A decade before Damien Chazelle was attempting to bring back the classic Hollywood musical with La La Land, Dublin-born writer/director John Carney gathered up a handful of his musician (read: non-actor) friends and spent 17 days and $150,000 filming an indie musical dramedy that reinvigorated the genre and turned the film’s stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, into Oscar winners. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Once’s release in U.S. theaters, here are 15 things you might not have known about the musical hit.
1. JOHN CARNEY OUTLINED THE FILM IN FIVE MINUTES.
Once tells the story of an aspiring musician (Glen Hansard) who, when he’s not fixing vacuum cleaners, is busking for loose change in the streets of Dublin. One evening, his music catches the attention of a female flower-seller (Markéta Irglová) who has a vacuum in need of fixing and some musical chops of her own. The two form a fast friendship that flirts with possible romance; their relationship plays out via the film’s music, which acts as a sort of narrator. To a certain degree, the film—which was written and directed by John Carney, a former member of Hansard’s band The Frames—has some autobiographical elements.
The idea for the story came to Carney in 2004, when he was sitting in a café and missing his girlfriend, an actress who was living in London after landing a role that required her to relocate. In just five minutes, he wrote the outline for what would become Once, and told The Guardian that “it never changed … I was sitting there thinking, ‘Where has the Dublin I knew gone?’ The city has shed a lot of its greatness. It has lost its soul. I was seeing all these new immigrants in Dublin and identifying with them. I decided I wanted one character who was a Dubliner and one who was not.”
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY ENVISIONED AS A VEHICLE FOR CILLIAN MURPHY.
Considering how integral Hansard’s music is to the narrative of Once, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the film’s lead. But Carney originally developed the project as a starring vehicle for Cillian Murphy, with whom he had worked on 2001’s On the Edge.
“I originally wanted Cillian Murphy for the role,” Carney told CHUD.com. “I know Cillian, and he can sing. He’s quite a good singer. I thought I’d do the usual thing where you get a good actor who can half sing and train that voice, but then it became clear to everybody on the film that we should do it the other way around, that we should get somebody who could really sing and half act and I’ll trust that I would be able to do something magical with that.”
Other sources state that it was Murphy who opted not to do the project, either because he wasn’t comfortable working opposite an inexperienced non-actor like Irglová (“It’s a real risk for an actor to be in a movie with a non-actor,” Irglová, who was 19 at the time, told The New York Times) and/or because he wasn’t sure he could pull of Hansard’s songs.
“Cillian doesn't like me saying this,” Hansard told the Independent, “but he had reservations about some of my songs. They were quite hard to sing, quite raging. But, then, the character was pretty dark.”
3. GLEN HANSARD REALLY HAD TO BE CONVINCED TO ACT IN THE FILM.
Though Hansard had a small role as Outspan Foster in Alan Parker’s The Commitments, he didn’t consider himself an “actor” and wasn’t particularly interested in becoming one. But Once would be full of his music and, as Carney told The New York Times, “He sells the songs better than anybody.”
Still, as Hansard told CHUD.com, “I was terrified, for a few reasons. I didn’t want to suck for [John’s] sake, and I didn’t want to suck for my own. I’m a reasonably confident person behind a guitar, but in front of a camera is a whole other ball game. I needed him to tell me the truth—are we rubbish, are we going to pull it off, is it going to work? Because if it isn’t, let’s just pack it in.” Eventually, Hansard relented and agreed to step in front of the camera, on the condition: if he sucked, Carney would can him right away.
4. GUY’S GIRLFRIEND IS THE DIRECTOR’S GIRLFRIEND.
In a montage, there are flashback scenes of Guy and his ex-girlfriend. In real life, Guy’s girlfriend was Carney’s girlfriend.
5. THE SCRIPT AND THE MUSIC WERE WRITTEN IN CONCERT WITH EACH OTHER.
“It was a very collaborative process,” Carney said of the music-writing for Once. “I liked being able to work with the songwriter of the musical. In the classic musicals, the songs were already there, and you couldn’t really touch it and you wrote a story around these songs. I liked that I knew Glen and I could communicate with him and say, what do you think about this as a theme, and he would mull it over and come back with a lyric or a title, or with a song that he had written ages ago. It was very much a song here, a scene here, and we would bounce off ideas with the skeleton of the story in place—guy meets girl, he’s broken hearted, she’s this, they come together.”
“The songs were written by me and Mar—some before filming, some during, some afterwards,” Hansard told Reverse Shot. “John showed us the script, and we all talked about it for a few weeks. He had a very particular aesthetic, and the fact that he chose us to be in the film made it easier for us to write what he wanted. He would say, ‘I want a song for the scene where Mar walks down the street, and it has to be a certain tone, and we would work on that while we were acting so the whole thing was organic and collaborative.’ But we were definitely working towards John’s agenda."
