A director’s fight for creative control
Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn’t want Fifty Shades of Grey to be her legacy, she tells Rory Carroll
Sam Taylor-Johnson perches in a sundappled corner of LA’s Chateau Marmont terrace and asks the waiter for an oatmeal cookie. He brings a plate of chocolate ones – there’s no oatmeal. She sends them back. “I just fancied oatmeal.” Taylor-Johnson knows what she wants. The director was last in the headlines two years ago, when her film of EL James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey ravished the global box office, raking in more than half a billion dollars for Universal Studios. A triumphant collaboration, you might think – except that director and author repeatedly clashed over how to transfer page to screen.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s successful, the journey was hard. I don’t want to be defined by the success of it and I don’t want to be defined by the misery of it. I just want to leave it behind me.”
Taylor-Johnson is an affable, no-nonsense Londoner who made e her name as a Turner-prize nominated photographerapher and visual artist before making films. ms. We are here to discuss her move intoto television – a psychological thriller for Netflix – but the impact of Fifty Shadeshades of Grey is hard to leave behind.
“It’s hard when you u get two headstrong people with veryery powerful visions that are so different.fferent. That was pretty tough, on both of us. Erika had a powerful vision and she wrote and createded it. So it’s difficult, when you hirere someone else who is a creative visionary, too, to realise yourour vision when they have ve their own. I had a reeally strong creative ideaea that got chipped away. ay. And that’s hard for any ny creative person to go through. I hate caving.”g.”
Hindsight does not ease the pain, she says, but she stands by the he result. “When I stand d back and look at the movie,ie, I can say I’m proud of it. I’m m proud of the battles won and d can see the battles I lost.”
There is a steeliness ness to Taylor-Johnson, a sense of control, resiliencece and discipline. Abandoned ed by both parents, she scrapedaped into art school and,nd, in the 1990s, becameme one of the Young Brititish Artists, famously ly making a video porrtrait of David Beckkham for the Nationalal Portrait Gallery in n London, as well as a work called Crying Men, which featured 28 actors, including Paul Newman and Robin Williams, sobbing. Battles with colon and breast cancer suffused her work with decay and death but, having recently turned 50, her focus now is on life. “I’m fucking grateful to turn 50. I’ve faced the alternative a couple of times, so turning 50 is a blessing. And I’d like to turn 60 and 70 and 80, too. As long as I can keep turning those decades, I’ll be fine.” She no longer believes, as she did before, that her art requires her to straddle neurosis and psychosis. “I don’t believe I’m that same person now. I don’t necessarily feel I’m constantly weaving through madness and sadness. I’m calmer and happier, a little more self-assured.” She has reconciled with her mother, who recently visited, but adds: “I think my grounded nature now and sense of stability come from my relationship with Aaron and family.” That would be Aaron Taylor-Johnson, her husband. Her first marriage to art dealer Jay Jopling ended in 2008. A year later, she made her first feature film, Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon, and ended up marrying the lead. When they announced their engagement, she was 42, he was 19. Tabloids crowed and papa paparazzi swooped, but the fuss now feels distant distant. “I don’t think there’s much of an issue any more. We’ve been together eight years. I think it has outrun a lot of relationshipsrelationship that, on paper, were more acceptable to people.” The couple moved to LA thr three years ago and live there with four daughters – two from their union, two from her first marriage – plus three dogs a and six chickens. “I like having fresh eggsegg and knowing where they come from.” She says she i is chuffed her husband won a Golden Globe for his performance in the Tom Ford-directed thrille thriller Nocturnal Animals even though, to prep for the role r–a homicidal rapis t–he spent months wat watching “seriously dark” doc documentaries and films. “T “The aura stays around a while. When it finally le left, it was nice.” Taylor-Johnson took a year off to recover from Fifty Shades before agreeing to direct and executiveproduce the first two e episodes of Gypsy. The 10 10-part Netflix drama, writt written by Lisa Rubin, stars Naomi Watts as a therapist who de develops manipulative relatio relationships with patients and t the people in their lives. “I “It’s so brilliantly written. And the protagonist is so multifaceted and complex and dark and mysterious and clever and twisted – it was exciting to be part of something so different.”
Filming a female writer’s story about a female character’s sexually charged odyssey does not sound so different from Fifty Shades, but Taylor-Johnson insists otherwise. There was no huge fanbase with preconceptions. The writer was more open to collaboration and Netflix was relatively hands-off. “They visited the set a couple of times but didn’t interfere.”
And the character, Jean Holloway, is no Anastasia Steele. “She’s a strong woman who is seeking independence and her own sense of power. She has been feeling consumed by suburban life and breaks free of that.” The characters do share one trait: “They are women who enjoy sex.”
Handing the ensuing eight episodes to other directors was a wrench. “It was sort of bizarre for me: OK, here’s my vision, I’m off now.” She has yet to watch the episodes she didn’t direct. “I know, I know, I should. I will.”
Another difference from doing a big studio movie was speed. “Film felt like a luxurious world for creating and ruminating. Television moves at the
‘Every door that was slammed in my face, I’ve kicked down. Every obstacle I’ve stepped over’
fastest of paces. By day two, I realised my skills were being honed, fast.” Part of her prep included watching more TV. “Like everyone, I loved The Crown. I suddenly became nostalgic for 1950s England.”
Three of Gypsy’s directors were women, a sign that perhaps Hollywood is becoming less sexist, but there’s a long way to go, says Taylor-Johnson. She attributes her own success to role models such as Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow, and bloodyminded persistence. “Every door that was slammed in my face, I’ve kicked down. Every obstacle I’ve stepped over and pushed through. That’s really how you have to be.”
Years ago, the producer of a film she wished to direct refused to see her. “Then, on the way to the airport with my suitcase, I went to his office and stayed until he would see me. There was no reason on earth for him not to give me the job, in my mind.” She got the film. It fell through – studio wrangling – but the producer subsequently tapped her for Fifty Shades of Grey.
Her next step is a small indie. She is writing the screenplay with her husband. She will direct and he will play the lead. “It’s important to me to do something where I feel more independent and retain as much creative freedom as possible.”
Taylor-Johnson is coy about details, saying only that it is based on a book she fell in love with 15 years ago and that the author is open to a cinematic version. “He wants it to flourish and grow and become something.”
The director says she has made peace with the likelihood that the first line of her obituary will cite Fifty Shades. Unless, of course, she kicks down more Hollywood doors. “I’ll have to somehow create something else, bigger.”
Proud of all her battles, both won and lost … Sam Taylor-Johnson DavidD Levene