Saturday, February 23, 2008
Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Fashioning a hybrid from two cinematic genres can either pay off or be a profound failure. In the case of John Carney's debut feature, "Once," he succeeds handily—even to the point of getting an Oscar nom for the song "Falling Slowly" (Hansard /Irglová). Maybe that's because he enlisted his longtime pal and former band member, Glen Hansard, lead singer of Ireland's hot rock band, The Frames, to play the lead character in his entrancing folk-rock fable.
Hansard formed The Frames in 1990, as part of Dublin's expanding rock scene. Merging folk with rock, the band maintains a balance between energetic and pacific through Hansard's crisp songwriting, authentic vocal delivery and the simple yet somehow original song structures.
Hansard quit school at 13 to busk on local Dublin streets, but first garnered solo attention as guitar player 'Outspan Foster' in Alan Parker's film "The Commitments." He then presented the television show "Other Voices: Songs from a Room," which showcased Irish music talent. Last year, he released his first solo album, "The Swell Season," in collaboration with Czech singer and multi-instrumentalist Markéta Irglová, along with two other friends. Then he made "Once" with Carney directing and Markéta as the other lead; it won the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
"Once" is a very matter-of-fact tale of a street musician who meets a girl, a Czech immigrant played by Markéta Irglová, near Dublin's city center where she inspires him both with love and with music. But as the film merges two love stories--one about his love of music and the other his love for a woman--it becomes neither a concert film or strictly a love story. There are performances and touching sequences but they never become too melodramatic or predictable. And since Glen Hansard's music is so great, this makes for a fine debut.
Q: So, John, your attempts at being a folk-rock singer failed; is this where your film career emerged from?
John Carney: Well, I come from a reasonably musical family. My older brother was a music lover and made it his thing to go out and discover weird bands in the '70s and '80s that no one else knew about; he brought their [recordings] home and exposed his younger brothers, myself and Kieran, to this obscure music. So we had a piano and he brought a guitar and it was put under the bed, and I wasn't allowed to play it but I went and played it when I wasn't supposed too. Like at 2 o'clock in the morning, I played his guitar.
So I always played music. Then I met Glen when I left school and I joined his band and we played together in The Frames for a few years. But basically I got bitten by the whole film thing and I went off to try and seek my fortune as a film director in Ireland which is kind of an odd thing to do at the time because it was pre-Irish Film Board. There was no money and it wasn't state subsidized and it had just Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan; they were the two lads and they had their houses up in Dalkey overlooking the hills...so it was a funny time.
I made a couple of films, and myself and Glen met up a number of times along the way. Our paths crossed and we said we should do something together; you know, "I'd love to use a couple of your songs in my film" or I would take him and say, "I'll shoot a video for you or your band. Is there someway we can kind of share what we've done and let our two artistic endeavors kind of cross over?"
But it never happened and there was never anything to do together so I came up with this idea simply of a busker and an immigrant, in what is kind of a musical, because I wanted to try and do something that would get this musical thing out of my system. I love music and I'd stop writing scripts and go off and write at the piano and stuff for like three hours. I'd waste three hours or four hours a day just playing Billy Joel songs at the piano and I would be like "what the hell, I just wasted hours doing that. I got to put this into something," so I wrote a musical film.
Q: Glen, how did you get started?
Glen Hansard: Well I have this uncle in my family who was a very charismatic character. My mother comes from a family of 13 kids and he was one of the younger of the 13. He was like this amazing guy and it was a very working class family and he had this character, he did a bit of acting and was a musician and all the girls loved him. He was very good looking. He had the kind of, he had gray hair, all the family loved him, the women loved him you know. He was kind of a hero to all of us as young boys.
At one point during our lives, he disappeared and my mother was like "Yeah he's gone away"-- it turned out he had taken a car and driven it across Europe filled with something illegal, and had gone to prison in Turkey for many years.
His nice guitar got left in our house, and his car, which is a four door amazing Ford Explorer, had been left in our garden and I was kind of wondering where he was. My mother kept stopping me from taking the guitar because I would just take it out and have it on the floor and be like [strum noise] and I just really enjoyed the sound of it, [but] she kept on putting it back.
