05/11/2010 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Carney Brothers Make Zonad After Only Living Once


Writer and Director John Carney. Image by Leslie Hassler.

It's enticing to imagine John Carney, director of Once, marketing his and brother Kieran's film Zonad: "It's about an alcoholic who escapes from rehab, wearing only a red vinyl leotard and a helmet. He convinces an entire town that he's an alien from outer space. Incidentally, it takes place in the 1950's. In Ireland. There's lots of drinking. And sex. And sheep."

As the star of the film, Simon Delaney, says, "Howdya pitch that to finance?!"

The fact that it did get made is partly due to the Zonad short the duo created in 2003 and also a testament to the impact Once (2007) had on film-lovers and industry legends alike. Steven Spielberg said, ''A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year." It also took the Oscar home in the musical category for Best Song. ("Falling Slowly")

Having seen Once, movie-goers reported leaving the film wanting to hug every person they met on the street in a kind of breathless romantic euphoria. Why follow it with an unapologetically comic film like Zonad? "If we don't make it now, we'll be too old to make a film about a man in a space-suit," quips John. "Most directors get more serious as they progress," Kieran adds, "But we're going in completely the opposite direction."

It is not unusual for the two brothers to finish each other's sentences. Asked how they delegate their tasks on a film, Kieran says, "John has a background in music and an incredible ear, so I would certainly leave that to him." We wait for John to predictably sing Kieran's praises. "And, Kieran would mainly be doing the catering." John says with utter mock seriousness. Is there is any sibling rivalry? "Absolutely." They both say, together and in unison.

The fact that John has an ear for music is undeniable: In addition to Once's musical Academy Award, Zonad has already won an award for best soundtrack. As we are conducting the interview, music is playing in the background and Kieran is talking. Suddenly we have a vocal accompaniment by John when the song "More Than Words" randomly comes on the stereo. He doesn't sing over Kieran, just with him. On the interview recording, his singing plays as a kind of spontaneous soundtrack!

The inspiration behind Zonad comes from the Irish tradition of great story-telling, a kind of "never let the truth get in the way of a good story" mentality. John looks to the 1962 film Playboy of the Western World, wherein a small town is enraptured by the romance of a man who has committed a murder and makes him a hero rather than being horrified by his crime. But only if that man were played by Mel Brooks. The original Zonad short starred the now-famous Cillian Murphy (a Carney discovery) and comedian Simon Delaney who in addition to being in the 2003 version, currently plays Zonad.


Writer and Director Kieran Carney. Image by Leslie Hassler.

John and Kieran politely let each other speak. While one is talking, the other's eyes slowly wander around the room, and you can see that this dynamic has carefully evolved and asserted itself over the years since kindergarten. It is strangely charming. We begin talking about how film-making is a collaboration. John says, "You have to be open to the fact that the assistant-director may have a better line than you."

But suddenly they are asked a question that they themselves had been pondering only the night before, and instantly everything changes. They sit bolt upright in their seats. They make deliberate eye-contact.

They stop singing.

The question is: Does a brilliant film come from an initial bolt of inspiration, or does the magic come out of the collaborative process?

K: Even when you've "Got it!" How long does that last? A good idea is never consistent all the way through the process.

J: I wouldn't agree with that theory. I think there is a palpable sense of excitement when you seize upon an idea. In a flash, a moment of blinding insight you see every avenue of the project in a second, of how it's all going to work. It's almost sexual. You feel it in your throat, your heart races, and you almost can't swallow.

K: The flash of brilliance, the visitation of the muse, doesn't it lose its luster, a week later when you pitch it? You never know whether it will work.

J: That's because film is a collaborative effort. So many people are involved. So many other factors come in. There are so many opportunities to get it wrong. When you first come up with the film idea, in the bath or on the toilet, you've seen it, it's done. You've seen the cast, the explosion. Now you have the boring task of putting it together. What's frustrating about being a film-maker, is that once you've had the idea, you've already made the film. But you now have to write it, film it, and then edit it, to get it back to your idea, which was really simple. Who said---It's having the idea, that makes us human, makes us brilliant? The execution is just manual labor. The pyramids were a brilliant idea and far more interesting than whipping the slaves and looking for stones.

K: The reality of them though, is that before you pull the stones you haven't actually done it. There's nothing tangible. It's not achieved.

J: But you don't say 'The pyramids aren't as impressive as they were when we had the idea!'

K: Gloria Swanson's role was supposed to have been played by Mae West in Sunset Boulevard. Despite Billy Wilder's vision, it would have been very different. No matter how visionary you are, all the factors have to be "right" for it to work.

The duo's differing cinematic gifts actually make them an ideal directing team, but it is at this point that we call a Truce. No matter how the Carneys' ideas are making the transition from inspiration to the screen, the 'pyramids' have been erected, and they are beautiful. The New York Times says that Zonad "Deserves wider attention" and John is currently writing a script for Judd Apatow and will be directing Amy Adams and Zach Galifianakis in Town House.

See Zonad (2009) Movie Preview, Images, and Video: