By Mark Guarino
Of the hundreds of films about musicians, none have the austere beauty of “Once,” the current hit on the indie film circuit starring Glen Hansard of the Irish art-rock band The Frames.
For Hansard, “Once” is personal. It is written and directed by John Carney, a one-time Frames bass player who drew upon Hansard’s early beginnings as a street busker to craft the story about a two budding musicians who meet on a Dublin sidewalk, sparking musical inspiration and life renewal. His co-star is Marketa Irglova, a Czech-born pianist, songwriter and singer Hansard routinely plays with under the bill the Swell Season (they headline the Old Town School Saturday). The excitement they generate, dramatized through impromptu performances and humorous detours, makes the film’s threadbare storyline resonate, lining it with quiet momentum.
The Frames are considered the biggest band in Ireland, second to only U2, but in the U.S. they remain a cult band. Over 17 years and with six albums, the band has tried to make headway in the States, but routinely stalled. It wasn’t until a visit to Chicago in 2000 that Hansard, 36, met a circle of musical colleagues — including producer Steve Albini, members of local labels Touch & Go and Thrill Jockey plus club owners of Metro, the Hideout and others — that helped hook him into the indie rock community where making music can be a practical as well as artistic endeavor. (The Frames headline the Hideout Block Party Sept. 8.)
The steady but continual growth of “Once” may give the Frames their ultimate exposure. The film cost 130,000 Euros to make and is grossing over $3.2 million to date. Like “Little Miss Sunshine” last year, it is considered a sleeper hit, one that is positioned to make an impact at the Academy Awards next year.
Hansard talked from Dublin recently about the film’s unexpected success and its impact on his life. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: You were initially commissioned to write the music for “Once” but were asked to play the lead role when the project seemed about to fall apart: a popular Irish actor left the project and the producers likewise jumped ship. What was your reaction when you were asked at that time?
A: I thought to myself, “maybe he’s just jumping to nearest thing.” I wondered, “Is this too close to home?” Because if this story is about a busker and about a girl I know and all the songs are by me, I worried it would come off as a bit of a vanity project. But John was like, “no, no, I think you are the guy to play this part.” So I said to him, “If we are going to do this, let’s do it for nothing. Let’s do it the same way my band makes records as in: Do it ourselves. And if it has any success at all, it’ll be our success and if it fails, it’ll be our failure. The whole idea that whatever we do let’s own it.” Suddenly his approach was that different, as we were going to shoot it with as little time as possible, we were going to put together a skeleton crew. I talked about my romantic comedy concerns, so he toughened it up a bit and took out the more laughter driven scenes … Marketa and I also said to him, “Listen, please, you have to promise us that if we’re rubbish just stop us. Because the last thing we do is blow your movie.” Because I’m not an actor, Marketa’s not an actor and John basically said, “well what I’m looking for are musicians who can half-act more than actors who can half-sing. Because I want music to be the driving force of this film.”
Q: The Frames are primarily a rock band. Did playing the more nuanced and quiet songs on the film force you to approach writing songs differently?
A: The involvement with Marketa, it gives the whole things transcendent energy. A rock band is a bunch of guys, it’s a much more different thing, it’s much more male. Whereas what I do with Marketa, there’s much more femininity in it. So I definitely enjoy have that opportunity to make music that way.
Q: Does that mean the film inspired this current tour with her?
A: No, it’s something we’ve toyed with before and did. We’ve been playing gigs together for a few years. We toured around Europe and played around the Czech Republic on holiday when I wasn’t touring with the Frames. Basically, because I find it hard not to work, I was booking small festivals and we were doing it as piano and guitar, playing Frames songs. And then we started writing songs of our own. So we were touring about a year and a half before we did “Once.” And when it came to submitting songs for “Once,” some of the songs we drew from were songs we had written together and others we wrote for the movie.
Q: Will the collaboration continue once the excitement of “Once” passes on?
A: I hope we make another record together. One of my friends made the observation, “the film is your relationship, it’s Glen and Marketa in a bottle.” Which I thought was a lovely description of it. And also, the stakes are quite high. If it is me and Marketa in a bottle, well then, it’s our lives judged up there onscreen. It’s not a fictional movie, there’s also a certain amount of reality in it.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with her now? Did it become romantic?
A: It sort of veered into that for a moment or two because I guess that’s something that needed to be explored. But no, we’re mates.
Q: Already there is Oscar buzz surrounding buzz, with the idea that next year on the telecast we’ll see you performing songs live on the ceremony’s stage.
A: It’s pie in the sky but then again, the idea of me even getting into Sundance was pie in the sky. You take them with pinch of salt and you think to yourself, “wouldn’t it be wonderful” and then you let it go. Already this film has gone way, way beyond any of our expectations. Our original plan for this film was to make a couple of thousand copies of DVD and then tour Irish cinemas and sing songs every night at cinemas and sell DVDs at the show. We never even planned to make a 35-millimeter print of it.
Q: The film is giving your songs the greatest exposure they ever had. Does that affect widening the fanbase of The Frames?
A: It hasn’t really affected us at all. I think we sold a few extra records now recently because of the soundtrack. And that’s brilliant and I really, really hope if people will join the dots between “Once” and say, “I wonder what that guy or that girl is doing now” and they manage to join the dots and they come up with the Frames. But certainly, so far, there definitely has been no positive or negative impact on the band. The next time we tour the States, we might notice a difference in numbers. And I really hope we do.
Q: I know the character was based on you, but in acting the role, how did you relate to him on the page to make him seem real?
A: Well, I really liked him. I thought he was a very solid fella. He works for his dad and he had a very simple outlook on his life. Just a very, very simple guy. I kind of admired that. I grew up, instead of fixing Hoovers, I fixed bicycles for my older brother instead of my father. So there are many parallels. My mother went to bank and borrowed 3,000 pounds for me to make a demo tape with my band. Also, my band also recorded their first demo in the studio that’s in the film. So there are a lot of parallels to my life in the film, both in my past and my present. For me it wasn’t very difficult at all.
Q: With the demise of commercial radio, it makes sense that bands need to turn to alternative modes of exposure, like films.
A: I guess so. I have to admit, on a musical level, I’m actually overwhelmed how well the film is doing. I can’t believe people get to hear my songs on the scale that they are. It’s absolutely fantastic. Had this film had other actors in it, I’d still be in position that people would hear my songs. But because I act in the film as well, kind of puts me in the position where I don’t really know of any other musicians off the top of my head who had a movie that they were starring in it and it was all their songs. I kind of think I’m in an odd position in that. I don’t know if it’s good or bad right now. So I’m taking it as it comes. I mean, we’re an indie rock band. We sell 10-20,000 copies of every record we put out. Which, in my book, is good news because it means it allows us to continue making records. But on the Bruce Springsteen scale, it’s nothing. Whereas this film could potentially put us in a position where musically we’re selling more records to put us before a bigger audience. In August, we’re doing a tour opening shows for Bob Dylan in New Zealand and Australia and someone told me Dylan had seen the film and really liked it. So stuff like that is (expletive) incredible. A band like the Frames would crave the attention of someone like Bob Dylan. Like any band in the world would. Would crave his stamp of approval. So, in a way, this movie has opened up those channels and it’s wild. Even Beyonce has become our friend on MySpace. (laughs) It’s hilarious!