Hear My Song
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Ray Pride interviewed Once writer-director John Carney and lead Glen Hansard for the Spring ’07 issue. Once is nominated for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly” (Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova).
When Baz Luhrmann was promoting his musical phantasmagoria Moulin Rouge, I asked him how far you could go in the other direction — could a film musical consist simply of a couple coming together and moving apart? His advice was this: “It’s the song, and the song is a dance.” In John Carney’s limber long-player Once, several songs suggest a life, a small, wonderful world consisting of a few Dublin haunts where an unnamed street corner performer, or busker (Glen Hansard), and an unnamed younger Czech woman (Markéta Irglová), who has a winsomely resourceful command of English, meet, tease, learn but mostly, with eyes wide open, develop a mature relationship deepened by the dance of several songs, including the gorgeous “Falling Slowly,” which the extremely affable and charming pair convincingly “compose” in front of us.
In traditional narrative terms, Once is the slightest of artifacts, and yet it possesses a quiet integrity and charm, with undercurrents about all manner of human boundaries, offering lessons in how simply a tale can be told. Shot in two weeks in unprepossessingly fuzzy high definition for only $100,000 (which looks only Mini DV grade, truth be told), Once is a grand, effortless Irish musical povera, written and directed by Carney, who was for several years in the fine band The Frames, along with star-composer Glen Hansard. Carney works some very sophisticated insights about the representation of music on film and also how one walks, talks, lives, breathes, stumbles, fumbles, and triumphs while trying to fashion any form of art. Layers peel away, their preconceptions of each other (and ours of them) fall away, and Hansard’s music, as urgent and lovely as ever, grows in collaboration with someone who turns out not only to be a classical pianist, but a good lyricist and a fine singer. (In the real world, Hansard and Irglová had already written and performed together.)
The music under the final scenes reprises “Falling Slowly,” a song we’ve watched the pair compose and record; it’s heartbreaking on several levels: “I don’t know you/ but I want you/ all the more for that; words fall through me/ ’n always fool me / and I can’t react; Games that never amount/ to more than they’re meant/ will play themselves out…/ Raise your hopeful voice / you had the choice / you made it mine.” The third, climactic iteration packs an immense wallop: this is how pop works, this is how songs happen in our lives.
Filmmaker spoke to Carney and Hansard at Sundance, right after the film’s debut but a few weeks before its acquisition by Fox Searchlight for release later this spring.
Filmmaker: The project of making a movie about a musician who has no live gigs is a terrific notion, considering the fact that live gigs simply don’t work on film.
Carney: They do not. No.
Filmmaker: Movies make the mistake so many times of reflecting the Dionysian aspect of the musician up onstage, which you certainly don’t do here. The pair are walking, talking, breathing music as they take the measure of each other. How’d you arrive at this scheme?
Carney: I have some experience of making stuff off the cuff, you know. My first girlfriend wanted to be an actress. My current girlfriend is an actress. We do lots of stuff on camcorders. Not quite films, but just sketches, or, if we come up with an idea, you know, just try and kind of block it out on camera and work stuff out. So I guess when Mar and Glen decided to do the film, we all agreed that we would keep it very naturalistic. You have overlapping dialogue, and if a thought came into your mind, you could express it. And you didn’t have to stick rigidly to the script. But in terms of the naturalistic style, I’m just like… if you’re going to make a modern-day musical, there’s just been so many attempts to do that, but in a very self-conscious kind of way. Right through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, musicals weren’t very good. They were very deferential and self-conscious in terms of the older, classic musicals. I guess I didn’t want to do something where there was too much of a contrivance for the people to be able to sing to each other. Or too self-conscious or knowing, or too sycophantic about Singin’ in the Rain and Guys and Dolls. I really wanted to just make a little art film on DV with my friends in which it was okay that people sang to each other. And you wouldn’t even notice, really. The wool would be kind of pulled over your eyes, in a way. You said that at the first edit —
Hansard: I was like, “Eight songs!”
