Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Class: Once

Potato & Scallion Soup
Tomato-Cucumber Salad (Šopský salát)
Beef & Guinness Guláš (Goulash) w/Buttered Noodles
Ovocné Knedliky (Czech Fruit Dumplings) w/Irish Whiskey Butter Sauce

Wow, a sold out class tonight and a lot of new people. Everything went great except the movie froze twice (first time for everything, I guess). The food turned out quite well and most hadn't seen the movie before and it's always great to watch people seeing a movie you love for the first time.

The two characters in this film form a duet and, in real life, the two main actors/performers also formed a duet, both musically and romantically. But also this film is a duet. A few years after Once was made, a documentary was done which followed the two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, on tour. The latter film, The Swell Season (also the name of Hansard and Irglova's group), shows the real life couple having both gone and going through a lot of changes since they made the former. Shot in black and white, The Swell Season plays almost like a Cassavetes movie with music. And while in some ways, I suppose, it yanks the fantasy out of Once, it also reaffirms the reality that love is something precious, often fleeting, and we must suck every ounce of joy from it while we can when it lets us take a sip from its crazy straw. And if you survive the pain of heartbreak, you might be able to enjoy how nice it was and honor its impermanent nature, which is a lot of what Once is about. And that's a sort of pragmatic Valentine's thought to offer, no? So, Happy belated Valentine's Day.

Once is available for purchase or streaming @ Amazon. The Swell Season is available for purchase & streaming @ Amazon and can be streamed on Netflix.


"Ten years ago I fell in love with an Irish girl, she took my heart.
But she went and screwed some guy that she knew,
and now I’m in Dublin with a broken heart.
Broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy...
One day I’ll go there and win her once again.
But until then I’m just a sucker of a guy

Let's start here. When Glen Hansard was 13, being a bit of a troublemaker, he made a deal with his school's headmaster that he would quit school for a year and try his hand as a busker (see Background & Context). "I was 5 years old when I decided to be a singer," Hansard said. "There was never anything else. My mother was a Dylan fan. She taught me the lyrics of 'Bird on a Wire' by Cohen when I was 5 years old, for my birthday. So I just knew I wanted to be a singer. There was never any question."

His mother believed in him so much that in his late teens she went to the bank to get a loan and lied, saying "she was going to get her house done-up," and got her son money to record a demo. Hansard said it happened almost the same way it's "recreated" in the film, wherein the bank manager took out his guitar and played them a song. As well, the studio they record at in the movie is the same one Hansard first recorded that demo in. One of those tapes made it to Chris Blackwell of Island Records (who co-produced Chef du Cinema pick The Harder They Come) who loved it.

So in 1990, 20 year-old Glen Hansard signed a record deal with Island, formed his own band (The Frames), and also got a role in the Alan Parker film The Commitments. It was a very life-changing year. "I loved making [The Commitments] but everything afterwards was very confusing," he recalled. "We went to America and they tried to turn us into a real band, it was a big promo gravy train, and the thing is the Commitments weren't actually a very good band. I felt like a cheat. We were being promoted like rock stars, and then it was over. It's a bit like what's going on with reality TV: imagine giving somebody everything they've ever wanted for a month, then taking it all back. It was an awful experience in terms of feeling emotionally robbed. And I was stuck with Outspan [the name of the character he played in the movie] for years. Everybody I met thought I was that guy."

(I think it's very interesting to note that Hansard's first film is about a fictional band that wound up touring almost as a "real" band, and in Once, we have a real band that winds up touring almost as a "fictional" band. And the frustration he notes above, is in some ways similar, and I'm sure is connected, to the frustrations we can see him experiencing in The Swell Season.)

