
MR: Well, I did want him to feel a little bit like a throwback. And I liked the kind of A Star Is Born relationship that Dan has with Gretta. It’s warm, it’s not sexualized. He’s someone who really sees a talent and wants to develop it. I do a fair amount of daydreaming about these people, and I somehow came to this idea that any music person I played would be like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips.
AL: It’s so fucking funny you just said that because the second I saw you, you just exuded that guy. That’s Wayne Coyne! You looked like him, your hair looked like his hair. Wow! I’m so glad you said that.
MR: I really love him, he feels like the real deal as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my homage to him. But I’m a big fan of his. So he was probably the only music person I drew from, although with Dan’s glasses, there was probably a little weird Dylan type gene. But that was pretty much it.
JCa; You use one thing as an actor, and that alone gives you the character. I thought the glasses were that for you, Mark.
MR: That and Dan smokes. I knew an old Jewish songwriter who was a manager in the ‘70s, and he was on the music scene and so a lot of my character’s qualities, especially the Nat Sherman cigarettes and that gruff quality, that throwback quality, were his. He was a really interesting character.
Q: Keira, In regard to clothes, was there anything about [your previous characters] Anna Karenina or Sabina Spielrein that you found in Gretta, and if either of them were to give advice to Gretta, should she take it?
KK: No on the advice. The clothes–we actually had discussions with the costume designer. I wanted Gretta to dress for women, not for men. I wanted her clothes to be something that women would like and get for themselves, and men wouldn’t necessarily get it for them. So we worked quite hard on that kind of idea. So that slightly tomboy, slightly Annie Hall, completely non-sexualized thing is what were going for. The men’s trousers was a big thing.
Q: This movie is an attack on selling out in the music industry, but all of you have to confront that daily, whether you’re in the film industry or the music industry. For instance, you make small films but after a few small films, you have to make a big film. So when that happens, do each of you say, “Well, I have to sell out a little today?”
KK: Do I have to go first? Well, I like differences, and I think that’s what’s been really nice about being Gretta. I don’t dislike big blockbusters, in fact I like them very much and sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for on a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and have popcorn and just kind of get lost in a movie. I think about that as far as making them, as well. I did Jack Ryan because I wanted to do a pure piece of popcorn. And it exactly fit coming after I did Anna Karenina, this incredibly stylized movie that was—we were sort of trying something in a new way—very, very dark. What I really wanted after that experience was to make something absolutely different. And it was the same with Begin Again.. I wanted it to be really low-budget and hit the ground running and keep going as fast as possible, all that. I wanted that kind of speed. So I feel incredibly privileged that I get the opportunity to do both types of films. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things, I think it’s about the opportunity for me to do all different styles of movies.
JCo: Most things aren’t very good, but that’s nothing to do with scale or size or any of those things. Most things, 90%, just aren’t that great. No one sets out to make something bad, sometimes they just are. And the trick is to operate in that 10%, whether it be something with a huge budget or a small budget, and that goes for music, television, theater, art, everything. You want to operate in the 10% but acknowledge that sometimes you’ll miss the mark with that, and sometimes you’ll make mistakes. But those are the only things that teach you to go on and try and operate in that place where you can make something that’s really good. I love watching films that some people would say are trash, and I love watching things in a different style. I don’t think it’s a question of selling out or not selling out, I think it’s just trying at the core to make something that’s good. And there’s no better representative of that than this film, where a group of actors get on board with a director they love because they’d seen something of his that they loved. We all went, “Yeah I’m in on this journey with you, John, whatever it is and wherever we go. And I’ll absolutely do my best to make sure it sits within that 10%.”