Carney: The song in the studio, “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the conventional plot point is, if you go into a studio, it’s “Are you ready? Let’s go.” And you begin, you dissolve to the next scene, and the song is finished. But hang on; we’re not going anywhere here! That was very much the idea of the film: that you stay with it right to the end, and you experience that song as a whole entity on its own, and it’s not a big deal that you’ve watched the whole song because it’s been integrated and sewn into the fabric of the film.
Hansard: I remember, when we were shooting the scene [when the pair compose] “Falling Slowly” in the piano shop, John was like, “I want you to work out the chorus, take your time with it, really, hang back and play the whole song.” I was just going, “There’s no way this is going to work on film! That’s like a three, four, five-minute scene, rolling, rolling, and with no “Oh, we’ll go to this side or the other side.” It always felt to me like he was being really ambitious and it would never work. There are eight songs in the film, and out of those eight, there are —
Carney: Six or seven [played] in their entirety.
Hansard: I kind of thought that John was pushing it, you know. But it seems to go by fast, and people [are responding] to it really well, so….
Filmmaker: The straightforwardness is what makes the entire movie work for me, the directness and the lack of ungainly backstory. You introduce the couple in the second scene of the movie with a simple, uninflected shot that’s breathtakingly right: we are watching Glen play for a bit and then the camera pulls back, revealing Markéta’s shoulder. Our point of view becomes hers. It gave me a chill.
Carney: I’m really grateful that you mentioned that shot. I thought it was great and nobody mentioned it, yeah. It changes perspective immediately to a subjective shot that becomes her…. Yeah, I was happy with that. I’ll tell you the two shots I’m really happy with: that shot and the one out the window [of an apartment] at the end. I thought, I’m actually doing something with the camera here that’s kind of subtle or interesting. The rest of it is really just following.
Filmmaker: That second shot is sweet because it’s onto nothing special; it’s just Dublin.
Carney: Just buses going by, kids in the park.
Filmmaker: Talk about the underlying element of new émigrés coming to Ireland. After the Czech Republic and Poland came into the EU, there was an influx of people from those countries to take the kinds of jobs the Irish might have taken in other countries in disadvantaged decades past. The couple’s trust evolves slowly, and at first she’s just this Czech girl pestering him while he’s busking.
Carney: You mean like a political kind of statement?
Filmmaker: Not a statement, but an awareness that —
Carney: I think it’s an attempt to treat Mar’s character like an Italian or a Spanish woman. A lot of films — Before Sunset, a lot of American films — [suggest] that Western European women are sexy. If you’re Italian, you’re beautiful, or if you’re French, but if you’re Polish or from the Czech Republic —
Hansard: I have to say I was really, really impressed with the whole approach. One of the big attractions to me about doing the film was that he had taken a snapshot of modern Dublin. You’ve got the house where Mar lives where a bunch of Polish guys come in and watch television. It’s unfair in a way, because the Poles are actually hardworking. They really have their shit together, and they’ve got really nice televisions. What we had before is we had a wave of Bosnians, a wave of Latvians before the Polish came in.
Carney: There are very poor Polish people in Ireland.
Hansard: Of course, of course. But I do know that just from my experience of Czechs and the Poles, they’re definitely a lot more —
Carney: Proud —
Hansard: Savvy, more hardworking, they just fucking work their ass off and they get what they want. I just thought it was a really good snapshot.
Filmmaker: I know a musician who plays mostly one guitar, a very odd one, and Glen’s character has that too, the acoustic with the busted front. Even without an explanation, the guitar’s presence is very talismanic. It has significance to the character, and likely to you, but you don’t waste time on any bullshit exposition.
Hansard: Never explain, yeah. If he was more proud, he’d be playing something a little bit cleaner. That’s just my own guitar. I’ve just had it for a long, long time, and when John asked me to do it —
Carney: Yes, there are things in the film like that. That’s yours, that’s your hat! You want to keep it real. There’s nothing worse than an actor feeling uncomfortable in his shirts.
