The Big Picture
- John Carney follows up Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street with Flora and Son, which premieres in select theaters on September 22nd and on Apple TV on September 29th.
- The movie features a standout lead performance from Eve Hewson as Flora, a single mom who finally finds common ground with her rebellious son via music.
- While at TIFF 2023, Carney discussed the evolution of the screenplay, what makes Hewson a one of a kind lead, how he feels about Sing Street‘s Oscar snub, and more.
Between Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street, John Carney has already proven he’s one of the strongest voices in the movie musical space, but now he further confirms it with his latest release, Flora and Son, which premieres in select theaters on September 22nd and on Apple TV on September 29th.
The movie features a top-tier performance from Eve Hewson as one of the title characters, Flora. She’s a single mom struggling to figure out how to put her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), on a better path. She brings home a beat-up acoustic guitar in hopes of encouraging him to pick up a new hobby, but it turns out, a new creative endeavor is just what she needs as well. Between her Zoom lessons with an LA-based musician (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Max sparking to electronica, the two finally find some common ground.
While in Toronto for Flora and Son’s international premiere at TIFF 2023, Carney took the time to swing by the Collider media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL to discuss his experience making the film. He recapped the writing process, pinpointed qualities that make Hewson a standout actor and collaborator, revisited Sing Street’s unforgettable Oscar snub, and loads more.
Hear about it all for yourself straight from Carney in the video interview at the top of this article or read the conversation in transcript form below.
PERRI NEMIROFF: I know you veered away from feature filmmaking for a little bit. What inspired that shift and when you got back to it, were there any new tools that you were able to use on Flora and Son that you knew you gained from series storytelling?
JOHN CARNEY: Oh, that’s a cool question. Probably, yes. The reason I stopped making movies for a while was that I needed to buy a house, so I went and made television, which got me enough money to buy a house, and then I returned to filmmaking to get some furniture in the house [laughs], which should give you a sense of how big TV is.
But so Flora was a return. A tiny, small film, a kind of return to my comfort zone of not a lot of money and cast I knew and friends of mine and crew that I had come up with. And I think I probably did learn a lot by making Modern Love, which was the TV show that you’re referring to. You do learn to tell a story in a very succinct way when you’re working in TV. They were standalone episodes, so I think I learned a lot about getting scripts down to their bare minimum and finding a way to tell a story very quickly and effectively and kind of getting on with it, and I think that probably shows in Flora. It’s a short enough movie. It’s not a huge, long, sprawling movie.
Because you just referenced the fact that you brought back a whole bunch of collaborators you’ve worked with in the past, can you give me an example of someone behind the scenes that you have an established relationship with that might be a bit of an unsung hero?
CARNEY: Wow. Well, there are a lot of people that I work again and again with. Anthony Bregman, one of the producers on Flora, produced Begin Again and Sing Street, we now have clocked up quite a few films together, and will continue to do so. And then there were various crew members in Ireland that I’ve been working with for years. Many of us started making films just as a thing to do. Picked up a camera, one guy picked up a microphone, the other picked up a clapper board, and you found out what job you were doing. We didn’t go to college, really. It was more like, “I need you to do the makeup,” or “Will you do this,” or “Get sandwiches.” Jobs kind of came out of necessity, which is a really interesting way of working.
When you find those collaborators and you know they’re the real deal, you stick with them.
I love talking about how a film can evolve throughout the entire filmmaking process. Do you remember what the biggest difference is between draft one of Flora and Son and what everyone will now see in the finished feature?
CARNEY: Yeah, I can. I wrote that script and I paused on about page 50 or 60. I let it sit there for quite a few months, actually, without an ending. All the characters were set up. And once I knew it was gonna be Eve, I figured out the way to end it and where to go and to play to her strengths. She’s a very funny person and that was immediately evident the second I met her. I was like, “Well, she’s gonna go in always with the funny bone,” and she’s not afraid of goofing around and tripping up and trying different things and saying, “Well, that didn’t work.” And I think that led me to complete the script and finish it out knowing the voice of the actor who was gonna play Flora.
I also read that when you stopped after page 50, you focused on the music. I think the way you described it was, initially, the music just wasn’t right. What did that music sound like and when you found Eve and figured out the end of the script, how did the music evolve from there?
