Since his 2007 breakout hit Once, which won an Oscar for its signature song “Falling Slowly,” writer-director John Carney has been a reliable provider of warm musical entertainment. Subsequent projects have included Begin Again, Sing Street, and the Prime Video TV series Modern Love.
Now Carney is back with Flora and Son, which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Eve Hewson (Bad Sisters) stars as a young mother of a teenage troublemaker (Orén Kinlan) who forms an unexpected connection with her son when they start making music together.
We had the chance to speak with Carney about how this film came to be and how he feels about it being sold to Apple TV+, where it will reach most audiences through streaming rather than a wide theatrical run. He had plenty to say about how viewing mediums are different, which he sees as a positive opportunity rather than an unfortunate detractor.
Abe Friedtanzer: Hi, John. How are you today?
John Carney: How are you doing?
AF: Good, good. I’m very glad to be able to discuss this film. I had the chance to see the premiere at Sundance and I’m very happy that it’s coming out to a larger audience now.
JC: Yeah, me too.
AF: With a story like this, what comes first for you, the songs, or the script?
JC: The script always would come first really, because I think if the songs come first, then you end up making a jukebox musical. So, the songs have to come out of the script for me.
AF: Not all of your previous films have been set in Ireland. Was that something that was important for this one?
JC: Yeah, it did feel like this character was uniquely Dublin, or Irish, certainly. So, it felt like I couldn’t put her anywhere else. I am very interested in Dubliners, for some reason. I don’t know why.
AF: Is there anything that you learned more about Dubliners in making this film?
JC: Yeah. That’s what they’re about, I think, in a way, is looking at the various characters that you see around Dublin and the people that you meet. I guess, to some extent, trying to understand the degree to which your geography or my geography affects who I am or informs who I am.
AF: Did you always know that you wanted Eve for this role?
JC: Not always, no. I had not thought about her for it initially because I didn’t know her very well. I had met her once or twice before, but I had seen that she was an actor, and her name came up. I met her and we just hit it off and really understood, really agreed, on how we were going to do this if we were going to do it. It was a very good fit and she made me laugh a lot.
AF: She’s definitely very funny and brings a certain wit to the role that I’m not sure other people would have been able to do in the same way.
JC: Yeah, she’s a crude character in many ways, but Eve somehow just gives her voice something, refines it a little bit and makes it less gritty or abrasive.
AF: What about finding someone play Max? How did that process work?
JC: That was just the usual process of inviting applicants. We didn’t do any auditions. People self-taped. Orén was on a self-tape, and he just stood out from the crowd. He was very still. He was quite mature and grown up, even though it’s about a kid. He’s a bit of an old man, an old head on young shoulders.
AF: And then you have someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who brings a very American vibe to part of the plot. Did you know that you wanted to have him from the start?
JC: No, I didn’t. I mean, I knew that he was American the second I started the character. I had thought of a more typical denim shirt-wearing, Los Angeles cowboy guy. A bit more country or something like that, but Joe brought something else to it. Something more authentic and plausible, because Jeff, the character, is more of a symbol than a completely rounded guy I know or character I wanted to write about. He was more like a ghost, somebody who comes in to illustrate a point to the lead character and to set something in motion but not to actually be one of the main characters, a living, breathing character as much himself as Flora, who is definitely the center of this movie.
AF: Did you have any hesitation about using Zoom featured on computers when we’ve been through a lot during the pandemic of looking at screens, or was that something you knew would be crucial to this story?
JC: The opposite, actually. I think the fact that we now know Zoom and do it all the time gave me permission to finish this movie and to make it and take it off the page and put it on camera, because people didn’t know what it felt like to talk like this, and now we do. Now, it’s like muscle memory. It’s second nature to us to open the laptop and click on the Zoom link and start talking. We didn’t know what that was like. We FaceTimed and some people Skyped, but not really. And then suddenly, a huge percentage of the globe knew, like second nature, what that felt like. That gave me the impetus to finish the film and to commit it to cameras and crews and all that.
AF: I think it works, and I like how they go from being on Zoom to feeling like they’re in person, because that’s a hard thing, I think, to visualize. I appreciate the way that you made that happen on screen.
JC: Right. Yeah, I liked it as well. I don’t think you could have gone on with just those two cuts, because you can’t do anything. And I think, probably, if you are falling in love or really connecting with somebody, they probably feel like they’re in the room with you. I wonder, is pornography about that, in a way?