Hansard: They’re my own clothes; Mar did her own clothes.
Carney: I like the scene in the shop where we see her choose her clothes: “I don’t shop at TJ Maxx for secondhand Calvin Klein jeans, I’ve got my own thing” — this little old Dublin shop. In a way, you know, funny thing about the female character in our film is that she’s the biggest Dubliner in our film, the most authentic Dubliner. There’s no such thing as authentic Dubliners anymore. If I go into town now, I sit in the café, I would meet no one, you know what I mean? Where’s everyone, where are my friends? They’re all in the suburbs. I just don’t meet people. All I see are really young people who are really Americanized girls with an incredible amount of makeup.
Hansard: The youth culture has hit Dublin.
Carney: When we were growing up in Dublin, when I was 15, we used to do a thing — a friend of mine, we’d get the buses into town on Saturday, which is a big day in Dublin, the city center. At five, six o’clock, when the shops closed, because this was a Catholic country, shops closed at six, that was it. It was dead. Town was dead. The only people around town were the schizophrenics and the alcoholics and the drug addicts. And the buskers! You had this witching hour between six and eight or nine before the pubs started to fill up. It was just a ghost town. And now shops are open until nine o’clock, shops are open all day Sunday, it’s like just a retail fucking zoo. And Grafton Street, our main street, is more expensive to rent than it is on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Hansard: It’s just fuckin’ insane, like every other city in the world.
Filmmaker: You don’t see so many brands or logos in the frames of the movie.
Carney: Yeah, but we put it on a long lens, so even if they were there, they just kind of fall away.
Filmmaker: What was the back-and-forth of exchanging bits of scenes and songs like? Was that easier than or different from being in a band?
Hansard: We were in a band together. What was interesting is that John was in my band, I guess a lot of it was me directing him and this time it was almost like I surrendered to John’s vision of the film. But having said that, really, the three of us sat down and I felt so good about it by the time we started shooting. We never argued, we never really got crazy. It was an awful lot of good thinking on the go and then also during the filmmaking; we’d just do it. The crew was so small, and it was just Dublin. We’re gonna go around the corner; the whole film was shot within a block. The cops would ask about permits, then we’d just move.
Carney: Just like busking!
Filmmaker: Were there specific things you were reacting against that other people had done in depicting the life of a musician, the day of a musician?
Carney: Most musicals are about fame and the rise to fame. Winners and losers. I’m a loser if I’m not making money, and I’m a winner if I make it. When we decided “Falling Slowly” was going to be in the film we asked the [band] if it was cool, and it was fine. The Frames are Glen’s band. Then we went to a Frames gig at the Point Depot, a big, huge venue, right? And they do a version of “Falling Slowly,” but it’s a big rock version of it. We’d shot the film already, “Falling Slowly” came on, our [producer] Martina Niland joked, “What if you actually ended the film like after he’s [made a certain choice] and you fade up and you see Glen onstage and he’s got a rocking band behind him — they’re doing “Falling Slowly,” and we cut to a shot of Markéta outside, just thinking, Yeah. We just cracked up laughing how bad an idea that was! And how much better it was that you don’t know. He’s probably on the subway in London, playing guitar, and he’s with his girlfriend, and he’s really happy. He’s doing some gigs, he’s writing prolifically, and he’s much happier.
Hansard: One of the things that made me uncomfortable in the script, when we were talking, was the idea that I go in and make a demo. There was originally a little bit more to that, as in we make a demo and I go to London and maybe get a record deal.
Carney: It’s still there.
Hansard: It’s only mentioned once by Mar. “I’m sure he could secure a lucrative deal,” she says.
Carney: She says, “Go, go to London, get a record deal, become famous” — the audience is definitely aware of that. London now is not the mecca it was for Irish people; Dublin is now a kicking city.
Hansard: I much prefer he’s going back for the girl.