Ep 22 | Sam Taylor-Johnson - Director: Nowhere Boy, 50 Shades of Grey, A Million Little Pieces

Credit: Film 4


Sam Taylor Johnson: 0:00 When Billy Bob Thornton arrived on the first day, he looked at his trailer and he was like, “I have to share it with three other people.” I was like, “Yeah, sorry.” He was like, “I haven’t done that for years.” I said, “Yeah, thanks.”

Mike Battle: 0:14 Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet Rookies. My name is Mike Battle, a screenwriter and production team member working for Studios in London. Each episode I bring you advice and stories from film and TV professionals to help educate and empower the next generation of filmmakers and crew. Thanks for joining me. Let’s get started. Today’s guest is BAFTA and Turner Prize nominated multi hyphenate, director, writer, producer, photographer and artist Sam Taylor Johnson OBE. Starting her creative life as an art student in London. Sam rose to prominence as part of the young British artist’s movement of the 1990s alongside the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, exhibiting memorable works, such as a video portrait of David Beckham sleeping, and her collection Crying Men, which depicted Hollywood icons in their most vulnerable state. From there, she turned her hand to directing films with 2009, Nowhere Boy, followed by 50 Shades of Grey and much more. I can’t wait to learn about her filmmaking process through the artist lens. So please welcome to the show, Sam Taylor Johnson.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 1:24 Hey, good to be here.

Mike Battle: 1:26 Now, I asked every single one of my guests as the first question, what did your parents do? And did it affect your career choices moving forward?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 1:33 Hmm. That’s such a good question to start with, and so unexpected because it’s complicated answer. My real dad, who I grew up with till I was nine. I don’t exactly know what he does. He’s sort of quite secretive now. That’s not him kind of creating mystery, but I know he is a chartered, to bear, sort of thing, or maybe an architect or in that sort of world. So vague. And my mom is totally spiritually connected with astrology and yoga. And that’s what she would probably say she does.

Mike Battle: 2:15 Interesting, because often with my guests, there older parents can be a little bit difficult, maybe if they say, I’m moving into a career in filmmaking.” And being an artist, which is obviously what you were first, in the very traditional sense of the word is known to be sort of the most difficult. Did you have any difficulty when you first explain that to them? Maybe not with your mum so much?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 2:33 Not with either of them, really. I mean, it’s a complex situation that I have with my parents, I was sort of very, kind of viscerally disassociated with them from an earlier age. And so therefore, my path was my own. And I kind of fought that with a vigor. And that’s what I was doing. It didn’t really sort of come into question as to whether they would approve or disapprove. It was just, “That’s what I’m doing.” So yeah, it comes from a complex history with my parents.

Mike Battle: 3:08 People who move into the arts, often find mentors along the way, and it’s something I really like to ask about in this podcast series. Could you talk about Max who you met during your childhood years?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 3:18 Max, which Max?

Mike Battle: 3:20 Max [unclear 3:21].

Sam Taylor Johnson: 3:22 Oh my God. So Max, when I was a kid was a friend of my mom’s who wants came round. And he was an extraordinary person. He was a lot older. I think when I met him, he was probably in his 60s. And I knew him until his late 80s, I think he was when he passed. He was an extremely spiritual person. Our house was a kind of Mecca for interesting and spiritual people, of which he was the only one I truly connected with. So Max, once came around, and spoke to me as a child now, and I’m not sure how old I was. Maybe 12, 13, I’m not sure. And he asked me what I was doing. And I showed him a drawing that I’d done on the swan. And he in that moment, said, “You’re going to be an artist.” Now, that’s something that people say to kids when they draw on paint, but I truly believed him when he said, “You’re going to be an artist,” it was like some sort of foresight and vision that he had. And yeah, he was quite an extraordinary person and a big influence on my life in a very less veiled way. Not in a sort of pragmatic, “This is what you do to get to where you need to be,” sort of way he was much more of a sort of spirit guide, if you like. You’re taking me down that path, you see.

