I know it won’t exactly come as a newsflash, but love stories in the movies don’t always reflect the reality of love stories in real life. Real world romance of the sort that made Walt Disney famous – that stuff fades. But love, the kind rooted in mutual admiration, creative collaboration or a shared moment in time, that stuff lives well beyond the expiration date of the actual relationship. At least that’s what I took away from The Swell Season. The film kicked off the ninth annual documentary festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Monday evening with a special screening and post-film Q and A with the filmmakers.
The documentary directed by newcomers Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, follows the eponymous band as they travel around the U.S. on a concert tour. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the folk-rock singers behind The Swell Season, shot to fame after starring in the sleeper hit Once and winning an Academy Award for best original song (“Falling Slowly”). Their on-screen romance soon turned into an off-screen romance that is tested by the rigors of sudden fame.
Shot in black and white, The Swell Season features lush musical numbers intercut with intimate portraits of Hansard and Irglova negotiating their relationship as both a couple and a creative duo. Scenes of Hansard back at home in Ireland talking with his mother and alcoholic, ex-prize fighter father show how Hansard’s success has become proxy for his parents’ own lost hopes and dreams. They provide context for the angst that Hansard brings to his music — the same tortured artist mentality that ultimately plays a hand in his romantic split with Irglova.
For those who have not seen Once (and while it’s been in my Netflix cue for over a year now, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m one of them) some of the chronology and plot points of the story can be confusing at times, but the film more than compensates for this. The beauty and energy of the music alone are worth the price of admission, but ultimately it’s the way the filmmakers have so deftly captured the raw and honest intimacy of Hansard and Irglova’s personal and artistic collaboration that make The Swell Season worth watching.
The screening was followed by a Q and A with two of the film’s three directors, Nick August-Perna and Chris Dapkins and moderated by Bob Boilen NPR creator and host of All Song Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts.
Q: How did you get involved with the story?
CD: We didn’t know the film or the story at all. I had never seen Once but Carlo had Glen as a film student — Glen was dabbling in film – and heard the story.
Q: What was the film you set out to make and how does the finished piece we just saw stay true to or differ from that vision?
CD: Glen wanted to make a jubilant romp of a tour documentary [audience laughter]. We didn’t know what the film would be other than documenting their tour. We were open to seeing what happened along the way. We patiently waited for the story to emerge and what we got ultimately was an intimate portrait of a relationship.
Q: How did you guys get hooked up as a filmmaking team and what’s next?
NAP: Chris and Carlo grew up together [in upstate New York]. Carlo and I met in grad school for film. This is our first feature as a group and the rest is history yet to be told.
Q: This film seems like it presented some special challenges. You’re filming on a bus going down bumpy roads, and the audio seems like it would be challenging. How did go about capturing the sound?
NAP: I think I read somewhere that Stanley Kubrick said “making a film is like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car [audience laughter]. We were rolling through the countryside on the tour bus breaking lens adapters and trying out different mics. That unknown can be scary but it also leads to a different type of documentary. There’s a sense of discovery.
CD: It took us three years to make. We would shoot on and off one or two weeks at a time depending on what was going on.
Q: There’s a real intimacy in what you captured on film. Talk about how you did that. I mean technically how you captured it but also what you do as a filmmaker to be able to really capture some of those more intimate, fly-on-the-wall moments.
CD: We shot with a Panasonic camera with a PS Tech adapter and an old Sens cinema adapter. Our rig was not at all conducive to capturing intimate moments. It was enormous, heavy, cumbersome, not light sensitive [audience laughter].
Carlo was walking around covered in lights. We hung one around his neck.
NAP: To cut down on the amount of stuff we were carrying, we constructed this rig that Chris wore. It was like Robocop or something. It extended up like a halo above his head. You would walk in the room looking like a Transformer.
CD: Turns out that being unobtrusive is more about your presence in the room than the size of your equipment [really hard audience laughter]. Like the scene where they’re down at the lake and Glen is bathing and Marketa is winding the kite string, you see the images of the natural environment. I would film the trees and the sky and everything around so when the camera landed on them it was a natural progression and not like they were all of a sudden in the limelight. It established a language where everything is game.
NAP: It’s liking writing. You struggle with the material and it’s going to happen when it happens. You’re sitting in the edit watching footage, trying to make sense of it, wondering if you have a story there. Carlo had a breakdown in the Czech Republic. We were walking and all of a sudden we realize we lost our third arm and we look back and Carlo is sitting on the ground and we went over to him and he just said “what do we have? Do we have anything?” The next day we shot that pivotal scene in the café that perfectly captures the tension in their relationship. For me it was the scene with Glen’s dad. He was never around. He was always in his room or his workshop. That interview we got with him, Glen says that’s the longest conversation he’s ever had with his father. It thought if we got something so special to him, then we have something. And when [Glen] watches the movie that’s the scene that he always looks away from.
Q: What do Marketa and Glen think of the film?
CD: Marketa feels like this is a portrait of a particular time in her life that she’s grown away from. It’s hard for her to watch. Glen likes the film but I think he feels like the rawness of the family dynamics are hard to watch. Ultimately they both feel like it’s an honest telling of the story and they support the integrity of the film.
Erin Essenmacher blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.
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