Q&A With Swell Season and Once Star Glen Hansard

Preparing for an interview is generally a prerequisite for an enlightening and wide-ranging conversation – except in this case. My chat with Frames and Swell Season-performer-turned-Once co-star Glen Hansard, who’s at the center of a November 8 Westword profile, happened on the spur of the moment; I received a call from a label representative telling me that she could only guarantee Hansard’s availability prior to my deadline if we spoke immediately. Being a longtime admirer of the Frames and an effusive booster of Once – a musical romance featuring Hansard’s Swell Season mate, Markéta Irglová, that may turn out to be my favorite film of 2007 – I jumped at the chance despite my fear that the whole thing would turn out to be a catastrophe. But no: Hansard, speaking by phone from the Czech Republic, has the gift of gab, to put it mildly, and he carried the load throughout a consistently intriguing and enjoyable exchange.

Topics? Hansard touched upon the reactions of audiences across the globe to Once, with a particular focus on its middling performance in Ireland, where it should have gone through the roof; the fascinating and inspirational list of films that he, Irglová and director John Carney screened prior to shooting; the reasons why Hansard’s one previous movie experience, as a supporting player in the 1991 flick The Commitments, was so unsatisfying; his reticence to plug the Frames too energetically while promoting his movie; the series of events that led him to take an on-screen role that rising star Cillian Murphy had committed to playing; the Sundance Film Festival’s initial rejection of Once, which went on to win the event’s coveted Audience Prize; his first encounters with Irglová, whom he met when she was barely a teenager, and the convincing it took for Carney to cast her in a part he’d envisioned for a 35-year-old; the inspiration of late filmmaker John Cassavetes; the debate between kissing and not kissing, with a corollary about the movie’s now-ironic title; the manner in which movie love turned into the real thing; and comments about the Oscar nomination for Best Song that should come Hansard’s way whether there’s justice in the world or not.

Read on for a Once in a lifetime experience:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you at right now?

Glen Hansard: I’m in Prague, Mike. We’re basically on a press tour for the film. It’s coming out in Europe in the next week. So we’re in Prague now, and then we go to Tokyo in the next couple of days, and then we go back to America.

WW: Have the folks you’re meeting with there seen the film yet?

GH: We’re at a small film festival, and I guess the people in the press have seen it. There’s been a couple of press screenings. Overall, it’s not hit the cinemas yet, but the press has reacted very well to it, thank God. All the press people we’ve spoken to pretty much everywhere have responded very strongly to it. But I guess the press isn’t always a good indication of how a film will do on the ground, if you like, with the public. The press has been very positive, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It’s done really well in the States, and it did really well in Australia and it’s done really well in Korea, of all places. And in Ireland, it just did okay. You know, Irish people aren’t really that good at supporting Irish cinema. Actually, it came out in Ireland before all the buzz in the States happened, so I think if it was only coming out in Ireland now, it would probably do a lot better. I have to say that the American excitement about the film has really done it a lot of good.

WW: In this case, I suspect that the press’ reaction will probably be close to the public’s reaction. It seems to me that the film’s simplicity breaks down the barriers between the media and the public, between highbrow and lowbrow. It seems very universal.

GH: That’s a very good way of looking at it – a very positive way of looking at it, so thank you. I think when you make something… I mean, we didn’t even think this film would come out. There was no pressure on us whatsoever. This film was a kind of project of John’s that was made for very, very little money, and we had nothing to prove to anybody actually. It was strange: We find ourselves in a position where we made a film for the love of film. For the five days before we started shooting, we went and rented, like, twenty DVDs from the video store. We got, like, Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, we got Stranger Than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch, we got A Woman Under the Influence by John Cassavetes, because John wanted to show Mar how good a female actress could really be, and we got, like Talk to Her by Almodóvar for the kind of lonesome moment where he sings alone, because of the music in the film. We watched Polanski’s Knife in the Water: We just got excited about cinema. When we went into making Once, all we really had was a passion for cinema and a few songs and a bit of a script and a couple of handy cabs.

