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.”
With the finance in place, Carney began to assemble the various elements including music soundtrack, his camera and design teams, and importantly his young cast.