Now, the original bass player in The Frames was 17-year old John Carney. In addition to music, Carney was also interested in movies. He directed some of the bands' videos, and when he quit the band, made two award winning short films. Then in 1996, directed his first feature film, November Afternoon, which was acclaimed as the "Film of the Year" by The Irish Times. Carney went on to make two more feature films then, as he has said (RTF), "I was a filmmaker for a while and then I got sucked into TV," and co-created the highly successful Irish comedy/drama series Bachelors Walk. In 2004, he found himself sitting in a café in Dublin and thinking about making another feature film.

"All day, instead of working, I would be downloading music," Carney recalled. "So I started thinking, how can I turn that into work? In the few films I made before this, I had too much music. So rather than going backwards and stripping away the music, I decided to go full on. What would it be like nowadays to make a musical with eight songs, very little dialogue, and a small story, just a two-hander really? So the whole project came out of being a musician and being a fan of musicals — and just listening."

(Another sort of "tip of the hat" in Once is when Hansard meets with the street musicians about backing him up for his recording session, they say "We only do Lizzy. Really. It's one of our things," referring to the legendary Irish rock band Thin Lizzy. After Carney left the band, Graham Downey, son of Thin Lizzy drummer Brian Downey, played bass in The Frames between 1993 and 1996.)

"I love Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra musicals and Guys and Dolls - I'm a big fan of that type of film," he admitted. "So it's always been a challenge to me to make a musical that worked and that an audience could accept. Obviously, a younger audience is just not really going to accept people breaking into song anymore - walking down the street and suddenly singing to each other. It was a real challenge to try and come up with a world where it was acceptable that people would sing and experiment with songs - rehearse songs with each other and express themselves through music."

And at the same time, Carney's girlfriend, actress Marcella Plunkett, was away on an acting job in London, "and I was feeling quite isolated," he said. "I wanted to write something about a character who would meet a woman who would kinda guide him in the right direction. I guess it was a bit of a male fantasy in a way, that I would meet someone where I wouldn't betray my relationship with my girlfriend, but at the same time you'd meet somebody you could tell your girlfriend about. Sometimes it's the strangers, the people who know you least, that actually say exactly what you need to hear. It's not your family or your friends, sometimes it's the person who comes along and says, 'You know what you need?' And suddenly, they're right. And the little they know about you, the more objective they are. That's where I was at when I was writing the film, so there's definitely an autobiographical strand to it." (Another bit of reality entering the film is that the home movies we see of Hansard's character's girlfriend are, in fact, home movies of Plunkett that Carney shot before the movie was ever conceived.)

He was also feeling a bit lost seeing how much Dublin had changed over the last decade. Hansard related to this when Carney later showed him the completed screenplay. "Dublin is being a little bit, at the moment, we’re a little bit unfriendly to the people that are coming into the country," Hansard explained, "which is surprising because, as the Irish, we should be much more welcoming because we’ve been welcomed all over the world. There is a kind of a tension at the moment and I thought even subconsciously John hit a tone there that was quite political, but without ever being consciously political."

"I was sitting there [in that café] thinking, "Where has the Dublin I knew gone?'" Carney recalled. "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."

Carney realized one way to bring the music into the film was to make the Dubliner a busker. So he asked Hansard to share with him stories about his busking days... and to write the music. "I basically gave him a record I had just finished with [Marketa Irglova], called The Swell Season, and I gave him a bunch of home recordings," Hansard recalled. "He picked a bunch of tunes he really liked and said, 'Now can you give me a few more in this vein?' - And he basically gave me kind of a request list of all the songs he needed."

Hansard originally met Irglova about five years earlier. The Frames were playing in Valašské Meziříčí (in the Czech Republic), "and her father was the promoter, and [we] ended up staying over at her house for about a month," Hansard said. "She plays piano really really well and writes lyrics and she's a great songwriter, so in that time, we ended up kind of hanging out and wrote a few songs together and then basically we were just doing a few gigs in the Czech Republic, very low-key, playing cafés and little theaters, nothing very serious. Then a Czech director came to us about a year and a half ago and asked us to write him a couple of songs for his film, Beauty in Trouble. So we went into the studio and recorded 14 songs and that ended up being The Swell Season, which was the record John heard and really liked some of the songs. So there's three songs from that record in Once."

