(Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in The Swell Season)
Filmmaker Niall McKay talks to the makers of the new documentary that follows Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova after their Oscar® win.
‘The thing about Once is that it won’t happen twice,’ the film’s producer David Collins is reportedly fond of saying. A new documentary about Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová following their Oscar® win contradicts that. Beautifully filmed, emotional and well crafted, The Swell Season is one of the big hits of the Tribeca Film Festival.
With Once, director John Carney had both the wit and the good luck to capture Hansard and Irglová falling in love. The Swell Season’s New York-based directors, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis captured the couple falling out of love. Filmed during the couple’s world tour from 2007–2009 the film also features footage form their concerts. Certainly, lesser filmmakers would have missed the magic but credit is also due to Hansard and Irglová who bare all (in one skinny dipping scene – quite literally) and allowed the camera to capture some of their most intimate moments. Hansard’s parents also had a part in the film giving it a charm and intimacy rarely seen in a music documentary.
Niall McKay sat down with the film’s co-director and editor, Nick August-Perna, and co-director and producer Carlo Mirabella-Davis.
Niall: So let’s start with the genesis of the project.
Carlo: I was teaching film class at the New York Film Academy and Glen was one of my students. One day he was telling me about this strange odyssey that he and Markéta were about to embark on. We thought that it might make a good documentary, so we asked them. They were into the idea, and they let us come along for the first tour, which turned into three years of following them all over the world and shooting their songs and their lives.
Niall: How did Glen come to take a film class?
Carlo: Glen loves films, he’s a big fan of Werner Herzog. Fitzcarraldo is one of his favourite movies. He just thought that it would be fun to take a film class and try to direct some short films. He’s a really good director. He directed a couple of great short films in New York.
Niall: How did you get them to reveal so much of themselves on camera?
Nick: To be honest I don’t think any of us had a clear idea of what we were embarking on. Our process was very hands off. There was no manipulation. There was no changing the circumstances to create anything that would be good for the camera. We had to have a lot of patience. Glen and Markéta were very interesting to watch. They wear their hearts on their sleeve, they’re very emotional people, they’re very thoughtful people. Honestly, you turn the camera on them and you’re going to have a very interesting movie
Carlo: We spent a lot of time off screen just getting to know them. We became friends. But it took at least a year for them to get comfortable with the camera. Eventually they forgot the camera was there. Nick was doing sound, Chris was on the camera, and I had two LED lights in my hands.
Niall: The core scene in the film is an argument they have in a Czech cafe. Did you know at that time that you were capturing their break-up?
Nick: Their real-life love story is very intriguing for a lot of reasons. But we did not want to go into the film with any preconceived idea about this being a love story. However, if you’re asking did we capture the moment when they broke up, that’s for the viewer to decide. There are some very personal moments in the film that anybody who has been in a relationship or been in love can relate to. There’s all the exhilaration of being in love and there’s all of the sadness of falling out of love.
The scene in the Czech coffee shop, for example, was a scene that we had earned. We got to the point where they had great trust in us and we were able to disappear into this Czech crowd at a cafe. It’s a scene that fully exemplifies the tip of film we were trying to make where the style comes together with the content.
Carlo: A lot of people have said that you forget you are watching a documentary in that moment, and that’s the best thing anyone can say to you as a documentary filmmaker.
Nick: Sometimes, you just get lucky and you have the camera on when those moments happen.
Niall: Where there any other happy accidents?
Carlo: One day we followed them into Glen’s room and Markéta began cutting Glen’s hair and it became this incredible scene that was so intimate and so interesting. And then at the very end of it, Glen picked up the guitar and started singing.
Niall: What camera did you shoot on?
Nick: Our cinematographer, Chris made some great choices in the beginning to use cinema lenses with an adapter on a Panasonic HVX. There’s no documentary-style zooming. It’s beautiful steady camera work.
Niall: The film is also in black and white. Actually, I thought you shot on 16mm.
Carlo: Well, that’s what we wanted. Once had a documentary feel, and we wanted our documentary to have a cinematic or narrative feel like Pennebaker’s great film about Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back.
Nick: yes, but also we decided that we wanted to be very close. There are wide shots of course, but we liked the intimate feeling of being very close and letting Glen come in and out of frame.
Niall: What about sound?
Nick: We used a boom, because we wanted it to sound like a feature film. I discovered, this Schoeps mic, it was just unbelievable. It’s like a surgeon’s knife.
Niall: How did you record concerts?
Nick: We took a tap off the sound board into the mixer which was plugged right into the camera. Sometimes I boomed also, because if you just go through the board it can have an empty or vacuous sound. Then we mixed it down to the camera. It worked. We were able to do a 5.1 surround sound mix.
Niall: So about the edit – how many hours of footage did you shoot?
Nick: We had 200 hours but to be honest there were two scenes that I edited right away and that really got me pumped. One was the hair-cutting scene, and the other was a scene that I cut with Glen and his father and mother at his home in Ireland.
That gave us a compass. It was a personal film. And then we used a series of bulletin boards and scene cards and notes and transcripts and passed them back and forth. It was probably four months before we found the film, it was gruelling at first.
Niall: And what did you decide was the arc?
Nick: The relationship, the tour and Glen’s family was the heart to it.
Carlo: There’s also the limelight and the nature of ambition and the double-edged sword of success.
Niall: Who financed the film?
Carlo: It was a shared endeavour between us and the record label.
Carlo: But this was a really low-budget film, we were living on the tour bus with the crew. There were no hotel rooms and when we were in Ireland, Glen put us up in his house. We were sleeping on the floor, so it was very much an intimate and by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of shoot.
Niall: You weren’t tempted to go to the Irish Film Board for money?
Carlo: Well, we were. They were wonderful but it was just a case of timing and we were just too busy making the movie to sit down and write to people and apply for money.
Niall: Well, thanks very much, and I wish you all the best with the film.
The Swell Season opens in US cinemas on October 7th 2011 in LA and October 21st in New York.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland #138 Autumn 2011.
Fore more details on its US release visit http://www.7thart.com/Home