In 2008, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were catapulted onto Hollywood’s A-List when they won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly,” from John Carney’s Once. Like their characters in the no-budget film, Hansard and Irglová were beginning a real-life love affair. But the unexpected success of the film—and the massive fan base it created for their music—were just two of the challenges the duo faced in nurturing their relationship. It’s these ups and downs that moviemakers Chris Dapkins, Nick August-Perna and Carlo Mirabella-Davis were able to capture in their engaging new documentary, The Swell Season, which examines what happens when love and fame combine.
As the film begins its theatrical run, Dapkins chatted with MM about the origins of the movie, the importance of building trust and how not to blur the line of objectivity.
Jennifer Wood (MM): When did the idea to make The Swell Season come about? What was it about Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s story that you felt would make for a compelling documentary?
Chris Dapkins (CD): Shortly after winning an Oscar for Once, Glen happened to take a film class Carlo was teaching at the New York Film Academy. Carlo is a great teacher and they quickly formed a bond around Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and other classic films. Glen suggested the idea of documenting his upcoming tour. He was apprehensive about this new phase of playing to sold-out crowds around the world, and though he couldn’t say what it would be exactly, Glen felt there was something worth filming.
Carlo brought it to me and Nick and we all discussed the prospects of making a quiet, and patient, character-driven portrait set against this high-octane world tour. From the beginning, we wanted the film to stand alone regardless of whether the audience was familiar with their music or the film Once. For it to work though, we felt the documentary needed to inhabit a slightly removed plane, like a fiction film, and the story had to be told through observational scenes.
MM: How did your original vision or concept for the project change over time as you began filming and a story started to emerge?
CD: Originally we cast as wide a net as possible and filmed everything that caught our eye: Backstage, the bus, the shows, often filming moments we knew were of little use to the film. It helped us begin to make choices but, more importantly, it familiarized the band with the camera’s presence. They saw that everything and anything was fair game, which took the edge off when we finally turned the camera toward them. The film really found its form late in the tour, when we traveled to Europe and met Glen’s parents. Soon after, in Czech, Glen and Markéta had a raw and startling conversation at an outdoor café, where things seemed to come unhinged. At that point, we realized we were no longer just making a music documentary.
MM: Documentary-making always brings up an odd contradiction: In order to really get to the “good stuff” and have a subject open up to you and be honest, you need to establish a certain amount of trust. At the same time, as a moviemaker, you need to remain objective about your story. How do you balance that line?
CD: During production, I think that line existed naturally between our desire to evoke the essence of the story, and Glen and Mar’s desire for privacy. In the edit, however, it was a challenge to tease out the essence of a scene without tipping it over. When the shift in mood is subtle, one look that is too intense plunges the film into melodrama.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are The Swell Season.
MM: Equipment can play an important part in a documentary project; for example, a small, unobtrusive camera can help a subject forget it’s there. At the same time, sound is key in the film as music is an important part of the story. What sort of equipment did you use to shoot the film?
CD: We had a highly impractical setup. I had an HD camcorder with a lens adapter and Zeiss cinema lenses, as well as a monitor hanging from my neck. Nick had a boom and mixer. Carlo occasionally would carry a couple of small, portable LED lights and I would signal to him for some extra backlight. The one small advantage to such a large and heavy setup is the camera movement. There is a nice, roving somnambulistic feel to the moves. We also shot in black and white, which with the old cinema lenses, helped us further evoke the “remove” of fiction that we so desired.
MM: How has having three moviemakers at the helm most beneficial to The Swell Season? What were the challenges?
CD: Three is a democracy. We never reach an impasse; it’s always dynamic. We also keep each other laughing during very intense and difficult times.
The challenge with three, besides the fact that one can’t write an e-mail without the other two wanting to edit it, was during the final eight months of editing. Editing is such an intuitive, rhythmic exercise, so it was challenging to verbalize and defend fleeting instincts under a barrage of opposing ideas. But Nick kept an even hand and we came up with something that is better than what any one of us alone would have created.
MM: The film has screened at some pretty major festivals—including Tribeca and Silverdocs—and has already begun a theatrical run. What has been the most surprising part to you about the audience’s reaction to the film?
CD: Glen and Markéta have an incredibly committed and motivated fan base, so it has been a revelation to see this community first inspect cautiously, and then embrace this film as the next chapter in this duo’s epic story.
Visit http://www.theswellseasonmovie.com/screenings to learn about upcoming screenings in your area.