Anthony Bregman on Sing Street
A boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes.
Producer Anthony Bregman’s films include the Academy Award winning Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; The Ice Storm; Sense And Sensibility; Synecdoche, New York; Foxcatcher, Begin Again and Enough Said.
In the autumn of 2006, Bregman founded the New York City-based production company Likely Story, which he runs with Stefanie Azpiazu. Prior to Likely Story, Bregman was a partner at This Is That for four years, and spent ten years as head of production at Good Machine.
His forthcoming slate includes The Circle with Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and John Boyega and Collateral Beauty starring Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Hellen Mirren and Ed Norton.
It was our pleasure to speak with producer Anthony Bregman about his wonderful new film, Sing Street.
Can you give us a little bit of the background as to how you came to produce Sing Street?
John Carney [writer and director of the Oscar-winning Once] and I had worked together on Begin Again, which we shot in New York. It was a great experience and it turned into a wonderful little movie so I wanted to work with John again and we began discussing other projects. We were in the editing room and he said he had a great idea for a movie and basically pitched me his idea.
It was kind of based on his own life. He switched schools at around that age and the school he attended at that time, Synge Street was a pretty abusive school. Now things have changed for the better but when John switched schools from a posh one to Synge Street it was very rough and very much like it appears in the movie; he went through the same transformation as our lead character - from a very refined educational experience to a much rougher world.
To escape the rough time he was enduring he turned to music. 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.
So when he finished his pitch it totally cracked me up and I told him, ‘let’s make this movie!’ A year later I was in Dublin and we were shooting it!
I know that you were a fan of the Oscar-winning Once and had worked together on Begin Again, so you believed in John’s vision but that’s a quick turnaround, when did you have a script to pitch to studios and distributors?
Yes, I totally believed in John and his pitch. We set a date of September in Dublin to shoot the film and then went to Berlin, to the festival, still without a script but a firm idea as to how the finished film would play out, we had just a few pages. Begin Again had premiered in Toronto and everybody loved it so when we began discussing our next film we could reference the style and tone of Begin Again and were able to pre-sell it to distributors around the world and they came on board, thus raising the finance to actually make the movie.
So with that in place how did you find such an exemplary cast, many of whom are starring in their first film?
We had two big challenges to make our shooting start date of September. We had to have a script, which of course John delivered and we had to find a cast. Now casting Sing Street was always going to be very different to the star system casting here in the US. When you’re hiring a big movie star who’s carried movies before, you know whether they have the ability to carry a movie, because they’ve done it before. So you find an actor who you think is right for the role and then you do a deal but here, with Sing Street, we did not know if any of these actors actually existed. They had to really act, they had to be genuine characters and they had to play instruments or sing and play convincing musicians. So that was our big concern. Can these kids hold an audience for 90 minutes? It’s a huge burden.
Our casting director, Louise Kiely did open calls all across Ireland. I was in New York and John would send me over pictures on his iPhone of the crowds snaking around the block of the hotel where they were holding casting sessions. There would be a kid with a drum kit, one with a guitar and another with a horn. At this point there was not a script in place and we did not know how to really gauge their acting ability so we had them sing a song of their own choosing and then John and Louise would have a conversation with them to understand better their personalities. During the later stages they would read scenes from the script and read against other kids.
We got incredibly lucky to have such a fantastic cast of kids who have mostly never acted before. It was a little nerve-racking as we were getting closer to the start date, we were prepping the movie and we were still figuring out who the actors were going to be. But as I say, in the end I think we got very lucky. The actors were all fantastic actors.
Special mention must be made of the performances in particular of Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton; they have such great screen chemistry.
Yes, Ferdia who plays Cosmo is someone who is a genuine performer and just really comfortable signing and performing and has this great rock star charisma and personality. Lucy is fantastic and just great. She is sure to be a star. She is an incredible actress, with great instinct and real personality.
Lucy as Raphina is gorgeous and also 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. They were great together.
The standard advice for directors is not to work with children or animals, John kicks that into touch with his wonderful work with the younger cast members!
The great thing with John is that he has a very relaxed shooting style whereby he works out scenes on set and is always open for ideas from cast and crew and for changing things if something is not working and that trust brings out the best in everyone. It is such a comfortable working environment, especially if you put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is just starting out in the business because he empowers them with their character to determine how things go.
It’s firmly in the 80s but could have been so easily any era, it perfectly encapsulates that lovely feeling of your youth when anything is possible!
Yes, 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. 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.
We loved the original songs as well. I walked out of the preview humming both them and the iconic 80s songs!
That’s great. The musicians who played on the score were all told that they had to play down so that it felt realistically like a bunch of kids, who weren’t Ireland’s greatest studio musicians, actually playing. Especially the songs that happen earlier in the script. They do a cover of Rio by Duran Duran and the whole point of the recording of the cover is that it’s bad. We were sitting in the studio and John was saying, ‘No, it’s too good. Mess it up. Go faster. Go out of tune. Go out of sync.’ It was really trying to bring these great musicians down to the level of believability for kids who don’t know how to play.
The band goes through different phases. They do a Duran Duran type song, then they do a Hall & Oates, they do a Cure and an Elvis Costello type song. Each song is based on these different styles of song-writing and of singing from the 80s. It’s really fun to recognise a song that you haven’t heard before. You get what the style is.
We absolutely loved Sing Street and cannot wait for it to open here in the UK because it is such a feelgood film.
That is so great to hear. The best universal stories are very specific. I think Sing Street is very specific in that way. All of my favourite stories happen in a community, in very specific circumstances, but they’re universal. One of the great aspects of being able to identify with a Chinese story, or French story, or Greek story, is that even though you live a life nothing like them, you actually share an enormous amount in common. That’s what’s going on here.
How have audiences reacted to the film in the US?
We have opened in the US with a platform release for two weeks. We opened in New York and LA and then we opened in ten more cities and we are continuing to expand. It has been such a rewarding film with audiences. They really love it in all of the screenings we have had in whatever city or indeed country the reactions to the film have just been great. Here in the US we have exit polls and I have never seen anything like it. The scores have been just overwhelming with 96% of the audience saying they would recommend it. It’s just phenomenal. It’s the highest of any movie I have ever worked on. Also the reviews have been really positive as well. It’s so great that you’re behind the movie as well. We are excited for the UK release as well!
It’s always a struggle for audiences to see a movie that does not have a big movie stars in it but it has been done before so we just want for people to see the movie, discover it and start talking about and recommending it to friends.
Sing Street opens at Showcase May 20