6. A LOT OF IT IS IMPROVISED, MOSTLY FOR PRACTICAL REASONS.
Because neither Hansard nor Irglová were trained actors, Carney let the actors improvise in order to encourage the most natural performances. “There was a lot of self-deprecation from John on the set,” Hansard told Reverse Shot. “He would say a line he had written was bullsh*t, and ask us to get the idea across in a believable way. It needed to be loose, though, because neither of us had acted before, and it would have made me very stiff if I had had to learn a complete script verbatim. I have no problem behind a guitar, but whenever there was dialogue I was a wreck.”
Irglová echoed Hansard’s concerns, admitting that, “Scripted dialogue was very hard for me because of the language problem. The scene where the characters meet was written out, and I would have never have spoken that way."
7. A LOT OF IT WAS SHOT WITHOUT PERMITS.
An indie film in the truest sense of the word, The Washington Post wrote that, “The movie was shot guerrilla-style on the Dublin streets: no permits, no lighting, no production designers, no wardrobe, no paid extras, no location scouts, no production trailers—just a tiny crew using natural light, a couple of Sony-HD cameras and real places and people, including Hansard's friends and mother. There were no rehearsals, and pre-production largely consisted of viewing sessions of independent films and musicals: Singin' in the Rain, A Woman Under the Influence, a Roman Polanski box set, [and] Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows."
8. A THEATRICAL RELEASE WASN’T PART OF THE ORIGINAL PLAN FOR THE FILM.
The fact that the film became a hit was as much a surprise to its makers as it was to anyone—especially as they hadn’t even intended to release it in theaters. According to The New York Times, the plan was to have a limited theatrical run in Dublin, but then go straight to DVD in most other markets, and to allow Hansard and the other featured musicians to sell copies of the film as part of their concert swag. Before that, it made a few film festival appearances, which is where one of Sundance’s programmers saw it. Though Once had been rejected by other major fests like Toronto, the Sundance Film Festival invited Carney and company to be a part of the 2007 event, where the film won the Audience Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. And just like that, Fox Searchlight decided to scoop up the theatrical rights for $500,000.
9. CARNEY PREDICTED THE MOVIE’S OSCAR WIN.
After filming the scene where Hansard and Irglová sing “Falling Slowly” in a music store, Hansard recalled that, “John said, joking, 'And the Oscar for Best Song goes to …' and we all started laughing because of the ridiculousness of the budget we were working on and the way we were shooting this film. We just laughed.”
Following the announcements of the 2008 Academy Award nominations in early January, Hansard called Carney and “said 'Man I remembered last night what you said and I can't believe it, and none of us even dared go there in our heads but my God!'"
At that year’s Oscar ceremony, Hansard and Irglová took home the Oscar for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.
10. WE NEVER LEARN THE LEAD CHARACTERS’ NAMES.
One of Once’s most remarkable achievements is its intimacy; the way the film is acted and shot makes the viewer feel like part of the action. One way Carney extended the relatability of these characters was by never giving them names; they’re simply known as Guy and Girl in the credits.
11. GUY AND GIRL WERE SUPPOSED TO DO THE DEED.
According to The New York Times, the film’s title originally referred to a scene in which Guy and Girl would sleep together—but only once. (Get it?) Though Carney wrote the scene, the actors didn’t think it rang true to the unique nature of the characters’ relationship (Irglová called it “so predictable”), so Carney scrapped it. In his mind, that changed the meaning of the title, too, which he said was a nod to the many people he had met in bars over the years: “They say, ‘Once I do this, then it’ll be great.’ But they never do it. It’s a great Irish tradition of vacillating."
12. STEVEN SPIELBERG LOVED IT.
Once was a huge hit with audiences, including a handful of very high-powered moviegoers. Steven Spielberg mentioned the movie to USA Today, saying that, “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”
13. THE SIMPSONS PAID TRIBUTE TO IT.
In what might be the greatest pop culture compliment, The Simpsons paid tribute to Once by reuniting Hansard and Irglová for a 2009 episode that recreated the film.
14. IT WAS TURNED INTO A TONY AWARD-WINNING STAGE PRODUCTION.
In 2012, Once began a new life on the Broadway stage, with Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti stepping into the roles made famous by Hansard and Irglová. The play was a bona fide smash, winning eight of its 11 Tony Award nominations.
15. HANSARD WASN’T THRILLED ABOUT ITS MOVE TO BROADWAY.
In an interview with the Independent, Hansard admitted that he wasn’t totally thrilled with the idea of turning the film into a play: “True, I didn't like the idea of it becoming a musical—I feared overexposure would kill it—but I suppose it helps me stand up and be in the world. And if I am remembered for that one song, well, there are worse fates."