AF: That’s a very interesting way to put it. How familiar was Eve with playing guitar, because I know that sometimes the challenge of having someone learn how to be good at something is that they learn it, then they start acting, and then they have to pretend they’re not good at it so it seems like they’re getting better over time?
JC: No, she didn’t really play. She played the drums, I think, actually more. But no, she didn’t play, and I was careful not to let her rehearse too much to get to that point where it’s like, no, no, you’re too good now. She stopped learning at the right level for Flora, and then was able to retrospectively reverse-engineer back to being not able to play at all to being able to play a bit better to being able to hold three chords down really well. But it’s a movie. Nobody wants to watch somebody actually learn the guitar. It’d be hellish, and that’s all over YouTube anyway. You’re trying to tell a story, and telling stories is about moving time around.
AF: Did you look and search on YouTube to find people who would be like Jeff?
JC: No, but I did find a lot of funny guitar guys over the years of looking for a bass lick that I couldn’t understand or looking for a Steely Dan chord change that I couldn’t figure out by ear. I’d go on, there would be some guy mathematically telling you how to play a Steely Dan song, which I love. It’s brilliant. You can actually look at their fingers, it’s like having a tutor. That’s been a very useful little corner of the Internet for me. In fact, it’s one of the only things I really like about the Internet, that you can go and find out how to change the wheel on your Audi with a video, as opposed to having to read an instruction manual or whatever. But the exchange of ideas and information is kind of what the Internet was supposed to be about. We weren’t supposed to be screaming at each other. We were supposed to be sharing. That was, I think, the idea. We’ve lost sight of that. This film ends up being an attempt to look at one of the nicer rooms in the Internet, because there are a lot of bad ones.
AF: There is a theatrical release for this film, but most people will be able to see it at home on Apple TV+. How does it feel to know that this film will mostly be digested in a digital way?
JC: I think you just have to accept that now as a filmmaker and be okay with it. I think you have to tune into it and make it make the films differently. I don’t mean make them for the phone and frame, nothing so cynical as actually reframe or remix for different devices, but I think people are going to be enjoying these movies in myriad situations, on planes, at home, with family without family, and you should be a good enough filmmaker that you’re engaging with that. Because otherwise cinema just becomes a niche thing for people who go to cinema for a very intense experience. A lot of people don’t go to the cinema for that intense experience. It’s up to filmmakers. I don’t think they can control that conversation or that narrative, but I think obviously they can influence in certain ways. I think they have to preempt it and get on board with it, otherwise cinema just takes a step back. It has to move forward into whatever it is.
AF: For those who do love going to the cinema, what was it like to be back at Sundance with this film?
JC: Terrific. It was really good fun to see the thing with an audience. The main thing for me was to feel the laughter and the goodwill in the room. People were clapping at that song at the end. That was tremendous. And bizarre. And then the weird thing was, you get people who watched it at three o’clock in the morning on their own, and it meant something to so many people. It feels like there’s something in the performance that she’s doing, or the story or the idea of parenthood or being a kid. It’s something that people need explored it in a film in a way that they can digest very easily that doesn’t require too much grief or too much commitment.
That’s how I that’s how I feel about it. It’s lovely to see it in the cinema, and it would be great to be able to go on having movies only in cinemas. And also, if you look at something like Poker Face or Bad Sisters, different people take different things from them. I’m not sure how Bad Sisters or Poker Face would play in a cinema. Let’s say they were both movies. I don’t know if the laughs would come in the way that, if you’re doing a comedy film that’s going to be like Ted in a movie theater, you better have the waves happening collectively together at the same time. But in order to have nuanced comedy, it doesn’t have to be funny to everybody at the same time in the same way. I find people who watch Bad Sisters, they found it so different from how I enjoyed it. But if we were in a cinema, I think we might disagree, but because we’re at home or we’re absorbing it with our families or in different ways, I think maybe films and TV can actually get more interesting than the big tentpole movies. They’re fine, but I personally like nuanced movies that I can take on my own terms. I’m not being told or sold how to experience this movie. I’ll experience how I want. I’ll experience it how I choose, which is what I love about this film and about our collaboration getting it made and getting it distributed. It’s the right way for this film to come into the world.
AF: I wish you plenty of luck with that. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to speak with me today.
JC: Thanks very much. Take care.
Flora and Son is currently playing in select theatres and premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 29.