Sam Taylor-Johnson: ‘The fear hasn’t completely gone away’

Director’s new film A Million Little Pieces is based on James Frey’s contentious memoir

Sam Taylor-Johnson: ‘We tried to understand the addiction and mental health issues at the core of the story. That’s the important part.’ Photograph: Henny Garfunkel/The New York Times

Sam Taylor-Johnson: ‘We tried to understand the addiction and mental health issues at the core of the story. That’s the important part.’ Photograph: Henny Garfunkel/The New York Times

 

Ever since she emerged as one of the most versatile stars of the superstar Young British Artists grouping, people have marvelled at Sam Taylor-Johnson’s capacity for attracting famous collaborators: Courtney Love, Yoko Ono, Kate Moss.

And when you meet her, you can see why. Chatty, disarming, and – as she puts it – “ready to answer anything”, it makes sense that everyone from Ray Winstone to the Pet Shop Boys have been keen to work with her.

“It was never about trying to elevate this pedestal of celebrity,” says Taylor-Johnson of her famous subjects. “It was: let’s show Paul Newman crying; let’s show David Beckham asleep. It was always about the people that we applaud and hold high. How can I make them human again?”

Equally it makes sense that Aaron Johnson would circle back after the shooting of John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, to declare undying love for the director, and that they’ve been together – as the Taylor-Johnsons – for a decade since. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was 19 when he decided, almost instantly, that she was his soulmate. She, however, took a little longer to come around. 

You can’t because that’s impossible. Watch me

“When I opened the door to Aaron he was John Lennon and I was me,” she says. “He says within an hour of our meeting something in him completely shifted. But I was thinking I’m with John Lennon, because that’s who he was. Now I’ve known him for the past decade and I’ve seen how he works, I know that as soon as he starts to audition, he starts to slip into being that person.

“His eating habits change. His physicality can change. He immerses himself and that’s what makes him brilliant. When he played Ray in Nocturnal Animals, the research he did and the toxicity he brought into himself to play this dark, disturbing character was, well, it was a rough couple of months! We were all very glad when Ray finally left the building.

“I’ve gotten used to those shifts. But during the filming of our first film, I had no real sense of who he was until further down the line when he turned up and declared himself.”

A Million Little Pieces was a labour of love for the couple who co-wrote and produced the film on a shoestring budget; she directs and he stars.

“So it turns out that Aaron is really patient and I’m really not,” smiles Taylor-Johnson. “He would sit for eight or 10 hour stretches with a pot of coffee just writing. He has been reading scripts since he was six-years-old so he’s brilliant with structure and formatting.

“He has an innate understanding of that side of things. And I’ll come round after his 10-hour stretch and I have some mad ideas and he’ll digest those and put them on paper.”

A starry cast – including Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis, and Giovanni Ribisi – pitched in. It was the first shoot in many years that Billy Bob had to share a trailer. The entire crew powered through a 20-day shoot in order to scrape together the funds for the source novel’s airplane scene.

“I’d say to people A Million Little Pieces is the film I want to make and they’d say: Oh, the guy that wakes up on the airplane and he doesn’t know where he’s going?” recalls Taylor-Johnson. “I knew that we needed that airplane scene so we kept it on the side and asked the other producers how much for just six seats and roof and floor of a plane? $30,000.

“So if we left early everyday for five days, can we save that amount of money? And they say: yeah, but you can’t because that’s impossible. Watch me. And it was all like that. It was very raw and intense. But that was a good fit for the material.”

Tight budget

It has been a long journey to the screen for a book once heralded as “the War and Peace of addiction”. In September 2005, James Frey’s memoir was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list where it remained for 15 straight weeks.

In 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article detailing the exaggerations and embellishments of Frey’s addiction journey called A Million Little Lies. Those revelations earned him a televised interrogation from Oprah, featuring such choice phrases as, “That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James. That’s a lie.”

Oprah has subsequently apologised for this very public schooling but the damage was done. Frey’s publisher had to offer refunds to annoyed readers, his literary agent dropped him, and Warner Bros, who had been keen to fast-track a starry adaptation, quietly let their option slide.

