As a solo artist and as frontman for The Frames, Dublin native Glen Hansard has been in the music business since he was a teenager, but he only dabbled in cinema once, in 1991's The Commitments. Not liking the attention that came with film fame, he avoided cinema projects until 2006, when former Frames member John Carney asked him to write the songs for a low-key love story—and then star in it, when planned star Cillian Murphy dropped out. Made on a shoestring, Once became a critics' darling and a surprise arthouse hit. It's a raw, tender love story in which Hansard plays a character much like himself: a Dublin street musician singing his own songs, and collaborating, sometimes painfully, with real-life partner Markéta Irglová. To commemorate the film's DVD release, Hansard spoke to The A.V. Club about guerilla filmmaking, how stardom steals the soul, and sneaking in the back door at Sundance.
The A.V. Club: How did you and Markéta originally meet? How did you start collaborating musically?
Glen Hansard: We first collaborated some five, six years ago—I was making some home recordings. I know Mar's father, he's a friend of mine. And he invited me to stay over at their house to write some songs. I went over and stayed two or three weeks there, and made a bunch of home recordings. And because Mar played piano, we got her to jam along—which was kinda weird for her, because, though she's a really good pianist, she only ever did music that she read. But I got her to play through these tunes, I got her to sort of jam along. And I remember, she was listening to one of these tunes and she was like, "Glen, what you're singing about here, did this really happen to you?" And I was like, "Well, sort of. Poetic license, it didn't happen exactly—" "So this didn't happen to you." "Well, it did, but not exactly—" "So did it happen to you, or not?" "Well, it did, but well No." [Laughs.] "So why are you saying it did?" "Well, I was just trying to make a point, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit maybe, but " And I remember at that point realizing that this girl was fucking brilliant—she was totally questioning what I was doing, but what was wonderful was that she was listening. I mean, the guys in my band, they know me very well, but they still don't know what some of these songs refer to. But she was actually listening to what I was saying, and she was kind of challenging me on it. And then I listened to some of her songs, and I thought, "This girl, she knows what she's on about."
AVC: Is your songwriting collaboration usually that contentious?
GH: Yeah, it is. It's definitely 50 percent argument and 50 percent cooperation. Like anything—you sit around and you come up with ideas, and then it's like "This is fucking bullshit, why don't you do it this way?" And then "That's brilliant, you're brilliant." If you're going to have an artistic partner, it needs to be someone you can absolutely strip. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] I don't mean literally, but you need to be able to strip them down and be very straight with them.
AVC: You worked as a busker for years, and you play a busker in the film. What did you learn from busking that you wouldn't have learned by just being a studio or concert musician?
GH: Everything. Well, everything about singing, I learned from busking. Everything I learned about songwriting, I learned from busking. The one thing I didn't learn about was mic technique, which is no big deal—you can learn that in half an hour. Busking, you learn people, you learn about reading people. You learn about reading the atmosphere of the street. If you stand still in any city long enough, you see everyone pass you by. So you're in Chicago. If you stand on the corner of Belmont and Clark, and you do that for three years, you'll pretty much have seen everybody in Chicago pass that junction. As a busker, it's like you're like a lamppost, you're part of the architecture. And so you see everybody, you get to read how people are. You get to know who the pickpockets are, you get to know who the whores are, you get to know the drug squad, the undercover cops. You suss it all out. You just develop this radar for how things are gonna be—you know the person who is going to give you money, and you know the person who isn't, and you know the person who'd never give you a fucking penny if you were dying. It's almost like you get to know personality types, just by watching people walk past. You get a sense for things.
AVC: The street scenes in Once were shot live on the street with real passers-by who didn't know you were filming. Did that make things awkward or self-conscious?
GH: Well, as a busker, you have to show it off. As a busker, one thing that does not work is self-consciousness. A busker needs to be working. A busker needs to shed all ego and get down to work. Play your songs, play them well, earn your money, and don't get in people's way. Basically, you're panhandling. You're begging, that's how it's viewed. In Irish law, busking is considered vagrancy—you can be arrested for it. It's risky asking people for money in public. So it's not like it's a high-art job. And people who do it as a high-art job make very little money.
So when we were filming the movie, we ran into some trouble, because my band is fairly well known in Ireland. So people thought, "Ooh, what's he doing out here?" At the same time, because I was a busker for so long, I knew how to disregard any attention that I was getting. It did make it difficult to shoot, though. John [Carney] had to hide the cameras across the street in a doorway, because if you put a guy on the street and stick a camera in front of him, people will wonder, "Who's he?" Whereas if you take the camera away, all they see is a busker.[pagebreak]
AVC: Did it take a long time to come up with useable footage?
