RT Talks Music, Irish Stories With "Once" Director John Carney

by | May 14, 2007 | Comments

"Once" is a small Irish film about musicians, shot on a threadbare budget, with no-name actors in the leads. Not exactly a prescription for a blockbuster. So the fact that this little film is connecting with festival audiences in a big way has even director John Carney caught by surprise.

"Once" tells the story of a Dublin street musician (the Frames’ Glen Hansard) who meets a young Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova); together, they form a deep musical and personal bond. In real life, Hansard and Irglova have been collaborators for years (check out their 2006 album, "The Swell Season"), and director John Carney utilized their chemistry to create a heartfelt portrait of two sad people finding their way.

Carney conceived the film as a small project, but it got a major boost at Sundance, where it became a critical favorite and won the festival’s Audience Award. In recent weeks, Carney, Hansard, and Irglova have been touring America by bus, screening "Once" and playing songs from its soundtrack.

"Once" opens May 18 in limited release. Carney spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about his unconventional promotional tour for the film, the concept of making a naturalistic musical, and the state of Irish filmmaking.


Rotten Tomatoes: How’s your tour across America going?

John Carney: It’s great. We’re seeing a lot of the country from the ground, and we’re meeting real people, which is not what happens when you’re just flying into airports. I’m actually getting the scale of this large place you guys call home.

RT: How’s the response been on the road?

JC: Oh, it’s been amazing. Like, weirdly good. I don’t know what it is about this film, but it seems to have connected with people, which is great, because we started it off as a small labor of love and a pet project. To have something that we did from our hearts be received warmly is vindicating and kinda rewarding as an artist.

RT: How much of this film is based upon the lives of the two leads?

JC: They brought a lot to the roles, but originally, I had written it for actors. I was pretty sure Cillian would be the guy, and I’d get an Eastern European actress to play the lead role. But that said, once they had gotten the parts, and once we decided that’s the way we were going to go, Glen and Marketa are very forceful people, and have great chemistry together as musicians, so they brought a lot of that to the finished product. But we actually had to do, structurally, very little changing of the parts once we decided that we weren’t going to go with actors who could half-sing, we were going to go with singers who could half-act. It wasn’t based on their lives, but they brought a lot of themselves to the roles.

RT: Given that you were using non-actors, was the material a hard sell?

JC: Well, you see, it wasn’t, because once we decided to go with non-actors, we also decided we wouldn’t bring it to producers. We wouldn’t try to finance the film in the normal way. We’d get a little bit of state money, and it would be the kind of thing we could shoot for nothing, basically. We’d put in all the favors, and shoot it really quickly, and get it done. If it bombed, then nobody really would have cared about it, and if it did do well, then great. There weren’t a bunch of producers checking their watches and their bank balances. It was very much a John Cassavetes approach to making a film.

RT: Do you think Irish films or filmmakers are underappreciated in the States?

JC: No, we don’t have any good films. We don’t make good films in Ireland. We have yet to find our niche, and our voice. We’ve tried to make films in the last 10 years for an American audience. They all bombed, and rightfully so. If you’re in that fight, you’ve lost the war, because America’s a massive marketplace. So we need to make films for ourselves, primarily, and then if a couple of them strike, that’s great.

Read the rest of the interview here!

Once” is a small Irish film about musicians, shot on a threadbare budget, with no-name actors in the leads. Not exactly a prescription for a blockbuster. So the fact that this little film is connecting with festival audiences in a big way has even director John Carney caught by surprise.

Once” tells the story of a Dublin street musician (the Frames’ Glen Hansard) who meets a young Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova); together, they form a deep musical and personal bond. In real life, Hansard and Irglova have been collaborators for years (check out their 2006 album, “The Swell Season”), and director John Carney utilized their chemistry to create a heartfelt portrait of two sad people finding their way.

Carney conceived the film as a small project, but it got a major boost at Sundance, where it became a critical favorite and won the festival’s Audience Award. In recent weeks, Carney, Hansard, and Irglova have been touring America by bus, screening “Once” and playing songs from its soundtrack.

Once” opens May 18 in limited release. Carney spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about his unconventional promotional tour for the film, the concept of making a naturalistic musical, and the state of Irish filmmaking.

Rotten Tomatoes: How’s your tour across America going?

John Carney: It’s great. We’re seeing a lot of the country from the ground, and we’re meeting real people, which is not what happens when you’re just flying into airports. I’m actually getting the scale of this large place you guys call home.

RT: How’s the response been on the road?

JC: Oh, it’s been amazing. Like, weirdly good. I don’t know what it is about this film, but it seems to have connected with people, which is great, because we started it off as a small labor of love and a pet project. To have something that we did from our hearts be received warmly is vindicating and kinda rewarding as an artist.

RT: And Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are playing after the screenings of the film, right?

JC: There’s a little Q and A after each screening and then they’re playing three or four songs. It kinda really helps [reinforce] the intimacy of the project.

