The seemingly most daunting and discouraging situations in life that seemingly offer no true meaningful solutions and answers can actually be a blessing in disguise that encourage people to strive to improve their situations. Working to overcome that desperate moment, whether in a job, personal relationship or both, instead of allowing it to push you to let go of your dreams, is the motivational driving force in writer-director John Carney’s musical comedy-drama, ‘Begin Again.’ The film realistically showcases how not losing faith in intimacy, trust and loyalty in any relationship as you struggle to achieve your goals can be more important and valuable than any amount of financial success.
‘Begin Again’ follows Gretta (Keira Knightley) and her long-time boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), who are college sweethearts and songwriting partners who travel to new York when he signs a deal with a major record label. But the glory and challenges of new-found fame lead Dave to stray from their personal relationship, which leaves lovelorn Gretta to survive on her own. She moves in with her friend and fellow musician, Steve (James Corden), who encourages her to sing one of her songs at an open mic night in an East Village bar.
Disgraced record-label exec, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), happens to be in the bar when Gretta’s singing, and is instantly captivated by her raw talent. To prove to his partner at the label, Saul (Mos Def), as well as his estranged wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), that he’s still worthy of producing, he embarks on a collaboration with Gretta to make the soundtrack of a summer in New York City. Together the two prove they can truly transform not only their careers, but also their personal views and beliefs.
Carney, along with Knightley, Ruffalo, Levine and Corden generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Begin Again’ at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the writer-director and actors discussed how the filmmaker was in a band in high school, and how his own experiences with record label execs, and his wonder of how they adapted to the ever-changing music industry, influenced the way he wrote the movie’s characters; how the actors found it somewhat difficult to reflect on their own lives as they were struggling artists themselves in the beginning of their careers, and bring that fight to find their break into the entertainment business influenced their portrayals of their characters; and to do something purely for financial gain, and not because you truly want to do it for the creative aspects, is selling out, which is a major theme that drives the film.
Question (Q): John, is it true you had the idea for ‘Begin Again’ when you were filming ‘Once,’ but you wanted to wait to begin filming this movie until ‘Once’ was finished?
John Carney (JC) : Yeah, I did. I wanted to wait so that the two things weren’t following each other directly, for fear that I’d become “the music guy,” which was going to happen anyway. I wanted until the story was ready. It’s interesting that the music industry has changed so much since then, which helped the story. The print industry is the only other industry that’s changed to the same degree, and the Internet has changed.
Did anyone in real life inspire the characters in ‘Begin Again?’
JC : I was in a band after high school. I met a bunch of A&R men who were over in Ireland looking for the next U2, but we weren’t, unfortunately. It was very showy.
It was these A&R men, who were basically kids, trying to outdo the guys, with coke habits and unlimited credit card facilities. They were bringing these kids out to clubs and wining and dining them.
I was thinking back over my life and saying, “I wonder where those guys are now. I wonder how they’ve adapted to the massive changes in the music industry. Do they still have the coke habit? Did they get married?”
I remember them telling me stories of the girl they were with, and I wondered if they got married. Are they still trying to discover music in the same way? Even though the Internet has changed, are they still music-loving A&R men on the hunt for a new sound? Is that magical thing still there or not?
Q: The first person you cast for ‘Begin Again’ was Mark Ruffalo?
JC : Yeah, Mark was the dream guy for this role.
Q: Mark, are you musically inclined? Do you sing at all?
Mark Ruffalo (MR) : No. I did, but it was cut out of the movie. I was singing Leonard Cohen song in the bathroom, but we couldn’t get the rights.
JC : That’s what I said to Mark: “We couldn’t get the rights.”
MR : Thanks, man,
Q: Keira, what is your singing background?
Keira Knightley (KK) : I did a film years ago called ‘The Edge of Love,’ where I sung a bit in that, but it was a very 1940s theatrical thing. It was so very different. But yes, I have sung before.
Q: Did you take singing lessons?
KK : For this movie, they very kindly got me lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love, who we sat down with and did lots of scales. A lot of the lyrics weren’t written until a couple of days before we actually got into the studio, so we had the songs to figure out until we really got there. It was just about figuring out what my voice was.
JC : None of us knew how it was going to work. She went in and sang a few lines, and we all had a sigh of relief, like, “We can make this work.” But in between, the mic was still on, and Keira was going, “I f*cking hate this!”
KK : I was rather tense. I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.
Q: Adam, you were cast in ‘Begin Again’ before you guest starred on ‘American Horror Story.’ Did you take any acting classes?
Adam Levine (AL) : No. I tried to take one, and it didn’t go well. It was bizarre, and 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 I would pretend that I knew what I was doing, and hope and pray that it worked because these people are all very talented…(Keira) made me look good.
Q: James, you are also starring in the movie musical ‘Into the Woods.’ What’s your singing background?
James Corden (JaC) : I’m a professional singer. I’m joking. I have a theory that all actors want to be rock stars, and all rock stars want to be actors. I spent my whole school life forming boy bands.