It was a really nice guitar like a Gibson Hummingbird, a beautiful instrument. She thought I would wreck it but after a year of slapping me on the wrist and putting it back she realized--my mother was a real Leonard Cohen fan--maybe it would be a good idea if she'd teach me "Bird on a Wire" and when he got out of prison and came to the airport when all the family was there to greet him, there would be his nephew with his guitar playing him a song--as if to say, you have been a good influence on the family . So that was kind of how it happened. I learned to play "Bird on a Wire" on the guitar. I taught myself.
Q: How old were you at the time?
GH: I suppose I was about 9 or 10 and I went to the airport and of course as he came through, it was a big deal, he came through the arrival stall and the first thing he said is "my fucking guitar!" [laughing] It was wrecked because obviously I'd been dragging it around the flat because I had no idea that you keep this thing precious.
But it was completely anti-climatic because he took me into his band and I played music with him. Then at the same time my school teacher advised me to leave school at the age of 13, which was a couple of years later, and take on the goal basically of being a street musician. He said the best place to start your career would be the streets because it's the bottom rung. It would teach you everything you need to know. I learned to play a couple of chords from my uncle, and being a street musician is where I got my education.
Q: John, what gave you confidence that Glen could actually carry the film; he's an act but not necessarily an actor.
JC: Well, being a director, I originally thought I would get Cillian Murphy to do the role because I know him and he can sing, he's quite a good singer. I thought you would do the usual thing--get a good actor who could half-sing and maybe train his voice, which is one way of going. [But] it certainly became clear to everyone involved in the film that we should do it the other way around: we should get someone who can really sing and half-act and I'll trust that I could do something magical with that, and I really didn't have to do much.
I knew Glen for long time and, really, being a director you know there's a million different styles of acting. When you look at a person, you decide to employ a certain approach and style and directing a non-actor or someone who acted a little is really knowing them and knowing their personality and putting them into a situation where they're comfortable to read your lines and bring this character to life. An actor can take different directions but I kind of just knew him. I figured he would be great by the end of the day.
Q: Glen, what gave you that confidence?
JC: He didn't have much [laughing]. Glen said, "If I'm rubbish just sack me on the first day." [Talking to Glen] You were worried.
GH: I was terrified for a few reasons. I didn't want to suck for his sake and I didn't want to suck for mine. I'm a really comfortable person behind a guitar but in front of the camera it's a whole different ball game and I didn't know if I could do it. So I really needed him to tell me the truth.
Am I rubbish? Are we pulling this off? Is it going to work because if it isn't, then let's just pack it in . Because I thought really when they chose me, John was just jumping on the nearest person.
I was thinking that if John had really wanted me to play this role me would have asked me at the beginning and maybe I'm the rebound [choice], but at the same time it made a lot of sense. This would be something where I was dealing with my mates. And it was a big deal with loads of people telling me this and that. It was a very obscure scenario which I never felt attached to at all. Whereas John was like "Look, let's just do it and if it's shit we'll just shelve it; if it's brilliant we'll sell a few DVDs to make the money back." That was the logic so we basically had to look at it with an open mind.
Q: You describe this as a visual album. How hard was it to translate that? You might have it in your head but music is such an interpretive thing--how hard is it to get that on the screen?
JC: Well, I put "Singing in the Rain" and "The Star is Born" in the top 10 films of all time because they are [great] films. If it's a Sunday morning and it's raining and I stay in I put on the scene from "Singing in the Rain." Or the scene between Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in "Guys and Dolls" just to hear a song because it's like an album. So you expect to sit back and watch this great scene and the dialogue is brilliant. But only about 10% of all the great musicals I would rate highly and the rest I hate.
I'm not a great fan of musicals. There are only certain ones I like. So I wanted to make a modern day musical. I wanted to try and figure out how do you take a younger audience that don't like those films , which can't accept people breaking into songs, sitting back and watching a film and leave the cinema after watching eight or nine songs in their entirety. So it quickly became clear to me these would be the tools. I would film it on tape. I would film it with un-actors. Make a really small little story. The story was really secondary to the visual album-ness of the project.
