Once is the little film that could and I hope will be an Oscar contender, if for anything let it be original song for “If You Want Me” a song written and performed by its young female star MarkÃ©ta IrglovÃ¡. In the film it is one of the most powerful scenes I have seen all year and it is a scene that just stops you in your tracks while you watch her walk down the street singing. Once is filled with plenty of powerful moments and an ending many will talk about days after seeing it.
Shot on a production budget nearing only $150,000 the film opened in only two New York theaters and managed $61,901. On a per-theater average that is just a bit shy of what Spider-Man 3 raked in. Of course, comparing this film to that power-house is silly, only because general audiences would rather see a flying man in a neoprene suit that shoots webs out of his wrists than a truly amazing love story between two real people. I will never quite understand what compels people to choose what movies they will and won’t see, but if I can only convince a few of you to take the time to support Once at your local theater then I feel I have done my job. This one is truly unique.
During their personal appearance tour writer/director John Carney and his two stars Glen Hansard and MarkÃ©ta IrglovÃ¡ visited Seattle and I was lucky enough to get 25 minutes with them. Having loved the film and the music involved (you have to buy this soundtrack) it was truly a pleasure.
To give you a little background before we get started John Carney developed a simple love story and then asked Glen to write him a few songs in hopes of using the songs in a way that a
modern audience would accept. Over the next few months, Glen and John swapped ideas – a story line here, a song there. Feeding off each other’s work, they eventually produced ten original songs and a 60-page script. Out of that came the simple story of a street busker and his relationship with a Czechoslovakian immigrant who has moved to Dublin to start a new life for herself. The story is simple but to get a film like this just right is almost impossible. To my knowledge Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are the only two films I can think to compare it to and that is saying a lot.
So, sit back and spend some time with John, Glen and Mara as we discuss Once:
John how much did the songs dictate the story?
John Carney (JC): I had a structure and a plot set up when I went to Glen, the story of what happened. The reason I went to him was because the character was a street performer and Glen had been one. I went to him initially, but at one stage this was going to have loads of Irish artists involved…
Glen Hansard (GH): Yeah, I know, I heard that.
JC: It was a very weird idea, like Damien Rice and loads of people writing songs and then I guess it became the way it is.
I originally went to Glen for some anecdotes about street performing and asked him would he write some music for the film? Once he had said yes to that, that cemented what the film would be about and how it would play tonally because I know his music and I am familiar with where he is coming from.
How much of your personal lives seeped into the lyrics and found its way into the script? Because Glen, I read you found it different to write for a character rather than when you are writing for yourself.
GH: Yeah, I did, but I had a bunch of songs written before the film. John basically picked a bunch of songs I had written and then a few other songs he asked me to write for the movie. Once John had decided he liked my music and he liked my songs then it was easy for me to draw from the same area that I had always drawn on. So it was personal.
That makes sense because in the movie it definitely seems like those words mean something to you. Considering you two aren’t actors, did that help?
GH: It helped in some ways I think. John wanted us to be more or less, us, within the confines of these lines. The dialogue was someone else and I think it kind of worked somehow.
Mara, did much of the film mirror your life in relation to your musical background?
MarkÃ©ta IrglovÃ¡ (MI): Not really, no. I mean I do have a classical music background, I have been playing piano on the classical side since I was seven, that’s true. I am from the Czech Republic, but I don’t have a kid and I am not married. I did meet Glen through music and we did start making music together and that is how we started our friendship, through music, that is true and that part was easy to do. The scenes where we hang out together, that was actual truth because we have done that before. That’s about it though, because the character was written before I came on the film.
I noticed there are about four songs that are on the “Swell Season” CD that are also on the soundtrack. How many songs were written prior to the film and then how many were written for the film?
GH: John asked me to come up with ideas for the film and I just gave him all the songs I had lying around and apparently that was “Swell Season” and he liked a few of those songs and built scenes around a few of them. Then he would say, “I need a song for the scene were Mara walks down the street,” which Mara wrote for him. I need a couple songs for the studio scenes, I need a song called “Once”, so we basically came up with five or six songs for the characters in the film.
So you wrote that song “If You Want Me”?
I absolutely love that song! John, did you actually intend for this to be strictly a musical? Because that scene, which I think is the best in the entire movie when she is walking down the street singing that song, is really the only “musical” scene in the film.
JC: Yeah, it’s an amazing scene and it’s an amazing song, and I remember watching a rough cut of this film with my dad back home on DVD and it got to that scene and I remember going, “Jesus, this is really interesting, the way she walks down that street… that really works for me.” But yeah, I did try and make a musical in a modern setting, that people wouldn’t really know they were watching a musical.
JC: Ahhh… I…
I just see this as a two person drama.
JC: Yeah, it’s Before Sunset with music.
