Interview: Swell Season doc filmmakers on making an epilogue to ‘Once’

What happens to the real lives of two artists after they earn an Academy Award for their fictional love story? What happens to their very real, non-fictional relationship?

“The Swell Season,” the documentary that made its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last week, is the epilogue to Oscar-winning “Once,” which in its way parses the truth and fiction of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for the duo”s fans. Over three years, directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis filmed the Swell Season as they promoted the soundtrack music and newer album “Strict Joy.”
The stint was not just a glimpse into the inner-workings of a band propelled into an internationally acclaimed limelight, but a creation — then degeneration — of a romance that sprung from the pair”s close-quartered artistry. Between loving conversations with Hansard”s sweet Irish mother, the quiet fights between steady-spirited Irglova and strong-headed Hansard, the drinking, sound-checks and long nature shots, there”s the music that captured the inner-romantic of everyone who was charmed by “Once.” Hundreds of hours of footage was pared down to quiet essentials, sometimes soundly expressed in a lonesome solo performance or a loud clash of The Frames frontman”s yowl.
[More after the jump…]
Irglova and Hansard began their real-life love affair after “Falling Slowly” took Best Song in February 2008, at the peak of their post-win popularity. At the time, she was in her late-teens. Hansard was well into his mid-30s. Now at 23 and 41, have been split for more than a year. In the black and white film – as it is often unfolds in reality — there”s no single moment when the break is obvious, no broken vases or tearful tantrums. This is not the Kardashians, or Nick & Jessica.
When I asked August-Perna and Dapkins if they saw the breakup coming –having been “a part of the band for three years” – both were silent for a few moments. Dapkins: “I… don”t know. No?” August-Perna shook his head, sighed, shrugged and looked at the table.
Below is an abridged Q&A with the two of the three directors, on boundaries as a filmmaker, acting and living identities and how editing a movie is like working in the Senate. It’s long because the film was pretty good.
What kind of film were you expecting to make? Was this supposed to be a rock doc, initially?
Nick: The idea was for this to be a tour film at first. Chris is a DP, I do a lot of editing. On one hand it is a tour film, on the other hand it”s a love story, and then there was a guy [Hansard] in the little bit of a crisis. It was a very cinematic story from the get-go. The subtextual elements ultimately became a very personal story.
Chris: From the beginning we didn”t want to make it a promotion video of a band. We and they wanted a deeper story, a film that stood on its own. So it took time and patience, because we had no thesis.
How did that influence the way you shot, and were you influenced by other music documentaries?
Nick: It was primarily shot as a vérité and of course we loved the ’70s films like “Don”t Look Back “and “Gimme Shelter”… It was very fly-on-the-wall, dedicated and patient.
Were you conscious of making it look completely different from “Once?” Or did you want to reference it?
Nick: “Once” was shot in a way that lends itself to documentary. Fans actually thought there were elements that were real. We wanted this to contrast entirely. We wanted it to have the feel of an old classic of an old black-and-white film. It isn”t frenetic and desperate like “Once”… The drama slowly accumulates, like a sleeper effect. ¾ in the middle of film, you realize you”re in the midst of an infinite drama.
Chris: We”d stay in a room and let Glen and Mar leave the room, we could just wait for them to come back in, we wouldn”t chase them. It was like very traditional and natural entrances and exits.
Older rock documentaries are very male-heavy, because of the bands that were featured. There weren”t a lot of women in those kind oof movies. There is a very interest female perspectiv in this film, with Marketa being such a force, Glen”s mom, and the heavily female-leaning audience Swell Season draws…
Nick: Mar is unbelievably comfortable with who she is and has a strong instinct for other people. I think everyone sees her as a really strong character. When she entered the room on tour, the guys got quiet — not because they were worried about being judged but because she had a very strong woman presence. She was the one woman in a group of however many guys. Her shyness is more out of a woman who doesn”t small-talk. When she says something, it”s usually pretty interesting, pretty profound.
Chris: Her shyness is kind of an aversion to certain facets of celebrity culture. But she is consistently regarded as the touchstone of moral of and creative and ethical issues on the tour, even though she was 19 at the time.
The film definitely had an awareness of their age difference, their personality differences, and ultimately her desire to be her own woman. It”s sort of like you guys were growing up with her.
Chris: She would definitely say she”s changed quite a bit over this time.
How did that effect the way you shot them differently, at different times?
Nick: Early on, in the closeup kind of interviews, you could always see Glen close by. In the film, there”s quite a few scenes where they”re together as a couple. We didn”t orchestrate anything. We didn”t ask or, we just allowed it to unfold.  In the beginning, [the relationship] was blossoming, and they were protective of each other, just like anyone else would want to do. As time grew, their relationship became more public and stronger, there was more of an independence.
