As is true of all his films, “Flora and Son” started with writer-director John Carney mining from personal experience. “The big story for me was my mother, and I thought about my own relationship with music when I was young, dragging my mother around music shops. What did that feel like for her,” the filmmaker said in an exclusive clip that shows his artistic process both writing the film, and the original songs like “High Life” that are featured in it.
Although he is unique in the extent to which he composes the music for his own films, Carney begins work on a new project like most writer-directors do: he starts with the screenplay first. “Otherwise, it’s going to be like a jukebox musical where the script doesn’t matter and you’re just drawing the dots between songs,” Carney said to IndieWire over Zoom.
When he comes to a place in the script where he thinks a song should go, “I’ll write a little paragraph on that, but then I’ll pause and go and play the piano. Sometimes it doesn’t gel into that, and then I go for a cycle and I’m humming that and I’m listening to my phone, to the melody, and then I’ll crack something and go back. It’s a fun space in my office when I’m writing, because it’s music and scriptwriting, and then I’ll make a phone call to a musician and ask them to write something and send it through.”
In the aforementioned clip below, Carney describes himself as “a guy who probably should be in a band who makes films,” which he said comes from a desire to put his collaborators like Gary Clark, his co-composer, to the forefront. “I respond more to the energy of being in a group together and coming up with stuff, and it’s less auteury or less about me,” said Carney. “I kind of want to be a little bit invisible from the process of the film. I don’t want my fingerprints all over it.”
However, the director of acclaimed films like “Once” and “Begin Again” recognizes — and even embraces — that he’s been able to carve out a niche of “stories about people for whom music is in their lives every day, for some reason or other,” he said. With the former film winning the Best Original Song Oscar in 2008, and the latter being nominated for the same award in 2015, Carney set a high bar for “Flora and Son,” building around its finale song “High Life,” which was recently nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award.
“I think the song is actually better than most songs in musicals,” said Carney. “Not that it’s a question of what’s better or worse, but it’s more ambitious in a way.” Performed by a motley crew, consisting of protagonist Flora (Eve Hewson), her aspiring rapper-producer son Max (Orén Kinlan), her ex Ian (Jack Reynor), and her guitar instructor Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) via Zoom, “High Life” is meant to serve the film’s heartwarming, relatable narrative, more than it is to blow people away. “She’s not a professional musician, so to see her do that and take that risk is more amazing than seeing somebody play at the Grammys and get their career back,” said Carney. “That’s fine, but it’s fantasy. It’s more interesting to see somebody take that first step towards doing something that they’ve never done before.”
He added, “When I was editing the movie, I used to watch that scene first every day and try and work back and go, ‘OK, I’m still trying to get to just that place.’” Each consecutive scene throughout the film’s 97-minute running time helps convey all the limitations that have developed in the characters so that the humble open mic performance can feel massive, even though it’s perfectly clear that the band is still very green.
“It’s a very difficult scene to get right, because you want it to appear like the most natural thing in the world. And we’ve seen that scene play out in so many different movies where it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s really good,’ and everybody starts clapping along, and then she’s amazing. But I didn’t want it to be that,” said Carney. “I wanted it to be that she just didn’t die [up there], and that people ended up having a good time, but it was in a Dublin pub where they were very amenable to having a good time, so it’s not a slam dunk, it’s just a great moment in her life.”
The director likens the scene to what one could expect from a Cameron Crowe movie. “Everything goes right for a moment, and it’s a perfect night, but they probably were a mess,” he said. It would be easier to do the scene as Flora winning over the whole crowd with “American Idol” level vocals, but keeping it true to the music scene his hometown, Carney was more interested in crafting a scene in which the band has to work hard to capture the audience’s attention. Even then, there are moments that seem like it could all go south. “The last line of the movie, if you hear it properly, is me saying, ‘You’re shite’ from the audience,” said Carney, “which is exactly what you’d hear in a Dublin pub.”
Another comparison the director makes is to the dance finale in “Napoleon Dynamite,” which he described as “as good a musical moment as any Gene Kelly movie.” Like with the “High Life” performance, “You’re just watching that scene, going, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this scene in this movie, right now,’” said Carney. “That’s all you want from a movie.”
“Flora and Son” is now streaming on Apple TV+.