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Director John Carney talks Flora and Son and his plans to take a break from directing musicals
02 Feb 2023 : Nathan Griffin
Director John Carney
Following the world premiere of John Carney’s new musical drama at the Sundance Film Festival, we caught up with the Irish director to find out more Flora and Son.

Starring Irish actors Eve Hewson (Bad Sisters), Kelly Thornton (Clean Break), Jack Reynor (What Richard Did), and breakout Orén Kinlan opposite American star Joseph Gordon Levitt, Carney's film follows Flora, a single mom who is at war with her son, Max. Trying to find a hobby for Max, she rescues a guitar from a dumpster and finds that one person's trash can be a family's salvation. The film has been praised for its use of a heart-warming musical narrative to tell a small-scale human story.

The filmed premiered at Sundance to positive reviews late last month with Kate Erbland of IndieWire called it "a cozy Irish musical about the ways in which music can bond people together, the joy of creation, and the pleasure of someone unpacking their soul, all with that lovely Irish lilt... Where [Carney] takes Flora and Son might be his most satisfying conclusion yet”.

Carney is best known for his Oscar-winning feature film OnceBegin Again, and Sing Street, and more recently for his work on Amazon Prime Video’s series Modern Love, for which he directed seven episodes.

Speaking with IFTN following Screen Ireland’s 2023 Slate launch, Carney explained why the film’s world premiere at the Utah festival holds a sentimental place in his heart. “It definitely felt like a bit of a homecoming at Sundance, because I've been there two times before, so this was kind of like a hat trick,” said the director.

“It felt like they knew what I was about, and the sort of tone of the thing we were making. It's funny, the film now has become sort of almost part of a series, not just the film on its own, but it sort of almost became like paintings on a wall.”

“But I think I'll knock all these musicals on the head now for a while and take a break from them. I think there will definitely be music in it, but I think I will do something else now.”

If the filmmaker does decide to step away from his now trademarked musical drama style, he will leave the space on a high with Flora and Son generating a significant buzz among buyers following its Sundance debut. So much so that streaming giant Apple acquired the film for a reported $20 million in the subsequent days. According to Screen Daily, the fee is believed to have significantly increased due to a bidding war between a number of major streamers including Apple and Amazon.

“Well, it's very unusual, it's very strange, because it doesn't happen every time that you'll go to a festival and sell your movie at that festival that quickly,” Carney told IFTN, when talking about the Apple acquisition. “That's very lucky. I mean, we're very fortunate.  I did that with Begin Again and I did it with this film. And obviously, I did it with Once, but there's a few things in between that it didn't happen to. So, I'm aware of what its like when you play at a festival and that's it. Nobody's really knocking down your door to buy the movie.”

“So, this is a lovely, perfect sort of scenario where you have had a good screening, and there's a couple of studios or a couple of people who are actually willing to put their money where their mouth is. That is a lovely feeling because when you make a film, you just want people to see it. It's all about ‘how do I cut through the noise’ and, and with a company like Apple behind you it's like, well that's likely now to break through and to get heard.”

The film becomes Apple’s latest acquisition from the prestigious festival following Audience, Directing, and Special Jury Award winner CODA in 2021, which went on to win last year’s Best Motion Picture award at the Oscars.

From an Irish perspective, Flora and Son will follow in the footsteps of Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominated animated feature film Wolfwalkers, which released as an Apple Original Film in 2020. Streamers have become one of the most active buyers in the market in recent years, something that has changed enormously since Sing Street debuted in 2016.

“It certainly was primarily streamers at this festival, and the film studios couldn't compete or found it difficult to compete for certain films,” Carney told IFTN.

“They trying to build a subscription base. Streaming services are trying to get content that steers people towards their platform. It's very different from a film company. There's more money, and it's more unknown, but it'll be interesting to watch it.”

Shot on location in Dublin last summer, Flora and Son is produced by Rebecca O’Flanagan and Robert Walpole for Irish production company Treasure Entertainment (Handsome DevilSmother) and Anthony Bregman and Peter Cron for Likely Story and Distressed Films.

The film is supported by Screen Ireland in association with FilmNation, Fifth Season, Likely Stor and Distressed Films. Sales are handled by FilmNation.

Asked about his writing process when approaching a musical project, Carney gave his insight into whether the music comes in tandem with the narrative and characters.

“I write them together. I usually have an idea of character, then start to write and then I start to think, if it's a musical story of who they were musically, and that kind of steers me towards knowing them more than what they say,” explained Carney. “But it's usually what they don't say, because they're embarrassed because they are failed singer or they're struggling. I mean, the film that we've just made is all about people struggling with music, nobody's successful.”

“They're all finding that music has different purposes in life, and not just about winning the X Factor, or the stupid competitions. It's only one of the things that music was ever supposed to do. Music wasn't supposed to be about world domination, or billions of views on Spotify, or whatever. It was supposed to do a myriad of things in society. I like telling that story and I like finding characters who reveal more about themselves through their musical tastes or how they play or how they don't play. Musicians are unusual people.”

Flora and Son marks Carney’s return to feature films following several years working across high-end television, with the director relishing coming back to the medium after a break away.  “It was great, it was lovely to do that. And to sort of, you know, I describe it a little bit like when you make TV, you buy your house. When you make a film, you buy a chair for your house,” said Carney.

“With TV you don't get that immediate feeling. You know, you don't screen in a festival in that way, they have small screenings now for TV shows. But it's something about a movie, and the fact that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And then the audience in this case, were up on their feet and stuff. It was just like, oh, it's as close to music actually, as you could get really.”

Flora and Son will release on Apple TV+ later this year.

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