We spoke about the casting of two relative unknowns in the lead roles, working and sometimes clashing with the books author E L James and the importance of a female director on this project…
‘I’m so happy to see you guys, and I bet you weren’t expecting me to say that. You are the last interview… we counted it up and its been 174 interviews in the last week. I will try and be fresh!
Taylor Johnson has previously described the story as a fantasy and a fairytale, so we began by asking her about researching the film and far she delved into the world of S&M.
I got into it as far as I needed to. In the initial stages I got in touch with a woman who is a very well known dominatrix in the world of [that]. She was an incredibly beautiful woman who was 6ft 2”. She really helped a lot she distilled and got rid of a lot of the myths of what people thought. The most interesting thing she said was “how many relationships do you go into where someone gives you a contract and you go through what you will and won’t do?”
That very bounded relationship was interesting to me. She told me you have to have such trust to go into that relationship, know your boundaries and safe words. That creates quite a powerful bond of love and she said she felt that with a lot of her people. You don’t necessarily associate with with that overwhelming love with something that comes out of such a tight environment of trust.
It turns a lot of your preconceptions on their head, and that’s what I really wanted to achieve with this film. This isn’t a journey of dis-empowerment as people expect, Dakota [Johnson] and I really set out to empower this girl. It was important for us to come out at the end and give her the last word with him the vulnerable one on his knees.
The British filmmaker and artist was happy to give us all the details on the highly publicised production as [pull_quote_right]The pulling and toing and froing was literally on every detail.[/pull_quote_right]well as some of the issues she had with the book’s author E L James. Was it challenging to balance someone else’s “vision” with her own artistic integrity?
It was really challenging. I can’t help but be honest about it. You get two people in a room, and from my perspective you are trying to achieve something different and new and cinematic. I have to honour the book, but having someone else who also has a creative vision having created the characters and the book – she knows it better than anyone – so of course I have to listen. But then, i’m quite stubborn too. There were definite times when we locked horns, but we just had to thrash our way out. Hopefully the success of that and all those negotiations, very akin to the book. There were definite power struggles.
The pulling and toing and froing was literally on every detail. There was nothing that wasn’t picked apart. She has such a powerful vision that if we changed even the colour of a dress it would really unsettle her. We would sit and talk about it to get her to a place where she was comfortable about it.
The prime example is the dance scene. It’s written as the “plum fitted dress”, and this was the dress for that scene but I knew that you can’t dance in that dress. You need something more flowing. We ended up putting that dress into the negotiation scene so that we had the dress from the book in there. It was everything being negotiated. It’s great to have that wealth of material there, but then it was also like “ok, now just leave me to the vision I have because I also need to create and take it to another place”.
I know a lot of it was her looking at it from the fans point of view, and i’m certainly not saying she was wrong to be like that. It was difficult being reminded about the arc and the story constantly.
With two more books to go in the series, have those clashes put off the director from returning to the hot seat?
I don’t know at this point. I’m not privy to all the discussions that are going on. I’m literally like the only one left out of the room! At the moment I feel like I did when I had my kids. You’ve just had a baby and someone goes “are you going to have another one?” and you think “I’ve just had a baby!” I’m still feeling the pain. Hopefully once I put my rose-tinted spectacles back on, we’ll see where it all lands.
Has the experience given you a different understanding about relationships in terms of unconventional can work and conventional doesn’t necessarily equal success?
The interesting thing I learnt from this, and how I approached the whole world written in the book, was ‘cast no judgement on other people’. What excites them and what carries them through the journey of a relationship can’t be judged. You don’t know where it’s going to go… and it’s none of your business anyway.
The love story in this film was really really important. We had to keep tracking it. The ratings in America still make me laugh. It’s rated ‘R’ for unusual behaviour and i’m thinking “Well, it might be unusual for you guys…”. That’s a judgement in itself.
We wanted to keep it in the realms of a love story and a fairytale too.
How frustrating has it been for you to see so many film journalists, and others, write think pieces and articles on the film without actually seeing it?
That has been REALLY frustrating. Talk about judgement. I know there were some protesters at the premiere and I wonder how they can protest and judge it without seeing it. I feel like i’ve done something incredibly akin to the book but also incredibly different at the same time. To empower this girl and give her the last word was so important to us, so it is difficult. Everyone is speculating and second-guessing, trying to pick up titbits from everyone else so i’m so glad that it’s now out and people can see it for themselves.