RT: So, you’re afraid to fly?

JC: Yeah, I am.

RT: So how did you get over here?

JC: I just had to do one big flight. I can do the one big flight, but if I spend any more time, or I know that I have to do a bunch of flying, I’m just in a very bad mood and I’m very stressed out. I mean, I know the statistics, and I know that I’m safe. But if you look at your greatest fear in life, even if you know you’re wrong%u2026 For me, it’s torture and flying. I didn’t admit to the studio that I had a fear of flying. I kinda dressed [the bus tour] up as a really cool thing to do, and the got it. I was like, “Thank God I don’t have to fly.”

RT: Cillian Murphy was interested in the lead role. But some of the charm of the film is in the fact that the leads are non-actors.

JC: I think that’s a very big factor as to why people are responding to the film, because you feel like you’re watching a real couple. People here feel like it’s got a naturalistic feel to it, an uncontrived feeling, and that they’re not being fed a line, that they’re watching something unfold that’s real. That said, I think Cillian would have done a wonderful job on the film, but people would have expectations if he was in it.

RT: How much of this film is based upon the lives of the two leads?

JC: They brought a lot to the roles, but originally, I had written it for actors. I was pretty sure Cillian would be the guy, and I’d get an Eastern European actress to play the lead role. But that said, once they had gotten the parts, and once we decided that’s the way we were going to go, Glen and Marketa are very forceful people, and have great chemistry together as musicians, so they brought a lot of that to the finished product. But we actually had to do, structurally, very little changing of the parts once we decided that we weren’t going to go with actors who could half-sing, we were going to go with singers who could half-act. It wasn’t based on their lives, but they brought a lot of themselves to the roles.

RT: And how much of it is autobiographical?

JC: My girlfriend and I were living apart. We were in two different countries at the time that I was writing it, and I was feeling quite isolated. I wanted to write something about a character who would meet a woman who would kinda guide him in the right direction. I guess it was a bit of a male fantasy in a way, that I would meet someone where I wouldn’t betray my relationship with my girlfriend, but at the same time you’d meet somebody you could tell your girlfriend about. Sometimes it’s the strangers, the people who know you least, that actually say exactly what you need to hear. It’s not your family or your friends, sometimes it’s the person who comes along and says, “You know what you need?” And suddenly, they’re right. And the little they know about you, the more objective they are. That’s where I was at when I was writing the film, so there’s definitely an autobiographical strand to it.

RT: Given that you were using non-actors, was the material a hard sell?

JC: Well, you see, it wasn’t, because once we decided to go with non-actors, we also decided we wouldn’t bring it to producers. We wouldn’t try to finance the film in the normal way. We’d get a little bit of state money, and it would be the kind of thing we could shoot for nothing, basically. We’d put in all the favors, and shoot it really quickly, and get it done. If it bombed, then nobody really would have cared about it, and if it did do well, then great. There weren’t a bunch of producers checking their watches and their bank balances. It was very much a John Cassavetes approach to making a film.

RT: Do you consider this a musical?

JC: I kind of do, actually. I shouldn’t sell it like that, because if you say it’s a musical, it’ll scare people off. It’s an attempt to make a modern musical that appeals to younger people, an audience that wouldn’t necessarily watch a Gene Kelly film or a Frank Sinatra film, simply because they just don’t buy the “breaking into song” thing, and the fakeness of those films, the kind of suspension of disbelief that you need to have when you’re watching those films. I wanted to make a naturalistic musical.

RT: What’s next for you?

JC: I’m reading some stuff. I’d like to do more human stories, rather than bigger films. I like having that control, and it’s hard once you [work on bigger projects] to have control. I think ultimately audience members like to see someone controlling the quality of a film. A lot of films you see are made by committees, and studios, and producers. I guess I’ll try to balance that and make a film that’s small and heartfelt and sincere, and tell Irish stories, tells some stories from home that show a few other sides of the coin to people about Ireland. There are a lot of misconceptions and preconceptions about Ireland that I’d be interesting in bursting, and revealing some other sides of Irish life at the moment.

RT: Do you think Irish films or filmmakers are underappreciated in the States?

JC: No, we don’t have any good films. We don’t make good films in Ireland. We have yet to find our niche, and our voice. We’ve tried to make films in the last 10 years for an American audience. They all bombed, and rightfully so. If you’re in that fight, you’ve lost the war, because America’s a massive marketplace. So we need to make films for ourselves, primarily, and then if a couple of them strike, that’s great. That’s a really good track record for a smaller country. But we don’t need to be concerned with competing with these big American films. “My Left Foot” and “The Crying Game,” they were flukes. And we’re all trying to copy them, and it’s not the way we should be going. We should make films for our own selves, and they’ll naturally find their audience. [Americans would rather] see films that have a sincere Irish heart, and yet are universal stories.

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