CARNEY: Usually, with a musical, the criteria is, “Give me the best song you have.” That’s all it is. A Star is Born or Guys and Dolls or “Falling Slowly” in a film I did called Once, just the best song you can write, please. With this it’s slightly different because they have to be good songs, but they have to plausibly be from the Flora character who, let’s face it, found a guitar at the beginning of this movie and never played before so she can’t suddenly be Django Reinhardt, who is mentioned in the movie. She can’t suddenly be up and down the fretboard. Okay, so now her songs are probably gonna be down here in G and C and F. She’s probably not gonna be dropping in sus and major seventh chords and jazzy stuff. And I didn’t look at them as limitations, but the character that I had written was forming the song so that should tell you which direction to take the songs in, and that took a while to figure out what sound she is producing.
It’s so good. There’s so much that I can’t get out of my head and I’m happy for it. I want it to live there forever.
CARNEY: Oh, great.
You’ve worked with some pretty exceptional movie musical leads. Do you notice any shared qualities they have that make them excel in a film like this, but then also, can you name something about Eve that makes her one of a kind and stand out from the bunch?
CARNEY: I think I’m probably looking for actors for whom music – the question that I ask all the actors when we’re getting down to it is, how much of a role does music play in your life? Because, believe it or not, for some people, music is background, which always amazes me. And so I’m always looking for the story in an actor’s life where music really changed them, or a song, or a period of their life in which they grew or messed up or got married or didn’t get married – what was the music playing? What was the score of your life? And I think I’ve always gravitated towards actors for whom music played a pivotal role in their life. And then, that’s it. I don’t go into that in too much detail on the set or anything like that, but it’s good to know because my films, I guess, are about music changing your life, so it’s good to have actors who’ve their own personal experience of that.
How about something about her that stands out from any lead you’ve ever worked with?
CARNEY: So many things. Eve is very unusual. She doesn’t come at it like an actor, or the actors that I’ve known. She’s perfectly studious. She learns her lines and she’s an actor, but she comes at it from a slightly different perspective, which I really enjoyed. I’m not sure what it is that she’s got, but I haven’t seen it in Mark Ruffalo or other actors that I’ve worked with who went to acting school. She has, I guess what I’m trying to say, is a little bit more of the lead singer of a band, a little bit more of a rock star, let’s face it. When she’s talking it reminds me of bands I’ve been in or lead singers that I’ve met. They think in three-minute increments or something, like the length of a song. I know I’m not gonna be able to do that, or that doesn’t ring true, just a funny musical approach to the thing. And then her humor was the other thing that drew me to her because the character is funny. She never said, “Can I look back at that because I think I made a fool of myself.” She was like, “You can have that take if you want it.”
I was reading a lot about how she’s game to do just about anything. Can you give us an example of a surprising big swing she took on set, you loved it, rolled with it, and now everyone can see it in the finished film?
CARNEY: She just had done Bad Sisters and I think hanging with Sharon [Horgan] and all those great actors, they had probably, I don’t know, but it seems when you’re watching that show they were just having a brilliant time making that show. So she was very up for, “I’ll try. I don’t know if I’m this or that or if I can do this funny.” There were definitely a couple of episodes, we would arrive on set, and myself and Eve would be a little bit like, “I’m a bit bored today. Let’s do it funny. Just for our own entertainment. What about tripping up and trying to go underneath the wall?” There were certain scenes where, with Jack Reynor, her ex-husband, where she had to try and have poise, but didn’t because she’s the wounded woman coming back to drop the kid off or something, and she was very funny and very open to letting him have the scene and her playing the fool, and not have to try and get it back off him. There were numerous episodes, I think, where myself and Eve would look at each other and have a little code, which is like, “Do something funny. This scene needs something. We need to take the air out.” She was really good at that.
I get the impression that she can do absolutely anything.
CARNEY: Yeah, she’s great.
Let’s talk about Joe briefly. I think he said that initially you were thinking you wanted to cast a professional musician in that role. Did you have any particular musician in mind and then, what did he write in that letter to you that convinced you otherwise?