WW: Did you watch any classic Hollywood musicals? Or did you stay away from those, because you were consciously trying to stay away from those kinds of conventions?

GH: Well, we watched Guys and Dolls, and we loved that. But we also watched Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the French film, and we loved that, too. John loved the American musicals, he’s a really big fan of them. But to be honest, maybe most of the sensibility, most of the filmmaking sensibilities, came more from the Europeans.

WW: Your major filmmaking experience prior to this was The Commitments, and I understand that it wasn’t wholly positive for you.

GH: Well, you know, making the movie itself was very easy, it was very enjoyable. Basically, I was given a script and then I went and I learned my lines and we shot the film. And it was so long ago that I actually don’t really remember the technical end of making the film. I remember sort of being on set and delivering our lines. 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.

WW: For a month?

GH: Yeah, for a month (laughs). And then 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 or something.

WW: They gave you something you never expected to have, and then it was taken from you just as you started to get attached to it?

GH: Exactly! (Laughs.)

WW: Subsequently, and at the time as well, I’m sure, you were focusing on your own musical career. And since the Frames have been around, they’ve made one excellent album after another. But at least in this country, the number of people who were able to hear and enjoy them was rather small. Does it seem strange that you did all that good work for so many years without huge rewards, and suddenly with this film, the public is suddenly discovering you?

GH: “Strange” isn’t the term I’d use. I guess I view Once as an incredibly fortunate thing that’s happened in my life. Because I was kind of happy. To be honest with you, I was happy chugging along in my career the way everything was going. I was happy enough going to the States and every time we would go back, we’d be playing to an extra hundred people. Things were working out. The thing with the Frames is, we’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and yes, it’s been a real struggle. But it’s always been a forward roll. No matter how slow it’s been, it’s always been forward. And I made this film with my friends, with a couple of my mates. We shot it in three weeks. It’s just a tiny little sort of after-thought, almost, this film. And yet it’s the one small project that’s brought all this attention to me as a songwriter, and to me as a band. So to me, I’m just really chuffed. I’m over the moon. I guess whatever brings the attention to my band is okay with me. Not to say that I’d do anything, because I’d never sell my soul or do anything that didn’t feel natural. But this thing felt natural, and it seems to have taken off in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m selling my soul to anybody. I mean, I wrote these songs. It’s not like I did anything different this time around. It just seems to have worked. So I guess I’m very grateful. And the thing is, I’m very conscious of the idea of not overly promoting my band in every interview I do, because I feel uncomfortable about that. This film is about a songwriter in Dublin, and he makes this music with this girl. And in a way, I kind of feel guilty if I go into an interview and say, “Frames, Frames, Frames.” I’m hoping that people, if they like this film, will wonder who this guy is, and wonder who this girl is, and if they manage to join the dots and figure who I am in my real life, hopefully they’ll come upon the Frames, and hopefully they like that.

WW: I understand that you weren’t planning to appear in the film at first. Is that correct?

GH: Yeah, I wasn’t. Cillian Murphy was originally going to play the busker.

WW: It’s hard for those of us who’ve seen the movie to imagine anyone else in that role. Did it take some convincing for you to decide to be on camera? Or because you were working with friends, was it an easier decision?

GH: To be honest with you, I did say “no” in the beginning, only because so much of the back story of this character is actually my story. For instance, I did busk on the streets between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. I fixed bicycles, not Hoovers, and when I did go to a bank manager to borrow money, the bank manager did sing a song to me.

WW: Really?

GH: Yeah. And when I did get my band together, I got it together from musicians I knew on the streets. There was a guy who stole my money and I had to chase all the time. So there were lots of things that John stole from my life to add to this character’s back story. And when John finally came to me, I thought to myself, so much of this guy’s history is my history, and I’ve written the songs. If I’m acting in the film, is this not too close to my real life? Should I say “no”? And I did say “no.” And John said, “Don’t worry, man. No one’s going to give a fuck about that. No one’s going to notice.” And because it was my friend, John, and because it was my friend, Mar, we thought – and we all talked about this a lot before we shot it – we all thought, if this film is rubbish, let’s just put it on the shelf. If it’s rubbish and none of us like it, let’s not put it out on DVD and sell it to Frames fans in order to make our money back. Let’s just not put it out. And we all agreed.