There”s the one scene toward the movie where there”s somewhat of a tiff between them, at a café, and it becomes super-uncomfortable and scary, like, are these guys going to make it? Did you know what you had when you had it, were you excited to have something representative like that?
Nick: It was exhilarating as a filmmaking experience, and by then we were quite comfortable shooting it.
Chris: Yeah, it”s hard to control your emotions  while you”re on tour. The [café scene] unfolded in a way that we felt we needed to dwell on.
Did you have the same frustrations as filmmakers, being so close all the time?
Nick: We had our moments, yeah.
Chris: It”s an odd thing to do, to be that close, for any party involved. We create our own rules and our own sense of normalcy. We became a cohesive unit.
Nick: But the three of us maintained a democracy, which is pretty unique. What happens in a group of two, is the stronger personality dominates. With three, it”s more of a democracy. You have to argue and present your side…
Chris: And then lure another person to your side…
Nick: It”s like the Senate, where one person can filibuster really strongly about it, and there were moments when someone would throw themselves onto the tracks. As strange and boring as that analogy seems.
At least, unlike the U.S. Senate, you”re actually getting sh*t done.
Nick: Exactly. We don”t filibuster just for the sake of filibustering.
Could you tell a difference between Glen the actor and Glen the true personality? Was he acting or acting up much for you?
Chris: It”s a question of identity in general… identity”s formed by community as much as it is by yourself. If your community includes people who have a distorted sense of you – like fans imagining you from a fictional film — then it distorts and confuses things a little bit. So people had a partially fantastic, fictional concept of Glen, based on “Once.” People felt like they knew him. It was a thing that arose on the road.
Nick: I actually think he”s a very good actor as well. It”s an interesting part to play, where [in “Once”], you”re a good actor in a movie where you”re playing am musician that”s playing the music you”ve written. It”s a dilemma of identity. To make any judgments from the outside is really difficult, because a particular experience of identity.
Once” was like “You: The Musical,” and the musical is an art-form unto itself. This isn”t a musical.
Chris: He and Mar are people who are bare and honest, emotional, in their music and in daily life. It”s a complicated question when you”re talking about a documentary.
Were there moments when you weren”t allowed to film something?
Nick: I think the only time was – in good nature – was after a particularly relentless day, sun up to sun down… as we were heading into an elevator and I was following them with a boom pole, at that point Marketa said at one point, “Chris, give us this one.” But they overall had incredible patience.
There”s all these MTV shows, reality shows, that have quote “unlimited access” like you. But it seems you never have to give any prompts for drama, when there was any.
Nick: Yeah, we had no “tricks.” I wish we could tell you some. I consider the first 6 months of shooting as a research period. There was a period of learning to trust.
Chris: We were there to film everything, so it took some time. We filmed a sunrise over the Charles river and the birds singing at the 99-cent store, and we filmed a dispute at soundcheck. It”s a sense that this is a long-term endeavor. No performances are required.
Nick: A reality TV show would never film sunlight through the sycamore trees. That was an important declaration to the band that we”re not interested in shooting a reality TV show.
There”s a texture to those shows, we know what those look like. But you also had distinguish yourselves as filmmakers. You”re not their best buddies or their confidantes or superfans… or are you?
Chris: We never drew any lines as far as distinguishing ourselves from the community. The only lines that were drawn were those drawn by our equipment and those kind of limitations.
So you were part of the band?
Chris: Oh yeah. We slept on the bus, we went out with them at night regardless if we had a camera or not, and we confided in each other, not just them to us, but also us to them. There weren”t lines drawn in the sand, of professionalism.
Nick: There”s a certain kind of style of doc where the director is very present, and the energy is revolving around the director during shooting. That wasn”t us. There was a magical thing that happens when the filmmakers disappear. During the actual shooting, I feel like we were able to do that in a strange way, like ghosts in the room.
Chris: I think that”s just how we shot the thing, we didn”t let our expectation drive the experience.
Nick: There were no breaks where we stopped and were just like, “Great job, Glen, more of that…”
Did you find yourself pulling for their relationship to endure?
Nick: On that level we maintained a boundary. I know that I cared deeply for the both of them.
Chris: They would both say they”re better off now than staying together. I think there”s a whole world of experience, that someone like us would have no idea.
Nick: The two of them are doing really good.
Epilogue to the epilogue: Swell Season still have plans to make more music in the future. Nick: “They”ve been on a break. They were at Coachella, so, I mean, they”ll play together again. Like they always said, they”re connected to the music. They”ll endure their whole life. Glen was in the Frames for 17 years, so they”re not going anywhere, either. Any chance they have to play together, they will or sure. She”ll be pursuing her music in her own way.”