Exclusive: Once ‘s Glen Hansard


Originally, ComingSoon.net planned to talk to Glen Hansard, singer/songwriter of the Irish band The Frames and star of John Carney’s new movie Once along with the director in Park City, but instead, we ended up having to talk to him separately over the phone.

That was fine, as it gave us a chance to ask him a lot more questions about his involvement in Carney’s film about an Irish busker (AKA street musician) and the odd Czech girl he meets, falls for and then makes beautiful music with. The latter is played by Hansard’s real-life musical partner Marketa Irglova. (You can check out some of their songs on their My Space page here.)


Hansard told ComingSoon.net about how this project came together and how the Sundance experience has been such an amazing one for him and the film.

CS: You’ve known director John Carney from your days together in The Frames, but how did you end up acting in his movie?
Glen Hansard: Me and John were in a band years ago together, and John’s already been very good to me in that whatever film he was making, he’d always try to put a song of mine in it, which was great. We’ve kind of been supporting each other I suppose from a distance, just been mates, you know. He originally had the idea in his mind that the part of the busker was going to be played by Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor, and John basically contacted me and said, “I just want to ask you a few questions about busking. I want a bit of information, give me a few anecdotes, a few tales, something that I can sort of put into the movie. Just give me a bit of background on busking,” because John’s never busked himself. “I know a certain amount just looking at it from the outside, but maybe you can give me some insight,” so we met and chatted, and he said, “I’d also really like to ask you if you’d be interested in maybe writing a few songs.” I basically gave him a record I had just finished with Mar [that’s Glen’s co-star Marketa Irglova], called “The Swell Season,” and I gave him a bunch of home recordings. He picked a bunch of tunes he really liked and said, “Now can you give me a few more in this vein?” and he basically gave me kind of a request list of all the songs he needed. I got to work on it, and he was looking for the piano player, so I said, “Well, Mar, the girl who played on this record, is really good, so you should at least meet her.” He met her and thought she was great, and he gave her the part. So basically then it was going to be Mar and Cillian. I wasn’t involved until later and then John—I’m not really sure what happened with Cillian other than John sort of realized, I think, that the best way to put these songs over is by putting them over with the people who actually wrote them.

CS: Did he already have a script at the point where you started writing songs?
Hansard: Yeah, he had a pretty complete script, and then he came to me and asked me to do it. I was very reluctant, but then once we all decided to go ahead, we all sat down and changed a bit here and there, because I’m older than Cillian, so we needed to change my character’s background a little bit.

CS: Had Marketa ever acted before making this movie?
Hansard: No, and I’d only done “The Commitments” as a non-actor, sort of really enjoyed it, but never was interested in anything else.

CS: Once you decided you were going to be in the movie, how did the movie influence your songwriting or vice versa?
Hansard: For me, it was kind of a real challenge to write songs from a character’s point of view. I really enjoyed that, ’cause writing songs from your own life is great, but sometimes you can get very heady about it, and you can get lost on ideas and what you’re trying to say. When you’re writing for a character, I kind of found it very easy, which was surprising to me ’cause I never thought I could ever really write about anybody else by meself. I guess in a lot of ways the character was quite similar in a lot of ways to meself, so I had no problem with it.

CS: How did you first meet Marketa? She was actually from Czechoslovakia, right?
Hansard: Yeah, she’s Czech. Mar’s a friend of mine from over there. I did a gig a few years ago with my band over there, and her father was the promoter, and they ended up staying over at her house for about a month. She plays piano really really well and writes lyrics and she’s a great songwriter, so in that time, we ended up kind of hanging out and wrote a few songs together and then basically we were just doing a few gigs in the Czech Republic, very low-key, playing cafes and little theatres, nothing very serious. Then a Czech director came to us about a year and a half ago and asked us to write him a couple of songs for his film, “Beauty and Trouble.” So we went into the studio and recorded 14 songs and that ended up being “The Swell Season,” which was the record John heard and really liked some of the songs. So there’s three songs from that record in “Once.”