Mike Battle: 4:53 Don’t worry, there is a segue and that segue is going from Max into later mentors. Am I right? It was Anthony Minghella who played a part in moving you into filmmaking?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 5:04 Yeah, absolutely. So Anthony I had met because I was on a board for the British Independent Film Awards. And he was the chairperson. And I think I was brought in as the artist, sort of a different voice from the producer, or the writer and filmmaker, I hadn’t made a film, I was just an artist. And so it kind of gave me a freedom to be a little bit outspoken about films that I’d seen. And I’d always watched a lot of movies, that was my kind of escape, if you like, and anyway, what Anthony said at the end of it, he said, “You’re pretty outspoken about filmmaking and movies, and I don’t disagree with most of what you said, and have you considered being a filmmaker yourself, you know, kind of seen as you seem to know so much about it.” And I hadn’t thought about it outside of a mild childhood fantasy of directing movies or being in that world. But, I had to admit, it hadn’t crossed my mind, because I hadn’t had and, it sounds funny, but because it never felt like a career path that was open or possible to me. And partly because I didn’t know instinctually that there were that many women film directors, and it seemed like such a sort of far reach and such a distance, possibility. And it was only when he sorts of almost landed the suggestion that it sparked an idea, and it kind of, he left me with that. And then months later, he called me back and said, “Remember that idea about you making movies, I’ve got a book that I think you should direct. And I’ve seen your art films and the things that you’ve done, and I think you can do it.” And so we sort of forged forward as partners, he produced my first short film, and that went on to do quite well. And that sort of laid the path for making my first feature. But sadly, he wasn’t a part of that because he died. But yeah, he definitely is somebody that ignited the spark of the idea to do what I do now.

Mike Battle: 7:24 Speaking of your first short film, is that something that you think that young filmmakers should be still looking at now as a potential way in? Because obviously, you had quite a career behind you already, didn’t you?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 7:36 Yeah, I think it’s the best way I really, truly do. I think that if you want to be a filmmaker, making a short film is like a calling card. And it’s a way to sort of be able to, speak your story or idea, set your past, show your creative thought pattern, your ability to be able to tell a story succinctly, it’s tough making a short film in a way to be able to have some kind of structural narrative. And that’s within a 15-minute frame. And I say 15 minutes, because that’s really, I think, the ideal length for most film festivals, which is where you will get your film scene, which is where you might then be able to raise funding for a feature if you want to take that path. But for me, my short film opened the doors to me being able to direct my first feature, I don’t think my art films, or my artistic career would have opened those doors at all, I think, in practical terms, that’s not what people who finance films are gonna look at. So yes, I had that knowledge behind me, but that creative knowledge was what informs my path more than helped me.

Mike Battle: 8:52 When you were on that set of Love You More or indeed, one’s following it. One of the things I like to ask my guests is that I’m a younger crew member, and lots of people who listen are, we look at you directors in the inner circle as the grown-ups? Do you still get imposter syndrome? Did you have it on those sets too?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 9:08 I get it all the time. I still get it. I was still like that now. I have that still everything I do, imposter syndrome. And I think I stepped on set of a TV series that I just directed an episode of and I stepped on set with Al Pacino.

Mike Battle: 9:28 Wow!

Sam Taylor Johnson: 9:28 And it was a day one, a huge scene, intense drama. I’d never met him before. And this was my first day and I thought “What am I doing here? How did I get here? And how am I going to pull this off without him noticing that, I shouldn’t be here?” Feeling and I think that imposter syndrome carries us through in a really good that way, because it makes you nervous to hell, it makes you feel like you’re standing on pins and needles and everything you do, and it keeps you electric and alive. And that fear, that adrenaline and all of those feelings, I think, are absolutely essential that kind of, just keep the energy of what you’re creating alive. So it’s good to have it, but I have it every time. And it’s not good for your sleep.

Mike Battle: 10:31 With someone like Al Pacino, you’ve also had a spate of other, quite big names recently in your work, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, is there a way you approach dealing with actors generally, that people of junior levels might understand, but then also further up the ranks? How do you manage that? It’s obviously such a difficult political issue, depending on the people in the room.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 10:50 It’s immediate with, let’s talk about Helen Mirren, for example, she is an actress who has come from theater, she is somebody who has done many, many films work with many, many brilliant directors. And when she looks to me for direction, she’s trusting that I know the material inside out, I know who her character is, and I can gently guide her through the process of her delivering that character and the story. So it’s really about a confidence in knowing in your heart and your guts, that you understand who this person is that you’re asking them to be. And that really comes from early days of connection with your material. So if you read something, and you’re feeling like, “I don’t really understand this person, but I’m going to keep going.” And if you don’t, then have an understanding of that person, the story, that scene, you’re going to step on set feeling, I’m sure. And your actor will fill that. So it’s really about relying on your own innate sense of who the person is, and where you want them to guide the story and how you then just sort of, gently guide? I’m a sort of director who, I connect with the actors in a very particular way, and make sure that they sort of feel safe, I guess, and I think that’s when actors feel safe in your guidance is when you actually then get the best performance, I tend to sort of step back and let them be and then come in and sort of gently maneuver, manipulates the wrong word for, maneuver might be the right one. But it’s really comes from a place of confidence, not in a confidence in an arrogant sense of, “Oh, I know what I’m doing.” It’s a confidence, “I have absorbed this material and this character to a place where I’m almost them with you. Therefore, when I see you blink your eye that way, I’m really thinking, “Am I blinking my eye that way too?” And you’re right down to that sort of finite detail, in a sense. So, then it doesn’t matter who you’re in front of, if they can connect with it in the same way that you can. And of course, with somebody like Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, they’ve been doing this a long time, they understand and know how to embody, and how to become whoever it is you are suggesting they be. But on a similar level that’s really talking about people at the top of the game and who are exceptional and worked with brilliant people. But, similarly with young actors, it’s the same thing. It’s really about the connection that you both share through discussions, through feeling, that they found something within the material that they understand that they want to then portray, and you have the confidence to guide them through it, I think.

