Sing Street delivers an honest and moving perspective on the perils and wonders of teenage life.
“I wanted to do something that was personal. I didn’t want to just be doing a musical story for the sake of it,” says Irish writer-director John Carney, whose Sing Street tells of a Dublin teenager (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a rock ‘n’ roll band to win the heart of an aspiring model (Lucy Boynton).
The origins of Sing Street go back many years to the director’s life as a teenager in 1980s Dublin. John Carney experienced growing up in the Irish Capital by moving from private school to an inner city comprehensive. It ultimately became the seed of an idea to create a musical film about this period in his life growing up.
Having worked with producer Anthony Bregman on the New York-set feature film Begin Again starring Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, the director discussed the idea of building a story around his own experiences growing up in Dublin over a coffee one afternoon. It was in the cutting room that Carney told Bregman the story of Sing Street. “The origins of the project date back probably 20, 30 years, because a lot of the elements of this film have come from John’s experience of his childhood,” says producer Anthony Bregman. “He went from a posh school to Synge Street School for a year and went through the same transformation as our lead character – from a very refined educational experience to a much rougher world.
“He just told me this story over coffee. In fact, it’s pretty close to what the story is right now, about this kid whose father loses his job and where money is very tight. He gets taken out of his posh school and into the very rough Synge Street School where he immediately gets beaten up and where others take advantage of him. He forms a band, basically to protect himself and also to attract the interest of this very pretty girl he can’t otherwise get traction with.”
Both a rites of passage story with strong romantic elements and a film built on the musical foundations of 1980s British bands; Sing Street delivers an honest and moving perspective on the perils and wonders of teenage life.
For the producer Anthony Bregman, the idea of a fresh and yet innocent romance blossoming between the two lead characters, was a dynamic he had not seen in filmmaking for long time. ”The relationship between Conor and Raphina is interesting because it doesn’t really get consummated in any real way,” Bregman explains. “She’s gorgeous and older, more sophisticated, and is off on her own, living her own life. He is still very much forming as a character. From the very beginning, when he approaches her, it’s clear that he’s reaching above his grade for her.”
Alongside this romance, Carney also focuses on the complexities of marriages breaking down in Ireland during this period. Divorce was not allowed in Ireland at the time. As the parents’ relationship breaks down, the impact on the children is profound.
“There are a lot of strains on Conor’s parents’ marriage; among them that they came from a period of time where you couldn’t have sex outside marriage,” says Bregman. “So the parents got married too soon, for the wrong reason, and then they couldn’t separate, because at this point it was very taboo to divorce. The most they could do was separate.
“They’re locked in a marriage where they’re not happy with each other or with the situation and that filters down to the kids. It creates a toxic atmosphere, and that is what initiates the story.”
For Carney the director, the film is also a story of contrasts – the contrast of Ireland versus England, Dublin versus London, and the safety of a private education versus one in the state system. But most importantly for Carney, it was the contrast of a young teenage boy who thinks he has problems until those problems are far outweighed by those of the girl he meets and ultimately falls for.
“It’s really a ‘before and after’ story, which is set in 80s Dublin,” Carney explains. “It was a time of recession and immigration and a time when even the very rich or those who should have had money, didn’t have cash, and were forced to think a little bit differently in terms of what clothes they wore, how they expressed themselves through how they looked.”
Having directed the Oscar®-winning musical film Once and then Begin Again, both with extensive musical threads throughout, Carney felt the time was right to make something musical that was even more personal – something solidly autobiographical.
“I didn’t want to just be doing a musical story for the sake of it. I wanted to try and find something in my life that I’d be interested in doing and talking about. I wanted it to be something that was genuine and personal.”
Producer Anthony Bregman had previously also worked with producer Paul Trijbits on the Stephen Frears film Lay The Favorite, starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta Jones. Trijbits’ introduction to Bregman was through a last minute juggling act to keep Frears’ production alive on the eve of principal photography. Frears’ agent connected the two producers and Trijbits spent a skiing holiday weekend helping to make the film move forward into production.
“I went to New York and somehow we managed to hold that film together. So we became really good buddies through that experience,” says Trijbits on his relationship with Bregman.
Bregman had subsequently grown his company with investment and a slate of films. With an impending production in Ireland, Trijbits was keen to sign up and the two pulled together the project. As an added endorsement, Trijbits’ business partner producer Christian Grass had recently seen Begin Again in Toronto and had loved it.
“Christian said it was the most enjoyable, wonderful film that he’d seen. Sing Street then became a co-production between Likely Story, a New York based company, and us in the UK, setting up a joint entity to make the film. Likely Story’s producing and financing partners Kevin Frakes at PalmStar Entertainment, and Raj Brinder Singh at Merced Media immediately came on board to fully finance the film.”
Trijbits then had to seek out an Irish producer to facilitate the production on the ground.