I was going to bring that film up, I think it fits so well into that genre along with Before Sunrise and even Julie Delpy’s new one 2 Days in Paris. Those films are so rare and they can’t seem to find a wider audience and it has always bothered me…
JC: That’s weird because I remember back home, I got a phone call once, I was doing a film and I was on Universal Studios and they were talking to me and they were saying, “This is in reference to a film, you won’t have heard of this film, you’ll have never heard of it,” and it was Happiness by Todd Solondz, and I was like of course I have heard of that film, it’s a really big film in Europe. That, I describe as a really major American film and Universal Studios is talking about it as if it is some weird, cult, obscure kind of thing – some curiosity. I mean people here, I mention Before Sunset and they are like “Huh, what?” I’m like, dude that’s major.
I love that film, it is easily one of my favorites of all time.
JC: Yeah, it’s a great film and in Europe that would be a very successful and famous American film.
Now this movie is getting a lot of critical buzz and a ton of good things are being said about it…
JC: My buddy was looking up the movie on the Internet last night and saw all of these good reviews and he said, “Jesus, I was getting bored with them.” Finally on one blog he finds a headline that says “Am I the One Person…” and he went, “I had to fucking click on that because it looks like it is going to say Am I the One Person that Hates this Film?” and so being the bastard he is he clicked on it and it said, “Am I the One Person that is Dying to See this Film Again?” So weird.
It does have that reality that is lacking in so many films and yet you have all these people that are willing to spend millions and millions to see Spider-Man 3 opening weekend and now Once is going to have a hard time finding an audience.”
JC: Yeah, it is.
But I would find it hard to believe if more people didn’t actually enjoy this movie more than Spider-Man 3, yet they will never see it. Does that bother you as a filmmaker?
JC: No, it’s like saying The Frames’ music… the music has been there for ten years and it hasn’t done the same business as the music of Coldplay have done, or the fucking – the pop bands, the boy bands have done. It’s not a reflection of the music, it’s a reflection of the fact that people need platforms for things, they need to see things a certain way before they get it. A film like this needs that, the fact that people will or won’t see this film doesn’t change what this film is, whether it is good or bad or indifferent.
I have read Cillian Murphy was originally intended to play the role that Glen ended up playing. Glen, I am wondering what it was like for you to know that Cillian originally intended to play the role, was that intimidating or did it apply any additional pressure?
GH: No, because I knew from the beginning, because I was on board with John as the music guy very early on and I was actually disappointed when John told me Cillian wasn’t going to do it because I was like, “Ah fuck, that means the project is not going to go ahead.” John spent a week scratching his head thinking about other people and whether the project would go on and then he came to me and he says, “I’ve kind of realized that the best way to do this is instead of having actors that can half sing is to get singers that can half act. That actually might be the best way to do this since it is going to be a musical. So why don’t you give it a shot?”
I was like, well, okay, since I knew John and I knew Mara and knew them very well and John basically assured us that he would get good performances out of us and said to just trust him.
Was it difficult at all? It looked effortless, the two of you working together. Was there a lot of acting involved?
GH: It was pretty easy.
MI: There is, we were reading someone else’s lines and our characters were made up before John had us in mind. So in a way we were acting, but John wanted to get us to act as natural as we could be so there definitely came times when we were being ourselves and just reading someone else’s lines, but the fact that we knew each other definitely helped because it allowed us to almost bring our friendship onto the screen. I think that’s part of the reason John cast us in the end because he saw whatever chemistry we had when we played together, which you would have wanted to get into the film anyway. So it just seemed to make sense for us both to do it because we would have the energy between us when we played together.
For me the idea of acting with Glen was very easy because it was somebody I know, somebody I feel very close to made it definitely easier for me. It made me less shy, because I am quite shy around people I don’t know well and then once I get to know them I open up more. I would have been worried that an actor would be a bit impatient with somebody that hadn’t acted before. I feel they would expect the professional relationship on set and I don’t know if I would be able to do that because I don’t know anything about actors or acting at all. It definitely made it more comforting.
Was there any improvisation of lines as you guys went through? The one line that was fantastic and seemed like a total spur of the moment line was when Mara says, “Fuck you batteries!” Was that in the script?
MI: That was written – most of it was written.
JC: Was it? I can’t remember.
MI: Yeah, fuck you batteries, was written.
JC: [laughing] I love that line, but they definitely changed a few bits and made them their own.
MI: Sometimes there would just be a line that would not feel natural to us at all and you would be able to tell by the way we said it and John gave us the freedom to change lines the way they suited us as long as they got the idea across.
The one song that also made me think of this was on the bus, “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” That is a song that just seemed to me like there must have been several different versions and you just took the one that came out the best. (watch an animated version of the song here)
GH: We did this take of it about six times, where we jammed different ideas and then John used the one that we hit on. It was one of those good moments where you managed to say something that was funny and yet explain the character.
JC: Yeah, there were three questions that Mara asked you in those scenes. There were three songs, the first one is…
MI: Where is she?
