Romantic Melodies
An Interview with Once’s John Carney, Glen Hansard, and Markéta Irglová
by Jeannette Catsoulis

Currently playing to strong reviews and surprisingly robust box office, John Carney’s deceptively slight Once is a perfect antidote for the beginning of a summer season top-heavy with the weight of blockbuster sequels. A simple love story cast as a folk musical, Once was an unexpected sensation at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival where it played alongside a raft of high-profile duds. What follows is a conversation with Once’s writer-director (and musician) John Carney, actor and front man of Irish band the Frames, Glen Hansard (Guy), and actress and musician Markéta Irglová (Girl).

Reverse Shot: Where did your initial idea for the film come from?

John Carney: The idea really came from being a musician and loving music. When I watch films I find myself responding to the score much more than the dialogue. I always imagine that the director wrote the music—when you’re young, you think the director does everything—and I would always be blown away by the music in Hitchcock films, for example. You can watch those without any of the dialogue and the music would just carry you along.

All day, instead of working, I would be downloading music. So I started thinking, how can I turn that into work? In the few films I made before this, I had too much music. So rather than going backwards and stripping away the music, I decided to go full on. What would it be like nowadays to make a musical with eight songs, very little dialogue, and a small story, just a two-hander really? So the whole project came out of being a musician and being a fan of musicals—and just listening.

RS: Did the three of you collaborate on the songs and the story?

JC: I didn’t write any of the songs.

Glen Hansard: The songs were written by me and Mar—some before filming, some during, some afterwards. John showed us the script, and we all talked about it for a few weeks. He had a very particular aesthetic, and the fact that he chose us to be in the film made it easier for us to write what he wanted. He would say, I want a song for the scene where Mar walks down the street, and it has to be a certain tone, and we would work on that while we were acting so the whole thing was organic and collaborative. But we were definitely working towards John’s agenda.

JC: A friend has just written a book about how Irish people influenced Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties, and he’s trying to figure out how much responsibility a director can take for his films. John Ford, for example, made a string of great films and gets credit for everything in them. The book tries to explode this myth by saying, look at the cameraman (Gregg Toland is a perfect example), look at the producer, look at the actors. Ford surrounded himself with these incredibly talented people, yet he’s one of those directors who gets credit for everything.

Maybe there’s an argument for saying a director is just that. It’s a perfect word, really: he can take people’s talents and make something marketable or entertaining from them. It’s like being a funnel.

GH: Mike Leigh’s Naked is another great example. David Thewlis claims to have written 90 percent of that film. He basically went off on a rant and Leigh filmed it. Then Leigh takes the credit for writing and directing.

JC: Mike Leigh is a bit sleazy actually; he does that quite a lot. Abigail’s Party [a 1977 play on British TV] was written by everybody in it, and the credits say: “written by Mike Leigh, devised by the cast.” He gets a lot of unfair credit. I’ve seen plays that were written by Mike Leigh and they’re [rolls eyes and grimaces].

RS: For me, the most intriguing thing about the movie is its parallel narrative of images and songs. When I was watching and not really thinking about the lyrics, my conditioned response to romantic movies led me to expect an entirely different ending. But then I went home and listened to the soundtrack and it was obvious where the story was headed.

JC: It’s amazing how you can put a song over an image and you think the song was written for that image, but it wasn’t. You’ve just married those two things and come up with a third thing. What was important to me was that Glen and Mar write songs about real relationships. It’s not about [sings] “Hey, I saw you walkin’ down the street, lookin’ real sweet,” it’s not about gettin’ it on. Glen has always written about the bittersweet edge of relationships. A lot of what happens in the film is a happy accident—I never asked for specific lyrics—but the aesthetic was there beforehand and they interpreted that. I think I’d be hard put to get either one of them to write a song with a happy ending. It’s not that interesting.

When I go back and read the diaries I’ve kept over the years, they’re all about me being depressed. Diaries are the total opposite of cameras. Look at your photographs of family and friends and they’re all happy moments. Then read your diary, and it’s all fuckin’ tears. That’s why The Diary of Anne Frank is much more interesting than pictures of Switzerland the year before the Nazis came.

RS: The writing of the duet in the music shop has been described by some critics as an analogy for falling in love.

JC: That’s exactly what it is, but it’s also more complicated than that. The point is to defy expectations, but if you do that too much then the audience becomes frustrated. There are areas in the film where you expect things to go a certain way and they don’t, but it’s a tough balance to get right. You want the audience to be surprised but not dissatisfied—like a song, when you don’t know where the chorus is going. But if it goes into boy-band territory, then it’s fuckin’ boring. For me, making a film is like writing a song that leaves the audience happily surprised.

GH: I went to see Blades of Glory last week, and it was fine, but I left the theater and didn’t remember a thing about it. Someone at the bus stop asked me what it was about, and I couldn’t tell him. It was the same with Apocalypto; all I could tell people was “it’s Braveheart set in the jungle.” And I felt terrible saying that, casting off this multimillion dollar movie with such a glib remark. I felt I was somehow cheating Mel Gibson and his entire film crew and the entire Aztec nation.

RS: Talk to me about money.

JC: We had none. The Irish Film Board put up the budget, but it was just enough to keep us going for a very short time. Luckily, that suited this film really well, because even so we had to be quite brutal in the editing room. For example, the scene where Guy says, “Why don’t you come to London?” and Girl says, “Can we take my mother?” and the conversation just dries up, was very hard. We just jammed it out on the day, and if I’d written it in advance I would have wanted to spell everything out for the audience. But we couldn’t, there was no time, and once I decided to leave everything unresolved—that each scene, including the last, had to end with the audience still guessing—everything got easier and it became very clear where it should end.

RS: [To Glen and Markéta] Are you in a relationship together?

GH: We are now! We met years ago when the Frames were on tour in Czechoslovakia, but we’d only ever played music together [they have an album, The Swell Season]. There were a few reasons—a big age gap, for one [he’s 37, she was 17 at the time of filming]—why a relationship wasn’t a good idea. But our time together on the film was very intense, and when it was over I realized I was totally mad about her.

JC: It’s made me think about my role as a director; I was in a situation like Howard Hawks with Bogart and Bacall. I had something I could bottle. And I thought, how I’m a going to make another film with the same level of authenticity? How will I get Cillian Murphy and some Japanese actress to fall in love? Maybe I’ll just have to work with real people, and instead of saying, Here’s the script,” I’ll say “Here’s an idea, tell me about your life.”

RS: How much of the dialogue was improvised?

GH: Quite a lot. There was a lot of self-deprecation from John on the set. He would say a line he had written was bullshit, and ask us to get the idea across in a believable way. It needed to be loose, though, because neither of us had acted before, and it would have made me very stiff if I had had to learn a complete script verbatim. I have no problem behind a guitar, but whenever there was dialogue I was a wreck.

Markéta Irtglová: Scripted dialogue was very hard for me because of the language problem. The scene where the characters meet was written out, and I would have never have spoken that way.

RS: What’s next?

GH: Well, me and Mar are going to live together in a flat in Dublin!

JC: All I know is I don’t want to make a conventional film; I want to keep making something new. People are giving you an hour and a half of their time, and the least you can do is try to show them something they haven’t seen before. If they come out of the theater just a little bit different, I’m happy.