“Flora and Son” was an impossible film three years ago. From “Once” to “Sing Street,” director John Carney has found different ways to bring not just songs but the joy of making music to characters who desperately need them. But he also constantly wants to complicate what music is and can be for someone – not every breakthrough is meant to be an elaborate song and dance, and not every piece of music can be enough to push someone in the right direction.
The idea that the woman who would become Flora (Eve Hewson) wanted to escape her troubled son Max (Orén Kinlan) by learning guitar felt very contemporary, with one problem: Carney couldn’t imagine that she actually left her apartment to take guitar lessons. So he tried to write a version in which she took video lessons from failed songwriter Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on her laptop.
“I had written 20 pages of the idea in quick bursts while I was filming ‘Modern Love’ in America,” Carney told IndieWire on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I got to the point where she opened her laptop and met this guitarist who wanted to teach her… Actually, I just wrote the introduction introducing how he’s going to teach, and I think I stopped and then thought, “I’ve kind of backed myself into a corner here.”
The need to make the story modern and plausible clashed with the cultural awareness of video calls over the Internet. Carney said that at the time he started writing, he felt the use cases were more limited to travel and long-distance relationships. Added to this was the static nature of video calls. Carney didn’t think people would accept going to a big movie screen and seeing someone looking at someone else on a smaller screen.
Lockdowns around the world in 2020 changed that calculation for Carney. “Three months later [the COVID-19 pandemic]“We were all completely conditioned,” Carney said. “It was as if part of our brain had changed. And then I read the script again. I thought, “This totally works now.” The very thing that I said, ‘No, I’m going to stop writing and put it away for four months,’ the very thing that was blocking me, became the very thing that made this film universal.”
What attracted Carney to the idea, however, wasn’t the appeal of generally catchy songs. “Flora and Son” wants to meet its characters where they are, with all their limitations as songwriters and musicians (Flora is, after all, just learning guitar). For Carney and his longtime songwriter colleague Gary Clark, this presents an exciting musical challenge: How do you write a mediocre song that develops into a banger over the course of the film?
“I think the days of musicals being full of tons of the best songs of all time are over,” Carney said. “I want to further develop the stories and use of music. So it’s no longer just about atmosphere and fun or the best song of all time, it’s about that [the fact that] Music can be the worst thing in life for some people. Music can be a saving grace. Music can be a disaster for relationships. Music can accompany the wake when someone dies. It can be at a wedding. It can be a lullaby to put your child to sleep. It doesn’t just have to be Judy Garland or Grammy winners or A Star Is Born type things.”
Carney structured both the songs and Flora’s character so that they unfold and evolve over the course of the film as she becomes more musically capable – although she is perhaps most impressive as the producer who encourages her teacher and son to create better songs make. According to Carney, there is something powerful that connects the audience to the characters and makes them accept the characters’ contradictions once they play music.
“If you take ‘Tár’ for example, just the fact that she’s a conductor changes everything in that film. She probably could have done numerous things. It’s the fact that she’s a conductor. The second you put a guitar on someone’s back or put a baton in their briefcase, the second you give them that prop, you just have a strange, strange sympathy for the characters, because as a musician, “Singers or conductors, there is a part of them that makes them strange and different,” Carney said.
Carney’s desire to embrace the delicious weirdness and furtive desires of characters who aren’t necessarily made into films gave him a lot of freedom to write songs that were “very naive.” Then Clark could “rephrase it to be more accessible and make the experience more enjoyable. Because it has to be enjoyable because it’s not a documentary,” Carney said. “If you’re really going to tell the story of ‘Spinal Tap,’ it’s this [songs] would just be really terrible. Inaudible, so to speak. But they made a very smart decision: “We’re not making a documentary.” The songs have to be as good as in any musical, and they are.”
Nevertheless, the songs of Flora and Son were born out of a desire to write music for the characters and to escape the siren call of pop music trends. Flora discovers her love of guitar by watching Joni Mitchell on YouTube; Max’s interest in rap and EDM is rather diffuse; and Jeff the guitar teacher’s favorite example is a song by Tom Waits. Carney wanted each character’s flavor to reflect their essential, wonderful weirdness without making them too self-conscious or overly articulate.
“I don’t really listen to pop music anymore,” Carney said. “And I realized recently that I’m wondering what it’s like to be 14 or 15 and see Taylor Swift singing all these different ideas about your femininity, your youth, your social contacts and your situation. I think I copied it a little. I can’t imagine having such complex texts at 15.”
The pursuit of simplicity led Carney through various musical genres – at one point Flora became much more interested in country – before finding styles inspired by songs of the ’80s and ’90s that could mix electronics and acoustics. The many limitations to the film’s music and its visual presentation arose from Carney’s desire to always do something befitting the character rather than adhering to the conventions of a typical musical.
“Once you make a film that falls into a genre, it’s not original, it’s pure entertainment,” Carney said. “I’m not saying there can’t be entertaining genre films, but for me they don’t last. For example, I think horror is a terrible film genre. I don’t particularly like it, but there are four or five of the best films ever made that are technically horror films. But it’s not just horror movies, that’s the thing. Only an idiot would think that Rosemary’s Baby is actually a horror film. For convenience, one could perhaps categorize or catalog the film as a horror film, but it is a family drama with humor and the horror of life. It’s black and funny and dark and about nesting and having babies. It’s just so fantastic. But it looks like a horror movie. And I think all films should strive to defy the category that journalists or fans would put them in.”
Flora and Son is now streaming on Apple TV+.