For John Carney, making a movie without a musical element wouldn’t feel natural. The Irish director feels that film and music simply go hand in hand—as evidenced by his filmography, which includes Once, Begin Again and Sing Street. His latest movie, comedic drama Flora and Son, centers on how songs can uplift us and connect us when life feels uncertain. It’s a hopeful story about a single mother who learns guitar and Carney says it emerged because he needed something positive to focus on during lockdown.
“It must be weird to direct really somber, dark films and then have to talk about them in a really dark and somber way,” Carney says, speaking to Observer via Zoom during the Toronto Film Festival. “But this was a nice companion during some of those months of the pandemic. And I didn’t know where I was going right out of the gate. I stumbled a few times about just how small of a movie it is. Could I really make a movie that starts with Flora at her flat in Dublin and ends with her at her flat in Dublin, except now she has a guitar?”
He adds, citing Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise as an example, “It’s a bit like music: you start small and it builds and builds to a climax. It takes a while to learn that as a filmmaker I should begin low, carefully, quietly, because I’m not going to the moon with this movie.”
Flora and Son, written and directed by Carney, features songs Carney co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Gary Clark, but it’s not exactly a musical. It follows Flora (Eve Hewson), a scrappy young woman living in Dublin. She’s raising her teenage son Max (newcomer Orén Kinlan) while her ex Ian (Jack Reynor) moves on with another woman. Flora wants Max to stop making trouble, so she rescues an old guitar from the trash in hopes he will find a new hobby. Unable to make her son care, Flora decides to take up the guitar herself and begins lessons with an online teacher, Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who turns out to be the connection she’s been looking for.
Carney wrote half the script before he even began thinking about the songs, which pop up throughout the story. The filmmaker quickly realized, though, that he needed to understand what Flora and Son would sound like to complete the story because while Flora plays an acoustic guitar, Max is into modern British hip-hop.
“Was it going to be hip hop with an acoustic guitar? What did the [Jeff] character sound like? What does [Flora] produce out of that guitar?” Carney asks. “It actually took me longer than on the other films that I’ve done to locate the type of sound that I wanted the film to have. And I think it took me longer because it’s deceptively simple. It seems like they’re just banging out a tune that at the end or you know, but in order for them to play that it has to be plausible but it also has to be quite catchy and nice to listen to. But it can’t be so nice that they can’t have made it. It took a lot more mechanics to get [the music] to a place where it’s enjoyable but it’s also within the limitations of the tools that the characters have at their disposal to make music.”
The film reunited Carney with Clark, who also worked on Sing Street. For Clark, a story about a mother trying to understand her son felt especially resonate. The performer and songwriter, who has collaborated with everyone from Liz Phair to Nick Carter, left college to pursue music and his parents had to adjust their expectations to his dreams.
“The question [in the film] is, can music really change your life?” Clark says. “And music completely changed my life. I really understood that support from your parents—or a parent, in this case—and how important it was. It touches on a lot of real and emotional things that are really important. I could relate to it and I loved it. And working with John? It’s just a joy. He’s Mr. Renaissance man because he’s not just a great filmmaker and hilariously funny and a great storyteller, he is actually a great musician.”
“On a purely selfish level, Gary is somebody who you can describe as not precious,” Carney adds. “I’m a blunt kind of guy sometimes and I can be a bit direct and it can get me in a bit of trouble sometimes. But he doesn’t care. He’s remarkable for being able to listen to what a director needs for a scene—in this case, what I needed. He’s a great collaborator.”
Casting the right actors was key for Flora and Son to work, especially since they needed to play, sing and even rap. Reynor previously worked with Carney on Sing Street, but Hewson and Gordon-Levitt were new to the filmmaker. Carney says that Flora was the biggest challenge because the “film really depends upon her performance,” but once he met Hewson via Zoom everything fell into place. Hewson, who is the daughter of U2 frontman Bono, advocated for herself immediately.
“She almost told me how important the casting was because of her enthusiasm for it,” Carney recalls. “So unless it was a very good ruse to get the part, she made it impossible for anybody else to get the part. She talked so well about the part and how well she was going to do it that it felt like anybody else would be a bit of a compromise.”
Gordon-Levitt put himself forward for the role of Jeff, a California musician who teaches guitar over Zoom. The actor’s interest in Jeff was so exciting for Carney that he adapted the character to better suit Gordon-Levitt.
“He wrote me a letter and said, ‘I understand that you’re thinking about this role and here’s what I think the film is and here’s why I feel like you’d be missing something and here’s what I would give to it,’” Carney recalls. “Which is an amazing thing for a movie star to do. It shows real commitment to a to a project. To hear that as a director is enormously encouraging—and it’s fun. It feels like we’re forming a band together.”
He adds, “It confirmed my theory that I had about this whole filmmaking thing, which is that directors shouldn’t be going after actors trying to convince them to do something that they don’t want to do. But surely they should also be telling the director why they should be in the movie. It should be collaboration. On this, it felt like they were both just very, very happy to be there. And I was very happy to be there each day too.”
The film culminates in an onstage performance in a pub by the several of the characters. They perform “High Life,” an original song by Carney and Clark that features Hewson and Kinlan on vocals. It’s a big emotional moment for Flora and Carney knew he had to get it right. The sequence was actually shot twice, a month apart, and the simplicity of the moment is deceptive, according to Carney.
“There’s quite a lot of filmmaking in that scene to make it feel like there’s none and to make it feel like you’re in a Dublin pub listening to some weird mother singing with her son, who’s rapping on stage,” he remembers. “It doesn’t make sense, but it’s kind of brilliant. That’s all I’ve got. She’s not moving to LA, she’s not getting an award. She’s not a girl from Dublin who’s now all over the charts. I just have this one thing, which is there’s a girl on the stage, telling the truth. To get that right it’s quite surgical because the stakes are so low. You could lose it and there could be just a nothing ending where you’re like, ‘Was that the end of the movie?’ But because we started off small, we didn’t need a very big moment. She just had to be there and then she’s here.”