The director asserts his new film reaffirms his belief that music can save someone’s life

“Flora and Son” director John Carney, who has made a niche for himself in films that tackle what music means to people, used his own mother as inspiration for his latest project at Sundance, which has sold to Apple for over $20 million.

“I had been scribbling away about the character, and thinking about my own mother a lot and how she helped me when I was kind of a bit of a tearaway teenager,” Carney told Steve Pond during a conversation at TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge. “She invested in me with a guitar and a four track when other mothers mightn’t have. I pressured her and she delivered, and I didn’t realize at the time how grateful I was to her until she was gone.”

“Flora and Son,” stars Eve Hewson (“Bad Sisters”) as Flora, a single mother who capitalizes on connecting with her teenage son (Oren Kinlan) through music. Flora also develops a close bond with her guitar teacher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) through their long distance lessons (she lives in Dublin and he in Los Angeles.)

“She put her money where her mouth was. She was like, ‘Here you go. Now you have no excuse not to play music because you’re telling me that you want to do music. So there you go, now do it,” Carney added of his late mother. “I didn’t personally ever thank her because you’re a little boy and you’re running around just going ‘Grab, grab, grab me, me, me.’ In a way I suppose this film is a form of gratitude in a sense, without getting too kind of sentimental about it, but that’s kind of the origins of the story.”

Music shapes each character in the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character appears mostly on a screen throughout the film, and the actor shared how he fought to get the role over a more “polished and professional musician.” Hewson comes from a musical family, though she didn’t like playing guitar because of the bar chords. Oren had no musical experience prior to shooting the film.

Carney acknowledged that music centers most of his movies, even though the theme of “Can a Song Save Your Life?” was edited out of the title of “Begin Again” (2013) starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine. 

“Music has helped me not just to go and dance and have fun. I love learning new songs. It’s very cathartic. It’s almost like therapy to me, and some of the best and some bad decisions were made in my life with music playing. Music encourages you to go and have a bit of swagger and be more confident, or it helps you grieve,” he said.

“We use music in Ireland for so many different things, and we’ve forgotten the uses of music, haven’t we a little bit? It’s all about winning The X Factor or The Voice. It’s just ‘win win win’ and be amazing and ‘sound like her,’ ‘sound like that band from the 80s.’ That’s only one thing that music was for. We had bards, we had rooms that you’d go to to listen to music, we had gigs, they brought people together in a different way. I’m a true believer in the idea of music sort of actually, yeah, saving your life.”

TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by NFP along with support from Sylvania and HigherDOSE

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