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Falling slowly 

Once is a small Irish film in the season of Hollywood blockbusters. It’s also turning into the surprise hit of the summer.

I love the idea of when somebody describes something to me, and I'm like OK, will I go because my girlfriend wants to go or because a group is going?" says John Carney, the Irish writer-director. "And then I go and I'm really happily surprised. It's word of mouth. If people go and they don't have any expectations and they're happily surprised? That's a good thing for this movie."

This movie is Once, and Carney and his star, Glen Hansard, are on the line from Toronto where "it's lovely and sunny," Carney reports. This movie was one of the handful of sensations that come out of the Sundance Film Festival every year. (It won the World Dramatic Award at the 2007 edition.) This movie has been rolling out slowly across America, creeping into Canada in the past couple weeks, landing in Halifax on Friday, picking up thousands of fans on its way.

It is now sitting in the top 20 at the box office. This movie is the sleeper hit of summer.

This movie is also a musical, but not in the old-school razzle-dazzle way, nor in the new bloated way. The songs are folk songs. The singers are not classically trained. The choreography? Yeah, it doesn't exist. There's nothing to compare it to. If you broke off a corner of Singles and set it in Dublin instead of Seattle, maybe. If you chopped out 40 minutes of All the Real Girls and added singing (and set it in Dublin instead of the American south), if you took the unrequited love of Far From Heaven, leeched the colour, added the "Wake Up" scene from Magnolia, filmed it all with a handheld camera and set it in Dublin, you still wouldn't even get close to the marvel that is Once.

Carney calls it "a visual album." There are nine full songs in the movie, most of them performed in real time, in their entirety, by Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the real-life couple who play Guy and Girl, who meet on the street and forge a unique relationship through music.

This movie is, at its heart, a love story. Guy is a broken-hearted busker making ends meet working in his dad's vacuum-cleaner shop while he pines for his ex, who has gone to London. Girl is a young mother who sells flowers on the street, plays floor-model pianos and tries to sort things out with her husband. Neither is in a great place when they meet and their relationship is forged quickly, yet carefully and awkwardly with the visual intimacy, created by the skittering camerwork, almost too close at times. Although the structure of Carney's elegant script provides a track, the director allowed his actors to change the dialogue creating the film's naturalistic conversations.

"We'd be on set doing lines and John would be like, "Just come back a bit. Come down a bit. Turn it down.' So eventually myself and Mar were just chattin' to each other," says the affable Hansard, his brogue considerably more pronounced than Carney's. "He would kinda break us into this place where we were just hanging out, and abandoning the script and John would say "I need you to hit this beat and this beat. I need you to get across to him that your Hoover's broken and that you need him to fix it. And when she arrives the next day for you to fix it, I need you to basically say to her that this is an awkward time for you, that you're not really prepared...that you don't really want...would she fucking get out of your face?' That was the only bit of direction we got. So she would arrive and say "I brought my Hoover!' and I'd be like, "Well I don't have me tools.' The script became something that only had a loose presence."

Hansard has led the rock ensemble The Frames for years—Carney was its original bass player—making him a seemingly natural choice for Guy, though it took Carney awhile to get to him because 28 Days Later's Cillian Murphy was attached, then dropped out suddenly.

"I recommended a couple of people to him. I mentioned Damien Rice as a potential and he was talking to Johnathan Rhys-Meyers at one point," says Hansard. "Then John came to me and said "It's just hit me like a fuckin' freight train, you know, when the answer's in front of ya and you don't see it. You should be this fucking guy. You wrote the songs. You play with Mar. You were a street musician. You're kinda perfect for the character.'"

It was Hansard who recommended Irglova to the director, back when Murphy was set to star, back when the pair were only musical collaborators, releasing a record together called The Swell Season. Girl was supposed to be older than Guy (Hansard is 37, Irglova is 19), but "Mar's one of those people who, anything she does whether it's pick up a pencil and draw a picture or play piano or sing, she's just one of those people that's brilliant at what she does," enthuses Hansard, who was originally asked to write the film's songs. "I had no doubt in my mind that standing up in front of the camera, that acting, wouldn't be beyond her at all."