As I've already touched on above, from the stories Hansard shared, Carney incorporated many of them into his script. These bits include the story about getting money for the demo, and using the studio Hansard also first recorded in. Other similarities, Hansard noted: "In the movie, I live with my father and I fix vacuum cleaners. In my real life, I lived with my older brother and fixed bicycles. My character gets robbed on the street. I used to get robbed by the same guy every few weeks and I´d have to chase him down." As well, Hansard first formed The Frames the way his character meets the street musicians in the movie.

But for the longest time, Carney never considered to cast Hansard as the lead, nor did Hansard see himself going back for another round of movie acting. "The weird thing is," Carney said, "the film was actually originally written for a 26-year-old guy and a 30-year-old girl. I wanted to get Cillian Murphy in the lead role who I had worked with before [in Carney's film On The Edge] and I was thinking I'd get some posh Czech Republic actress who is famous at home to come over to Ireland to make this film and I'd raise like $2.5 million and I'd shoot it on 35mm and we'd lock in for a 5 or 6-week shoot."

But as to what happened with Murphy's involvement, there are several versions to the story. In one version, Murphy wasn't actually attached to the project. In another, Murphy was attached and then pulled out at the last moment. In yet another version, Carney said he'd rather have a singer who could "half-act" than an actor who could "half-sing." Whatever happened, when Murphy was no longer involved, Carney's original producer also pulled out.

Meanwhile, as Hansard explained, "[John] was looking for a ‘non-specific Eastern European piano playing 35-year old,’ and it wasn’t going well. But I had worked with Mara [Marketa's nickname] and, although she was much younger than the character he had mentioned to me, she is Eastern European, she does play the piano and she does sing. John met her and cast her almost immediately which was just brilliant.”

"[O]ne night I got a phone call from Glen, asking if I’d like to act in the film," Irglova remembered (RTF). "I thought he was joking! But he was serious, saying that John was considering casting me in the film, that he wanted me to audition for it.... I didn’t really take it so seriously.... So I did the audition, I played some piano music for John, I read a bit of script, and that was it."

Now, again depending on different versions of the story, when Carney told Hansard he wanted him to play the lead, Hansard turned him down and suggested Damien Rice. But Carney was persistent and eventually Hansard agreed. "I guess my logic was we're going to make this together, we're going to make it authentic, and we'll make it with Dublin accents and when we play music, we play it live. We don't cheat and we make this as real as we can and if we make it like that, it will have to have shelf life," Hansard said. "You don't want to make another DVD that's just another bullsh*t story - a B movie. So if you're going to make something, do it right. I guess for me that's what was so attractive about it.... I felt that this was the first script, the first thing that I had seen that actually took a snapshot of Dublin now in modern times and that was exciting for me. So there were reasons to get behind this and reasons to kind of give it a go, but I did say to John first and foremost, if I'm sh*t, if me and Mara are really sh*t, you've got to fire us like for our own sakes, not for yours but for our sakes, you've got to get us out of your film if we don't pull it off. We just trusted him and I think he got a good performance out of us."

Carney managed to get about $50-60,000 initially from the Irish Film Board, and in the end the film cost around $160,000. They shot it in 17 days with small Sony HDV Handicams. Their biggest expense was a one day crane rental for about $4000. "[I]t was a real back to basics kind of [filmmaking] stripped back to its very core - no catering, no M&M's, no fridge, no hotel rooms, stealing cups of tea, changing in restrooms in restaurants and slipping into costumes, very little make-up," said Carney. Their original idea was for the film to be sold on DVD to fans at gigs. "I know it sounds trite to say it, but we really didn't expect anybody to see it," admitted Hansard.

