By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008
HOLLYWOOD -- Here's one way to get your film work immortalized: Do it yourself by getting down and dirty.
So it is that we find Glen Hansard -- the Irish rock singer who acted his way to unexpected quasi-fame in the indie musical "Once" -- crouching over wet sidewalk concrete on Sunset Boulevard, using the back of a pen to make his mark in front of the hipster Standard Hotel:
Hansard admires his work while brushing a few specks of concrete from his hands. "We don't have a star on Hollywood, but we got a bit of a freebie on Sunset."
He wraps his arms around Mark¿ta Irglov¿, his co-star in "Once" -- and, now, in life, which is suddenly quite good. "I'm over the moon," Hansard says. Irglova nods.
"Once" is a slight, simple love story about a struggling Irish street musician (Hansard) and the Czech immigrant (Irglova) with whom he sets out to make, you know . . . beautiful music.
It's raw and wistful, with a bittersweet edge -- not unlike some of Hansard's songs with his longtime band, the Frames -- and it's been beguiling critics and art house film fans since last year's Sundance Film Festival, where "Once" claimed a world cinema audience award.
Shot on the Dublin streets in a semi-documentary style for a mere $150,000 and starring two people with exactly one combined acting credit between them, "Once" landed on more than few U.S. critics' 2007 Top 10 lists (including two in This Very Newspaper); grossed about $10 million here; and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
The success has surprised nobody more than the film's principals -- Hansard, Irglova and filmmaker John Carney -- who never expected the project to receive an airing outside Ireland and, maybe, Irglova's homeland of Czechoslovakia.
There was no real marketing plan, no notion of international distribution -- just art made for art's sake, coming from a place of purity.
"We were just really excited about making a good movie," says Irglova. "It wasn't about money, and I think maybe that's one of the reasons people like it."
Says Hansard: "I know it sounds trite to say it, but we really didn't expect anybody to see it. I'm deeply proud of the fact that people have responded to it, but I'm flabbergasted."
And, also, a bit concerned that the hype that's enveloped the project seems to have raised expectations to an unreasonable level. The buzz is threatening to drown out the film's quiet, nuanced appeal, no?
"Yes," Hansard says. "I've been terrified by the reaction. The film is too small to withstand this kind of praise. It looks like it was shot on a mobile phone. And people see it and they think there's something wrong with the sound in the cinema. But that's just the way it sounds!"
Irglova uses a phrase that seems to unconsciously sum up the theme of their movie and their current circumstance: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation," she says. "We're trying to enjoy it."
The couple are camped out in Hollywood, having just hit the Grammys (two nominations, zero wins), with another, more significant awards-season date looming: Next Sunday, they'll perform their nominated song, "Falling Slowly," on the Oscars.
Which is strangely hilarious, Hansard says, because "when we finished shooting that scene" -- the one at the music store, where his nameless character ("a Guy") teaches Irglova's nameless character ("a Girl") the song on the piano -- the director, Carney, said: " 'And Oscar for Best Song goes to "Falling Slowly." ' Which we all laughed about. How absurd!"
Says Irglova: "He was just trying to express how great it was. But it's pretty funny now."
Girl and Guy are now sitting side by side at a booth in the hotel's cafe. She is 19, even of keel, quiet, babyish of face. He is 37, excitable, with a salt-and-cayenne-pepper beard and a penchant for profanity.
They look adorable together; their on-screen chemistry readily transferred to the real world. It was so obvious, Hansard says.
"About the third day in, John started predicting that we'd get together. . . . He kept joking and calling us his Bogart and Bacall."
And? "And after filming, Fox Searchlight put us in a tour bus together, and it just felt natural. We graduated from a feeling to this. It made sense."
They'd actually known each other since Hansard started staying with Irglova's family on trips to Czechoslovakia seven years ago. He was friends with her father, who promoted the Frames locally.
She was 13 when they met; Hansard was 30. (The Frames, a mainstay of the Dublin rock scene, had formed when Irglova was 2.) "I always felt a very strong connection with him, but it never came up because it was never going to happen," she says, plainly. "There was no point in trying to dream about it. But it's not like I just realized this last year that I have strong feelings for Glen. It's not like that."
They made an album together, as the Swell Season, and did the movie together while she was 17, still in high school. Then, by their account, they finally became romantic partners, giving their story the happy ending -- or, at least, middle -- that "Once" lacked. They now live together in Hansard's Dublin flat.
As for the age difference? "For me it was definitely an issue when we were getting together," Hansard says. "But Mar is really amazing. She's more mature than me. And you just ask yourself: Is this the kind of person I can marry and have kids with? Yes. And that's good enough reason to start something with them. I think that's the way you judge any relationship."
For her part, Irglova is staring blankly at a teaspoon, nodding silently -- though later, discussing her childhood, she says, "I didn't always enjoy being the age I was."
Irglova had never acted before Hansard persuaded Carney, who wrote the script, to cast her as Girl. Irglova says she hated being in high school and "going off to Ireland to do a movie was something better to do."
At the time, Hansard was on board to write the songs, which would be performed live and in their entirety by the male lead, who was supposed to be the Irish actor Cillian Murphy ("28 Days Later," "Batman Begins"). But Murphy dropped out, and Carney asked Hansard to step in -- even though he'd acted only once before, playing guitarist Outspan Foster in "The Commitments," the 1991 movie about an R&B cover band from Dublin.
Hansard had disliked the experience so much that he vowed never to act again. But Carney, who'd played bass with Hansard's Frames in the early 1990s, sold him on the idea that no one else was better qualified to perform his songs on screen.
The movie was shot guerrilla-style on the Dublin streets: no permits, no lighting, no production designers, no wardrobe, no paid extras, no location scouts, no production trailers -- just a tiny crew using natural light, a couple of Sony-HD cameras and real places and people, including Hansard's friends and mother. There were no rehearsals, and pre-production largely consisted of viewing sessions of independent films and musicals: "Singing in the Rain," "A Woman Under the Influence," a Roman Polanski box set, Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows."
Ad-libbing was encouraged and resulted in critical additions to the narrative, such as when Girl tells Guy "I love you" in Czech but doesn't bother to translate her words for him.
The result is a string of magical moments, both fictionalized and real. "When we watch the film in 10 years, it's a time capsule of our lives," Hansard says.
Another result: Hansard's music is being broadcast far and wide, after nearly 25 years of grinding, first as a teenaged busker, then with the Frames. Soundtrack sales are brisk (double-platinum in Korea!). Income is up. The outlook is good.
"There's a part of me that feels like it's justice," he says. "I don't mean that like I've been right all along. But anybody who's in a rock band would understand when I say you're out there kicking against the world, selling a moderate amount of records, having a loyal following to your shows, doing it your way -- you're lucky, and it should be enough for anyone.
"But we all think: Wouldn't it be great if it was just a little bigger, just so I can pay my rent and get to that point where I can honestly say I'm living from my music? This film is the good news I've been praying for years."
But while Hansard is seizing his long-awaited moment, Irglova seems to be inching away from the spotlight.
"I've loved the journey. But I view it more as Glen's journey than mine," she says. "It's not like I see this as a way to launch my career in music or acting."
Hansard can't stop smiling.