I was in a boy band called Insatiable. We were quite big in the High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire area. We had a song that I wrote called ‘Girl, You Really,’ which we thought was amazing. But in hindsight, sounds a bit rape-y, so it didn’t work.
But I think Adam has heard some Insatiable stuff, so we’re going to hook up on some tracks. I think it’s something I’m going to move forward with and become an international rock’n’roll star. I think that’s a given. It’s a big surprise, but I can share it with you guys. I’m doing a thing called Maroon 6 now.
Q: Was it easy for all of you to go back to that experience of being a struggling artist?
MR : It wasn’t my favorite place to be, so it wasn’t that easy to go back to it.
JaC : Mark really committed to the alcoholism aspect of the film. My favorite aspect of shooting this film was I was in a play at the time on Broadway (‘One Man, Two Guvnors’), so I would shoot in the afternoon and then get in a car and be whisked across town and do the play. And then, quite often, go back to the movie after the play and shoot quite a lot of the montage stuff.
There was a great time when we were on the subway, shooting this montage. We didn’t have any lines. We were just doing the music and Mark said, “Man, you must be exhausted from just doing the play. You must really need a drink.”
He was holding this Starbucks cup and I said, “Yeah, I could really use one.” He then just passed me this cup and it was a vodka tonic. He said to his assistant, “Can we get James a coffee, please?” I really thought, “Well, this is the greatest moment of my life. I’m drinking booze with Mark Ruffalo, watching him film on a subway.”
JC : A little anecdote to that, the first AD (assistant director, Mariela Comitini) went up to me on the film set and said, “By the way, you should know Mark and James are both drinking alcohol. They think you don’t know, but you do know.”
AL : My character was in the midst of becoming successful. It was a very specific time. When it happened to me, I was probably tempted by some of the same things that he was. Granted, my story is very different than his, but it was very easy to tap into what it was like to experience all of these things that we never expected to experience.
When you commit to being a musician, I don’t think you’re really sure or care about when you’re going to pay the bills. I don’t think you care about that as much as you care about playing music. So this guy was just overwhelmed, and so was I, so that was easy.
I believe that has something to do with why John called me, because very few people get to experience those things, and I think he thought I would be able to articulate it on camera. I think I did a good job with it. Like I said, it was all him telling me what to do the entire time.
Q: So where do you want to take your acting career?
AL : I have no idea. All I know it was really fun. It was a dream experience. I love these guys-all of them. They were so nice. I didn’t have any scenes with Mark, but the first day I got there to try clothes on for the film, he was so welcoming. John and Keira also made it easy.
It was one of those things where I don’t think it can get better than this. I might not make another movie, actually. There’s no way it can surpass this, in terms of how much fun I had. It was a blast. I hope there’s more.
Q: Are there any pop-culture references that you used to shape the characters “Begin Again”?
JC : I had a really good conversation early on in this process with Mark years ago. He was shooting somewhere, and I was in Ireland, and I couldn’t believe they got me his phone number. But we ended up having this discussion about this character.
We also ended up talking a lot about 1970s movies and films we sort of loved. We talked about (Alan J.) Pakula, ‘The French Connection’ and Gene Hackman to create this A&R man. There was a bit of a Peter Falk about this A&R man, I’ve got to say.
KK : The Gretta character wasn’t based on anything for me. We just worked it from a character point of view that this is somebody who didn’t like performing, so that instantly meant it didn’t have to have that razzmatazz kind of quality to it.
This was somebody who really liked being in the background, so it was more about thinking about that as a character, and finding what would work from there. So it was very much from a character point of view.
MR : I did kind of like the ‘A Star Is Born’ relationship that he has with her. It’s not sexualized, and it’s more of someone who wants to see a talent and wants to develop it. I do a fair amount of daydreaming about these people. If Dan was inspired by any music person, it would be Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.
ML : It’s so funny that you said that! The second I saw you, you just exuded this guy. I thought, “That’s Wayne Coyne!” You hair looked like him. You sounded like him. Wow, I’m so glad you said that!
MR : I really love Wayne Coyne, and think he’s really gifted. He feels like the real deal, as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense at my homage to him, but I’m a big fan of his. That was probably the only music person who inspired the Dan character. Ten there was also a little Dylan, pointy-boot, Beatle boot type, with the jeans and glasses, but that was pretty much it.
JF : You get one thing as an actor, any sort of prop or clothes or anything that gives you the guy or girl. I felt that with the glasses with you, Mark.
MR : That and the smokes. I knew an old Jewish songwriter who was a manager. He was a dear friend of mine who passed away a few years ago when he was in his 70s. He was in the music scene, and a lot of Dan’s qualities, especially the Nat Sherman cigarettes, were his. But that gruff quality, that was a throwback quality that I got. His name was Leonard Bleicher. He was a really interesting character.
Q: A lot of ‘Begin Again’ is about the fear of “selling out.” To the actors, do you ever have moment where you feel you have to “sell out” by doing a big, mainstream film in order to make smaller, independent films?
