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Falling Slowly Into The Swell Season

Meet the trio who spent 3 years on tour with Oscar-winning sensations Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Opening Friday, this unique doc captures the electric soul of cinema.

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our TFF 2011 Faces of the Festival series. The Swell Season opens this Friday (October 21) at Cinema Village and reRun Gastropub Theater, with a national release to follow. Once, with music by Glen and Markéta, will premiere as an Off-Broadway play this fall (opens November 15) at New York Theatre Workshop

Writers/Directors: Carlo Mirabella-Davis (Producer), Nick August-Perna (Editor), Chris Dapkins (Director of Photography)


Tribeca: Tell us a little about The Swell Season.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: It’s a film that has the same title as the band The Swell Season, made up of band members Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, and it’s essentially a music documentary that chronicles their rise to fame after their Oscar win in 2007 for their musical performances in the film Once. The film is a deeply intimate portrait of their relationship after the win and of their music as they get more thrust into the limelight, and eventually the way that that limelight creates a sense of scrutiny that dissolves their relationship. So it’s a love story with great music all the way through, and it’s full of a lot of moments of joy and also of sadness.


Tribeca: So what drew you to Markéta and Glen’s story initially? Did you know either of them beforehand?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
I knew Glen through a friend, and we had a conversation about the fact that he and Markéta were about to embark on this world tour all over America and also the Czech Republic and Ireland, and we had discussed it as something that actually might be quite interesting as it unfolded. And it just started from there as a conversation.


Then all three of us (the directors) got together and discussed the possibility that there might be a really interesting film here because of the unlikely circumstances and situations that Glen and Markéta found themselves in: Glen being an incredibly talented musician from Ireland and Markéta from the Czech Republic, and them entering not only their own countries, but also the canvas that is America and embarking on that. So that’s how it began, but once we started making the film, it steered away from a traditional music documentary into a much more intimate exploration of two people that are in love, as well as creation and music.

Tribeca: Is that at all what you guys were planning on happening?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
It’s a tough question. I think when you make a documentary you always have a sort of a garden and you can see all these different kinds of flowers that are growing up out of it. Some of them are irises and some are petunias, and then when you start shooting real people for a really long time, complete verité, some of those flowers become more beautiful and more interesting. We shot them for 3 years.


Swell Season


Tribeca: Were the two of them initially receptive to the idea of having a documentary made about themselves?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
Well, the reality is that it’s difficult for anybody when you suddenly have a camera in your face all the time, because you suddenly start to question what you do and what you say and the solution around that. So I think there were some initial moments for them of, “Hmm, our lives are the subject here, not the performance.” But in filming them for 3 years consistently, what happens psychologically is that the camera eventually just disappears and they just forgot we were even there.


Tribeca: How consistently were you filming in that 3-year period?


Nick August-Perna:
Probably every few months, we would be with them for a month, and then there would be a longer time period off, maybe 4-5 months, and then we would go back and be with them for another month. So really we were filming anywhere between 3-5 weeks at a time, for a 3-year period, with a lot of breaks in between.


And to add to what Carlo was saying, it was very much a gaining of each other’s trust, and I don’t think that they were completely aware of the style of the film, which is this very fly-on-the-wall, verité style. When we were on tour with them, the camera was pretty much always on them. So I think that it does eventually become this thing that’s moving around in the room, floating there in the distance, but it’s always on them, sometimes very closely.

Chris Dapkins:
Well I think the goal was to have the psychic effect of a houseplant in the room, but [gestures to Carlo and Nick] it’s more of a giant lilac bush.  

Tribeca: I sense a floral theme here.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
Yes, we were all gardeners on this project.


Chris Dapkins: And the other thing is that the way we shot it wasn’t like a reality television pursuit of an endangered species. It was patient. We would let someone leave the room and we wouldn’t chase them out. Then we would wait. Maybe they would come back into the room, maybe not. So the visual effect lends itself more to fiction as a result.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
And I think the way you [Chris Dapkins] shot the film, in terms of the lenses that we used, has a very fiction film feel to it.


Tribeca: And you also decided to shoot the film in black & white. Any particular reason why you made this choice?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
Well, I think it’s impossible to make any kind of music documentary without referencing D.A. Pennebaker’s great film about Bob Dylan [Don't Look Back]. But from an aesthetic perspective...


Nick August-Perna: Well, for some reason, everyone’s gut reaction was to shoot on black & white film. We just thought it would be amazing. I’ve always been super interested in the idea of shooting docs on film, because it happens so rarely, so it's so exciting when you see that. And black & white does well in low-light situations; the contrast looks beautiful, and you can get away with more intimate situations without worrying about lighting so much. It’s a little bit of an easier stock to shoot with, so that was always the idea, and of course it’s very expensive, so we ended up just transferring the aesthetic onto film. And again, the way we shot it, with prime lenses for the most part, was very much how you would shoot a doc on film.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: A lot of shallow depth of field.