“We very quickly found Martina Niland who had done Once with John and was ready to take on the producer role,” says Trijbits. “Then Filmnation came on board. We didn’t have a script but we had an extended treatment to enable us to put the bulk of the money together. It was essential that we had the Irish Film Board in there, which was also an interesting journey for them. They had supported John before, but now had to make a choice to support him without the script being ready, which they did.”
Dublin in the 1980s was wracked by an aggressive downward socio-economic trend. Following the 1979 energy crisis, one of the then Prime Minister of Ireland Charles Haughey’s first functions was to address the nation about the worsening state of the country’s economy. With the government borrowing becoming a heavy burden on Ireland’s economic survival, many found themselves unemployed and struggling to maintain the quality of life they are previously been used to living.
However, director John Carney was keen to avoid the pitfalls of making a story about the economic downturn and effects on his surviving family. Instead, he concentrated on the contrasts that this moment in history presented to teenagers and their parents.
Divorce in Ireland up to and during the early 1980s was still prohibited and had been enforced by both the dominant Catholic Church and the Anglican Church of Ireland. An amendment to the Constitutional Bill had been proposed and rejected outright in 1986. The ban on divorce in Ireland was only lifted in 1996.
Carney wanted to explore the dynamic of a family living under this law and how it affected the children, ultimately the products of a dissolving marriage.
“I didn’t want to do anything about Dublin politically, about the dark days of Ireland that we were living in, in the late 70s and 80s. But it’s more about a family falling apart. There are certainly no politics in this film, directly speaking,” he says. “There are just cultural politics to a degree. But really it’s about a family in trouble. The film is about a kid learning that, given the environment in which he’s growing up, he’s got to go off and create his own family. That his nuclear family into which he was born is not going to solve the problems of his heart and his head.
“There are questions about unemployment and immigration in the film, but it’s not about that. It’s more about the idea of Ireland as an island. You can potentially get trapped in Ireland. It’s such a small country and it’s such a small population in a sense. You can think that you’re doing very well, but you’re not really doing that well from an international perspective. The film is in a sense a little bit about that; the kid realizes he has to go away and have some experiences elsewhere, apart from just living in Ireland.”
“It was certainly more uncommon,” says actor Aidan Gillen on the theme of divorce. “At that time there was a lot more people staying together because they felt they had to. It’s almost the norm not to, now. At that time there was stuff that kids just didn’t talk to their parents about. It was an era when parents weren’t trying to be best friends with their kids. They really were from another era, another age and just didn’t understand you. I do think however that kids now are probably more distant from their parents. They feel like they’re closer and they can talk about anything, but they’re lost in cyber space pretty much all the time. It’s quite hard to reach your kids, even though they’re loaded down with communication devices.”
The family dynamic was an element of the storyline to which the more mature actors could easily relate. For Jack Reynor who plays older brother Brendan, it was a scenario that would be recognizable to many Irish families who lived through the 80s.
“Because we’ve all grown up watching The Late Show on Friday nights with our families when we were kids, we understand the dynamics of an Irish family at the dinner table. It all came quite naturally to us. We knew where the cues were to pick up from one another. Aidan [Gillen] and Maria [Doyle Kennedy] are really great, veteran actors who have this kind of thing down. They were excellent in those scenes. Then you’ve got Kelly [Thornton who plays Conor’s sister Ann] and Ferdia [Walsh-Peelo], two very good young actors in their own right. They were really good at taking on those scenes and making them feel authentic.
Producer Martina Niland notes that family lives, the contrasts between Ireland and England, and in particular Dublin and London at that time were stark. “John’s was an Ireland that was this tough, grey, quite depressing place at the time. It didn’t seem like fertile ground for the creative industries, whereas, London by contrast, seemed like a metropolis and seemed so colorful. The film explores that perception I suppose, through Conor and the escapism, through the TV in the corner, which had Top of The Pops, Duran Duran and all that kind of stuff going on.”
For costume Designer Tiziana Corvisieri, Sing Street offered a very accurate picture of life in that decade.
“For me, Sing Street is a very authentic representation of Dublin in the early 80s. I was here then and I was a 16-year-old in the early 80s. To me, it really does represent what was going on here. Across the water in the UK, everything seemed to have been going on. While here, we were always looking across the water to see what was going on in the world.”
Rather than making the film feel as though it was made in the 1980s as other retrospective films have done to heighten the sense of place and time, Carney was keen to transport the audience there as though they were actually living it now – the colors, textures and sentiments being immediate and yet historical.
“John wanted to make a point when we spoke, that this is a movie set in the 80s, but it’s not an 80s movie,” says producer Anthony Bregman. “Meaning that he’s not doing a homage to 80s movies. He’s saying that he’s making it seem as though we’re there, that we’re living it. That’s an interesting distinction. You look at a 1980s movie now and you have to allow yourself a certain amount of 80s Hollywood artifice that wouldn’t work in a movie today. So, even while the movie is taking place in the 80s, it’s not being told in a way that would make us roll our eyes, it has to be something that we would understand. John has a style of making movies that is really consistent and this fits squarely into it.”