CS: You’ve known Marketa for a while. When you knew you’d be making a movie together as these two characters, what was involved as far as rehearsals or did John try to capture stuff spontaneously on film?
Hansard: No, there was no rehearsals. Basically, John sat us down for three days in the beginning before we started shooting and we just filmed each other, and he really liked where we were getting at, and he was like, “No, let’s not rehearse it, just do it.” One of the things he did in order to insure a more natural performance was that he kept the cameras quite far away from us, so basically, a lot of the film was shot on long lens, so there isn’t a “cattle board” in your face and there isn’t the hair and make-up thing. It was all very natural, plus we didn’t have permits to be shooting on the streets, so the whole thing was kind of done, almost in a documentary style. We all arrived in the morning on the street and we’d start shooting scenes. The whole thing was very organic, if you like.

CS: Obviously, you have a past as a busker, so was it strange being on the streets playing again like that? Did a lot of people recognize you?
Hansard: Yeah, yeah, but that was a bit of a problem only for the shooting, because what was happening is I’d take up my guitar—it wasn’t so strange for me really, because sometimes I’d go buskin’, but in fairness, I do go buskin’ in other places, like sometimes I go to Barcelona and just go buskin’ for a week, just because I really enjoy it. Nobody knows who you are or you just go make a few bob, and buskin’s a great way just meeting people and hanging out in a city. It’s a great way to get to know a town. So on Grafton Street, I took out me guitar and started playing, and obviously, some people would shout over, “Hey Glen!” or some people wouldn’t be so kind, but what you’d get is disruptions, because my band would be fairly well known. When we shot the musical scenes on Grafton Street, like the opening scene was during the day where the guy steals my money that was quite difficult to do. It actually ended up causing a lot of trouble because everything was done with long lenses, nobody was aware that we were making a movie, so when he grabbed my case, a few people who knew who I was, they grabbed him and like punched him. He ended up with very swollen balls actually, which was kind of horrible. Also the next scene where I’m playin’ the first song where me and Mar meet, we had to do that in the middle of the night, because we got so many disruptions.

CS: Were some of those things from your own experience, like did someone try stealing your money while you played?
Hansard: The guy stealing my money is one, another one is the Hare Krishnas going by and you just have to stop and let them past, the drunk guy… the little montage of all the bits I sort of told John about. Another one is some woman coming along and just asking you to mind her kids and her shopping. As a busker, you’re kind of a stagnant person standing on the street. They put your kids in the pram and the shopping besides you, and say, “Would you just mind them for a few minutes while I go inside?”

CS: And did they give you money for that as well as your music?
Hansard: Yeah, once or twice. Basically, a day in the life of a busker is a very random thing. If you set a camera on a busker all day, you would see a lot of funny stuff, so [that drunk guy] just came along and we filmed it.

CS: You had a lot of success with The Frames, so were you able to still relate to the early part of your career where you didn’t have a record deal and were trying to make it?
Hansard: Ah, yeah, easily. I don’t think you ever forget. Buskin’ is like the thing you learn first. It’s the humbling experience. In Ireland, it’s considered vagrancy. You can get arrested for it, because basically, it’s begging. I think once you’ve been a busker, I think you’ll always retain a certain amount of that simple attitude towards your craft. It was very easy to go back and do it, although it was funny, because at the time, there was people in the newspapers writing, “Oh, things mustn’t be working out well for The Frames. Hansard’s back on the street.” Because it wasn’t obvious that we were makin’ a movie because the cameras were so far away, I think a lot of people thought that the band had split up, and I was basically in the doldrums.

CS: What did you bring to the movie in terms of your own studio experiences?
Hansard: Actually, that studio we were in is the first studio that me and John recorded in, so in a way, it’s kind of autobiographical. Also, my very first demo, the one we recorded, my mother went and borrowed three grand from the bank, saying that she was going to get her house done-up, and I went and made my first demo. So in a way, there’s definitely a few parallels between reality and fiction there.

CS: Was that back-up band really musicians you found on the street?
Hansard: Well, there were three musicians, but just friends of ours. John wanted to get a very incongruous bunch of people, and I just kind of thoughs, “Let’s get our mates.” Timmy, the drummer guy, we really didn’t know very well, but Alistair Foley, who is the bass player, and the other guy’s name is James Hendrix, would you believe? Strange name.