Chris Dapkins:
But a certain prominent filmmaker has said that fiction films are often trying to be non-fiction—they’re striving for that—and non-fiction to fiction. So I think black & white was another tool in that push.


Tribeca: So returning to their receptiveness to the idea of this documentary, Markéta seems to be a very introverted person, uncomfortable with the limelight. With this in mind, how did you convince her to open up in front of your camera, particularly in scenes such as the one where she and Glen are sitting outside at the café having an extremely intimate and rather upsetting conversation about their personal relationship?


Nick August-Perna:
Well, by the time that moment occurred, we had already spent a lot of time with them. It was almost ¾ of the way through our shoot, and so they were extremely comfortable with us at that point. So any hesitation that there might have been earlier was no longer there anymore. There were other people sitting at the table; her sisters, friends and family, and we were just a part of that group. So I think we earned that moment because of the amount of time we spent with them up until that point.


Swell Season

Tribeca: Was that moment the end of their relationship?

Chris Dapkins:
That’s up to you.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
And I think it’s also important to say that the art of making the film and gaining the trust of Glen and Markéta was on camera and it was off camera. We spent a lot of time filming them, but we also spent a lot of time with them as people and they became good friends of ours. We spent a lot of time talking about life, art, and music and our own lives, so the intimacy of the film was born out of our own friendship with them and collaboration as artists. So what you’re seeing on the screen is that as well, that they felt very comfortable with us and that we were a part of their family in a way.

Tribeca: On the other side of that spectrum, Glen seems like a person who enjoys the limelight and has always wanted the fame he has now received. Would you say that’s true of him?


Nick August-Perna:
It’s a very complicated relationship, and it’s very hard to define. On the one hand, he’s an incredible musician and also a learned entertainer, because he has been doing it for so long. He knows how to be a pure and passionate artist, but he also understands that it’s in front of people. He’s a very mature, seasoned artist in that way, and when you put anybody in this level of the limelight so quickly, it’s unnerving for sure, but I think his experience helped him to deal with it in way that made it easier for him than Markéta at times. 


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I think Nick’s absolutely right, and to add to that, that’s part of what the film is about: both of their very complicated relationships to being in the limelight. And throughout the film they each have moments where they embrace it and they both have moments where they feel the pressure, scrutiny and the anxiety that that limelight creates. So that’s kind of what the film asks, which, in way, is an interesting paradox, because we are also making a film about them. So all the issues that you are talking about were not only part of what the film was about, but also the making of the film.

Tribeca: What was it like meeting their families? Particularly Glen’s mother, who is an extremely interesting character and the scenes with her were very funny?


Nick August-Perna:
She’s incredibly funny and one of the wittiest people I’ve ever met. She’s someone I wish I would have found and cast in a film long ago.


Tribeca: She would have been good in The Fighter.


Nick August-Perna:
[laughs] Yes. Both Glen’s parents were wonderful. His dad was a bit more hidden until a certain point in the tour, but the mother was just super warm. And what were those sandwiches she kept making for us while we were shooting?

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
French fries with mayonnaise on white bread.


Nick August-Perna: She just kept saying, “Have another sandwich! Have another sandwich!” And there’s Chris with the camera in one hand and a sandwich in the other.  

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
She’s just a wonderful woman and really just an interesting person. She’s charming, witty and fascinating, and both his parents are incredible characters. The moment we met them we thought they were so cinematic and engaging, and we felt the real electric soul of cinema around them.

Tribeca: There’s almost another documentary there.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis
: Definitely.


Tribeca: What would you like audiences to take away from The Swell Season?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
When I watch the film, I try to see it through the audience’s perspective, and I wind up thinking about a couple of things: one is my relationships with other people, specifically people that I’ve had emotional relationships with and the complexity of that kind of communication when two people are in love and they are also trying to express who they are and what their own personal ambitions and feelings about their philosophies in the world are—that dance, and how that dance is very tender and tragic. But I also think about the idea of ambition and achievement and the double-edged sword there.


We are all striving to have our lives mean something and be significant and be recognized by our peers, but at the same time the drive for that is also a drive for personal meaning, and sometimes it gets very confused. What are we doing with our lives? Are we looking for significance or approval? Maybe we don’t want that approval or maybe we do. And what happens when we achieve it? What happens when we get what we want? Is it all as wonderful as we thought it would be? Does it solve all of our problems? And I think that’s what the double entendre of the title The Swell Season expresses: it’s not just the band; it’s also that this happened to be a time in their lives that was supposed to be “swell” and wonderful and was very wonderful, but also very complicated.


Swell Season


Nick August-Perna: I also think in all of that combined, the film should ideally provide the audience with a highly emotional experience. We want them to leave the theater feeling like they’ve really been through something that is profound, interesting and emotional.


