New York Streets Become A Recording Studio In 'Begin Again'

A scorned lover and a hapless music producer record an album on the streets of New York in Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Director John Carney speaks with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Greta is an English woman in New York who plays guitar who's just been dumped by her lover who's become a big star. Dan is a former music producer who's been dumped by his wife, by the company he founded and is disregarded by his daughter who's 14 or 15. He's not really sure which. He even had to hawk his Grammy Awards just to pay for a couple of benders. Can anything save them? Maybe music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG FROM "BEGIN AGAIN")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta, singing) And all at once, it seemed like a good way...

SIMON: Dan walks into a bar - hears Greta on an open mic. Most people pay no attention. But Dan sees possibilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")

KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta, singing) Taking all the punches you could take. Took 'em all right on the chin.

SIMON: "Begin Again" is a new film about two crushed souls doing just that in musical partnership. It stars Keira Knightley as the girl with the guitar, Mark Ruffalo as the producer with a hangover and Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld and a guest appearance by CeeLo Green. The film is directed by John Carney, who directed the movie "Once" in 2006 that was widely acclaimed. John Carney joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN CARNEY: My pleasure.

SIMON: You are a former bass player for The Frames, an Irish band, right?

CARNEY: Correct.

SIMON: So how much of this is drawn from your own time in music?

CARNEY: There's quite a bit, actually. The more I sort of see the movie actually, the more I kind of see things that remind me of those crazy days of the early '90s when you had every A&R man in the world coming over to Ireland to discover the next U2 - staying in five-star hotels with no-limit credit cards and coke habits.

And so I got to meet these guys and I kind of started to imagine where they are now. You know, where is that guy? How did they all survive? And I started writing down some thoughts about this character - this - is called Dan and who Mark Ruffalo, as you say, plays in the movie.

SIMON: Keira Knightley is just wonderful in this film. But I think even she might agree when it comes to singing, she's not exactly Elaine Paige. How did you make that work for your film?

CARNEY: You know, she's not a Broadway stage musician. She doesn't have big projection. But actually it's not by accident. It's kind of - the character was supposed to be a little bit sort of reluctant as a performer.

She has a line in the film about - she'd rather be at home singing to her cat or that she writes songs for her cats. You know, she's not one of those singer as you see - the Adam Levine character of Dave can quite happily sing to 5,000 people. So I wanted to make a film about people that don't quite sort of fit in.

SIMON: I think just about the most favorite sequence I've seen in a film in recent years has got to be yours - when Dan and Greta slap on their headphones and prowl New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) You might...

KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) OK. Let's do it.

SINATRA: (Singing) ...Forget your manners.

SIMON: And they hear Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCK BE A LADY")

SINATRA: (Singing) Luck, be a lady tonight.

SIMON: They hear Stevie Wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) For once in my life, I have someone who needs me. Someone I've needed so long.

SIMON: And Dan tells her music turns what's banal into pearls. What can you tell us about this scene?

CARNEY: Well, that scene is lifted pretty much directly from my life. I think, maybe one New Year's Eve or two New Year's Eves ago, myself and my girlfriend at about 10 minutes to midnight - we suddenly realized we were going to miss the bells in Christ Church in Dublin. And we grabbed our coats. And as we did so, I sort of grabbed my iPhone and the splitter and these two sets of headphones.

And we plugged into the same music, and we just pressed play. We didn't even look at what we were sort of listening to. And it was just one of those wonderful moments because it's sort of - you are in a cocoon, but you're together in that cocoon. And nobody knows what you're listening to. And there's almost sort of like a secret of - sort of moment between you as a couple.

SIMON: There they are sitting on the edge of Central Park and, you know, it's just what you see on the streets of New York at midnight - one a.m. But it's got harmony. It's got rhythm. It's got coherence suddenly.

CARNEY: You know, it's sort of like that hotel window thing. You know, when you're - you've got a good street view in your hotel. And you're watching people walking up and down the street. And then you're - somebody puts on a tune on the radio or something and the world transforms.

And you start looking at that homeless person in a different way. Or you start looking at that argument that's happening between these two people in a different way. And the street sort of comes alive depending on what you're listening to.

SIMON: Is there a similarity between making the kind of album shown here on the streets of New York and making this film?

CARNEY: Yeah. It's lovely to be able to make films the way you would paint a painting or the way that you would write a poem because sometimes films can be very constricting in terms. If you plan so much and so much is organized and there's so little - there's so few accidents. I think it was Robert Altman that said that really good films are actually accidents. And you have to admit as a director that you can't control the world to the degree that you'd like.

SIMON: I don't want to give away the ending. But Greta is able to see how she can reach people - the power of your music. That's a very powerful and uplifting sequence. What were you trying to put across there?

CARNEY: I think that songs are extremely open to interpretation. I truly think there's one great song in our film, which is that song "Lost Stars," which you hear fully at the end of the film. I wanted to play the song in a number of different ways during the film.

So Keira plays it once on the piano and it's one thing. And then you hear a bad version that the Adam Levine character of Dave has recorded, which is too fast. And then you hear the final version where it's genuinely wonderful and uplifting. And Adam does a fantastic sort of version.

And Keira is watching this song. She's actually watching something that she's created. It's kind of like a triumph, but it's very bittersweet for her, I think. And she - you can see that in her face and the little tear that comes down as he sings that lyric at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST STARS")

SIMON: John Carney. His new film "Begin Again." Thanks so much, Mr. Carney.

CARNEY: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "LOST STARS")

ADAM LEVINE: (As Dave, singing) Please don't see just a boy caught up in dreams...

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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