CARNEY: It doesn’t take much convincing to get Joe in your movie. We would all love to work with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I had this idea that he was somehow very good looking and sophisticated and polite. It was just a thing I had. If I thought of him, I was like, “Oh, he’s the good guy and he wears ties and he looks good, and I’m talking about a suntanned LA hippie who’s failed in his career and lives up in Topanga Canyon, or wherever.” And I just was like, “Isn’t he a bit clean-cut?” And he was like, “No, I know LA. I know this guy.” He just spoke so well about music, and he spoke about his own wife and the way that they sing together, and he talked about harmonizing with your partner, which really spoke to me. I felt like, here is a guy who knows this character in a way that I didn’t even really know him when I wrote him. It’s very, very nice when an actor comes to a director and says, “You don’t see that you have something here. Let me point this out to you.” As a director, it’s very humbling and inviting to go, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” And you’re grateful because an actor has shown you something that you didn’t know you had in a script or an idea, and Joe did that numerous times because, let’s face it, he has 50 times more experience than I do. So, lots of times, I’d be like, “Yes.”
Going into filming, which character were you most excited to work on and dig into, but then, to lean into what you were just saying, which character wound up being more creatively fulfilling than you ever could have imagined because of what the actor brought out of what you had written?
CARNEY: Well, I’ll tell you, Jack Reynor brought some great stuff to that part, because that part could have been, you know, he’s an ex-husband. He doesn’t wanna take the kid and look after the kid on the weekends. He’s maybe a bit of a slob. He’s a bit of a dreamer. He maybe was in a band and it didn’t work out. He’s a bit disgruntled and unhappy. I think there’s four or five scenes with that character in the movie, and Jack somehow has a very clever way of inhabiting these characters, certainly with me anyway. He played in Sing Street. He played the lead character’s brother. He makes a small character grow in a very, very cool way without needing extra dialogue or without ever asking me, “Can I do more? Can I be in more scenes?” He breathes life into these small characters or secondary characters. I just can’t wait to do something bigger with him.
I would very much like to see that. I love that he makes the most of every minute of screen time that he gets, but I need to see him in a powerhouse lead role, front and center.
CARNEY: That’s a good way to put it. He’s the kind of actor who you look forward to in the seven scenes that [he has]. I can think of tons of those actors that you’re like, “Oh, you’re gonna make something of this scene. It’s not just gonna move the plot along.”
I wanted to touch on something you said in a previous interview. It’s something that I think about a lot. I believe you were talking about what you wanted people to take away from the movie and you said, “The beginning of something, but not the completion.” How do you go about knowing that your movie gives a full and satisfying experience while also leaving the door open for audiences to consider what happens next?
CARNEY: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I do know what I meant when I said that. I try to avoid the idea that like, “Oh, this is the end of the movie and everything is finished,” because stories never finish. You just choose a point at which to jump off. You could choose to end on page 78 or you could go one more page or you could go five more pages or you could go into the next day for this character. For me, the challenge of making a movie is how you begin it and how you end it. That’s what makes it distinct from TV, which goes on and on and on and on, and draws you in and seems to never end. A film has to – you being and without a bathroom break or a week break or a tea break, you begin and then you’re gonna end, and the audience are going to believe you or not, and trust you. I find that the point at which you’re gonna bring down that blade on the end of the movie and make that final cut, to me, it’s better when you don’t make a big statement about that ending and wrap it all up and have everything finished, but that when you go, “This character got some satisfaction there in that scene, but it doesn’t mean that tomorrow is not gonna be a challenge.” And I didn’t want to do a thing about Flora from the flats, who has all these challenges and suddenly she finds a guitar and her whole life, she’s like Beyonce or she’s winning awards. I wanted to make it that she had taken this step in her life towards something new, but she’s still gonna have challenges the next morning. She’s still gonna have to pay her rent, and she’s still probably gonna scream to her son, and they’re probably gonna argue, but they’re better and they’ve made some steps towards repairing the damage that, let’s face it, she’s done in their relationship.
That makes it feel real and mean more. That’s what keeps it on your mind well after the movie ends too, and I appreciate that very much.
CARNEY: Yeah, it’s thinking, “Where could that go? Where could that go? Where could this go?” It’s giving that to the audience so that they don’t feel they’ve been given a box with a ribbon on it and it’s all tied up and done.
Do you have any itch whatsoever to make a sequel to any of your films?
CARNEY: I’ve thought about it. I thought Sing Street would be a funny sequel because you could take the characters in London. They probably went out there, at the end of that film, what year is it? ’86 or ’87 or something like that, so you could set a film in London in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. But musically I didn’t think things were as interesting for me then. And then I thought of a sequel to Once, but I don’t know. I’ll probably just disguise it in another film and have different names or something like that. It’s nice to end and just be done with it.
I get it, but when I fall in love with something, I get greedy and want more of it.