Tribeca: What was the biggest thing you learned while making The Swell Season?


Chris Dapkins:
Patience, for me.


Nick August-Perna: Patience and the trust that life will reveal itself eventually. You have to have trust in that in a way that’s almost religious. Going back every day on the shoot and keeping that faith.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
And to add to that, once we started down that verité road, we really embraced the bible of that kind of documentary filmmaking. We didn’t ever ask Glen and Markéta, “Hey, what are you guys doing today?” We just followed them and trusted that interesting things would happen, and when you do that, like Nick said, it’s like you’re some strange kind of hunter peering through the blinds. They would perform and have their downtime afterwards, but we had no downtime. We were always working. Also everything becomes interesting. You learn that all the little details of life are relevant in some larger picture.


Tribeca: What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
I would encourage people to look everywhere for inspiration. Questions about drama, life, psychology and the way we live are everywhere around us, and anything is an interesting subject to focus on whether its your family or people you’ve just met. Be a conscious observer of the world around you. One of the things that inspires me about both of these gentlemen is that they are collectors of the world and people and life, and I think that’s the best thing you can do if you’re an aspiring filmmaker: absorb the world around you.


Tribeca: What are your hopes for the film at Tribeca?


Nick August-Perna
: [laughs] That the projector won’t break! Frankly, I think it’s a fun film to watch and that it can be a celebratory experience as well. So I hope it’s something people can enjoy and talk about. We want people to leave the theater wanting to go get a drink at the after-party and not go home and talk to their husbands or wives!

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
We’re very grateful to be in the Festival and also thrilled and excited. This is such a wonderful opportunity, so we’re just pleased to be here.


Nick August-Perna: Tribeca is actually the place we all felt it would be best to premiere the film. So it’s a total thrill, and we couldn’t have asked for a better premiere.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: We’re all New Yorkers, and this is our hometown.


Tribeca: So glad to hear that! Do you know if Glen or Markéta are going to make it to the premiere?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
We think Glen will be there, but Markéta’s schedule is still unclear because she is in the Czech Republic a lot.




Tribeca: Have they seen the film? And if so, what were their reactions?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
Yes, they’ve seen it many times. It’s been an interesting balance. They understood that we were crafting our own vision, so they both saw it and they also didn’t see it. We showed it to them, but it wasn’t like their response was, “Let me see the third cut!”

Nick August-Perna:
Also, every step of the way they’re watching a different film than we are. So sometimes they had very strong reactions. But they have a great respect for making art, and I think they respect that above everything. We’re on very good terms with them. They are wonderful people, and I think they really like the movie.  

Chris Dapkins:
I think they also see the truth in the film. They respect the fact that it’s a true document. It’s awkward at times to watch yourself on the screen, but if it's true they have expressed their support for it, which is a testament to them as artists and their own music.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: And they were very open with us, and honest and authentic. And that was a joy to watch and be a part of.


Nick August-Perna: Glen in a very friendly way at one point did say that he felt like we might have been “on the ropes,” and I think when he saw the final cut he said, “OK I think we’re off the ropes, guys.” His father was a boxer so I think that’s where that came from.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead) who would it be?


Nick August-Perna:
I’d be scared to have dinner with the filmmakers I want to have dinner with! But mine would be Mike Leigh.


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: Mine would be Werner Herzog.

Nick August-Perna:
(laughs) He’s whom I’d be scared of!


Chris Dapkins: Mine would be Oscar Micheaux.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
I just recently re-saw A Women Under the Influence, and I really love that movie. So I’ve been watching that a lot lately.


Chris Dapkins: I’ve been recommending the poems of Shreela Ray.


Nick August-Perna: (laughs) I need to read more poetry! My favorite book is Of Wolves and Men by the naturalist writer Barry Lopez, so I always squeeze that into a conversation even when it has nothing to do with it.


Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
I know what Nick’s would be called. It would be called “August, like the month.” That’s the way he always introduces himself so people will know how to spell it. And Chris can answer mine. We’ve known each other since I we were 3 years old.


Chris Dapkins: Carlo’s would be, “Mom, I’m on a work call.”

Carlo Mirabella-Davis:
[laughs] I think I yelled that once when we were filming.


Tribeca: Anything in the works for you guys right now?


Carlo Mirabella-Davis: I’m actually working on a feature script that was in the Sundance script lab. It’s sort of a thriller drama set in upstate New York that Chris will be shooting and Nick will be editing.


Nick August-Perna: I’ve been interested in a doc idea about mankind’s violent relationship with wolves, and I’ve also been working on a fiction film.

Chris Dapkins:
I’m also writing a film.


The Swell Season opens this Friday (October 21) at Cinema Village and reRun Gastropub Theater, with a national release to follow. Once, with music by Glen and Markéta, will premiere as an Off-Broadway play this fall (opens November 15) at New York Theatre Workshop.


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