Now the only thing, shall we say, that was awkward - or as Irglova has said, "a bit disturbing" - about her friendship/collaboration with Hansard was that when they first met, Hansard was 31 and Irglova was 13. "People saw more in it than there was. I was just traveling and making music with someone I respected," she stated. For those who don't play music, it's hard to explain that there is no age discrimination - Someone 80 years old can jam with someone who is eight. And when two or more people play together, the communication and connection is almost impossible to describe. These two, whatever their age difference, found they fit musically together. Hansard said, "Mar bullied her way into my creative life.... I found a companion in music."

It wasn't until just as Carney was embarking on the film that Hansard and Irglova, now 17, started to consider each other more than musical partners. Irglova noted, "I've always had feelings for Glen but it was never allowed... In the back of my head I always fantasized - I thought, maybe when I'm older. Then when I had almost given up on it, we were thrust together."

"I never knew whether they were going out or not. I certainly did not pose the question," Carney said. Though he could sense them falling for each other and teased them by calling them "Bogart and Bacall" (see my post on To Have & Have Not about their romance).

And, as so many have noted, it becomes quite obvious watching the movie that what really sells their acting performances is that as the filming progressed, Hansard and Irglova, like the characters they were playing, were falling in love with each other. "In the movie, I am falling in love with Markéta," Hansard said, and elsewhere added, "And after filming, Fox Searchlight put us in a tour bus together, and it just felt natural. We graduated from a feeling.... It made sense."

"For me [our age difference] was definitely an issue when we were getting together," Hansard continued. "But Mar is really amazing. She's more mature than me. And you just ask yourself: Is this the kind of person I can marry and have kids with? Yes. And that's good enough reason to start something with them. I think that's the way you judge any relationship."

Once they finished the film, as noted above, noone had any great expectations for the film. Carney tried to get it into some festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, which turned them down. "The mad irony," Hansard said, "is we showed it in Galway [at the Festival there] and one guy just happened to be in Galway and saw our film by chance. He said he worked for Sundance and wanted to bring them a copy of the film. We didn't even tell him that we had been refused! We said 'Yeah, cool, brilliant, take it.' And we got in." Not only was it then shown at Sundance ("They were turning people away at the door," said Carney), but it won the Audience Award. Fox Searchlight picked up the North American distribution rights and it found a welcome audience worldwide. Hansard and Irglova toured heavily at the same time in support of the film, during which time their romance really blossomed.

The media picked up on the romantic angle and it all became a part of the story. "[E]verything about what happened during Once was magical and amazing," Hansard recalled, "and the fact that me and Mar started going out, it was just private and lovely. And somehow, it got out that we were.... It happened in this weird way, that it got out that we were together. And neither of us really cared, but then it turned into a bigger story than either of us were particularly comfortable with, because this idea of celebrity is a very insecure notion, and the fact that it became part of the story, like you say, 'storybook ending,' or we were 'living the sequel,' that also got mentioned..... And we almost became that 'showing up in celeb magazines' kind of thing. But I don’t think either of us ever really wanted to embrace that aspect. It just wasn’t attractive...."

And like a "storybook ending," the little film made on shoestring was suddenly nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. When John Travolta read their names from stage as the winners, the duo were in shock. Hansard made a short speech and Irglova, who hadn't anything really prepared, stepped up to the mike to just say "Thank you," but was cut off. Either it was host Jon Stewart, or supposedly actor Colin Farrell, got the show to let Irglova return to make a short speech after the commercial break. (You can watch the video of their acceptance speeches here.) For Hansard, the craziest thing was getting a text from Bono, which he said "is the biggest thing that can happen to an Irishman. It was one of those moments - getting praise from the high chieftain of our culture."

That night I felt completely overjoyed," recalled Irglova. "I felt so full of love, my heart was completely open, and through the love I felt for everybody around me I just felt really connected to everybody and everything and really present in the moment. I realized that just as much as that moment belonging to Glen and I, it wasn’t just ours, it belonged to everybody who helped us to get to that point and to all the people who were in a similar position."