WW: When you first saw an assemblage of the film, what was your reaction?

GH: I was very, very proud. And what actually happened with this film was very unusual. We were actually refused by Sundance.

WW: You were refused?

GH: Yeah, we got refused by Sundance. John had sent it to Sundance, he’d sent it to the Toronto Film Festival, he sent it to the Edinborough Film Festival, and they sent it to the Tribeca Film Festival. And they all sent letters back saying, “We saw your film, and unfortunately there’s no more room. The festival’s booked up, blah-ble-blah-ble-blah. It’s not you, it’s us.” All the usual stuff you get. So we had settled on the idea that we’d play this film in Ireland, in small cinemas. We’d get one 35 mil print made up and travel around Ireland and John would introduce the film and myself and Markéta would play some songs afterward, and we would try to sell the DVD to people who were interested in it. That was the marketing plan, I guess. And when we went to Galway, myself and Mar, to see the first assemblage, like you say – the first cut of the film – it was showing in a small theater in Galway. John had gotten this theater to show it, and basically, we made it a public event if people wanted to come and see us. And it was a beautiful evening: No one wanted to go to the cinema that day, because it was such a nice day, and it’s such a rare thing in Ireland to have a nice day that no one wanted to go to the cinema. So there was about fifty people at the screening. But myself and Mar, we felt really, really proud. I felt really, really proud of this. And we came outside and I said to John, “Whatever happens, I’m really, really happy that we made that film. I think it came across really well, I think you did a great edit of all this stuff, and I’m really proud to know you.” And John said, “That’s probably the last time you’ll see it on a big screen, so I’m glad you got to see it on a cinema screen.” And as we’re standing there, this guy comes up to us and says, “Hello, my name is John. I’m here on holiday in Galway. I saw that there was a film playing and I bought a ticket and I went in and I recognized the songs from the Frames, because I like the Frames, and I also work for Sundance – and I’d like to recommend your film to Sundance.” We were really surprised – and we didn’t tell him that we’d already been refused. And so we gave him a DVD copy that John had in his car, and he went back to the Sundance people, and we were officially selected.

WW: That sounds like one of those stories in a screenplay that a director might reject because it seems so unbelievable.

GH: Exactly. We were actually refused. We didn’t get it. And then we did get in. And not only did we get in: We won. So somebody on the Sundance panel watched five minutes of our movie and said, “Fuck this. It’s rubbish.” That person has never introduced himself to us at Sundance. I wonder if they even remember.

WW: Your movie is definitely not a five-minute movie. It has an impact because of the way it accumulates.

GH: Yeah, I guess you’re right. It opens on some guy on the street – a really bad handheld shot of a guy, and the guy gets robbed. And I can imagine if you watched only five minutes of this film, you’d turn it off and be like, “Yeah, whatever.”

WW: And for American viewers, I must say, it probably takes us at least five minutes to get the rhythm of the speech, so we understand everything you’re saying.

GH: Right, right. That’s probably what happened. They probably saw that scene where the guy steals my money and then there was that bit of dialogue, and they probably said, “I don’t even understand this” (laughs).

WW: How did you meet Mar? I understand you knew her prior to the film.

GH: Yeah, I knew Mar for about six years. Me and Mar’s father are good friends. Mar’s father invited me to stay at their house. Mar’s father is a concert promoter, and we came over to the Czech Republic and the Frames played a couple of gigs over here. So I stayed at her house – he gave me a room at their house, and I went over and made some home recordings. And while I was making the home recordings… Mar plays piano, so I got her to play piano on my home recordings, and she was great. And she sang some harmonies, too. So I did a few sort of small gigs over there, and she would join me for a couple of songs here and there.

WW: When you met her, she was only twelve or thirteen years old?