CARNEY: The really great example of that, the only one that works for me, is the [Richard] Linklater movies. I’m so glad that the other two, two and three, don’t take from one, but they also do work as a continuing saga or story. But normally I like a film to just end and that’s it. You don’t get any more. I’m sorry. It is over. [Laughs]
You bringing up Sing Street gives me an excuse to ask this question. You’ve probably moved on from this, but I think about it nonstop, and I’m still very sensitive about the fact that that was probably one of the biggest Oscar snubs of all time. Was it a surprise to you when it didn’t get the original song nomination and why do you think it was shut out that year? For the life of me, even after all these years later, I can’t process it.
CARNEY: Well, I’ll tell you, I never got into filmmaking to even think about any of that.
CARNEY: Having had the luck of Once winning an Oscar, that was never the plan, and so it’s very important, as a filmmaker, to try and never go for that again because it is going to limit your work. And it’s very tempting to go, “God, we actually were in that room and there’s an award. Maybe we could go down that path.” So, any love that my films have gotten is a surprise to me because I expect them to be, as my early films were broadcast in my mother’s front room to seven of my friends, that’s the most I expect from any of my films. But I think the reason – it’s not a good thing when you’ve made a small musical in Dublin and then Damien Chazelle releases a musical. [Laughs] That does not help.
A very good musical. I still feel like Sing Street deserved, at the very least, a nomination.
CARNEY: They can maybe give me a lifetime achievement and say we missed – when I’m like 90.
I’m behind that. Sign me up to support that.
CARNEY: I’ll be there.
I wanted to refer to one other quote you gave in our press notes. I have to read this because it’s so specific. You were talking about how the idea for Flora and Son originated and said, “No matter how rich I may ever become in this world, I will always stop at a dumpster to see if there’s anything there for me.” You found an amp and that’s what got the ball rolling on this. What is the latest thing you’ve found in a dumpster and could it wind up becoming a movie down the line?
CARNEY: That’s a very good question. Actually, really funnily, I was trying to explain that to somebody the other day, and they were saying, “Why didn’t you make a story about the amp?” And I was like, “Well, an amp is a thing you need something else to amplify,” so I traded that out for a guitar because it’s basically its own thing. It’s like a bicycle. You don’t need anything else to make an acoustic guitar make noise.
But then I did actually have a very funny image the other day. I was walking along – that’s what I said, I said, when you see somebody walk down the street, they’re interesting, but if they have a guitar on their back, they’re twice as interesting. Do you know what I mean? Something about a musical instrument tells you, “Oh, there’s a dreamer. There’s somebody who thinks that she can perform. There’s somebody who has a dream of a song.” Suddenly this instrument, it’s a great prop in a movie. It suggests all these stories to me.
But I did really funnily walk down the other day and there was a guy walking, and he had two guitars over his shoulder. [Laughs] And I was like, is that twice as interesting? He just found two guitars and was carrying them. And actually what I realized was that was not as interesting because he looked like he was trying to sell them.
That’s curious, though.
CARNEY: But he found two guitars and was walking down the street carrying them.
I’m gonna end with one question about your next film. I know it was very important to you to set Flora and Son in Dublin. I believe with your next film, you’re going back to New York. What is it that’s calling you back to New York City right now?
CARNEY: Well, maybe I am. It depends on whether I can get financing or not. Maybe I’ll find that out now in Toronto.
We manifest things here. You will get financing!
CARNEY: Yeah, I can go out cap in hand at the end of the screening. There’s a couple of projects and one or two of them are set in New York. Even though, I guess, it’s probably not the artistic center of the universe at the moment because everybody’s been priced out and the kids aren’t there and they’re not doing their thing. Same as Dublin. It’s just not happening, and it’s primarily because young people can’t afford to do anything there. So it’s that old story. So what the next city is, I have no idea, or the next town, or whatever. But that is a problem with New York, for sure. So you kind of have to make up your own stories when you’re there. For me, you don’t wanna be making something that is claiming to be the next big thing because who knows what the next big thing is, musically, because it’s moving so fast.
Special thanks to MARBL Restaurant for hosting Collider as well as additional sponsors Sommsation, a top wine experience brand and online shop, and Molson Coors’ Blue Moon Belgian White as the beer of choice at the Cinema Center. Additionally, Moët Hennessy featuring Belvedere Vodka featured cocktails and Tres Generaciones Tequila.