Mike Battle: 14:07 you mentioned safety there. And something that I feel like some of our listeners will be interested to hear about, is the safety of intimate scenes. And I do have to bring up the big gray elephant at some point, as you so aptly put it, did you work with an intimacy coordinator?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 14:22 There wasn’t such a thing when I made 50 Shades. And the intimacy coordinator was really myself, Jamie and Dakota, we coordinated everything as a sort of team and how we all best felt comfortable shooting certain scenes and I think having that intimacy of a connection with the two of them and sort of almost building a bubble for us within which to work and understand the parameters of where we all of us felt comfortable what we did want to see? What we didn’t want to see? How we felt like we actually didn’t need to see a certain things and within those parameters to make sure that they felt safe and protected by me, that was my sort of, that was my job. That was my job was to make sure that I protected them in a way and, that they felt that too. And then again, that comes down to total trust.

Mike Battle: 15:21 Excellent, moving swiftly away from 50 Shades, and into something a bit close to.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 15:26 Thank you.

Mike Battle: 15:29 A Million Little Pieces, which is obviously real much more of a passion project. Yeah, one of the things that jumped out to me, which I feel would be interesting to hear about for people wanting to get into the industry and make films was that, it was a low budget, I believe that Nowhere Boy, which is your first movie, and therefore had to get a great crew in for scale. How did you approach those conversations? Was it easy? Was it difficult? If I was trying to crew up now, I might be having to have those conversations for even less money?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 15:55 Well, it was interesting. So you rightly said A Million Little Pieces was half the budget of Nowhere Boy, Nowhere Boy was my first film on the low budget. So I think Nowhere Boy budget was, I’m so bad at remembering things. I’m very much in the present and future, never in the past. But I think Nowhere Boy could have been $6 million budget or pounds, and A Million Little Pieces was just over three. And we shot A Million Little Pieces in 21 days straight. And it was tough. Because initially, we had a $10 million budget. And the interesting thing and take what you want from this, the $10 million budget went to an $8 million to a $6 million. Then there was a shift in who was producing it and financing it? And it went right down to just over 3 million. And so the consequence of that was, we wrote it, down and I and we had the cards, when we went to meet the bond company who guarantee the money, they look at the script and said, “This is impossible to shoot for this money. You have to cut scenes,” we cut 50 scenes, and it became tighter and tighter and smaller and more intimate in a way to the point where we’re like, “Okay, so what?” And, it was such an exercise in so many aspects of filmmaking. It was, to a certain degree, having been through the experience, I’m not sure I’ve done it. It was one of the most creative things I feel like I’ve ever done. But it was really totally sort of hands on in the sense that we, there was no writers to hand it to. So we had to completely streamline and change what the film was going to be into a very sort of singular journey. And a very sort of character driven paths, rather than a big story. Now, if you’ve read the book, it’s a big story. But we’re in James Frey’s head for most of it. So we had to approach it in a completely different way. And then in terms of taking it to, so it’s Aaron Taylor Johnson plays James Frey. And then we had Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis, and a lot of great actors, but approaching them with something which was a passion project and sort of bringing them on board. And I didn’t know, I knew Charlie. But I didn’t know Juliette Lewis. I didn’t know but Billy Bob Thornton. So it really was asking them to come on board and work for practically nothing. In a sort of, on a high speed train at times, I would say to Billy Bob, “We only have time for one take, we cannot go a minute over because our budget was so tight.” So it was literally we have one take nail it. But with great actors, you can do that. But I think all of them would probably say, it was an amazing experience because we were sort of, just shooting on the fire. We were moving at great speed. And one little anecdote which I like to share because it’s such a good one for filmmakers was, at the beginning of the book, James Frey wakes up on an aeroplane, he doesn’t know where he’s going, or how he got there. Now, if you think to anyone who’s read the book, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, the guy who wakes up on the plane.” Well, we couldn’t afford a plane. We have no money or budget for that plane and I think it was $30,000 for piece of plane which shows six seats, a ceiling and a floor. And the producers are like, “There’s no way we can shoot that scene.” And I was like, “We have to shoot that scene. I don’t know, it’s so integral to the book.” So we devise the plan, the actors and some of the crew and I and Aaron obviously, and we finished an hour early. So a week straight, which gave us $30,000. But we had to gather the crew, gather the access and say, “What do you think? I know we’re already up against here. We’re already banging our heads against the wall for time. But I’m going to ask everyone to work at three times the speed, not just double the speed in order to finish an hour earlier to save $30,000 to get a plane.” So everyone agreed to try and we did it and then when the plane arrived on the back of a flatbed truck, this little piece of plane that cost a fortune. It was literally such a jubilant moment for everybody on set. Everyone was cheering, “Yeah, the plane is here, we did it.” That was the one of the best parts of filmmaking is that collaborative experience where everybody is really in it together and can see the fruits of their labor and that kind of way. And again, if you see the opening scene where James is going into rehab, and he starts tripping out on the wall, start kind of bleeding shit, and then he’s dancing and slipping in it, the art department were, “Well, how are we going to do that?” And are normally that on previous movies either had a budget where it was like, “Okay, out the park will present me with ideas, and they’ll be an aspect of CG,” all of that, that kind of thing that what ended up happening was literally going back to my sort of art school days of trying to figure something out, we had some plastic tubing, that’s a nail, it’s the wall, drill holes in it, mix of bucket of shit and pump it through these holes and hope for God that it works because we only had one take, because we couldn’t then repaint the walls. So, that experience with making that movie was so sort of back to fundamental, basic, creative, experimentation and excitement. And it was an amazing experience a really rough one, especially after it was made because, there’s a lot of anger towards James Frey. So, that kind of impeded its success, but it’s for me, it’s a great film and a great experience. And sometimes that comes from the toughest experiences.