GH: Thirteen, I think. I’ve known her for a long time. And she’s just really talented, you know? I guess I knew her in a really passive way. She was the daughter of someone I knew. But she played piano and she sang and we were good mates, you know. And John was finding it difficult to find an Eastern European woman who played piano and sang. He was looking for a 35-year old originally. And I said to him, well, “Look, I know a girl. She plays piano, she sings, I’m sure she can act, but she’s only seventeen.” And John said, “That doesn’t really work for me, but let me meet her, because I can’t think of anyone else.” And I just knew Mar would be perfect, and she came over, and basically, John and Mar met and Mar played some piano for John, and John thought she was perfect – and he said, “You’re the girl.” She was like, “You don’t want me to read for you? You don’t want me to act?” And he said, “No, no, everyone can act. I’ll get a performance out of you.” So Mar was cast.

WW: As a viewer, I had the feeling that I was watching two people fall in love. Were two people falling in love while the movie was being made?

GH: That’s a good question. Because John kept on talking about the connection between the two of us, and there was one moment where he jokingly referred to us as his Bogart and Bacall. And 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.

WW: Because you’d known her since she was thirteen, was a relationship something you resisted?

GH: When I met her, it wasn’t right, you know. It wasn’t even in my head, it wasn’t on the cards, it wasn’t something I ever entertained, of course. And then as she got older, I got know her better, and when we made this film, I got to know her even better again. And then when we went down into America and we did this press tour together, we were spending 24 hours in each other’s company, and it just naturally progressed if you like.

WW: There’s a line in the movie where you refer to yourself as an old man, and honestly, the age difference between the two of you didn’t even occur to me until that moment. Have you had other people say similar things to you – that the differences between your ages didn’t matter to them?

GH: No, not really. Again, that was one of those improvised lines. She says, “You’re quite a romantic,” and I say something like, “I used to be.” And she says, “What do you mean?” And I say, “I’m an old man” – and I was just improvising that moment. But it really didn’t matter – and actually it doesn’t matter in my real life. I guess I am quite boyish. Not that I’m quite boyish in my love, but I’m quite boyish in my head. But the thing about Mar is, she’s fucking much more mature than me in real life. So for me, there’s nothing unusual about my relationship with Mar in terms of two souls on the earth, if you like. In a four-by-twelve world, people are kind of going, “Wow, she’s nineteen and he’s 37. That’s a bit tense.” But it’s not at all for me. I just feel really lucky. I just feel really lucky that I’ve met someone who’s so brilliant.

WW: I assume that the scenes were well-rehearsed ahead of time, but they look completely spontaneous.

GH: We didn’t rehearse anything. We rehearsed nothing.

WW: No wonder they looked so spontaneous…

GH: John insisted that we rehearse nothing and that we do everything on the day.

WW: Was that frightening for you in a way? Or did you know because of the connection between the three of you that everything was going to work out fine?

GH: You’re right, you’re absolutely right. But I knew because of the connection between the three of us that everything was going to be fine. Because John, I’m just as close to John as I am with Mar. With John, everything was just a case of believability. It was all about believability. I guess because I love cinema, and because John loves cinema, we were both able to challenge each other. Wherever we came to a point where one of us disagreed, we were able to go, “What would Polanski do?” (Laughs.) Or “What would Cassavetes do? He wouldn’t have a kiss, so why would we?” There were moments where we would sit down and discuss things with each other, and it was very simple. We just referred to great filmmakers. Whenever we’d hit a problem, we just referred to the other great films that we loved. And because the three of us were fans of cinema, it was very, very easy for us to find answers to any disputes. For instance, one of the decisions we made early on, and I think it’s one of the decisions that spoke to John very well, because John was a musician and is a musician: He said, “If we use a song in the film, it has to be the whole song.” Which is a very simple decision, but actually it impacts very well in the film, because it’s a rule he set for himself. So you get the whole song. Every time you hear a song begin, you’re going to get the whole lot of it. And also, another decision that was made was, “If we record a song, it has to be absolutely live.” And the only time we let us off the hook with that is the scene where Mar comes down the street with the Walkman. It’s the only seen in the film that’s mimed, and we did that because John wanted a tribute to the classic musicals for that one scene.