GH: Yeah, on the street, we had tons of takes. If a plane goes over, we had to stop. Because we were shooting without permits, when a cop went by, we had to stop. And we also had to deal with people walking past and looking straight into the lens, which totally kills the mystery of making a movie. And I live in Dublin, and I have a lot of friends, plus I was a busker there for, like, 10 years of my life, so I knew a lot of the people on the street, and they would just come up and talk to me right in the middle of a song. Or people who were fans of the band might come along—it'd be like Jeff Tweedy busking in Chicago. You're gonna get a lot of people who're like "Hey, Jeff!", or they taking out their camera-phones and pointing them at him or whatever. So we had a lot of that, which meant we ended up having to shoot one scene—you remember the scene where the two characters meet for the first time? It's supposed to be an evening scene, but we had to shoot it at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning, because it was the only time the street quieted down enough for us to get through it.
AVC: Was there a lot of improv involved because you didn't have control of the set?
GH: It was mostly improv. John wrote a really good script, but we all improvised, including John. I think what makes improv possible is when the director is willing to improv, and he was. That's what made it work for me and Mar. I mean, we were just hanging out. We were basically just three mates making a movie in our bedroom—it was a very, very, very simple process. The one thing that we did do was, before we shot Once, we sat down and watched a bunch of films, and we got really excited about cinema. We went down with a bunch of Handycams, a very basic crew, everyone working for nothing and shooting with no permits. And we actually managed to make a film. And that was the idea: "Let's make a film somehow, let's do it." There was no great planning put into it. There was no great "We're going to shoot this scene, this scene, and this scene today." We just sort of went out each day and said, "What have we got?" "Well, we've got this, so let's go get that." And we went with that. Instead of having location scouting and all, we'd just hop on a bus and start filming there. It was all really enjoyable. It's funny, recently, we were in New York, and we saw a film shoot going on. There were a trucks parked everywhere, and we saw a bunch of cranes, and all these people there to just get one scene, an exterior of a building, looking in a window. And I thought "Fucking hell, the amount of work that takes." Then I remembered how we shot Once, and I thought "That is the only way to make a film."
AVC: You were in one film previously—1991's The Commitments—and you said afterwards that you had no interest in being in another film. What changed your mind?
GH: I've got to tell you, I wasn't into it—it's not that I didn't enjoy it, I loved it. What I didn't enjoy was what happened afterwards. I didn't enjoy the "being a celebrity for a week" bit. That was the bit that pissed me off. But making the film, I really enjoyed. I just didn't realize, being a young person, that if you sign up to make a film, a certain portion of your soul is forever gone. [Laughs.] From there on, you are that character to everybody you'll ever meet again. And, basically, "Quit your fucking complaining. That's what you signed up for." When I look back on my Commitments experience, I just think "Shit!"
Whereas with this, I wrote songs, I was making the film with my friends, I can stand beside this and say "Yeah, that was me." I'd have no problem with it. And plus, we didn't think it was going to come out. We shot it in such a way, with such a budget that there was no way this film was going to be big. We all hoped it would be a success, but on the level it was made: a couple of handicaps and a bit of a script. Very low-key. We really had no marketing plan. We thought we could sell the film to people who liked my band. We were going to go around the country, get one 35mm print made, and we were going to travel around Ireland, having John introduce the film. Mar and I'd play a couple of songs afterward, and then we were going to sell DVDs. That was the plan. And we did it, and at one of those screenings, a guy from Sundance was there. John had already sent the film to Sundance. He already sent it to Toronto and Tribeca and Edinburgh and all these places, and it got refused, officially. And then this guy came into one of the screenings and told us "Hey, I'm here as a tourist, I saw that your film was playing, so I bought a ticket, I saw your film, and I loved it. I would love to recommend it to Sundance." We didn't tell him that we had already been refused, we just handed him a DVD and told him "Yeah, here, take it." Two weeks later, we got the call saying "You've been officially selected for the Sundance Film Festival." It was a miracle.
AVC: Did it bother you at all when the film really took off, and you had to deal with sudden celebrity again?
GH: Not at all. This time, I'm much older, I'm ready for it. This time, I'm able to deal with it. I'm like "Bring it on." People see this film and they sort of go, "Okay, who is that guy, Glen Hansard, and what does he do?" And if they Google me, and they come up with The Frames, and then they buy a Frames record, then I'm over the moon. I don't feel that any aspect of my life has been threatened or that my privacy has been threatened. Because I'm an older man, I've got roots, and I can say "Fuck you all, get outta me face." The idea of celebrity is not interesting at all to me, but now I can handle it.
AVC: So is this the beginning of an ongoing film career for you?
GH: No, it was a one-shot. I mean, if Jim Jarmusch called up tomorrow and said "Hey, I have a cameo role for you in my next film," I'd be on the next plane. But overall, I'm not an actor, and I'll never call myself an actor. I've never thought of it as part of my life. I'll always be a singer, in my eyes. Still, if Werner Herzog called and said "Do you wanna be in me film?" then of course I'd do it.