KK : I like the differences. I don’t dislike big blockbusters. In fact, I like them very much. Sometimes, that’s exactly what’s called for on a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and I want to have popcorn and I want to get lost in it. So, I sort of think about that when I’m making them as well. I like the differences.
I did ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ because I wanted a pure piece of popcorn. I had come from “Anna Karenina,” which was incredibly stylized and trying something in a new way and was very, very dark. And what I wanted after that was something absolutely different.
The same thing was true with this film. I wanted to it to be really low-budget and really “hit the ground running” and keep going and work as fast as possible. I wanted that kind of speed. I’ve been incredibly privileged to get the opportunity to do both. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things. It’s about the opportunity to do all different styles.
AL : I’ve thought about it, and I formulated a good response to this question. There’s a great scene in the movie where Dan and Gretta talk about how cultivated images are and how it’s not what people think. In music, people spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and presenting that to the world in a very calculated way.
I think in order to understand what selling out is you first have to define what it means to sell out. To do something that you don’t want to do because you might be able to gain something financially for it and not behind something that you end up doing for some other reason is probably what I call “selling out.”
Doing something that you love regardless when it’s a blockbuster movie or you’re writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed in something is not selling out. I think that’s actually fine, and I would encourage that all the time. Selling out really comes when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale. That is selling out. Doing something that makes you feel gross and benefiting from it.
It’s very clear-cut, but people do have a very hard time defining it. They kind of throw a lot of things out there and say, “Oh this is a giant movie so that means this person sold out” or “This is a huge record that’s very popular.”
I always hated that growing up. When my favorite bands became successful I thought, “Good for them! That’s amazing. Congratulations! I still love you.”
I didn’t get that selfish possessive attitude like, “They were mine and now they’re everyone else’s, and I don’t like them anymore.” That’s a horrible way to operate! They get to pay the bills and have an amazing life, and that’s great.
MR : I got into acting because I wanted to act and I love acting. That’s my true north: to be creative and to be challenged in what I love to do. Sometimes, that takes me into a big-budget movie. Sometimes that takes me into a small-budget movie, but I’m doing essentially the same thing in each one of those. (n every one of those, I’m stretching in a way that I hadn’t. That’s my aim.
I come from the theater, where you’re never pegged for one thing. You could do comedy in one season. You could be the romantic lead in the next season. You could do a period piece in then next season. No one ever says to you, “This is what you have to do” or “This is what we expect of you.”
So that work is what I know what to bring to my film work as well. So it just takes you on this wild ride. The day that I decide to do something just purely for monetary gain or the idea of, “This is going to get me what I need to do to get to the next thing or to set me up financially in a way that I could do this next thing” is, I think, incredibly cynical and will only lead to your downfall in some way or another. It hurts your creative self. The idea of selling is a projection that people create about people that is more of a reflection of who they are than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.
Q: How did you relate to the romantic heartbreak aspect of ‘Begin Again?’
KK : I think that’s what I liked about the film. You can take it out of the music industry, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up. And whether that’s romantically or in a career, I think you can’t be an adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way.
So obviously, I completely understood where Gretta was coming from-not the actual scenario, but the feeling of thinking you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going, and suddenly finding you have absolutely no idea where you are and where you’re going or what’s going on. I don’t think you can be an adult and not have experienced that.
Q: John, how did you film that Times Square scene in ‘Begin Again?’
JC : That was the one true maverick crazy John Cassavetes madness of this movie, where we did not get permits and did not get clearance, even from our first AD. I had written ridiculously, “They go to Times Square and walk around.”
When people read the script with the Times Square scene, they were like, “Ha! Yeah, that’s going to happen.” I said, “No, it’s going to happen as long as we don’t tell anybody.” We didn’t want to close Times Square down because it would look ridiculous. We didn’t want extras pretending that they’re looking up at signs.
John, why was the title of the movie changed? Was it because “Begin Again” fits better on a marquee?
JC : No, it wasn’t that. It was that big question mark [in the original title]. It seemed like there were going to be a ton of answers. ‘Can a Song Save Your Life?’ was more about art and what its place is in the world. Is it there to save us from the brink?
Q: Mark, does your growing success in recent years scare you?
MR : No, I’m on my knees in gratitude. It rarely happens, and I know it will never happen quite like this again. I’m really making a conscious effort to enjoy it and really be present for it.
Q: How is the Hulk different in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron?’
MR : There’s a lot more to it that we’re able to do because the technology has advanced since the last time. We get to do a lot more with the character of the Hulk and the performance of the character that wasn’t available to us the last time.
Q: How much motion-capture are you doing for the Hulk in the new film?
MR : I do all the performance stuff and set the physicalization. There’s another guy, a bigger version of me, whom I work with. He has the musculature that the Hulk has, so they use him too. All of the performance, all the facial-capture stuff is me.
Q: How have your kids been reacting to you as the Hulk?
MR : ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Now You See Me’ are the only two movies they’re legally allowed to watch, but they love it. My little 6-year-old walks around and flexes the muscles and says, “I’m baby Hulk!”
Watch a clip from the ‘Begin Again’ press conference on YouTube.