AL: I really want to answer this question. There’s a great scene in the movie with you guys [Mark and Keira] when Dan and Gretta talk about how people spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and presenting that to the world and then re-calculating. I think in order to understanding selling out, you first have to define what it means to sell out. To do something you don’t want to do because you might be able to gain something financially, or to not be behind something that you wind up doing for some other reason–that’s probably what I’d call selling out. Not feeling good about doing something that might help you get ahead. But doing something that you love regardless of whether it’s making a blockbuster movie or writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed at something–that’s not selling out, I think that’s actually fine and I would encourage that all the time. Selling out really comes at a point when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale. Doing something that makes you feel gross and benefitting from it. That’s what that is to me. And it’s very clear-cut. But people do have a hard time defining it, and they kind of throw a lot of things out there and say it about giant movies or a huge record that’s very popular and a lot of people like…and people then say they don’t like them anymore [because they had commercial success]. I always hated that growing up and if my favorite bands became successful I thought, “Good for you, that is fucking amazing, congratulations, I still love you!” I didn’t get a selfish, possessive, bullshit attitude and think “Oh, they were mine and now they’re everyone else’s and I don’t like them anymore.” That’s a horrible way to operate. God, they get to pay the bills and have amazing lives, that’s great. And they’re a great band, fuck yeah. So that’s how I feel.
MR: I got into acting because I wanted to act, and I love acting. And so that’s my true north, to be creative and to be challenged in what I love to do. And sometimes that takes me into a big-budget movie, sometimes that takes me to a small-budget movie, but I’m doing essentially the same thing in each one of those, which is stretching in a way that I hadn’t. That’s my aim. I come from the theater, and in the theater you’re never pegged for one thing. You can be in a comedy in one season and you can be the romantic lead the next season, and you can do a period piece the following season and do something modern the season after that. No one ever says to you, “This is what you have to do! This is what we expect of you!” So that work ethic is what I know to bring to my film work as well. It just takes you on this wild ride. And, cynically, the day that I decide to do something just purely for monetary gain or because it is going to get me to the next thing will, I think, only lead to my downfall somewhere. It hurts your creative self. And so I think the idea of selling out is a lot of times a projection that people create about artists that is more a reflection of who they are than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.
JCo: I slept with John to get in the film, and it didn’t feel like I was selling out at the time. I’d do it again.
Q: Keira, how did you relate to the romantic and the heartbreak aspect of the movie?
KK: I think it’s what I liked about the film. You can kind of take it out of the music industry story, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up, and whether that has to do with a relationship or a career or wherever. I think you can’t be adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way. So obviously yeah, I completely understood where Gretta was coming from and the feeling that you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going and suddenly finding that you have no idea who you are, where you’re going, or what’s going on. All adults have experienced that.
Moderator: Finally, John, can you talk about the scene in which Gretta and Dan walk around Times Square. Was it at three o’clock in the morning and you had a handheld camera?
JCa: Yeah, we did actually. That was the one true maverick moment working on this movie, when we did not get permits and it was Mark, Keira, me, an AD, and a focus puller. There was supposedly no way we were doing to get that scene I had written in Ireland of walking around in Times Square. Those three words—“in Times Square”—terrorized the producers. People would get the script and go, “Ha, that’s not going to happen!” It can happen as long as you don’t tell anybody or try to close it down, because that would have looked ridiculous. We didn’t want extras pretending that they’re looking up at signs going, “Wow, Times Square!” So they’re real tourists walking around in the movie. If I extended any shot in that sequence by two frames, there’d be someone going, “It’s Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo!”
AL: There’s a scene Keira and I shot in which our characters are walking into an apartment building together and someone recognizes Dave and comes up to him–and only thirty seconds earlier two girls had come up to me on the street. So literally it was happening and then we shot the scene where it was happening and there was just no difference between reality and what we shot. There was zero projection of anybody and it was great because we were immersed in all of it the whole time. It felt real because it was. Shooting on the street was amazing.
JCo: I’m still surprised that we got away with it in New York. Sorry man, but the paparazzi just follow me wherever I go.
JCa: We had to take James’s name off the call sheets to try to get them off his scent.