I’m absolutely not going to keep an eye out for the reviews. I don’t want to read a thing! The frustrating thing is someone always tells you. They can’t help themselves. It’s great when someone tells you “That’s amazing! You got this.” but then someone else goes “oh, did you read this?” You think “Shut Up!”. You could read a hundred good things but it will be that one bad one that will torture you in the middle of the night.
Did you have a clear vision on how you wanted the sex scenes to look?
I did. What was important for me was that each one was characteristically different from the last one. I didn’t want people to come in and see something and think “oh no. Sex again?”. The sex needed to almost feel like they had a character arc of their own.
Dakota is a strong girl. She and I said we cannot have her being a victim to this whole thing. I didn’t think in the bigger picture for the world it sent a good message if you had Anastasia non-consensually going into such an arena not feeling comfortable. We wanted it to be her going on a sexual exploration, wanting to be part of that journey until he crossed a very big line. She stands up and says no.
How important was it for you that it was Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan starring in your film, and not some of the other high-profile names that were mooted earlier?
That was really important. We decided early on that we should have completely unknowns that we can almost create them Jamie IS Christian Grey and Dakota IS Anastasia Steele. There were so many names up there and I didn’t want anybody that already has a really powerful character in the world already.
What works with them isn’t necessarily what everyone wants to hear. They want to hear about sexual chemistry or them locking eyes with one another, but works with them is that they are competitively funny. They try and “out funny” each other, meaning the set was just constant hilarity. It was also sometimes quite draining. It’s one of the reasons the film has more humour in it that we originally intended it to have. A lot of it was free-formed. The scene when Anastasia drunk-dials Christian from the bar was completely improvised.
It’s a rarity to have such a hyped film in production where the publicity has began even before filming. How difficult was that for you and did you go about blocking that out?
The strangest thing for me was having the trailer come out when we were still working on it. I know it happened all the time but it was really strange to see a trailer for something you have only just started shooting. It felt like you’ve got to catch up.
Do you think this is another big step in the path of women directors with both this, and Angelina Jolie on films with massive budgets.
I bloody hope so! What i’m proud of is that Donna Langley, the head of Universal, hire me to do this, Angelina Jolie to do Unbroken, Elizabeth Banks to do Pitch Perfect 2 and she’s just hired Sofia Coppola to do a big movie. She’s got a good stable going there. I think it’s a good blueprint for all the other studios to start looking at.
I needed to do something like this. I’m sure this will resonate with a lot of people, when you’ve had kids and you go into a meeting where people ask you “What have you been doing for the last few years?” and you tell them “Well, i’ve been building my family and I’ve been having kids” you can just see them zoning out. I wasn’t getting sent anything. I would chase things and be up for doing them and be told that I was 15th in the queue for it behind a lot of powerful, male directors.
I literally had no time to think on this one. I had flown out three times to meet for another film and was offered to pitch for this. I went in all guns blazing. I hadn’t read it beforehand but when I did I thought I could do this. Make it fresh and new. I was very impassioned and the next morning they called up and said I had the job. I wasn’t allowed to think about it and not even allowed to talk about it as there was an embargo. I spoke to Aaron [Johnson] and said what should I do and he said “go for it, just do it”.
After all of that, how will you be celebrating Valentine’s Day?
The great thing is I wake up in London for breakfast and will be flying home to L.A for dinner. Probably have a glass of champagne somewhere over the Atlantic.
Finally, what would you like the final question of your final interview to be about?
The music! We had to put in a couple of things from the book, so we had Frank Sinatra and Awolnation’s cover of Bruce Spingsteen’s I’m on Fire. It was really important for me to open with a really strong womans voice and to end with a very deep, soulful but vulnerable voice. It was The Weeknd. I love Aniie Lennox, I’ve been a fan of her since forever. Talk about a role model for women for a long time. It was great to have her voice booming out at the start. It sets out an intention. The end song on Nowhere Boy was so important and I was listening to so much but not quite getting the right one. The studio were getting frustrated. There was a song that was going at the end, but I knew there was something better… and then The Weeknd wrote this song and I thought “Thank the lord!”I feel like the way the voice comes into the blackness at the end is still a scene in the film. We are still in the realm of the movie.
Fifty Shades of Grey is in cinemas NOW