John Carney is remembering the premiere of Flora and Son, his latest urban musical, at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. “I am thinking, we came here with Once, and that was the best story of my life; then we came with Sing Street, and that was the second-best story of my life – there is no way I am getting away with this now.”
The director needn’t have worried.
“People were on their feet, clapping to the song while the movie was still playing,” he says. “They showed no decorum.”
That was only the start of the evening’s excitement. Starring Eve Hewson as a single Dublin mum gaining salvation through music, Flora and Son hadn’t yet found a distributor. Stories abound of moguls brawling in the foyer over rights to the latest potential Oscar winner at Sundance. Carney, now a tad grizzled round the flanks, has seen it all, but even he seems taken aback by the process.
“We got out of the screening and people made offers,” he says. “Then myself and my team were driving around to various different studio houses. That’s how it works. And it’s also the middle of the night. After your screening you drive in a massive, gangster-like Tony Soprano car. You go visit these houses the studios rent. And they pitch why they liked the movie.”
As it happened, Apple TV+ ended up securing the rights, for a figure in the region of $20 million, or just under €19 million. Flora and Son now comes to that service and selected cinemas in time for the opening shots of awards season. An amiable chatterbox with a strong line in self-deprecation, the Dubliner is happy to acknowledge that the film is in the same mode as previous Carney hits such as the Oscar-winning Once, the starry Begin Again and the charming Sing Street. Hewson’s character finds a guitar in a skip and, after failing to interest her son – played with notable sparkle by the newcomer Orén Kinlan – in its potential, seeks out an online music teacher with a mind to self-improvement. Once again, the pop song offers a kind of redemption. Values of the old-school musical find new modes of expression. It’s Carneyesque.
“Yeah. I think I probably listened too acutely to Don Draper’s advice in Mad Men: ‘Name a job and be the person who does it,’” he says. “Here’s the thing. If you create any niche in film-making you’re incredibly lucky and privileged. To get away with it twice or three times is staggering. Every film-maker begins his or her career saying, ‘I’m going to be everything. I’m going to do a thriller. Make a horror film.’ We all begin like that. There’s only one person who can do that now – Martin Scorsese.”
Did he have any concerns about casting Hewson – raised in Dalkey, the daughter of Bono and Ali Hewson – as a working-class single mother? The world is a bit more uneasy about such casting than it used to be.
“Well, that’s a very interesting question and it’s a tricky one,” he says. “Early on in the process, myself and Eve read the script together and said, ‘We have to be careful that we don’t both appear like middle-class Dalkey and Ranelagh heads.’ I’m a snooty Ren-eh-lagh boy. What do I know about the other dynamics in Dublin life at the moment? So we decided to completely stay away from social realism. Let’s completely stay away from being too serious or ‘well observed’. We can’t allow the cinema-verite thing. This is a flamboyant film. We tried to create our own universe.”
John Carney was indeed raised in leafier corners of south Dublin. He first went to school in Churchtown and then, as related in the autobiographical Sing Street, to Synge Street CBS, in Dublin 8. There is a video on YouTube examining Temple Bar in 1991 that reveals a young John, round glasses and scarf like the not-yet-invented Harry Potter, talking about his spell as bass player opposite Glen Hansard in the first incarnation of The Frames. Five years later, working with his pal Tom Hall, he was presenting November Afternoon, a challenging monochrome feature, at Dublin Film Festival. This was a long time before the Irish film business’s current fecundity. What made them think such a thing was possible?
“You don’t ask yourself those questions when you’re that age,” he says. “I can remember being in London in The Frames. We were getting a per diem [or daily allowance]. We had a record deal. We were really touted as the next big thing. I remember buying a camera in Lee’s camera store. I think I borrowed money from Glen to buy a Super 8 camera and a projector. I would go home to the Columbia Hotel, where we were staying, and film five minutes of black and white Super 8. It had a magic to it.”
There was no set path to follow if you wanted to be a feature director in Ireland. Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan offered inspiration, but both had made their own eccentric ways towards the big screen. Carney’s journey was similarly unique. “I didn’t have a credit card from my parents to pay for movies, but I borrowed my dad’s car to do a tracking shot – which is a luxury and a privilege,” he admits. There wasn’t much capital then swilling about Dublin. “I stole like mad when I was a kid,” he says. “I didn’t need to, but I stole all my film books. I was in a gig with The Frames when I was 17 and I stole a tripod from UCD.”
Can I publish that?
“You can. I have said it in UCD. I owe them a tripod.”
He and Hall followed up November Afternoon with the little-seen Park in 1999. Two years later he provided Cillian Murphy with an early lead role in the agitated On the Edge. The peculiar path then meandered towards the unexpected TV hit that was Bachelor’s Walk. A collaboration with Hall and John’s brother Kieran Carney, the series, first broadcast in 2001, caught a new Ireland that had barely registered in other media.
“I think a lot of that had to do with Kieran,” he says. “He came back from London. Myself and Tom were kind of babies. We lived through movies. So our outlook seemed grown-up, but it was actually vicarious. Kieran had actually lived.”
It has been much reported that Murphy was originally cast as the lead in Once. He was already enough of a name for his eventual withdrawal to alter the dynamic of the whole project.
“That was crushing at the time,” Carney says. “I thought I had Cillian attached to the movie, and he pulled out at a very, very late stage. It reinforced my thinking that I would have to go truly independent on this film.”
He laughs as he remembers turning round and, “like a moment in Scooby-Doo”, spotting Hansard, who had been writing tunes for the movie. “Hang on! You were in The Commitments, weren’t you?” Hansard became the lead.
Nobody could have predicted what followed. Completed in 2007, Once, following a romance between a busker and a Czech flower seller, became an indie hit, won an Oscar for best original song and ended up inspiring a stage musical. Carney continued along his singular path. Begin Again featured a starry cast including Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Sing Street, from 2016, brought him home again.
We have been waiting for a follow-up feature for seven years. In that period Carney has spent time running the anthology series Modern Love for Amazon Prime Video. Life threw up other challenges for him and his wife, the actor Marcella Plunkett, as the world chugged through shutdown and restart.
“What happened? Two children happened. They took a lot of time,” he says. “Both Marcella and I put ourselves on hold for that. I decided not to get really involved in moviemaking. Things like Sing Street or Once take a lot out of you.”
This business is never comfortable. But it feels as if he’s grabbed a few threads of security.
“I feel as long as I stick to the rules of what I do I can get financed,” he says. “I think if I go back to them with my slasher musical they might question it.”
Is that a real thing?
“No, no, no.”
But it could be.
“Yes, it could be. Ha ha!”
You heard it here.
Flora and Son is on Apple TV+ and in selected cinemas