Flora and Son, which is now in theaters and debuted September 29th on Apple TV+, is not the first collaboration between filmmaker John Carney and composer-songwriter Gary Clark. Following their work together on Sing Street and the TV series Modern Love, the two have developed a shorthand for how they communicate to make wonderful music and embed it into each of their projects.
Below the Line spoke with Clark about starting with Sing Street, working through the pandemic on season two of Modern Love, and then getting to dive into Flora and Son. He expressed enthusiasm about working with different styles of music and how involved Carney is with that process.
He also talked about writing for and working with stars Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and having to remember the lyrics to one of the cornerstone songs at the Toronto International Film Festival when Carney sprung a spontaneous duet on him.
BTL: Let’s talk about your work on this incredible movie. How did you first become involved with working with John Carney?
Clark: Thank you. John and I have worked together since Sing Street, which I think’s 2016, and that movie was set in the ’80s. I used to have a band in the ’80s, and John used to listen to my stuff when he was a kid. And that’s kind of what the story of Sing Street was about. He had this idea to call people that he used to listen to their records as a kid, or as a teenager, and see if they wanted to contribute a song.
When he got in touch with me, I was really excited to do it, because I’d had some stuff in movies before, but I’d never written specifically for something. So I wrote my song and sent him the song. And he loved it and said, “Why don’t you just come on for the whole movie?” And I was like, “Yes, I’m really excited!” Then he said, “We’re shooting in about four weeks,” and I was like, “Okay, great, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.” Four weeks is an exaggeration, but it was maybe eight weeks.
BTL: Were you familiar with his previous work before he contacted you?
Clark: Yeah, at that time when he called me, Begin Again hadn’t been released, but it had been made, so I hadn’t seen that. But I knew Once really well and was a huge fan of that. I also knew The Frames, his band.
BTL: How does it differ working on a movie and creating original music from being a musician in the industry?
Clark: The big difference is writing for character. I went from being an artist where you have a lot of control, to being a record producer for other people, where you have a lot of control, to being in a film situation, where you have absolutely no control. It’s a team sport. You have to leave your ego at the door, because at the end of the day, you serve the film and you serve whatever the character needs to do, whatever they need to sound like, whatever they need to say. The gift side of that is that you’re not starting with a blank page, you’re starting with a great script and great characters, and so it’s really about imagining what they would create.
BTL: How did Flora and Son come about?
Clark: I absolutely adore working with John, so I was absolutely thrilled when he called me about Flora. He had talked to me, well, actually, he had sent me an early version of the script pre-pandemic, and we talked about it a bit then and things sort of went away. I just didn’t think it was going to get made, and then he called me in early 2022 and said, “Remember that movie about the mom and the son, Flora? We’re getting it made. Do you want to talk about the music?”
So he sent me a new script, and then we walked through the script over Zoom and just detailed where the really important songs, the cornerstone songs, had to be, and just talked a bit about what they would sound like and all that stuff, and that was the start of the process. Again, it happened quite quickly because they were shooting in the summer. And we knew that we had to get the songs written before the shoot, obviously, because they have to perform them.
BTL: I think it’s fair to say that the songs are significantly different in style and genre and everything between Sing Street and Flora and Son.
Clark: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, this is probably the broadest musical palette, if you like, of any of John’s films. There’s a real combination of the rapper kids on the housing estate and the LA viewpoint of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, and then there’s the club and dance music which we made as well. Not all of it, but it’s in Flora’s headphones before she discovers the magic of Joni Mitchell. Yeah, broad palette, and I enjoyed that.
BTL: Do you have the actors in mind at all when you’re writing these songs, if they’re even cast at that point?
Clark: Yeah, you do. I did Zooms with both of them and we played together across Zoom. I got a sense of what they sounded like vocally, and also how proficient they were on instruments, which was great. What actually happened for the rooftop song Meet in the Middle, which was obviously one of the big cornerstone songs, when they finally come together and write something together, she helps him and he helps her, the lyric that John and I had wasn’t floating with Eve. When I say it wasn’t floating, there were certain lines that she would say, and she said, I just don’t think Flora would say that.
Instead of writing a hundred lines until she felt that it was her character, we said, “Let’s just all go in the studio.” They were shooting at the time, the schedule was crazy, so the only day we could get in the studio was on a weekend. It was a Saturday or Sunday. I flew over to Dublin and we just went into a small studio, sat there, acoustic guitars, and just thrashed it out. John said at the start of the day, “We’re not leaving the studio until we have this song in the bag,” and it was great. We started from what we had and they contributed their energy and lyrics and vibe, and so they’re integrated into the songs.