Sam Taylor-Johnson and actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson: They met on the set of her John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Sam Taylor-Johnson and actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson: They met on the set of her John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

“I mean it worked out for me because it stopped the film getting made by big studio,” says Taylor-Johnson. “But people became afraid to make it and James became a social pariah. He had a really awful time. People still get upset about it. I’d read the book before the controversy and I loved it and I remember thinking: well, the controversy hasn’t changed what the book means to me.

“We did have that conversation: do we need to address this in the movie? Maybe have something at the end? But the book was written as a piece of art and by the time you have condensed 500 pages down to a 90-page script with a tight budget, there are already big shifts: three characters are already becoming one.

“So what we did was we took the essence of the book – that was James and who he was – and we met with his counsellors at the treatment centre and we spent time with his family so we tried to understand the addiction and mental health issues at the core of the story. That’s the important part.”

After I came through the cancer I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t function

Frey was happy to hand over the rights to Taylor-Johnson with the sole proviso: “Just get on and make art”. That made for a happier adaptation process than she experienced on Fifty Shades of Grey following Universal’s unprecedented deal with EL James, granting the author a say on casting, wardrobe and script.

“It was a tough one,” nods Taylor-Johnson. “Four years down the line, with a bit of hindsight and wisdom, I can look at it in a more objective way. There were two very strong creative visions for what the movie was going to be and that was never going to be a comfortable journey.

“EL James had a very powerful vision for her book and, in all fairness, that’s her right. But if you ask a filmmaker who also has a very strong vision for the work, there are going to be clashes. They should have hired someone more suited to her vision. And I wasn’t it.”

Elton John

The opening scene of A Million Little Pieces sees Aaron Taylor-Johnson, dancing manically and stripping naked, before lighting up a crack pipe and falling backwards off an upstairs balcony.

It’s one of several knockout visual sequences that serve to remind that Sam Taylor-Wood, as she was once known, was the winner of Most Promising Artist award at the 1997 Venice Biennale and was nominated for the Turner prize in 1998. She watched that ceremony from a chemotherapy ward, having been diagnosed with colon cancer. In 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“When I went through cancer the first time, it didn’t change me because I was determined that it wasn’t going to change me,” she says. “I was in denial. There were fundamental life changes that, in hindsight, I did need to make. So three years later, I get a different cancer, which was totally unrelated, and that’s when I went: okay, I’m listening; what do I need to shift in myself?

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in A Million Little Pieces. Photograph: Jeff Gros/Entertainment One
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in A Million Little Pieces. Photograph: Jeff Gros/Entertainment One

“So I changed my lifestyle, I changed my environment, I changed my home life. The fear hasn’t completely gone away. Every year I go for my check-up and tests and you put me in front of hospital doors and I want to run a mile. It takes everything in me and Aaron pushing me, to get me through those doors.”

Chemotherapy knocked the stuffing out her, she says. It took one of her best-known collaborators to get her back to work.

“After I came through the cancer I just couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. “I couldn’t function. It took me a long time to get back on my feet. And Elton (John) said to me: I want you to make my next music video and I want you to do whatever you want but I want Robert Downey Jr to be in it.

“I’ve known Elton since 1997. I remember because I was pregnant with my first child. And we instantly became really connected. When I went through cancer, he would come to the doctors with me, which would leave some consultants completely tongue-tied.

“Looking back, what he was doing was putting two very broken, vulnerable people together. The video for I Want Love was the first thing that Robert Downey Jr had done sober and it was the first thing I’d ever done post-cancer. It was a pivotal moment for both of us.”

In some respects, her post-cancer life changes have reconnected her back to a childhood she describes as unconventional. Taylor-Wood’s father left the family home when she was nine; six years later her mother Geraldine, an astrologist and yoga teacher, left home as well, leaving Sam and her two siblings with their stepfather.

“I used to hate the fact that my family weren’t BT engineers or something,” says Taylor-Johnson. “I wanted normality. I wanted what my friends had. Why do we have to have nut loaf when everyone else gets turkey? I wanted to go to school in pressed clothes, not covered in cat hair. I didn’t want homemade jumpers. I didn’t want wholemeal bread. Now I want all those things. I practise yoga and meditation. I’ve embraced everything that my mum was trying to instil in me that I kicked back against.”

A Million Little Pieces is released August 30th

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