For writer and director John Carney, his new film, Flora and Son, began very simply. "It all started with the image of a woman pulling a guitar out of a dumpster," he says. "I thought that was a great starting point for a film, and especially one of my films — something that either had to have or was likely to have a musical component." True to his word, very little time passes in the film before Flora (Eve Hewson), the young Irish woman at the center of its story, has found herself impulsively rescuing a beat-up acoustic guitar from the metallic maw of a garbage truck.
It's a moment that was partly inspired, at least, by Carney's own life. ("It's sort of based on something I do myself, which is recycle and repurpose other people's trash all the time," the Irish-born filmmaker reveals.) As those who watch Flora and Son will inevitably discover, though, it's also a befitting inciting incident for a film that is, in many ways, the most unpolished musical that Carney has made since his breakout hit, 2007's Once, which won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Flora and Son, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, follows a single mother (Hewson) who decides to repair a used guitar for her teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan), in hopes that it might inspire him to abandon his burgeoning criminal impulses. Ultimately, the guitar not only creates a bridge between mother and son but also sparks an unexpected relationship between Flora and Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the L.A.-based musician who gives her weekly guitar lessons over Zoom.
Like in all of Carney's films, music proves to be an unlikely means of salvation for Flora and Son's characters. Its thematic connections to his past efforts aside, there is one thing that separates Carney's latest film — his first since 2016's Sing Street — from all of his other musicals. "Usually, I make films about people who are competent musicians, but I didn't want to do that with this film," he tells A.frame. "I wanted to make a movie about somebody who gets given the gift of music later in life, someone who only starts to see the magic of how music is created as an adult, how much it means to other people, and — this is important — that music isn't about winning The Voice or The X-Factor. It's not about getting an award or being No. 1."
Hence a battered guitar in a dumpster.
A.frame: As someone who clearly loves music and has made numerous movies about people who love music, what was it like making a film about a woman who, at first, doesn't?
It was the reason to do it. I'm kind of tired of people who are really good at what they do. I've made movies about those people a few times now, and it's a bit boring. You know, there's always that scene where someone's like, "Oh, I don't want to hear this girl from Dublin. Oh wait, hey! She's really good!" Or there's a skeptical person who suddenly hears the voice of an angel singing across the room. We've seen that so many times, and I've done that scene myself numerous times as well. I'm guilty of it, too.
I just thought, "What would it be like to hear someone play a song in a movie and it's not 'Falling Slowly’ [from Once] or 'Singin' in the Rain'? What would it be like to make a scene where someone hears something and it's not the best thing in the world? What would it be like to hear something that needs the help and collaboration of somebody else? What would it be like to hear somebody fail?" That was an idea that was really interesting to me, and partly because of some of the failures I've experienced in my own life. The fantasy version of life that we have in our heads never really happens. It just never does.
It does feel like a subversive choice to make in a musical.
Well, it seem like there's something happening even on TV at the moment, where more and more shows and films are subverting expectations and surprising audiences with their narrative choices. The tropes of Hollywood are really being circumvented. You see it even in a show like Poker Face, where you watch an episode and you're like, "That's the last thing I expected to happen." It's good practice to do those kinds of things and go, "No. I know that when somebody sings onscreen you expect to see a positive reaction of some kind, but what if that's not what happens? What's that like?" It's interesting to explore and describe what it feels like to tell a joke that falls flat on its face because, generally speaking, we're obsessed with success stories.
By focusing on a character like Flora, you also get to show viewers her falling in love with music. Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" plays a significant role in that respect. What made you decide to use that song how you do?
There are a few things that are happening culturally right now that I think are interesting. Personally speaking, I'm 50, and I've learned that you really age exponentially as you get older. The difference between 30 and 40 really didn't feel that huge to me, but the difference between 40 and 50 feels massive. I'm finding myself looking at young people and thinking, "Wow! They really are different now." When I was 30 or 40, a 20-year-old wasn't that far away from me. There was a gap, for sure, but when I made Sing Street and I was hanging out with the kids in that movie, even though there was a distance between us, it wasn't unfathomable.
Now that I'm 50, I've realized that the gaps have gotten huge and there are younger people who have never heard "Both Sides Now." There are 30-year-olds who have never heard that song. There wouldn't have been any 30-year-olds who were born in, say, the '80s who didn't know that song or John Martin or Tom Waits. Now there are. That's sort of where the idea for that scene came from.
The internet has also changed the way people are exposed to older songs now.
Absolutely. There are tons of people for whom the internet is just, like, the open sea. They don't know where to look or where to go, and I thought it'd be interesting to see somebody react to such a well-known piece of music for the first time. There are all those YouTube clips of people listening to songs online for the first time, and to be totally honest, I don't love those videos. I do think we've gotten to a weird place in the world where we're spending so much time watching people react to things. I think that's weird and a bit f**ked up, to be honest.
I think there's something a bit wrong with that, but in a movie, that's a bit different because that's what movies are. You're watching things happen to people who aren't you. So many noir films are about watching people fail a bank heist and get shot up, you know? You're watching those characters have a certain experience, and that sensation is important to the moviegoing experience. So that "Both Sides Now" scene really came from a few different places in my life, one of which is feeling a bit old and feeling like I'm 50 and my kids have no idea about the music that I grew up listening to. There's such a large chasm between older and younger people now, and the internet has only made that chasm even bigger, which I find fascinating.
The movie never shies away from these characters' flaws, but it also doesn't feel cynical. The film believes very deeply and earnestly in the merits of art and creation. Where does that uncynical approach come from?
I guess I feel that we're being sold a lot nowadays the idea that you can create your art, follow your dreams, and one day you'll get "there." But where? Where is the "there" that everybody keeps promising me, and that if I were a young man or woman, I'd be hearing about all the time on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook? There are all these promises nowadays about this supposed destination. If you just keep following your dream, one day you'll get there. But where are you supposed to be going, really? What I realized after having kids, and I have a 7-year-old now, is that when my son creates something, he's not interested in where it goes. He's lost in the process in a way that is wonderful and that we lose a lot when we begin to call our passion our job.
The things we make can turn out to be awful a lot of the time and they can add up to nothing, and sometimes nobody will want to see or hear them. But, man, it's always fun to make them. That philosophy is closer to what I believe in now, at least, because I meet so many people nowadays where it's all about, "How am I going to make it?" And I just always think, "What is 'making it?'" I think that's where the uncynical quality you mentioned really comes from.
Do you think that's a recurring theme in your films? The idea of how easy it is for artists to lose sight of what's important?
It's a belief of mine that has really been corroborated by watching my kid sit on the ground and make a drawing or a painting or a LEGO set or whatever he wants. We're the ones who make him sign it when he's done, you know? We're the ones who hang it on the wall. When he's done with it, he'll come up and he'll ask, "What do you think?" and he'll explain it to you. But then he'll throw it on the kitchen table or whatever and go off and forget about it. He doesn't care about ever seeing it again.
We're the ones that tell him, "You have to hang it on your wall," and we teach them to see their bedroom walls as f**king galleries, but that's not how I came up creatively. For me, the journey was the thing, and that's where the fun lies. I try to treat creativity almost like a game, because ultimately, it's just another way to play.
By Alex Welch