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Fox Searchlight's "Once" is a film built around strong songwriting, rather than the other way around, the movie's musician stars said Friday at the Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film & TV Music Conference at the Beverly Hilton.
That was partly out of necessity, given the duo's almost nonexistent acting experience. Glen Hansard, a songwriter on the film and member the Frames, was cast when the lead actor pulled out of the project. His friend Marketa Irglova, only 17 at the time of casting, merely auditioned for director John Carney on piano.
"I said, 'Do you want me to read some lines? Because I don't know if I can act or not.' He said, 'No, it's all right. Anyone can act.' "
Hansard and Irglova wrote songs first, and then Carney placed them in scenes, sometimes writing around them. With one exception, the songs were recorded live during filming, and were kept whole rather than being edited down.
Hansard described his and his co-star's acting as "very stiff" until Carney allowed him to sing the dialogue, particularly in one scene shown to the audience in which Irglova's character asks him about his breakup with a former girlfriend. Hansard responds to her questions in an improvised song.
"There was a script, but we didn't stick to it," said Hansard, recalling Carney's wish that " 'I want two musicians who can half-act, rather than two actors who can half-sing.' The music had to be right."
After being rejected from several festivals, the film was screened in Ireland. A person affiliated with the Sundance Film Festival, who was vacationing in Ireland at the time, happened to catch the showing and recommended it for Sundance. It took home an audience award.
For all the critical acclaim the movie has received, "I don't think we're going to have a career out of acting," said Irglova, who tours with Hansard as the Swell Season. The duo wrapped up their Q&A with a performance of songs from the film.