The numbers should have spoken for themselves: With just one previous feature film under her belt, filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson took a best-selling novel about kinky sex and turned “Fifty Shades of Grey” into a blockbuster juggernaut that made over half a billion dollars worldwide, pushing her into the upper echelons of very profitable directors. And then, she said, nobody called. Reports of on-set drama and creative differences kept Taylor-Johnson from getting hired on the much-hyped sequels, and while her success with the E.L. James adaptation seemed like rocket fuel for her career, it proved to be the opposite.
Three years later, Taylor-Johnson is back on the big screen with another adaptation, a gritty take on James Frey’s controversial “A Million Little Pieces.” It’s a passion project she’s dreamed of for years, but it didn’t come easily, even with half a billion dollars behind her name.
“You would be surprised at how …No, you wouldn’t be surprised, sadly. Nothing,” Taylor-Johnson told IndieWire in a recent interview when asked about the films that were offered to her after “Fifty Shades.” “I literally was scrambling still, in exactly the same position I was prior to that. I’d say to my agent, ‘I love this book. I really love it. What’s the deal with it?’ ‘They’re going to Steven, Steven, David, David, and John.’ But I know I’m fully capable.”
Taylor-Johnson is outspoken about her situation, but she’s also got the credentials to back it up. “I’ve done a short film. I’ve done an indie. I’ve done a blockbuster. I’ve done a TV show. I’ve just now done extreme small budget. I’m experienced across the board,” she said. “I’ve shown I’m capable, but I’m still far down the list.”
Taylor-Johnson started as a fine-art photographer and video artist, before transitioning to filmmaking with her 2009 John Lennon biopic, “Nowhere Boy.” That film starred her “A Million Little Pieces” star, co-writer, and future husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The pair fell in love on set, had two daughters in 2010 and 2012, before marrying a few months after the birth of their second child.
“After I did ‘Nowhere Boy,’ and we had two kids, I was very aware that that was going to reduce my stock,” Taylor-Johnson said. “I had this innate panic that I had to finish nursing and get back out there and do meetings, and show that I was still present because if I left it too long, I was the mom at home with four kids. …It was that thing that I don’t want to become irrelevant to the filmmaking world just because I have kids. I want to show that I can still do it.”
She was so intent on keeping up momentum that Taylor-Johnson started filming “Fifty Shades” when her youngest was just two years old. “It’s sort of sad that you have to feel that way, because it’s such a boring thing to have to say, but no male director gets that, ‘Oh, you’ve just had a baby. You’re not going to be able to make a movie,'” she said.
Like many people, Taylor-Johnson adored James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” when it first came out in 2003, but she saw something else inside the story: the potential for a great movie. Even the subsequent controversy that came when some of Frey’s more colorful “memories” were fraudulent didn’t derail her dream.
“It was always going to be the book,” she said. “We did talk about it, of course, like, what if we went a little bit further and into the world of James’s life? I was like, no. Let’s just look at the book as a story and the blueprint for our movie. At a certain point when you’re script-writing, you throw the book away. You have to then interpret it and create it as your own.”
After getting the rights from Frey (who had, in turn, only recently gotten them back from Warner Bros.), the Taylor-Johnsons worked on the screenplay for over a year, eventually churning out a spec script that was pushing 250 pages, which they eventually winnowed away to 190. Taylor-Johnson credits an unnamed friend in film development for tasking them with cutting the screenplay — overnight, no less — to a more manageable number. They made it down to 93, a good number for any independent production, but an especially good one for a film that filmed over just 20 days and cost less than $50 million.
She continues to fume about the challenges she’s faced as a filmmaker. “It drives me crazy, not just for myself, because I have all that experience and I’m pretty ballsy, I can punch through doors when they’ve slammed in my face,” Taylor-Johnson said. “But I still want to weep at the sense of inequality, let alone for other young filmmakers trying to make their way, or someone who’s made their first film trying to get their second film. It’s rough, and it shouldn’t be that rough.”
“A Million Little Pieces” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.