Please excuse Glen Hansard for being incredulous and downright giddy when it comes to Once. Hansard, who for the last 17 years has fronted Irish folk/rock band the Frames, is the male lead in Once, a heartfelt rock musical that’s become an art-house sensation. He’s just been told what the micro-budgeted film has grossed—a whopping $9 million—in the U.S. since its May 10 release in New York City and Los Angeles.
“That’s fucking incredible, man,” he says of the box-office tally. “I honestly don’t know what it is. Some films get a bit of attention. It doesn’t make one better than the other. Fucking hell, this is amazing.”
The 37-year-old Hansard has been enjoying all the accolades that have come his way since Once won the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. (It’s due out on DVD in December.) He and Markéta Irglová, his costar in the film and off-screen girlfriend, are also performing as musical duo the Swell Season. Last year, they released their first record, which includes some of the songs that hold together the gentle, lovelorn narrative of Once. This summer, the two sold out a 750-seat venue in New York weeks in advance. But before the film, they could barely attract 50 people for an American gig.
“The reaction (to us and the film) has been shocking,” says the 19-year-old Irglová. “This is way beyond all of our dreams.”
Adding to the film’s unlikely success story is that Once almost never was. Erstwhile Frames bassist-turned-film-director John Carney had been crafting a script based on his experiences as a busker in Dublin. Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Red Eye) was set to play the lead. Meanwhile, Carney heard songs that Hansard and Irglová, a Czech pianist, had written and wanted to use them for the soundtrack. He was also taken by Irglová, casting her in the movie as the female lead even though she had no previous film experience. When the increasingly in-demand Murphy dropped out of the project, Carney suggested that Hansard step forward.
“I had doubts about making this movie,” says Hansard, whose only acting experience was a non-speaking part in 1991’s The Commitments. “For one, John was just jumping on the nearest person available. And two, because I wrote the songs and knew Markéta, I was afraid of this appearing like a vanity project. But John convinced me that I was the right man for the job.”
The tale of a broken-hearted street musician and the young immigrant woman who helps him record his songs, Once was shot in just 17 days without any proper permits. Its $150,000 budget came from the Irish Film Council. “We thought we could make the film and print out a few thousand DVDs,” says Irglová. “We’d travel around Ireland and play gigs in small cinemas. Hopefully then, we’d sell enough copies of the DVD to pay back the Film Council.”
Expectations remained fatalistically low after several film festivals rejected Once. Then came its breakthrough at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the distribution rights for $500,000.
“It’s shaky,” says Irglová with a laugh, describing the film’s use of a hand-held camera. “Once is all about the story and the chemistry between the two people. The audience feels as if they’re being allowed to peek into someone’s lives.”
After completing a summer U.S. tour with the Swell Season, Hansard rejoined the Frames to open for Bob Dylan in Australia and New Zealand. Dylan, Hansard’s childhood idol, liked the film, and the opening slot came as a direct result of Once’s success.
While Hansard and Irglová will entertain more film projects, they plan to focus on music.
“You can’t make this film ever again: a film against all the odds,” says Hansard. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”