Hansard and Irglova continued to tour together, but - and this is where you should watch the documentary The Swell Season, because it picks up the "real" story from there - like all fairy tales, this one came to an end.

Like Glen always puts it," Irglova said in 2009 of their split, "you live your life, and the residue of that life you lead becomes the music.... The same way it turned from friends to lovers, it somehow managed to turn the other way around at the end of it, which I’m delighted about because I’d hate for it to be drama.”

"It was tricky in that we split up and had to remain in a band," said Hansard in 2011. "Whenever we play music together, it's f@ckin' intimate, there's no two ways about it. You cannot sing with someone and not be intimate - it just doesn't work, and that's why I'm not playing in the band right now. I'm still in the band, but I'm not playing with Mar right now. Mar, of course, fell in love with one of the members of our crew while we were all on tour together, so that was a little difficult for us all to sort out. We were living in a bubble, you know? We were on a tour bus traveling around, and there comes a point where you have to say, 'Okay, I'll jump off the bus for a year or two,' and that's kind of what happened."

In 2011, Irglova married Chicago-based sound engineer Tim Iseler. In 2012, they were divorced.

And the tale of Once continues to live on as the movie was turned into a Broadway musical and in 2012 won the Tony Award for Best Musical of the Year.

Regarding the musical, Hansard said, "My initial response was, 'Jesus, why can't we leave it alone? Why would they do that?'.... [But] I went to see a version of it in Boston, and I have to say, I was really, really terrified to see it, but I was floored. It was f@cking brilliant. I was very cynical about it, so I'm very happy to report that they did a great job. There will always be a part of me that's like, 'A Broadway musical, are you kidding?' but having said that... I thought they did an amazing job."

Hansard continues to tour with The Frames and as a solo artist, and Irglova tours as a solo artist, as well.


"Some are good, some are bad, some are insufferable: you know it’s summertime when the buskers take over the streets," wrote Una Mullally, in 2011 in The Irish Times. And last year, The [Irish] Journal asked readers: "Street performers are intrinsic to Ireland’s fair cities... but do you like them?"

The word "busker" or "busking" is believed to come from the Spanish word "buscar." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "buscar" as "1) to look for, to seek; 2) to pick up, to collect; and 3) to provoke." All three of those definitions definitely relate to busking.

According to the London Performers website: "The term 'busking' first appeared in the English language at around 1860 in Great Britain. Before 20th century, buskers were not called buskers in English-speaking lands, but rather, which nowadays generally carries negative racial connotations, "minstrels." In parts of France, 'troubadour' is what they used to call buskers. In northern France, buskers were called 'jongleurs.' 'Minnesigner' was what you'd call a busker in old German. Buskers in Italy are called 'buscarsi.'" And to be clear, busking, though the term is generally associated today with musicians, includes any and all kinds of street performers - mimes, living statues, clowns, acrobatic acts, etc.

Traveling street performers probably first showed up in the world when the first streets were laid out in cities. Often store owners would invite a performer to play in front of their establishment to encourage shoppers to enter. Similarly, traveling salesmen would put on a public show with performers to sell their wares. Today, there isn't a city in the world (except maybe in North Korea and such) where you can't find someone performing for spare change on the streets.

Busking is a valuable part of the cultural makeup and fabric of Dublin,” said Jim Doyle, an arts officer with Dublin City Council last year. So much a part, that last year new laws were passed regarding busking in the city, such as (PDF): "Musical performers must have a repertoire of at least 20 songs to avoid repetition of the same song/piece of music."

For the last four years, Glen Hansard, Bono, Sinead O'Connor and other notable Irish musicians have taken to the streets of Dublin to busk for charity during Christmas time. Hansard said he still enjoys busking occasionally. "It's one of those things. It's a wonderful thing to go back to do and sharpen your sword. There's a real magic and sense of opportunity if you're a busker...."

