Czech and Irish leads enjoying surprise success of film Once

The Irish independent film Once has been a surprise success in the United States this year. Shot in just two and a half weeks for USD 160,000, it has taken in over 10 million at the box office since making a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Once tells the story of an Irish busker who gradually starts to fall for a struggling Czech immigrant as they begin writing music together. We spoke to the movie's stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova ahead of the recent Czech premiere.

Glen Hansard
The male lead is played by Glen Hansard of the Irish rock band The Frames. Even he seems surprised by how far Once has gone:

"I guess what we did with this was we had a few handicams, we had no money, just a few songs and a story, and we just went ahead and made this film. We decided from the very beginning that if it was rubbish we were just going to shelve it, and no-one would see it. There was never even a thought of, if this film is shit we'll try to sell it to...Frames fans and make our money back. We thought, if it's shit we won't put it out - if it's great we'll do our best to put it out.

"Actually, this film was rejected by every festival. We sent it to Sundance, we sent it to Toronto, we sent it to Edinburgh - they all rejected it. Then we played it in a small theatre in Galway just for me and Mar and some friends to see.

"It was a public screening and afterwards when I came out I said to John [Carney, director], thanks very much, I'm very proud of that. He was like, that's it, it probably won't ever be seen again, it's probably the last time you'll see it on a big screen.

"Then this man came out and said, I've just come here on holidays and I saw there was a film playing and I wandered into the cinema, I really like the music and I knew your band the Frames a little bit. And I work for the Sundance Film Festival and I'd like to recommend it.

"From there the whole thing has taken on a whole new life. Because we won the audience award at Sundance and this film has taken on a whole other existence. So it's fantastic."

Marketa Irglova and Glan Hansard
Glen Hansard referred there to an early screening for friends, himself and Mar. Mar is Marketa Irglova, who plays the main female role in Once, a girl from the Czech Republic trying to eke out a living selling flowers on streets of Dublin.

A musician from Valasske Mezirici in south Moravia, Marketa was only 17 when the film was shot two years ago. Looking back now she says she enjoyed the experience - but wasn't entirely comfortable with the clichéd eastern European get-up director John Carney made her wear.

"I feel like a Czech woman wouldn't dress like that for one thing. Czech women dress very similarly to Irish women, in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. John had the idea of an eastern European woman that was more a Romanian than a Czech, and he wasn't going to let go of that idea, even though I tried to convince him.

"The other thing is I know that many Czech girls go to Ireland for work or a holiday, and if they do work in Ireland they work in a café at least, or in a hotel, or something a bit more respectable than working on the street."

Did you have much input into your character, in terms of how Czech your character was? Or could you say to the director, I'd like it to be more like this or I think it should be more like that?

"Yeah, I remember changing a few things in the script when I felt like they weren't really Czech - trying to give him an idea how a Czech person would say something. So I tried to change the script now and then, a little bit like that. Also...we do speak Czech in a certain section of the film, but that was it - there's not many chances where I get to say that I'm Czech, or where you actually realise she's Czech."

Some of the songs on the Once soundtrack also appeared on an album released last year by Marketa and Glen called The Swell Season, after a novel by the great Czech writer Josef Skvorecky. Both The Swell Season and the OST have been selling well for some time. Marketa continues:

"That's ultimately our biggest enjoyment out of the situation - all of these people who see the film are getting to hear our music, and our music is suddenly being exposed to a whole different audience that would probably have never discovered us. That's amazing, and the idea that we can play in venues of more than 200 people, which are going to be full of people who know and appreciate the music, is amazing."

Since the making of Once, its stars Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard, friends and occasional musical collaborators for many years, have become a real-life couple - and Marketa has become a real-life immigrant to the Emerald Isle.

"That's true, I do live in Ireland. I moved to Ireland in July after I graduated from high school. I do live in Ireland now but I certainly don't feel like the girl in the film. I'm financially secure, I live in a nice place, outside Dublin. I don't work on the street, I travel the world working with my music. I am an immigrant, I'm very much enjoying living in Ireland. Ireland has truly welcomed me so well and I'm very grateful."

I know before you moved you were talking about getting a normal job in a café or something - has that happened, now that you've had this big success?

"Ah no, because nobody will take me - I'm never there, so I can't actually work. And I can't study, which I wanted to do, either, because I'm never there. I've moved there, but I haven't spent any time there yet.

"But I guess there's no rush. This is only a once in a lifetime experience and you can always get a job in a shop, or go on studying. So there's no rush with that, and I don't feel in any way bad that I'm not doing that at the moment. I'm very much enjoying what's happening and trying to embrace it as much as I can."

But once the dust settles on Once and Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard finish promoting the film around the world, they won't be spending all their time in Ireland. After making the Czech Republic his second home for the last half decade, Glen has now bought a flat in Prague, where he hopes to spend a good part of every year. So does that make him an immigrant too?

"(laughs) I guess so...though as a musician you escape the term migrant, you escape the term tourist even. Because as a musician you're speaking a language that everybody knows. So you're a citizen of the world."