JC: Where is she? Then you sang the song… NO, the first one was “What is this girl?” The idea was a really simple idea and I remember pitching it to you guys and it was a bit unclear. There were a couple of things in this film that nobody got when we were in pre-production and I felt really weird – I am not saying I am some sort of visionary or something – but there were a couple of scenes and everybody was like, “Yeah, right,” and I was like, “Is it not obvious to cut out all of these pages of dialogue and have this guy sing a song?” So we met up the night before and took the Dictaphone out and Glen did a whole bunch of stuff and we were like, “Brilliant, just do that tomorrow, don’t even bring the Dictaphone.” You could almost feel that line, “broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy,” you can see when somebody is winging it and it is lovely when a perfect phrase comes in, that’s a comedy phrase. Because I do loads of comedy songs and they are hard when you are not in a good mood, you don’t get a funny song, but you do porno comedy songs where it is all about sex and some days it’s crap and then others it is hilarious and everybody laughs at it. I think there was a bit of that in that song.
Glen you did some busking in the past and I have to assume that the girl bringing her broken vacuum to you is something that is believable and that is why it stayed in the story and I was just wondering if stuff like that actually happened to you when you were out on the street.
GH: Not so much, I busked for five years and in all that time I met a whole bunch of strange people and great people and some odd things happened here and there, but there is nothing that is stand out weird that happened to me in all that time. It was just kind of like a job, half job and half hobby, but all the stuff you see in the film, like the Hare Krishna come along. Sometimes the Hares would come along and leave their books with yah and you would have to mind them and another would be a woman would come along with her pram, because as a busker you are sort of part of the street and she would leave her kids with yah while she went into the shop. So you just kind of stand there with these two strange kids minding them while some woman is in the shop.
Things like that were a little bit odd and people coming up and stealing your money, which is quite common, and it happened to me twice only because I was lucky, or someone coming along and just wanting to punch you.
MI: I always thought that she tried so hard to talk to this guy and get his interest that when he says he fixes Hoovers that she almost gets this idea that it is a good excuse to visit him and to make contact with him the next day. So I always thought she broke the Hoover herself just to have an excuse…
JC: I never thought of it like that. I hate when the meeting of the two people is really big in a film. I love that if it wasn’t for the Hoover thing you wouldn’t have any reason to come back and that you genuinely had a broken Hoover. It is really funny that you think of it that way.
MI: I felt like I assumed that is how it was and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. To me she just really wanted to make contact with that guy.
JC: That’s a nice idea, it would be a great scene to see, to have her mother say, “What were you doing smashing the Hoover up yesterday?”
Taking everything in the movie into consideration from beginning to end how would you guys describe the relationship between the guy and the girl, without ruining the plot and story?
JC: It’s a romance through art and a romance through work. I guess it does kind of lie somewhere between a romance and a friendship. It’s a friendship with the potential for romance bubbling over all the time and you’re hoping that it will be consummated in some way and that they’ll describe it o each other in some way or confirm it.
GH: Realistic is the word I would use.
John, it seems you have taken to the idea of working with non-actors, do you see that as a way of making films that you would like to continue with in the future?
JC: Yeah. Have you ever seen Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew? It’s all non-actors initially playing the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and it’s just amazing the documentary kind of feel to it, it’s brilliant, and the performance he gets out of these non-actors. Just people from the street that he picked up to shoot this film, and I love the non-pretense of what you can get out of non-actors. I love the way that non-actors have the tendency to just look down the camera lens and they don’t have that boring kind of comfort that actors have with the camera. If you look at Gene Hackman, look at the way he acts with the camera, it’s as if the camera is not there. What I love about people like Gene Hackman is that he’s like your dad, or like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, now there is a guy that doesn’t give a fuck about the camera and De Niro in early roles. They’re kind of like non-actors in a weird way, they’re so beyond. It’s just so boring the gimmicks actors rely on.
I have worked with actors and just before a take they will say “What lens you on?” I am like it doesn’t matter what lens I am on. Occasionally you will want to say to an actor that this is a very big close-up so you don’t have to do so much, but some actors will be constantly like, “What size shot is this John?” I am like just do your fucking thing, I’ll tell you if it is good or bad. Non-actors don’t care about that kind of stuff.
I mean I love actors, don’t get me wrong, when I see good acting in films I am blown away. It’s what sells me. I love Quiz Show and all the great acting that Robert Redford got off of everyone in that film. I am in heaven watching good actors, but it’s very rare.
Why do you think movies like this aren’t made all that often, the simple story? Is it too difficult to write?
JC: I made a couple of films, they did okay and they kind of launched me and set up my name in Ireland. Then I made TV for three-and-a-half years which did really well, and I became the guy who did that show on TV. While that was good it was a double-edged sword because it wasn’t like I wanted to be a TV guy. TV to me is getting to bed for half-an-hour, it’s not something I take seriously. The “Sopranos” is great and occasionally you get these gems, but TV is TV. Films are life-changing.
So I was getting worried about that and I kind of really needed to make a film that was like my first film in a way and you get that exciting buzz you get off your first film. It’s so exciting to me and I really wanted to get that back.
I guess why films like this don’t get made is because people don’t have that much confidence that such a small story would work.
Catch Once as it expands theatrically on June 1 and for more on the film including clips and the trailer click here.