Once Upon a Time


After two or three days of shooting, John kept on saying, "Pull back, pull back from character," until eventually it was just me saying the line as meself, and he was like, "Perfect." The closer we got to non-acting, the happier John seemed to be.


See photos from the St. Louis showing of Once and the Q&A that followed with Glen Hansard, John Carney, and Marketa Irglova in the Photo Gallery.  

I'm an admitted Frames fanatic. I love all things Glen Hansard, and will sing his praises to the heavens. After all, that's what we do for our heroes, am I right? Especially when they're underappreciated and not as well known as they should be, as the Irish quintet has been thus far in the United States.

once2 All that is about to change, though, with the release of Once (Fox Searchlight), a modern-day musical starring Frames singer/songwriter/frontman Hansard and his sometime writing partner (and last year's solo album collaborator) Marketa Irglova. Once was intended to be a small film about an Irish busker; writer/director John Carney didn't expect it would have legs outside of his native Ireland. And then, coincidentally, a Sundance scout happened to be in the audience at the film's Irish premiere, whereupon it was scooped up and went on to win the coveted Audience Award at this year's festival. Fox Searchlight bought the U.S. rights and promptly flew the two leads and director to the States for a 15-city pre-release promotional tour. And now the film is enjoying the kind of reviews normally reserved for fairy tales (which, in a way, it is, albeit a realistic and song-filled one). And deservedly so.

Let me back up a step. I'm not a fan of musicals; I love music, and I love plays and movies, but when you put the two together, it's just wrong—unnatural. Who sings their conversations, am I right? But Once is not your typical musical. In fact, Carney calls it a return to form for musicals, back when the story was built around the songs, and not the other way around.

Once is about a guy and a girl (unnamed in the script), he a busker on the streets of Dublin by night, vacuum shop repairman by day. She's a musician, too, though a Czech immigrant trapped by family obligations and poverty. Over the course of a week, the two forge a rapid and deep friendship built on music, even going so far as to record a demo tape for him to shop.

It's a natural relationship, in part because Hansard and Irglova aren't professional actors; they're actual musicians. They've also worked together for years, and are quite close, so playing the part of dreamers falling for one another came quite naturally to the two. But beyond that, it's the songs that make the movie, and the songs are pure gold. There is literally no way to see Once and not leave feeling moved, no matter what your musical preference. The songs are personal and prolific and simple and cathartic and profound. This makes Once all of that, and more.

I had a chance to interview the Hansard, Irglova, and Carney when they stopped in St. Louis midway through the press tour. I knew I was in the right place when I parked behind a full-size tour bus fully adorned with life-size Once photos and advertisements. The Americans who encountered that bus earlier this month may have not known its significance then, but here's betting they will soon. Once is poised to become a part of American consciousness, setting a new standard for independent films and musicals, and making stars of out non-actors. Sometimes, yes, fairy tales do come true.

When John initially approached you to write the music, did you ever have any thoughts about actually being in the movie?

GH: John came to me with this idea—it was just called Buske—I remember he gave me a very thin script. He told me Cillian [Murphy] was playing the part and I thought it made total sense and would I write a few songs for it. I certainly didn't want to get back into acting myself at all. I had tried it once before and enjoyed it, but never really thought it was my area, not something I felt comfortable with. But when I saw this, I did like it; I liked the idea. And it was kind of weird, but I think I always guessed it would end up like this. You know that feeling where you just know something…

So when I provided the songs for it, that was one thing. And then Mar got cast as the girl—me and Mar are really close; I kind of recommended her to John—and then the stakes got a little higher; I was kind of like, yeah, I actually would like to do that. It just hit me right in my face that I was the right guy to do this. It was two people I know really well; it's very intimate.

Then on the first day of shooting, I got terrified because suddenly there were all these other people. There was another cameraman, there was a first assistant director, and those guys work on films all the time. You hear them talk about the film the just got off of or are going on after this and you just know that they work with actors all the time. So it was kind of weird for Mar and me as non-actors; how do you behave around these people? What are they used to, what are they not? It was definitely a very different dynamic. After two or three days of shooting, John kept on saying, "Pull back, pull back from character," until eventually it was just me saying the line as meself, and he was like, "Perfect." The closer we got to non-acting, the happier John seemed to be.

