The Swell Season: the documentary that’s stranger than fiction
A documentary about the duo The Swell Season as they embarked on a post-Oscar tour plays a little like the Oscar-winning drama ‘Once’ in reverse. “It was an interesting endeavour to embark on,” says director Carlo Mirabella-Davis
When a trio of young American directors set out to make a documentary on The Swell Season – the duo comprising Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – they found themselves saddled with a peculiar problem. The film concerns itself with the relationship between beardy Hansard, a Dublin musician, and shy Irglová, a younger Czech singer. Didn’t John Carney already make that film in Once?
As things worked out, the true-life version played a little like Carney’s film in reverse. Shortly after winning that famous Oscar for best original song in 2008, the singers embarked on a hectic tour of the United States. The Swell Season (as the film is baldly titled) chronicles the slow, edgy break-up of their relationship and their complex engagements with cult celebrity.
“It was an interesting endeavour to embark on,” Carlo Mirabella-Davis, one of the three directors, explains in a massed phone-call from New York. “In the fictional film they had essentially played themselves. And there was a tension between those fictional characters and the people they really were. That intrigued us. But as we progressed, we focussed less on Once. When we met Glen’s family we became interested in themes such as the burden of dreams.”
Mirabella-Davis first met Hansard when he was teaching at the New York Film Academy. A man of no small ambition, Hansard – also front-man of the legendary Frames, of course – signed on for a course just after he won the Oscar.
“After the class ended, he approached me,” Mirabella-Davis says. “He explained that he was going on a long, extended tour of America and he was interested in making a film of it. He wanted to know if I could recommend any directors and I mentioned Nick and Chris.”
“Nick and Chris” were Nick August-Perna and Chris Dapkins. Together the three men have delivered a rather lovely study of a duo in a state of dangerous flux. Shot in gorgeous monochrome, the picture follows The Swell Season about large venues as they come to terms with a sudden surge in popularity. Hansard has already had some experience, of course. But Irglová seems increasingly fazed by the attention. At every stage door, young people with camera-phones demand digital souvenirs. The cliche “rabbit in the headlights” is close to unavoidable.
“It’s not inaccurate to describe it that way,” Dapkins says. “She’s an unbelievably resilient person. Given what was coming her way and faced with the need to be a celebrity when she was used to playing these smaller festivals, it really did have the effect of catching her like a rabbit in the headlights. By the end of the film she’s a stronger individual.”
So given that Hansard, in a sense, commissioned the film, it would be interesting to hear what contribution he had to the final cut. You wouldn’t call The Swell Season any sort of hagiography. But devoted Hansardians (of which there are quite a few) are unlikely to be left in any state of outrage by the finished project. We travel home to Ireland and encounter his troubled father and his indomitable mother. He talks us though early days at school. The slow break-up with Irglová is detailed through tense conversations rather than stand-up fights. He’s not David St Hubbins and she’s certainly not Jeanine Pettibone.