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

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - Pr bo Sa

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

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