"The fact that Glen ended up in the film was one of those coincidences where, once you make the decision, you see everything fall into place and you go, "Oh god, this was in front of my face and I just didn't see it,'" says Carney. "These guys already have a great relationship and I can exploit that and maximize that and play with that onscreen. It's not like two actors who have never met pretending to like each other, these two actually like each other. So the acting that I was asking them to do was more, "Pretend you don't know each other,' which is the exact opposite of getting two actors to pretend that they do know each other."

The centrepiece of Once<> is "Falling Slowly." Girl takes Guy into the music store where the owner lets her play the pianos on her lunch break. Seated together at her favourite one, she asks him if he has any songs and he hauls out a notebook and his battered guitar. He quickly teaches her the melody, running through a verse and a chorus, and then they perform it together. It's like the scene in "Hustle & Flow" where the producers build "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," making beats, laying down vocals, adding the hook. It's an exhilarating experience watching this art come to life, momentarily transcending all the pain it came from.

"John had always had the philosophy that this is the sex scene," says Hansard. "This is the scene where she sings harmony to him, she finds the harmony quite quickly, she finds the chords quickly and that's basically the moment when these two characters meet on a deeper level."

There is no literal sex scene, though not for Guy's lack of trying—as they sit in his room listening to records, he just goes for broke and asks her to stay.

"Meself and Mar had just seen Brown Bunny, the Vince Gallo film, and just that amazing scene where Vince Gallo walks into the garage and says to the girl, "Come to Los Angeles with me.' "What are you talking about?' And he's like, "Please. Please come to Los Angeles with me.' And it's just so ridiculous," says Hansard. "And she does. And she agrees to do it and then he takes off. And it just shows what a fuckin' neurotic he is. And I wanted to do that with that scene: "Stay the night.' "Well, what do you mean?' Like, "Stay here with me.' And just that awkwardness."

Speaking of awkward, it's a point of interest that none of the characters in the film have names.

"That's about isolation," Carney says quietly. "That's about keeping the characters at a distance. I wanted this film to be like you were looking at these people through a window that you weren't supposed to be looking at. Like walking down the road and you put radio mikes on someone in a park and you're up in your hotel room looking down and you could hear their dialogue—I think that would be really interesting. But you wouldn't get to know their names, so you're kind of one step removed from them slightly and you would think I shouldn't be watching these two fall in love, there's something wrong about that. So I thought not naming them would really help."

Hansard has his own take: "In John's opinion, most of the people who were gonna see this film, which were Irish people, were gonna know who this Guy was. And he didn't want to call me Kevin or Bill, because people would be like, "It's not Kevin or Bill, it's Glen.' John'll give you some kind of long-winded arty answer like "I called them Guy and Girl because I didn't know their names and I got further and further into the script and they still didn't have names, and eventually I decided they don't have names.' But what I think he was doing was saying, "People know these two people.'"

The success of Once has astonished its makers, who knew they had something special ("We made it ourselves on a super-low budget, shot it in 17 days and we're really proud of it, and then that's it—that is your goal met," says Hansard. "You made something that you like.") but didn't think anybody outside Ireland would see it. Yet now, in this overstuffed, sequel-filled, tentpole season, which is potentially the worst time to release a tiny, hard-sell gem like this, it has become a triumph of counter-programming, proving once again that audiences can make smart choices if only they are given the chance.

"The hope is that they would go away feeling something different," says Carney. "The usual fare of films, you kind of know what you're gonna see. I like when you see a film and you're surprised and you walk away seeing something that you haven't seen in your life before. I'd be really happy if Once was that."

It is.

Once opens Friday, June 29. See Movie Times, for more info.

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