WW: It’s interesting that you mentioned the kiss, because American viewers probably spent a lot of the movie waiting for that moment, because American films have conditioned us to expect that it would happen. And when it didn’t happen, it was so much more eloquent and emotionally rich. Was that something you discussed a lot in advance? Or was it more of an off-the-cuff decision that “we don’t need to do that”?

GH: It was probably the most argued point of the whole movie: do we have a kiss or do we not? 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.”

WW: So the title’s a misnomer, because the one kiss never actually happened?

GH: Yeah! The title’s a misnomer, exactly. John has come up with many excuses for the title, but actually, that’s where it came from. And we talked a lot about the kiss scene. We just talked to ourselves. And in real life, things don’t always get wrapped up. Things don’t get wrapped up in the last twenty minutes. So we tried to come up with a way to end, and John came up with what I think is a genius idea. You couldn’t just let them film end with them parting and it just be over. So instead of the kiss, the guy buys her a piano. So there is a moment at the end of the film where something beautiful happens. Because if the piano hadn’t happened, this film would have just ended, and it would have felt more like a Ken Loach musical than a John Carney musical. If Ken Loach had made the film, she probably would have gone into prostitution. (Bursts out laughing.) No, no, I don’t mean that! That is such a joke. But it probably would have just ended. The camera probably would have just panned up off of them and that would have been the end of it. A lot of people in America said, and it was a very nice compliment to the movie – they said, “You managed to give us a sad ending, but yet we left the film feeling uplifted.” Which is a great compliment to the film. And that’s why I’m glad that we made the film with John – that all three of us made this film together.

WW: Here’s one of those subjects you probably never thought of during the making of this film, but now it could be an important question: In terms of eligibility for Best Song for an Oscar, there are some songs that seem to predate the film. At least they’re on Frames albums. Are there songs that would be eligible for a nomination?

GH: Well, I wrote “Falling Slowly” for John. That’s the one everyone has said would be the most likely – either that one or “If You Want Me,” the song Mar sings coming down the street. Both of those songs are centerpieces to the film, so I guess both of those songs make the most sense.

WW: So as far as you know, there’s nothing that could prevent their nomination?

GH: In terms of legality, or whatever, I don’t think so.

WW: How about in terms of how shocked you’d be?

GH: Oh Jesus! In terms of how shocked I’d be, I’d be very, very, very fucking shocked. (Laughs.) But to be honest with you, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but any award ceremony, you have to be a little dubious about. You have to be, you have to be. This isn’t a sport. Moviemaking isn’t a sport. It’s not like the best team wins. Art is a very, very subjective thing. You can’t say that Fitzcarraldo as a movie is better than The Seventh Seal. You just can’t. And yet, awards and competition in the cinema is something people accept. People accept the idea of the chart, too, and just because one record sells more than another, it doesn’t make it better. So I have to say I’m not entirely convinced about the idea. I mean, the only reason I’d want to be nominated for something like that would be for my mother.

WW: It would mean a lot to her?

GH: My mother would fucking love that! I’d get her over and she’d spend loads of money on an outfit and she’d sit there and she’d really, really love it. But for me personally, and I don’t mean this in any kind of throwaway way, but the success of the film so far has been way beyond my dreams. And I’m absolutely fucking floored that this film has done so well, especially in America. So for me, Oscar nomination, no Oscar nomination: It doesn’t really matter. It would be a gas to play on the Oscars. It’d be fucking great fun to play that song on the Oscars, because my mother would think I was the fucking shit!

WW: I’m guessing your main reward is the number of people who come up to you on the streets and tell you how much they love the film – and probably mist up a little bit just talking about it.

GH: Yeah. Or just on a practical level, the amount of people who’ve responded to these songs is just amazing to me. You know, for me, I guess the greatest gift of Once hasn’t necessarily been all the attention, but more just the fact of when myself and Mar have gone to play concerts, people have shown up, and they’ve been listening and really into it. I guess that’s the biggest reward for me. I’ve been very, very humbled that this film has done so well in terms of the music.