Toronto: 'Once' director John Carney explains how he cast 'Can a Song Save Your Life?'

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Image Credit: Andrew Schwartz

Once, the 2007 Oscar-winning movie about the musical connection between a broken-hearted Dublin busker and a piano-playing Czech immigrant, was one of those rare movies whose charm couldn’t be bottled in a critic’s blurb or even explained in a full review. You just had to see it to fully understand how a simple story with simple characters could make you, the audience, feel wonderful and alive and believe wholeheartedly that a song could save your life. That movie starred Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish band the Frames, and his ex-bandmate John Carney directed the film.

Six years later, Carney brought a new film to the Toronto Film Festival last week, and though he insists he intended to do something quite different than Once, there’s no denying that Can a Song Save Your Life? aims to strike a similar chord. Keira Knightley plays a sensitive songwriter whose musical partner and boyfriend (Adam Levine) is about to become famous because a few of his songs were in a hit movie. As his fame tears them apart, she wallows in despair at a New York open-mic night, where she’s “discovered” by a desperate A&R man (Mark Ruffalo) who is looking for anything to cling to. Like in Once, the creative process of making music is cinematic alchemy, and the two drifting souls eventually have to decide where — and with whom — they really belong.

When Can a Song Save Your Life? premiered last weekend in Toronto, where it was seeking a distribution deal, audiences — and buyers — were immediately entranced. Harvey Weinstein cornered Carney at the film’s post-premiere party and wouldn’t let their conversation end until the director made a deal with The Weinstein Company. The next day, TWC announced its $7 million acquisition (and a $20 million advertising commitment), guaranteeing that Can a Song Save Your Life? will play in theaters across the country when it opens, most likely in 2014. Carney spoke to EW about the music business, casting judges from The Voice, and what it’s like to get the hard-sell from someone like Harvey Weinstein.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I suspect this movie will evoke a very similar audience reaction to Once, because these fragile characters also connect through their shared love of music. Where did this story begin for you?
JOHN CARNEY: I was thinking about what part of my life I could mine, and I felt that it would be fun to look back at A&R guys, who were always sort of looking for the next big thing. I was in a band after I left school, and I guess the ’90s were really that last hurrah of A&R craziness, with coke habits and five-star hotels and unlimited credit cards and stuff like that. I thought it would be interesting to see where those guys are now, now that the music industry has changed so much. The idea of an A&R man discovering an act and what discoveries are left and what does fame sort of mean anymore were some of the themes I wanted to talk about in this movie. What I liked about the conflict between Keira and Ruffalo in the film, which I hope people are seeing, is what does an old-school A&R man do with a young talent who genuinely doesn’t want the limelight?

The music industry has completely changed. The way to get famous now in the business is to compete on a music-competition reality television show, so I really got a chuckle out of the fact that you cast Adam Levine and CeeLo Green, since they come from that world in a way.
It’s annoyed me that some people think the casting was sort of stunty with Adam and CeeLo. It wasn’t stunty at all. I think they’re great in the movie and I think the idea of casting those two giants of the media world is smart and fun and it worked really well. Those decisions weren’t made lightly. It wasn’t as if we just wanted somebody famous for the sake of somebody famous. Adam Levine is a very charismatic guy and I got to sort of have my cake and eat it too, because I got to make that joke, you know, having the guy in The Voice on the show and sort of playing with the idea of fame and stardom. But I also got somebody who could actually deliver quite a sensitive performance as the character who’s having his head turned by the madness of being recognized on the street and loved in that sort of way. Adam Levine did a really good job in representing that sensitively and in a way that you could understand.

Keira sounds like she’s got lovely pipes. When you were thinking of who would star as her character, Gretta, did you focus on singer-actresses or actress-singers?
For a while we looked at Scarlett [Johansson], but she didn’t want to play that role. For me, the more important thing for this film is someone who has the acting ability as opposed to the singing. To me, your voice is sort of like a gift from God. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s not that interesting to me in a movie. So I didn’t want Gretta to just stand up by a mic and have this amazing singing voice. I wanted the idea of the voice to sell what she’s talking about lyrically and where she’s coming from, and Keira was very good at doing that.

Did you ask her to sing during her audition, just to be sure?
I didn’t. She had sung once in a movie called Edge of Reason for like two minutes, and it was hard to tell by that if she could sing. But I sent that scene to my voice coach and the musical director of the movie and I said, “What do you think?” And they all got back to me saying, “Don’t worry. We can totally work with this.” I relied on them and they were right. We ended up being very happy with Keira’s voice.

Your film was one of biggest acquisitions of the Toronto Film Festival, and according to reports, you received the full Harvey Weinstein treatment after the premiere. You have to tell me what that’s like.
It’s very odd, because you’re suddenly sort of in the middle of every book about those deals. You’re in the middle of [Down and Dirty Pictures] and you’re sitting there and you’re a guy from Ireland who has no business in that room. And here’s one of the most notorious and brilliant distributors in the world sitting beside you telling you why he’s the man to promote your movie. And you’re trying to be cool, and you’re trying to represent the film correctly. Ultimately, what sold me on Harvey was not his reputation so much as just being reminded of his own passion for cinema and his own belief in the film and his own commitment to moviemaking. He really does have a lot of films. And ultimately, you just go with your gut on these things. But it was a whirlwind and slightly an out of body experience. It’s an experience that you dream of and then when you’re actually in the driver’s seat, it’s hard to describe. It’s pretty full on.

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