CS: How has your experience been at Sundance? Have you been amazed by the reception that your movie and music has gotten there?
Hansard: Well, I must admit when I did the premiere tour with The Commitments, the whole thing just felt very culprit. I mean, it was lovely, I really enjoyed it at the time, didn’t really know any better. The thing with the Commitments experience was that I don’t think anybody in the film felt any real ownership. There was no real sense of, “This is my film.” Everyone was kind of like, “I’m here and there’s 40 different people takin’ care of us.” The whole thing just felt very out of hands, it just felt very big. Whereas with this, it’s almost like… I think it’s really important in life to own your successes and own your failures, and what’s really great about this movie is that all the people that are here, the producer, John the director, Mar, myself, everyone here… it’s almost like any success this film has is our success and any failure that this film has is our failure. There’s a sense of ownership with everybody involved in this. I was involved in the music, John wrote the story, it’s almost like everything that’s happened here that’s been positive, we all felt it absolutely and we’ve been really, really happy about it.

CS: It’s very much become the “little movie that could.” I saw it over a week ago on Friday morning, but it’s completely steamrolled as more people saw it. It’s taken me completely by surprise, because I wasn’t sure if anyone else would even see the movie.
Hansard: It’s been really amazing. I don’t think we could have really done any better. People have come up to us on the street and told us how much they enjoyed it. Apparently, there’s a bit of interest in it, in terms of getting it a theatrical release. (That’s not really my area.) It couldn’t have really gone any better, we’ve had an amazing time. I kind of thought of Sundance as black and white, documentary films, very worthy, heavy, dark films. I always thought Sundance was all about heavy art films, and though our film is seriously low-budget music film from Dublin, I kind of felt it might get overlooked, whereas in fact, it’s just been really well received. It’s been really heartwarming.

CS: Maybe that’s why it’s been so popular, because so many of the movies here are dark and sad. The nice thing about “Once” is that it’s not.
Hansard: Yeah, maybe we just made one of those fluke things where we got in because our film was the opposite of the usual.

CS: The movie has been drawing more attention to your music, as well.
Hansard: It’s incredible. My band, we’ve a good audience here. We sell a respectable amount of records wherever we go, we’re doing okay. The Frames isn’t the big success story. It’s been 15 years of hard work. When we do a gig, people like the gig and maybe they buy the record or they don’t. What’s really been amazing about this festival is that people have been coming out and immediately asking, “Where I can buy this record?” And that for me, is really kind of exciting and overwhelming, because whatever happens with the movie, when you put the visuals with the music, the whole thing when it’s married together, something happens and people really want to hear the music again. For me, it’s been incredibly humbling.

CS: By the way, where CAN we buy this record?
Hansard: You can get it on iTunes; it’s available at Amazon. It came out on a label called Overcoat, which was distributed through Touch ‘n’ Go from Chicago.

CS: Have The Frames fans discovered the movie and gone to see it?
Hansard: No, it’s kind of strange. It’s almost like there’s a bit of a black hole there. I don’t think anyone’s really aware of it. The film will come out in Ireland, and I hope Frames fans will go see it, but we haven’t really done any marketing towards them. The people who know or care about it have said, “I’d love to see it,” but I don’t think on a broader scale, it hasn’t been posted on the Frames message board or web site. I suppose now that it’s getting a bit of attention, people will sort of go, “Oh, that’s that guy from the Frames!” I hope they do, but I haven’t done anything about that.

CS: Is acting something you’ll want to continue pursuing?
Hansard: Well, you know, it’s just one of those things. John’s my friend and he asked me to do it, and I was happy to do it, but I definitely don’t see myself as an actor. I wouldn’t have an agent or havin’ people sending me scripts, nothing like that. If something came up, and a friend of mine wanted me to do something, I’d be happy to do it, or if somebody came to me and asked me to do something. I just think acting’s not my thing. I’m a musician. But I wouldn’t rule it out completely ‘cause I ruled it out after “The Commitments” and I’ve been proven wrong.

Once opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, May 16. Also check out our interview with the film’s director John Carney.