Bono, Glen Hansard, Eoin Glackin, Lisa Hannigan and friends. Busking in Dublin, Ireland on Grafton Street. Christmas Eve 2012

Other famous musicians who have enjoyed a bit of busking after becoming famous include classical violinist Joshua Bell, and even rock star Neil Young.


So, the menu for this class came from the romantic notion of bringing together elements of both Irish and Czech cuisine. Both are pretty much meat and root vegetable cultures, so it wasn't that difficult.

Potato and onions are popular in both countries and soup based on these two ingredients are quite typical. The same goes for the salad course - tomatoes and cucumbers are standard salad on both Irish and Czech tables.

For the main course, goulash is very close to Irish stew, and by making mine with both paprika and carraway seeds from the Czech side and Guinness from the Irish side, we have a perfect marriage of flavors. Now while traditionally the Czech version of goulash is served with bread dumplings, since we have dumplings for dessert, I've opted for noodles.

Now fruit dumplings such as those featured online are part of Czech cuisine, but also Slovakia, Austria, Germany, and other Eastern European countries. The Irish also have a lot of dumplings in their cuisine, though they go for savory only. These sweet Czech fruit dumplings can be made with flour (you can use AP flour, but a courser flour, like semolina or even farina, is more typical), potato, or even bread crumbs, and with or without cheese (milk is then used). I've read they are typically served for dessert, but also that they are typically served as a main dish, so do as you please. Stone fruits or berries are the usual choice of filling, but you may also find them stuffed with fruit jam. And to give it a bit of the Irish, I've made a nice Irish Whiskey sauce for it.

And just one final recommendation from Mr. Hansard: “It think it really important that when anything good happens in your life to open a bottle of champagne,” Hansard said in an interview. “And the reason I say that, is because it is a symbol, it’s really, really good to celebrate the good things that happen." And certainly champagne goes really nicely with this dessert. Just saying.

I think we're done here. As always.... cook, eat, watch, and enjoy.

Ovocné Knedliky (Czech Fruit Dumplings) w/Irish Whiskey Butter Sauce
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes about 15 dumplings

For the dumplings:
8 ounces mascarpone, farmers or ricotta cheese (if using mascarpone, add 3 drops of lemon juice)
3/4 cup semolina or Wondra flour
1 egg

Your choice of fruit: peaches, plums, apricots, strawberries (I used strawberries as stone fruit was out of season and would suggest cutting whatever fruit you use to about the size of a medium strawberry.)

For the Irish Whiskey Butter:
1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/8 cup Irish whiskey
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

AP flour for dusting
Extra mascarpone or crème fraîche for serving

Mix dumpling ingredients together and knead into a dough ball. Refrigerate for about 20 minutes.

Have fruit prepared and remove dough from fridge. Dust some AP flour on your work surface and rub some in your hands (that you've washed). Pull a piece somewhere between a ping-pong and golf ball size and with your palm, flatten it on the floured surface. Place fruit in the center and then fold the dough over it. Then with your hands, roll it into a ball, ensuring that the fruit is pretty centered within the dough ball. If you need more dough, grab it. If you need less dough, snip some off. Put on lightly-floured shallow baking pan. Repeat, flouring hands with each, until done. At this point you can refrigerate the dough balls, with some plastic wrap over the pan, until ready to serve.

When ready, boil a pot of lightly salted water.

Drop dumplings (not all at once, and don't crowd them) into the boiling water for about 8-10 minutes until done.

Meanwhile, melt the butter, add the whiskey, then whisk in the sugar until completely dissolved.

To serve, place a few dumpling on a plate, add a small dollop of mascarpone, then top with Irish whiskey butter sauce.

Official Once site @ Fox Searchlight
Official The Swell Season site
The Swell Season - Tiny Desk Concert @ NPR
The Swell Season - Live @ Aomeba Record Storen 2009
Busker Central Web site

Once DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
The Swell Season DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
The Swell Seaosn: Strict Joy CD/MP3

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