BTL: It’s also interesting to see how they’re performed, because some of them, where they are in different places, it feels a bit like a music video, where you’d have separate shots and separate scenes. Does that present any challenges for the actual recording process?
Clark: The on-set setup was, I believe, really complicated, but technically, I don’t really have anything to do with that, thank god. What they did was build two rooms back-to-back so that when they were actually acting together, even though it was across Zoom, it was live, so they could react to one another.
They found when they built these two rooms, there were technical problems with that, delays and things that they had to work through and get it all right. Joseph sometimes goes into singing and playing his guitar on these Zoom calls, so that brings another technical level, so there were microphones hidden inside his guitar and all kinds of tech stuff that, thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about.
BTL: I had the chance to see this film at its premiere at Sundance months ago, and now I know it just played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Have you had a chance to see it on the big screen anywhere?
Clark: I saw in Toronto, and that was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen. I’ve seen it on many little screens, and I’ve seen it in tiny little pieces before it actually became a film. But no, it was a real thrill and it was a big theater. There was, I guess, almost two thousand people there. It was the biggest movie theater I’ve ever been in. But yeah, that was an experience. It was wonderful.
BTL: And what was the audience response like to the film?
Clark: It’s amazing. They were clapping along and. We actually did a little Q&A at the end, and John sprung it on me that he’d brought an acoustic guitar. We sang Meet in the Middle together in an impromptu fashion and I had to scramble to remember the lyrics.
BTL: How do you feel about the fact that, at least in the United States, this film is coming to Apple TV+, so most people will see it like you first did on a small screen?
Clark: Well, the thing is, people’s systems at home these days are almost like cinemas. I don’t have surround sound or anything, but I have a pretty big screen at home, but I’ve got friends who have speakers in every wall and stuff. And then you have the complete opposite, which is people watching them on a mobile phone. Let’s hope the story works across all of those screens, and the music, obviously.
BTL: John obviously doesn’t work all that often. Do you have any sense of what he might be doing next, and if you would work with him again?
Clark: Oh, I’d love to work with him again. We have been talking about a couple of things, and some of that depends on what he gets funding for because he has a few different ideas. But we did do, between Sing Street and Flora and Son, he and I did two series of television called Modern Love that he was showrunner on and I was executive music producer. So I was making music, doing score, writing songs, and commissioning other people to write songs. We really developed our working relationship through that, so when Flora came, we had worked together a lot.
We found a rhythm, which tends to be, John makes a demo of an idea on Garage Band, sends it to me, I put it into Pro Tools, work it up, send it back, and we have a kind of tag team thing going on there. That’s when he’s in Dublin and I’m in Scotland. Then other times, he’ll just send me a scene and say, “I need a song for this, what do you think?” And then I’ll just do something. But yeah, we’ve developed a language and a rhythm to the way that we work, which is really, really great.
BTL: I did enjoy Modern Love. Did you like the challenges of working on a show like that?
Clark: I’ll tell you, I felt really blessed, because season two of Modern Love happened just when the pandemic hit, and I got sent home and locked down. I was working in New York, actually on Sing Street Broadway, which was closed down by the pandemic. I was at my home studio, locked in, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it, because I was working on the Broadway thing. John said, “Now that we’re all locked down, do you want to get involved with this season two?”
Season one, we were bouncing all over the world. Season two, everything was from my bedroom. Zoom calls with the vocalists and actors, and on the very last week of the deadline for the music, things opened up again, and I was able to do a string session. It was emotional when everybody started playing. It was incredible. Memories.
BTL: On the note of memories, you have a lot of great credits not involving John for music. Is there anything that really stands out to you as particularly special from your resume?
Clark: There is a song that actually is probably my most synched, as in placed in movies and television and stuff, of all. It’s kind of a crazy story. I was on what they call a writing camp or writing retreat that was set up by my publisher. This is about twelve years ago or something, maybe ten years ago. And on the first day, I was put together with an Australian electronic guy called Julian from a band called Presets and a New Zealand artist called Gin Wigmore, and we wrote a song called “Kill of The Night”.
The idea was, she’s in a nightclub choosing her prey for the evening. That song, because of the lyric, I mean, also, it’s the energy of the song. It went on her album, and it’s had some ridiculous amount of placements because it works in so many different way. We’ve had bodies chopped up to “Kill of the Night”. We’ve had vampires sucking on people’s necks to “Kill of the Night”. It’s crazy. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and it was written in about twenty minutes at this random camp with people I’ve never met in my life before.
Flora and Son is now streaming on Apple TV+.