Irish filmmaker John Carney set out last year to make a different kind of musical — and a different kind of Irish film. With "Once," opening in Seattle...

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Irish filmmaker John Carney set out last year to make a different kind of musical — and a different kind of Irish film. With “Once,” opening in Seattle at the Harvard Exit Friday, he achieved both and enchanted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic along the way. The film has been gathering buzz since its U.S. debut at Sundance early this year, and Carney and his cast have been touring the country on a bus, hosting informal screenings in many U.S. cities.

An achingly sweet tale of a street musician (Glen Hansard) and the young immigrant singer (Markéta Irglová) with whom he briefly makes beautiful music, “Once” came together as a response to a question.

“How do you make a modern-day musical?” wondered Carney, on the telephone from that bus. “A musical for the YouTube audience and my 16-year-old niece who’s got a nose ring and covered in tattoos and yet I know is really into music. How can I provide a film for that audience, as well as our own audience that will not have a problem with listening to all these songs?

“The musical aspect of the film will kind of surprise them. By the time they’re leaving the cinema, they’ll realize — actually, that was a musical we were at! A low-budget, messy, ‘Before Sunset’ musical.”

With Hansard (lead singer and guitarist of the Irish rock group the Frames, of which Carney was once a member) writing the film’s soft, almost hypnotic songs, Carney gradually created a script about the two characters, whose names we are never told. They meet on the street, become friends as they learn more about each other, and inspire each other to take a great risk: recording an album of songs. Along the way, they flirt with love, but the story’s more unexpected than that. And they sing together: on the street, on the bus, in a music store and finally in a studio.

“I wanted them to be like characters that you see through the window of your car, who are having a huge row or kissing in a park,” said Carney, explaining the decision to not name them. “You watch them for five minutes, and you wish you could hear what they’re saying. In this film, you can mysteriously hear them talk.”

The Irish actor Cillian Murphy (“Batman Begins,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) was originally cast as the street musician but had to drop out just before shooting. On an impulse, Carney offered the role to Hansard, who had never acted before. Neither had Irglová, a native of the Czech Republic (as is her character), but the two had previously collaborated on an album and had a natural ease with each other. “They put a lot of themselves into [the movie],” said Carney. “I didn’t think actors would put as much on a screen as these guys did.”

As an Irish filmmaker, Carney thought it was important to present the Dublin of “Once” as he sees the city and the country: as a cultural melting pot. “None of these stories are being told,” said Carney. “I don’t understand that Irish films are all about Irish people, yet you hang around town and you’re served coffee by a Chinese person and sitting next to Latvians, or 10 Romanians around your table, or people from Nigeria.”

Carney characterizes the Irish film industry as improving, after “a very bad kind of run for the last 10 years. Badly directed, badly produced films, an attempt to kind of cash in on the Hollywood mold of things.” Though he’s not sure what his post-“Once” project will be, he knows he wants to make “small Irish films, small stories, no epic stuff. Low to medium kind of budget, character-driven, human stories. I’m sick of being spoon-fed these mainstream films, where I know how everything is going to turn out in the first ten minutes. I think audiences are getting tired of them.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com