After starring in the indie hit “Once” in 2007 and winning the Academy Award® for best original song (“Falling Slowly”), folk rock musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won over audiences and skyrocketed to fame. For them life seemed to imitate art—the onscreen relationship was closely intertwined in both fact and fiction. But when they got back to post-Oscar® reality, Hansard, 35, and Irglova, only 18 years old, decided to dive in and ride the wave of newfound popularity by heading on tour.
This subtle and mesmerizing black-and-white music documentary bears witness to the band and the couple, from musical numbers that pleasure the ears and vibrate the screen to quiet moments where body language and silent pauses linger with foreboding heartbreak. It has always been apparent that the modest duo has a special connection musically, but when the offstage relationship doesn’t run as smoothly, it raises real questions about the future. Newcomer directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis weave an intelligent and poignant tale with universal themes of love and expectations faithfully imbued with the magic and honesty of Hansard and Irglova’s music. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]
“The Swell Season”
Primary Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Director(s): Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Screenwriter: Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Editor: Nick August-Perna
Cinematographer: Chris Dapkins
Producer(s): Carlo Mirabella-Davis
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Responses courtesy of “The Swell Season” directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis.
August-Perna: I saw the “The 400 blows” when I was about ten and I’ve never fully recovered. I was a shy kid who grew up in Allentown, PA and had no means to express myself until I was in my late teens. I took a film class in college and saw a few films by Claire Denis, and I remember feeling like that was a very transformative moment. She spoke a language I wanted to learn. It was nuanced and beautiful. I did the graduate program at NYU a few years later and that was the beginning of learning that language myself.
Dapkins: Growing up, I spent many hours alone wandering the countryside or playing games of the imagination with our co-director, Carlo. One simple game was called the Talk Game. One of us would play the ‘‘game master,” and the other would play a character who inhabited the ‘’game master”’s world. We would spend days on end, walking and talking, all the while co-creating elaborate narratives. I credit Carlo and the wilderness as early touchstones for my imagination.
Mirabella-Davis: Chris and I were raised together in the haunted mountains of upstate New York. From an early age, we spent our days consumed with telling stories and inventing new worlds. At age 15, we procured a decrepit Super 8 camera from a yard sale. The first film we shot caught fire in the projector. As we sat and watched the burning emulsion projected on my basement wall, I felt the psychotic soul of cinema dig its fingernails into our teenage brains. It still hasn’t let go.
Discovering the real subject matter…
Carlo had the good fortune to meet Glen and have a long, impassioned conversation with him about life, music, desire, terror and the odd circumstances the Swell Season found themselves in. They were just about to embark on a post-Oscar world tour through Ireland, Czech and the heartland of America. Glen and Markéta were immensely grateful for the accolades and exposure but also deeply ambivalent about being thrust into the limelight. After Carlo’s chat with Glen, he reached out to longtime collaborator friends, Nick and Chris. The band’s imminent musical odyssey seemed to hum with potential for a documentary. We pitched to Glen and Markéta the idea of letting us go on tour with them and luckily they agreed. In the beginning, we really thought we had a more traditional music documentary on our hands. As we filmed the duo over the course of three years, however, the film’s focus began to shift towards Glen and Markéta’s bond under the scrutiny and pressure of the limelight. In the end, the film really became a deeply personal portrait.
A narrative approach to documentary…
From the outset we wanted to forge a strong visual language based on a vérité, fly-on-the-wall approach. And since “Once” was a fiction film leaning towards documentary, we designed our documentary to tack towards a classic fiction film language. To do this, we chose to shoot in black-and-white with 35mm cinema lenses adapted onto an HD camera. With Chris operating the camera, Nick recording sound and Carlo holding an LED light, we became a quietly floating three-headed somnambulist. But rather than pursue Glen and Markéta around every corner, we would wait for them to enter our frame. This gave them room to breathe over the three years of production, while also imbuing the style with the disarming intimacy of a fiction film.
Glen and Markéta are extremely warm and generous people, and so the challenge of creating a certain comfort level while having the lens peering at them all the time was something that came gradually with time. But at a certain point, when we showed them some of the footage and they saw the degree to which we were lingering on them and eking out all of their subtleties, they were naturally taken aback by how personal it felt. They appreciated the beauty of the shots and the poetry of the black-and-white, but were nervous about being under that kind of magnifying glass. They saw we were capturing things on camera that, in certain cases, they hadn’t even realized were transpiring at the time they occurred. That is a shocking and unnerving experience for anyone.
Anecdotes from the set…
While filming in the Czech republic, one of the hotels we stayed at had these bathtubs that were curved at each end in this very strange way. One evening, after a long day of shooting, Nick stepped in the shower and not a second later found himself in the most compromised position he’d ever been in. Carlo ran in to help and found him teetering on the edge of the tub like a wounded amphibian.
One day we were shooting a scene in the Irish countryside with Glen. He’s a very warm, giving person who plays music simply for the joy of song. We took a break from shooting, and were sitting in a thicket while sheep and cattle traipsed by. Glen broke out a bottle of Middleton Whisky and we passed the bottle around while he sang Van Morrison songs. Carlo kept reaching for the camera, but the moment begged to remain un-captured.
August-Perna: I’m researching several documentary ideas, working on a narrative adaptation and writing another original narrative script.
Mirabella-Davis: I’m working on a feature screenplay that was at the 2011 Sundance Script Lab. It’s a Flannery O’Connor-esque drama with horror elements that takes place in upstate New York.
Dapkins: I’m writing something new.