Once: Street Musical with Carney and Hansard

A highlight of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, ONCE, the inspirational tale of two kindred spirits who find each other on the bustling streets of Dublin, is released by the risk-taking company Fox Searchlight

One is a street musician who lacks the confidence to perform his own songs. The other is a young mother trying to find her way in a strange new town. As their lives intertwine, they discover each other’s talents and push one another to realize what each had only dreamt about before. ONCE is their inspiring story.

Written and directed by John Carney (ON THE EDGE, BACHELORS WALK), ONCE is a nod to the classic musicals of the past, while it’s also grounded in the bohemian world of struggling young Dubliners that he knew from his days as a young musician.

In the early 1990s, before devoting himself to film, Carney was a musician playing bass guitar with Dublin band The Frames. He understands the power of a song, and how it can carry more weight than swathes of dialogue. Conversations about this project started in 2005 at a Frames concert.

As he developed the concept that would become ONCE, he sought something that would express itself in ten pages of dialogue or script. A short piece of music, I always feel, can be as powerful as a days conversation with, for example, a young lady. You can talk and talk and talk

However, Carney did not want ONCE to be a classic song-and-dance musical where scenes ended with the key characters breaking into verse. The fleshing-out of the characters became a part of his early morning routine. It originated with just me sitting outside, having my breakfast, coffee and cigarette every morning, playing songs and thinking for months and months, how could I make a little film that has all these songs in it, he explains.

I came up with the idea of a story of a busker mainly because I wanted to keep the characters in a musical world. I didnt want them just singing, I wanted them to be musicians and singers. So it was more natural that they would sometimes say to each other, Look, Ive just written you a song and I want you to hear it. It would be natural for them to sing. So I came up with the idea of a busker and a pianist, who then ended up being an immigrant. The music in the film would not work if it wasnt incorporated in to who they were.

The story is set in Carneys native Dublin, with Frames singer Glen Hansard as a songwriting guitarist, and Marketa Irglova, a musician from the Czech Republic who has collaborated with Hansard, as an immigrant pianist. Despite Carneys background as former member of The Frames, he hadnt initially considered either Hansard or Irglova for the key roles, even though he had Hansard contributing songs from the beginning.

I had an Irish actor in mind for the leading role who can sing as well, but it didnt work out for him. It just gradually occurred to me as I was putting Glen on tape, asking him about his songs, giving him script pages. Hed go off and write something according to them, or Id write some scenes according to the song he gave me. It occurred to me this guys the guy to do this role, really. Because hell sell these songs better than any actor would as theyre his songs.

Hansard also had some previous acting experience, having played the part of Outspan in Alan Parkers film of Roddy Doyle’s novel, THE COMMITMENTS. But while Carney acknowledges that aspect of Glen Hansards past, he insists that The Frames front man had even more to bring to the role.

Glen has a bit of acting experience but, more importantly, hes a very naturally charismatic guy: hes very laidback, he doesnt try too hard, he insists. And the great thing about Glen is that hes not an actor, so he doesnt actually care, in a way. Sometimes, working with professional actors, you realize youre just helping them put their show-reel together. A professional actor can rarely get behind a production in the way a non-actor will, which is understandable. I like working with non actors because theyll give you their all.

For Marketa Irglova, then only 17, the concept of acting was alien, though she had been aware of the project. I heard about the idea of the film from Glen, because he was asked to write music for it, she recalls. I saw some of Johns films before and I thought that was very cool. The idea of the film sounded nice, and then one night I got a phone call from Glen, asking if Id like to act in the film. I thought he was joking! But he was serious, saying that John was considering casting me, that he wanted me to audition for it.

I thought it was really crazy as, obviously, I havent done any acting. Because Im so young, Im kind of up for anything, she laughs. I didnt really take it so seriously. I thought: Ah yeah, they tell you that you might be in a film and then they just dont cast you, they take someone else. So I didnt put too much hope in it, but the idea was very exciting. Part of the reason I was so excited was because Glens music would be in it, and I love Glens music. So I did the audition, I played some piano music for John, I read a bit of script, and that was it.

Carney felt very comfortable with the people around and involved with the film. As well as having Glen and Marketa on board, the crew were people whom hed befriended while also having faith in their abilities. They were all people that I knew and trusted, he explains. They got the whole idea of this not being your conventional film. So once my mates were making this film with me, then I was like: Brilliant! This is back to how we were when we were 16, with a camcorder and friends and some songs. And I think people whove seen the film have responded very warmly to that, because theyve seen that nobodys trying to sell them anything here. Thats the vibe.

Getting a film produced can prove to be a daunting exercise. But in the case of ONCE, Carneys experience was quite the opposite. He was on familiar territory. Ive known Samson Films for years, he explains. So when I had the idea, I was thinking of various ways of producing it, and when I decided that I wasnt going to go with a big actor in the lead role – or any actor – I went to Samson and said I have this idea for a film, and its kind of scripted and these songs are written, do you guys want to get on board with it And they did.

We had a great relationship–myself, the producer Martina Niland and executive producer David Collins. We just had a relaxed relationship producing this film, because it was made for a small amount of money and everybody pulled in and joined together for this short period of time to make it work. Samson is a good company for that, because David Collins is at a place in his life where he does not need to prove himself as a producer; he just wants to make what he wants to make. And this appealed to him, and I think working with me again – because we had done a film a few years ago, and also he was one of the executive producers on BACHELORS WALK – meant we had a good relationship, and I wanted to work with producers that I didnt have to explain everything to.

