“Ten years ago I fell in love with an Irish girl, she took my heart / But she went and screwed some guy that she knew and now I’m in Dublin with a broken heart / Broken hearted hoover fixer sucker guy,” sings Once’s otherwise unnamed guy (Glen Hansard) to explain his predicament to the similarly monikered girl (Marketa Irglova). “One day I’ll go there and win her once again / But until then I’m just a sucker of a guy.”
Made for a cost reported to be around the £100,000 mark, Irish romantic musical Once has proved to be a rare success, being both a genuine slow-burning hit as well as one of the most profitable films of recent years. It charts the tale of a brief friendship between a broken hearted busker and wannabe full-time musician and a Czech immigrant who’s a young mother and fellow songwriter. As they write songs and record material, their relationship blossoms – but can it progress any further?
"It struck me as interesting the way that musicians communicate through music.”
Director John Carney was the bassist in Hansard’s band The Frames (hugely popular in Ireland and with a strong following in America, if largely unknown elsewhere) back in the early nineties. At the time, Carney was, “making videos of my own, short sketches and stuff like that. Myself and Glen made a couple of comedy movies together when we were in the band.”
The duel demands of band rehearsals and Carney’s ambitions to make a feature film necessitated his departure from the band. As The Frames built their reputation, Carney’s filmmaking career encompassed the likes of November Afternoon, Park and On The Edge. The idea for Once was simply a case of writing what you know about.
“My girlfriend was in London and I was feeling a little bit alienated and cut off in the changing city that is Dublin at the moment,” he explains. “I wanted to write something about a Dubliner who was more like one of the immigrants and who identified more with people who were coming into the country than, I suppose, people who were here, and striking up a relationship with one of them.”
As Hansard and Irglova’s characters struggle to express their emotions through dialogue or action, it’s really the songs that develop their relationship.
“I was also interested in the idea of language and trying to communicate without the use, necessarily of your first language. It struck me as interesting the way that musicians communicate through music.” Evidence of that is certainly shown in the guy’s ‘Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy’ song. It feels unlikely he’d have the strength to convey that story through a retelling of the facts. “It was about a couple who were unable to express themselves in any other terms other than artistically.”
This lack of conventional communication is key to Once’s inherently melancholy nature. Aside from the question of romance, there’s a balance of sadness and hope (“if you break it down it looks horribly grim, but you’ve told it in a certain way so the glass seems half full rather than half empty”) in the guy’s musical aspirations and the girl’s relationship with her baby’s father. Carney is content to admit that he really identifies with the film’s lead character.
“What it means to be somebody at his age to be successful is very different to when you’re nineteen or in your twenties even. The idea of success drives you on and it’s all you want. But as you get older, different things drive you.” Much like the guy, it seems obvious to assume that Once could’ve represented Carney’s last chance to break through in a major way. “If you haven’t made yourself successful and figured yourself out by your mid-thirties, you have a different set of ideas and success, fame and fortune isn’t necessarily that interesting anymore. He should’ve probably done what’s he’s doing now in his twenties; he should’ve gone to London with his girlfriend to try to get a record deal and put a band together.”
The guy was originally due to be played by Cillian Murphy, but when he dropped out, Hansard fell into the role. Despite a tiny role back in The Commitments, neither he nor Irglova are professional actors. Not that this phased Carney.
"“I wanted to write something about a Dubliner who was more like one of the immigrants."
“I’m used to that because I started off making shorts films because I couldn’t afford to get actors,” he says indifferently. “That’s how you make films then; you get your dad to play the mafia boss. I’m used to getting performances out of non-actors and I enjoy that process. Actors are professional people and they need to hear things described in a certain way. I’m not necessarily the most sensitive or subtle person so I end up showing them how I’d like them to read the line and they get offended. Whereas a non-actor just doesn’t care.”
The end result is a musical for people who don’t like musicals and a surprise favourite for famous fans from Steven Spielberg to Bob Dylan.
“Musicals by their very nature are unreal and surreal. They were around at the time of escapism and the grim years between the wars. They were colourful and mad, so later on, people started to look at musicals in a different way. You had to suspend your disbelief because realism had an effect on cinema so you have to watch those films with a pinch of salt – and more so with each passing year. Once is a naturalistic musical. There’s nobody breaking into song and no orchestras that come up from the ground. It’s very much what you see is what you get.”
It’s the music as much as Carney’s creativity that makes Once such a captivating experience, with the folksy duets Falling Slowly and When Your Mind’s Made Up as important moments as Hansard’s intimate and raw solo songs Leave and Say It To Me Now. The combination of story and song could provide key materials for a future stage show and Carney is keeping an open mind.
With bigger projects now on the horizon, Carney jokes that he’s certain what his next move won’t be. “Twice,” he half-jokes. “We might make one ten years in the future, you never know.”
Once is available on DVD now, released by Icon Home Entertainment.