So it was always something that I wanted to do and address where you leave the film unaware that you just watched all these songs but you're like, "Well it didn't seem like we were watching a film with all these songs."
Q: Can you guys talk about the relationship between the songs and how they evolved?
JC: Basically, it was collaborative. I liked the idea of being able to go to the songwriter for the musical. With the Gershwins or Harold Arlen, the music was there.
Most of the time the songs were given to you and you wrote a story around song. But I like being able to go to Glen and say, what do you think of this for a scene or idea for a character, and he would take it and come back with a lyric or a title or a song and give me a song that he had written ages ago. So there's kind of a scene and a song here where we bounced off ideas. The skeleton of the story was in place: guy meets girl--she's this, he's this. He becomes broken-hearted. They come together. Didn't we Glen?
GH: Yeah it was great. John came to me and said I need a song called "Once." He said "It's the only part of the film where we are going to suspend reality; we're going hire a crane which will cost us five grand so we need to get it fucking right." We knew he needed a song for when Markéta [Irglová] walks down the street and we will have her do a musical moment, so we need that song and it needs to be very strong. It needed to have a beat and we need it to be a song-song. Not just acoustic guitar and vocal.
We were acting during the day and we were going back to the flat and basically picking up the guitar and going "we need this and this and this" and we still hadn't finished this song. It was a very creative moment. We'd finish in the evening and basically go back, pick up the instrument and start to work on the next song. So it was very intensive.
Q: How different is this music from the music you do as a band?
GH: That's the beauty of it. It's actually the same. Some of the songs that are in this film are actually on The Frames record. It was one of those things where I just wrote a bunch of songs because that's just what I do and then for the film John wanted specific other songs which me and Markéta went off and tackled. For the most part that's just what I do. John made a point last night that if anyone doesn't like the film, it's because they probably don't like the songs. John's like, "that's cool because that gets me off the hook." These songs suck so I don't like the movie.
JC: That's how a musical should be. The only musicals I hate are the ones where I hate the music.
Q: Will you let John shoot your music video now?
GH: He already has. For me the most beautiful thing about this film is that no matter what happens John has documented Markéta's and my history. He's documented a bunch of music I've written. It's on DVD. It's there. I'll show it to my kids. That's it. That's the beauty of it. That's the moment.
When all the rest goes away that's what is most important. It's funny that we're doing promo now--I have to say it's boring, this whole idea of sitting in front of an audience and singing our songs because we don't do this in our lives. It not something we do at all. This is very, very new and strange and quite enjoyable actually.
At the end of the day when all the ink and things evaporate--because fame is measured in ink--at least we will have this documentary that hopeful in 20 years I will take off the shelf and show my kids and it will be like "There's your dad when he looked good and had hair."
Q: John, you said that shooting on video is kind of a risk in a way. Did you think about going back and using film?
JC: No, because there are different tools for different stories. Every young filmmaker--would you believe that some people still call me a young filmmaker, and I love when I read it. I am a young man. Every filmmaker wants to shoot on 35mm but it's kind of ridiculous because there are some stories where you'd waste all your money on 35mm, you'll bring the circus into town.
There are certain stories that need certain approaches and this was definitely one where I thought I don't need to use film because it was a very intimate project. For me it was very autobiographical. It has that feel where you shouldn't be watching what you're watching in a way; that was part of the project. This is a bit too intimate. We were saying at the screening last night about the scene with the woman that Glenn is watching on the laptop. That was my girlfriend and that's actually footage that I filmed of her from seven years ago with all the rudeness cut out.
Q: No rudeness!
JC: Yeah, the rudeness has to go. Even though the audience does know, they feel like this is someone's home. You know when you see those movies and it's faked and recorded and everyone is doing this when you are faking.