JC: It's like the Jack Lemmon joke. He was a theater actor, Jack Lemmon, and Ernest Hooper had seen him and cast him in a film and they were shooting on the first day and he kept looking really unsatisfied and Jack would ask him, "Is this OK?" and Ernest would say, "Just bring it down a bit. Do another take." He was used to the theater and being very big at the back of the broadcast, and he came back, "Is this OK?" and again, "No, I think you could bring it down a bit more. Do another take; just tone it down," and he says, "Jesus Christ, if I bring it down ay more I won't be acting at all," and Hooper says, "There you go; that's film acting." I mean, the whole idea was that onscreen, you're a huge looming face; why would you have to do anything but raise an eyebrow?

So there's a good question leading into one I had for Marketa. Your character has such a wide-eyed innocence and openness; how much of yourself did you bring to that?

MI: I find it hard to say how much is me and how much is an actual character that John wrote. I mean, all the lines that I said were written, so I guess they're not things that I would have said. At the same time, I'm not an actress, but I am a musician, so a lot of the time I would come out almost true to the character. I do have a tendency in real life to play that role of motivating people—family or friends—so that was really easy for me to do.

GH: Yeah I think so. That was really like you.

MI: Yeah. On the other hand, I'm very much—I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing, but when it comes to decisions, I try to listen to my heart more than my head. This girl seems very responsible. She knows that she's got responsibilities, and she knows that there are certain lines that she can't cross, and she doesn't ever let herself go there in her head, whereas I think I'd explore much more. So that's not very much like me. And I am a pianist and musician, and we do play with words, so whenever there's a music scene, the real relationship between the two of us really comes to life.

As you were writing the song for someone else, was that a weird feeling?

GH: We didn't do that. John was quite clear that he didn't want the songs to feel like they were written for the film. The script and the songs basically shook hands and met, and something else happened when you put these songs against this dialogue. In a way, I'm really surprised, actually. We're, whatever, eight or nine days in [to the film's promotional tour] and we're still able to talk about the film; if it were my own album, I'd be kind of jaded by this time. I think part of what makes it easy is that there's kind of an alchemy—there is in every art form—where you take one element and another element, bring them together and they make a third element. I'm certainly proud that it's there. So the songs just married very well, almost by accident.

The idea of writing songs for a musical isn't attractive to me. The fact that my songs were chosen for one is much more attractive.

John, you've said that a three-minute song says more than a page of dialogue. What do songs give you that the words can't?

JC: It's like a really long row with your partner that lasts all night, where you're fussing and arguing and trying toonce3 express yourself, trying to be in a Bergman film and trying to be in a really deep argument or conversations. It's three in the morning, and some bad country-western radio station is on in the car. Some guy gets on and sings a three-minute song about his dog and the meaning of life. That's what I mean. It basically means you can cut out ten pages of dialogue where they do this and this and this. Actually, wouldn't it be brilliant if they just connected over this. The "Falling Slowly" song in the piano shop where they sing together is like a courtship, like a bunch of scenes kind of compressed into a three-minute song. That's what I meant.

Since Marketa and Glen had worked together before, what do you feel were the strengths you brought to the roles?

MI: We've known each other for six years and we've been touring together a lot, and when you're touring you spend 24 hours together almost so you get to know [each other] very intimately. Because we're not actors, there's no way we could've manufactured that kind of relationship [like you see in the film]. Our true friendship comes through. Also, our musical relationship is very much how it is in real life. When Glen is teaching me the song [in the movie], all I have to do is pretend that I don't know the note that comes next so my piano playing is kind of delayed. Apart from that, we basically did what we know so well: play music together.

GH: And the fact that you're thrown into an intimate situation like that with someone, three weeks, working every day; we've hung out before, that but not like that. In my view, there's a kind of a definite growing in that intimacy, like a weird, magnetic, we're-in-this-together feeling. We dressed in our clothes; I played my own guitar; I sang my own songs; it was me mates, the director was me mate. A whole bunch of things were really intimate to the people who made it and I think it comes off the screen; there's a real sense of community there. It's kind of joyful, weirdly enjoyable.

Once on the Web 

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