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on Oct 5, 2011

After winning the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008 for John Carney’s breakout hit Once, real-life sweethearts Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who co-starred in the Independent Spirit Award–winning film) hit the road with their band, the Swell Season, for what was to have been an exultant, roof-raising tour of the U.S., Ireland, and Europe. Instead, though greeted enthusiastically by thousands of new fans at sold-out shows, the crazy-in-love couple found themselves strained and ultimately divided by the exposure, a bittersweet trajectory charted in the new documentary, The Swell Season, which opened Silverdocs in June.

For the film, co-directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis traveled with Hansard and Irglová for three years capturing footage of their concerts, backstage conversations, and the tensions that simmer, bubble to the surface, and eventually find the warbling Irish duo parting ways romantically. Stitched into the deftly photographed musical performances (Hansard’s ragged, emotive attack and Irglová’s buttery harmonies are undeniably affecting) and observational interludes of life on the road are intimate chats with friends, family members, associates, and the singers themselves, whose revealing thoughts on fame, ambition, and romantic disappointment provide a subtly stirring dramatic layer to an otherwise conventional concert-doc format. So do the presence of Hansard’s proud mother Catherine and melancholy ex-boxer father James, whose shattered dreams of success weigh heavily on his son. Shot in luxurious black and white (visually poetic renderings of Hansard in the Irish countryside are especially rich), The Swell Season echoes the simplicity and tonal purity of Once, unfolding its boy-meets-girl narrative almost in reverse, as if the two films were a kind of cinematic palindrome.

Filmmaker spoke with August-Perna, Dapkins, and Mirabella-Davis about shooting on the road, techniques for disappearing, and three-headed monsters. The Swell Season opens Friday in Los Angeles at Downtown Independent and October 21 at Cinema Village and reRun Gastropub Theater in New York.

Filmmaker: How soon after the Oscars did you approach Glen and Markéta about making a film?

Mirabella-Davis: I was teaching a film class at the New York Film Academy and Glen was one of my students. This was directly after the Oscar win, maybe a month later. He was studying how to make short films and was actually a pretty good director. We became friends after the class and he mentioned to me that The Swell Season were about to embark on this epic tour across America and the world. We talked about the sudden rush of this new exposure and how being in the limelight had affected him. He said he was interested in somebody documenting the upcoming tour, so that’s really how it began.

Filmmaker: Was your original goal simply to make a live-concert documentary?

Dapkins: The task Glen gave us was to make a film that stood on its own rather than as a promotion for the band. So we set out without any idea what the story would be, necessarily. I think Glen was imagining some sort of jubilant romp [that would] document this exciting time. And what we created was something else, but exciting in its own way.

Filmmaker: When did you know you had a story arc for the film that would take it beyond the “jubilant romp” and include the dissolution of a romance?

August-Perna: We spent a lot of time on the road in America, filming all aspects of the tour and familiarizing ourselves with that world. About three-quarters of the way through shooting in Europe, two things happened: We met Glen’s family in Ireland and had a long series of conversations with his mother and father. After that, we went to the Czech Republic and shot that extended café scene where everything boils to the surface between Glen and Markéta, so our timeline was the same as what you see in the film. That really brought to light much of the heavy subtext of the film and gave it color.

Filmmaker: Glen’s driven and ambitious and passionate about what he does, but the world’s expectations — embodied perhaps perfectly by his mother — darken his ability to enjoy the life he now leads. For Markéta, perhaps, the pressures are more about what she’s expected to do offstage.

Mirabella-Davis: Glen left school to be a busker on the streets of Dublin when he was 14. This has been his calling for a long time, whereas Markéta was drawn into this wave of change that occurred after Once was released. To her, it was all very new. Her struggle is very much about how she should relate to the rest of the world when she’s not onstage — that’s true. Glen’s has to do with his father, who was a champion boxer in his youth — fulfilling his father’s dreams but also [having] the burden of being the one who has to carry that torch. So it’s complicated for both of them.

Filmmaker: Were they wary of putting more of their personal story on the screen?

Mirabella-Davis: Initially, we didn’t do any interviews — we did everything verité. In the first few months, they were a little nervous around the camera. So we developed techniques in order to erase ourselves. In the end, they forgot we were there and wore their hearts on their sleeve.

Dapkins: The two subjects are struggling with this outside gaze, from their fans and the giant shows they’re suddenly selling out, and here we are, this three-headed monster following them with a giant camera. So there was a delicate and awkward dance at the beginning of trying to establish a rhythm of trust with them. We did accomplish that over time by filming other members on tour, the scenery, and the environment of the cities where they played, so generally they had the sense that everything was fair game for the movie and that they weren’t the only focus. Also, we would not chase them. We’d wait in a room backstage, filming as they’d enter, hang around, and then exit. The camera doesn’t accost them, like in reality television. Some of the scenes have this strange, almost narrative fiction quality as a result.

Filmmaker: Part of that effect is achieved due to your choice to shoot in black and white, which suits the tone of the film beautifully, and looks terrific.

Dapkins: That was initially Glen’s idea, and it helped us in many ways. The whole visual language we were trying to employ was that of classic narrative cinema. We wanted our film to have a luxurious, patient, cinematic quality. The black and white allowed us to create a concise emotional landscape out of years of footage. So it was essential.

Filmmaker: The three of you share directing and writing duties. How did that work out logistically?

August-Perna: Chris was on camera and I was doing sound. And Carlo was either doing lighting or sound and also interviews, so functionally those were our goals during shooting. Aside from a few interviews, it was a very hands-off process, so it was a little like having our subconscious plugged into each other as we were roving around. In the editing room it was a lot of hanging over each other’s shoulders, making decisions democratically, and then forging ahead.

Mirabella-Davis: When you have one director, there’s a tyranny to decision making, but with three we could balance each other out. One person’s vote could stop everything in its tracks. We’re all old friends and work together in a production company called Elk Creek Cinema, along with my sister Francesca, so we have a rapport that only grew stronger as we were filming.

Filmmaker: Did those more intimate conversations come naturally out of what was happening in Glen and Markéta’s lives, in the sense that you became their confidantes?

August-Perna: We spent a good deal of time in the editing room coming up with our first rough cut. About six months into that process, we screened it for them and they really dug it. They’d moved on and were working on a new album, but they were excited about doing interviews to tell a more complicated and colorful story about the way they were changing, in terms of their outlook and how they looked back at that experience. Things were evolving quickly in their lives, and we were all excited to capture that.

Mirabella-Davis: Much of the work making the movie was done off the screen. A lot of that intimacy comes from the fact that we became close with them and created a setting where they were comfortable talking to us. It developed organically.

Filmmaker: Once is a narrative film that incorporates elements of real life. And The Swell Season is a documentary that incorporates narrative elements in order to achieve a dramatic effect. For instance, you often pair live musical performances with what point we’re at in the story of their relationship.

Dapkins: You’ve touched upon the subterranean riptide of this movie, which is that they are leading and struggling under the pressures of a double life, one that’s partially a myth and another which is the mundane — and sometimes magical — real life. The film is subtly nodding to those conflicts.

Mirabella-Davis: The idea of using the songs to elevate the themes was something we hit on in the editing room. We realized that Glen and Marketa wear their hearts on their sleeve when they sing and what’s so appealing about their music is that they’re singing about each other. So we thought, “Let’s create this film a little like an opera.”

Filmmaker: Did it get uncomfortable when the stress fractures started to appear in their relationship?

August-Perna: No, it didn’t — we had a very clear sense of boundaries.

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