Not long ago, Dublin's Glen Hansard was a little-known quantity in the entertainment industry. His main band, the Frames, has been around since 1990, and during that span, the group has put out numerous first-rate albums, including 2004's Burn the Maps and this year's The Cost. But while the collective boasts an extremely loyal fan base, the size of its following remains cult-sized — and the self-titled debut CD by the Swell Season, a side project that pairs Hansard with Markéta Irglová, didn't set any sales records upon its August 2006 release.
Now, however, everything's changed thanks to Hansard's co-starring role in director John Carney's Once, 2007's most unexpected, and well-deserved, independent-film success story. On the surface, the flick tells the simplest of tales: A veteran street strummer meets a young pianist, they make beautiful music together, and then they part. Yet Hansard, as the protagonist known only as "The Busker," and Irglová, who portrays the keyboardist dubbed "The Girl," deliver wonderfully unaffected performances, and songs such as the luminous "Falling Slowly" and "If You Want Me" foster the sort of connection between artists and audience that's as uncommon as it is profound. For those reasons and more, Once continues to generate euphoric word of mouth and attract sizable crowds months after it first reached theaters, and Hansard is an odds-on favorite to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Song.
Speaking from the Czech Republic, where the movie recently opened, Hansard says he isn't counting on such a nod. "I'd be very, very, very fucking shocked," he admits with a laugh, his Irish brogue turning the comment into a mini-melody. Still, he would welcome a call from the Academy, despite some misgivings. Although he doesn't believe art should be qualitatively ranked, he says it "would be a gas to play on the Oscars," if only because "my mother would think I was the fucking shit!"
Once isn't Hansard's first flirtation with the movies. He played guitarist Outspan Foster in The Commitments, director Alan Parker's popular 1991 adaptation of a Roddy Doyle novel about an Irish band smitten with American R&B. It was a heady time for him and the rest of the cast, which consisted largely of musicians, not professional actors, but bruises linger. "Making the movie itself was very easy," he says. "But where the negativity comes in, at least for me, is, we were a bunch of working-class kids. We lived in Dublin, and we were taken out of Dublin and sent off to America, where we met Madonna and Robert De Niro and Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and we were traveling around in limousines. We were given everything we ever wanted...for a month." After that, "everything was taken back. And I have to say, when you take a working-class kid from his life and give him everything he ever wanted for a month, and then you take it all away, it's a very violent experience. My emotional memory of The Commitments is that I kind of felt like — to be honest, I kind of felt like we were robbed. They sort of stole some of our innocence."
This brief brush with celluloid fame didn't sour Hansard on film as a medium. He's an inveterate cineaste with impeccable taste; note that the Frames' 1996 album shares its name with Fitzcarraldo, director Werner Herzog's 1982 masterwork. In this respect, he and Carney are a fine match. The director played bass for the Frames from 1991 to 1993 before leaving to pursue a career in the movies, and when he decided to make a music-based film, he turned to his old friend for songs and inspiration. As Hansard points out, much of Once's plot was plucked from his past, which is why he was happy that Carney originally planned to cast someone else in the role: Cillian Murphy, who starred in Carney's 2001 film On the Edge but is better known in the U.S. as a villain in Red Eye and Batman Begins.
Murphy, though, had to pull out prior to the start of production — so Carney asked his old bandmate to step in. At first Hansard said no, fearing the character was too close to the real-life him. But Carney convinced him otherwise: "John said, 'Don't worry, man. No one's going to give a fuck about that.'"
That left one more obstacle to overcome: Carney was having difficulty casting the female lead, whom he'd envisioned as a 35-year-old Eastern European woman. Hansard, 37, was certain that Irglová, who's nineteen, was born to play the part. He first encountered her through her father, a Czech concert promoter, when she was just thirteen, and as she got older, he got to know her as a friend and musical collaborator, not just the daughter of someone he knew. But Carney initially felt she was too young — until he saw her play. According to Hansard, "John thought she was perfect — and he said, 'You're the Girl.'"
The three binged on movies before starting to shoot — mostly classic indies such as François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence, with the musical Guys and Dolls thrown in for good measure. Then they embarked on a micro-budgeted three-week shoot that combined spontaneity (much of the dialogue was improvised) with a few guiding principles. For instance, every time the musicians started playing a song, they didn't stop until they were finished — a decision that allows each tune to resonate. Along the way, they engaged in good-natured debates, particularly when it came to the question of whether or not the Busker and the Girl should kiss.
"It was probably the most argued point of the whole movie," Hansard says. "It's actually where the title comes from. John wrote a scene that he then passed by me and Mar, and that we argued until it was no longer a point — and it was, 'They kiss, but just once.'"
In the end, no lips meet — an unconventional choice by Hollywood standards that couldn't have been more right. As a result, "the title's a misnomer," Hansard says. "John has come up with many excuses for the title, but actually, that's where it came from."
After the film was completed, Carney submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival and received a polite rejection. So he staged a screening in Galway seen by only about fifty people. Luckily, one of the attendees was a vacationing Sundance staffer, who was blown away by the film and offered to present it to the selection committee. Hansard concedes that "we didn't tell him it had already been refused," and that turned out to be a good strategy. Sundance accepted Once the second time around, and it went on to win the coveted Audience Award at the 2007 fest.
When it came time to market the movie, Hansard and Irglová were put to work promoting it. Before long, the couple that didn't quite get together on the screen managed to do so off it — something Carney foresaw during the filming process.
"There was one moment where he jokingly referred to us as his Bogart and Bacall," Hansard allows. "He said, 'I definitely predict you two, in the future, will have a relationship. It's absolutely written. The connection between the two of you is palpable, and you will have a romance.' And actually, since April of this year, we've given it a shot. We're really close, and we're good friends, and we're giving it a go. It's a bit exciting, and it's a bit scary, and it's really nice."
At present, Hansard and Irglová are touring as the Swell Season, playing songs from the film that appear on a deluxe edition of the soundtrack; featuring an expanded song selection and a companion DVD, the set is scheduled to be released on December 4, two weeks before the film itself comes out on home video. Shortly thereafter, movie-award nominations will be announced, with Hansard's name almost certain to be called. Does he think it's strange that after seventeen years with the Frames, his music is finally reaching the masses via a movie that afforded viewers the opportunity to watch him fall in love?
"'Strange' isn't the term I'd use," he says. "I guess I view Once as an incredibly fortunate thing that's happened in my life."
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with the Swell Season's Glen Hansard.