Martina agrees adding that It was a real back-to-basics form of filmmaking and certainly the kind that has always attracted me the most and got me excited about ONCE from the early days of chatting to John about his ambitions for the project. We avoided bureaucracy and red tape as much as possible and everyone got to concentrate 100 percent on whats on the screen. I think that shows when one watches this film.

The backdrop consists of Dublin city streets, shops and the less-than-salubrious interiors of the main characters homes; neither has their own place, with the Guy having moved back in with his father following his mothers death, while the girl lives with her non-English-speaking mother, and her young child. Gradually, their two worlds cross over, through their shared love of music.

With Hansard and Irglova sharing most of the screen time, their characters form an artistic bond. Although not actors, both Hansard and Irglova carried off their roles with impressive naturalness and warmth. They have a good relationship, so that really helped, says Carney. I love the benefit of having the actors know each other. It certainly taught me to get actors to hang out with each other before going into a certain style of film making. That was the good thing about BACHELORS WALK; by Series Three the guys were three mates. They just do it–there was none of the finding it that you had to do in the first series.

Irglova impressed with her performances throughout the shoot and, as Hansard puts it, she didnt have any problems, slipped straight into it and really got it.

ONCE was shot very quickly over the course of a couple of weeks. It was super-fast, recalls Hansard, who says hed never swap his life as a musician for a career in front of cameras. Id experienced a little bit of this from THE COMMITMENTS, as in getting up early and working throughout the day, but I dont remember being as exhausted at the end of every day, he recalls.

We were up at six every morning, we were working all day, and it drains the life out of you. Being in a band is so much easier. You get up at midday, you head to the airport, you get on a plane, you get to another country, you sound check around five or six, doors are at eight, youve got your gig at nine. Its very chilled-out. Its all evening work. With this, we were just knackered, going back home and literally being a shell of yourself. You were just completely gone until the next morning. It was very intense.

It was a similar experience for Irglova, who had mixed feelings about the shoot because it was really exhausting. If you woke up and had some problems in your personal life, you had to be up for the scenes you were shooting and you had to be convincing, because being an actor is being a good liar. You have to convince everybody that youre feeling everything that youre supposed to be feeling, which is really hard, and really demanding of your emotions. We had really tough days; it was nothing like when you play music.

Ultimately, though, she found the experience fulfilling. I really enjoyed being a part of a team. It was very compact. John, Glen and I were at the center, but there were other people around it that took care of their own parts and I really enjoyed working with everybody, meeting new people, and watching the film afterwards, and this feeling of achievement of doing good art; looking at it afterwards and feeling we did something good here.

The songs are, obviously, an essential element of ONCE. The fact that Hansard and Irglova played the parts of the Guy and the Girl could only add layers of emotion, not just to their roles, but especially to the songs they had recorded together.

Carney describes Hansard as a good lyricist because his songs are never literal. His songs are very much about pictures and images and ideas, and moments in time. Theyre quite vague, in a very good way that good songs are. And theyre also very open to interpretation, theyre like a good poem, which is meaningless one day and then suddenly has real meaning when youve been there, or when youve had that experience. He paints little pictures with the songs. Id write a scene, or come up with a character note based on a song.

What also appealed to Carney about this project was the fact that it allowed him and Hansard to combine their talents and interest in each others craft. I left The Frames to make films, he recalls. But Glen was always very interested in films, we always had a lot to talk about, about movies. He was doing THE COMMITMENTS just as the band started. But apart from that, Glen was always interested in Bergman films and French films. Hes certainly a film fan, and an independent or arthouse film fan as well.

And despite taking different paths, the two remained friends and would discuss the possibilities of working together. Occasionally our paths would cross and we always had a quick chat about doing something collaboratively, whether it would be that Id make a rock video for them, or that hell write a song, Carney recalls. And I used his songs in a couple of other films that Id made, but it was never quite satisfying enough, so this was a great opportunity to really work together.

Glen loves films, but hes not a filmmaker. Hes a very visual guy, he does a lot of artwork for their albums. And Id be the same, in reverse. Id spend half my day at the computer screen writing a script, then Id go off and play the piano, for no reason other than it entertains me. I dont do it professionally, but it means a lot to me. I love music. It was never a career for me, really, apart from when I was young and in the band. Its an entertainment thing. For Glen, film is an entertainment. So it was interesting, the two things coming together. That was a good experience we both, I think, responded well to that.

Hansard sees ONCE as a source of much pride as well as an exceptional experience. Its definitely a lovely thing for me to look back and say that I was involved. It basically came up trumps as far as Im concerned. I can look back and be proud of it, and not only for the fact that we managed to act our way through it, but also that the songs are there and theyre kind of immortalized in this film. Which is great.

Carney reflects on “Once” with personal satisfaction. Experience is good; its easy to get people to have confidence in you when you have a bit of experience, he says, looking back on the production. Also I was at a particular stage in my career. I was a filmmaker for a while and then I got sucked into TV. So when I came back to filmmaking Id lost a hold in the ladder slightly, and I was finding it hard to get a film made. Making ONCE wasnt a career move–it was just a decision to go back to basics, and prove myself again.