I wanted to get the audience into the atmosphere where you were looking at something intimate because it is a film that friends made. There is no lie. We did make it as friends. We didn't make it to be here promoting it so everything that happens in the film is a bonus. The [acclaim from] Sundance is a bonus. Just like what Glen said, if we show our kids in the future. Plus it was made cheaply so if we needed to destroy it because it was rubbish [we could].
GH: Plus the fact that me and Markéta aren't actors, there was a lot of footage that needed to be shot [repeatedly] to get us right. So if you were shooting us in film you would have spent a lot of money. I really wanted to do a black and white 16mm. John was basically like... No!
JC: There's no point trying to be beautiful in this film. Just let the music and the relationship be the beautiful part. That's all it needs to be for me anyway.
Q: This guitar you play--it has survived a lot.
GH: Well, the uncle I was telling you about brought it for me years and years ago. I use to play in his band and didn't get paid for it, so eventually he brought me this as sort of a gift. I just had it for so long and it's been my guitar so I've brought it into my professional career.
During the making of the film, John was like "You definitely have to use your own guitar;" I was like "Yeah, because that's what I use anyway."
It's really funny because it's just a piece of wood and the case is worth more that the guitar itself. It's getting pretty old and I wanted to protect it. Parts are starting to fall off which is bugging me out because I'm not use to being attached to things.
Q: So where does that leave you guys? Now that you have your acting career, is that the end of the music?
GH: No. We'll make a sequel called "Three Times a Lady."
Q: One of the best scenes involved the two singing at the dinner table. Is that kind of something you two lived through in real life?
GH: Oh yeah, that's a typical evening in our lives. That's actually my flat where we shot in. My mother is the one who sings the Irish song and all the people in the room are friends. There were no extras in this film. We just got all our friends to come, so actually we just threw a really big party and John spent an hour of the party telling people to shut up while he filmed something. It was really just a get-together with friends and family. One great thing I love was, here was an opportunity to get all the people you love in your life in one room that you could document forever.
JC: But it's not a documentary...
GH: Even the extras were people from the set so basically everyone got used.
JC: I spent three years in working for TV because it paid well and every extra got paid $100; there were only three takes. So coming back to make "Once" was a really great because it's was what I really thought filmmaking was about.
Films should be about the real world so it was great to have a situation where --because we had no permits for shooting the opening scene [on the street]--that the actor who played the kid that grabs Glen's busking money, he actually got chased down the street because no one who saw it knew he was acting. I was shooting so far down the street that no one saw him. We basically had to go rescue him from the guys who chased him down.
Q: The end is so bittersweet. What do you think happen to the guy and girl?
GH: I like to think that the guy goes back and works things out with the girl [his former girlfriend, now living in Liverpool] because he really loves her. This guy was kind of lonely, then this girl [Markéta] walks into his life and then he finds him writing songs and playing the guitar, something that he wasn't used too. She basically woke him up out of a long, long sleep. I like to think he does the right thing and goes and gets back with his [former] girl, but he keeps this [new] girl in his heart.
JC: Why do you think the two don't end up together in the end?
GH: Why? Because she doesn't want me.
Q: Well you two just have such good chemistry--I just wanted to see a happier ending.
JC: That's what people are responding to in the picture. As you can see, you are wondering why they didn't stay together.
GH: I think it's about her strength. The whole film is about her strength. She basically walks up and puts it out to him. He responds by getting his shit together and going away. She's actually left with the bad rap because even though she goes back to her husband [we don't know what happens to her really]. If the guy had a choice in the matter he would have been all over her. It just never was going to happen.
She does the right thing. We wanted to make a story that was about their romance through music. I was just on the phone the other day talking with someone and they said that your film was a sentimental and romantic film when it actually isn't. To me a romance is a film where two lovers talk about themselves alot and what could happen. That to me is a romance. In this film they never touched and never kissed. There's only one moment where they physically touch and that's the end when he holds her by the piano.
So to me it's a film with romance through music. Specifically how music and the artistic connection between two people can be incredibly romantic. So for me it was a no-brainer that they would never come together--maybe a kiss--but that would be it.