Do not ask Glen Hansard about The Commitments. Ever since playing redheaded guitarist Outspan Foster in the 1991 cult classic, he finds it hard to distance himself from the film.
Maybe the problem is that Hansard is still a redheaded guitarist, but he's better known musically as the frontman for popular Dublin-based rock group the Frames. "My band is good too," Hansard says. "But it' s always The Commitments that gets asked about first, and I find that kind of depressing."
Hansard has no reason to be depressed about his second and latest film role. In Once, winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance, Hansard plays, well, a redheaded guitarist in Dublin. But this is a different Dublin, post-Celtic Tiger, where the struggling class on the city's north side is less likely to be redheaded and more likely to be the country's burgeoning population of Eastern European immigrants like Hansard's co-star and musical collaborator, Czech multi-instrumentalist Markéta Irglová. We caught up with Hansard, Irglová and Once writer/director John Carney (a former Frames member himself) on their recent visit to St. Louis and asked about the film, which Carney describes as "a snapshot of Dublin now."
Anna Teekell: Was it hard to shoot those street scenes with one of Dublin's most recognizable musicians playing on Grafton Street [Dublin's main drag]?
Glen Hansard: Well, it was tough because the cameras were across the street on long lenses, so you couldn't see them. So [if] you were walking down the street and you saw me and Markéta on the street, you wouldn't know it was two people shooting a scene.
John Carney: That made it easier in the long run, though, 'cause if it had been cameras in front of you, that would have given license [for the crowds] to go, "Oooh," whereas all they were seeing was Glen, who shouldn't be in the street busking, [and thinking], "He's back in the street busking, OK, leave him alone."
GH: Well, the Irish are good at leaving you alone, though. I mean, [there was] the odd kind of snidey remark or the odd request for a song, the odd people wanting to come up and get their photograph. That was all fine, but it was very disruptive because we're not actors. The opening scene we had to do at 5 a.m. because there was no way to get the street quiet.
AT: The Dublin streets are never quiet now. How do you reconcile, in the film, the contrast between the new, immigrant, technologically advanced Dublin and the obvious lack of technological devices in the film (which utilizes tapes over MP3s and snail mail over cell phones)?
JC: It was just one of those decisions you make like any decision. More like "let's have these characters be a bit more 1980s." [Then you don't have to] do the thing and say, "Oh my God, there's no signal." Just have nobody take a mobile phone. So, yeah, people may be saying at the end of the film, "Why didn't they just use their mobiles?" So rather than doing the Hollywood way of saying, "OK, let's just put it in but we'll see it being broken," we just dispensed with it. Because if they had mobile phones, they'd just ring up and say, "Oh, I'm really sorry about last night. Join me for coffee?" as opposed to "I'm going to have to go down, follow her down the street, make sure I'm there on time...."
AT: Because then there's no plot.
JC: Yeah, exactly. So it's just like that character is like a bit of the old Dublin.
GH: Well, I also think we all agree that 21st-century Dublin isn't all that interesting. It's full of wine bars; it looks like London.
Does this leave Hansard back in 1991? Like many a young Czech, his collaborator Irglová is moving to Dublin. Their album, The Swell Season, was released a year ago, a sort of pre-soundtrack to the musical Once. And it looks like their own roles as struggling musicians on Grafton Street are well over.