Mike Battle: 22:33 Yeah, that’s awesome. It actually reminds me, almost like you’re on a short film, but you turn around, you’ve got Charlie Hunnam, and all these Hollywood actors and about you’re cheering like you’re in student film. It’s brilliant.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 22:42 Well, when Billy Bob Thornton arrived on the first day, he looked at his trailer, and he was like, “I have to share it with three other people.” I was like, “Yeah, sorry.” He was like, “I haven’t done that for years.” I was like, “Yeah, thanks.”

Mike Battle: 22:59 But you can tell that you loved it.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 23:01 Yeah. And also the costume woman who was brilliant, Mary Han, and she, a lot of Tarantino’s early movies, she was like, “This is the first time I’ve had to buy costumes by the pound.” Because she would just go into these warehouses and just grab stuff. But it was by the pound, which was sort of shopping in a very different way. And then she was used to because our budget was nothing but anyway.

Mike Battle: 23:27 Well, coming to a close here now. And I like to ask each one of my guests a little quick fire at the end. And it’s my own ode to any actor studio, which I’m sure you’ve watched many times over the years. It was just a bunch of quick questions. So if I’ll pick them out, you should come up with whatever comes up in your head if that, okay, Sam Taylor Johnson.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 23:43 Yeah.

Mike Battle: 23:44 Number one, what is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever been given?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 23:48 The best piece of advice I’ve been given in terms of work was really kooky one in a way was I met Jim Brooks. And I said to him, “Any advice from one director to another before I’m about to shoot,” 50 Shades was the movie. And he said, “Yes, change your socks at three o’clock every day.” And I was like, “I did not expect that as a great sort of sage piece of advice from one director to another.” But on day one of my shoot a box of socks arrived that he had sent me and it said, “Don’t forget to change them at 3 o’clock every day.” And what he meant, I realized was stop, pause, take off your socks refresh, have a moment, step back onset. And that’s the time when you creatively tend to need to just pause and reassess what you’re doing so it was actually great advice that I enjoy of personnel and typically finding from someone like Jim Brooks.

Mike Battle: 24:45 Of course. Number two, do you have a favorite film?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 24:49 Difficult one. I have a list of favorite films. But A Woman Under the Influence by John Cassavetes is probably the sound that I that refer to and go back to the most of it.

Mike Battle: 24:59 Number three, what gives you a reason to get up out of bed every day for an early call time, if any at all?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 25:04 I think just the excitement of having the opportunity to go and create movies. I mean, it’s a privilege. And I get excited every single time. It’s sometimes an early rough day, but never mind.

Mike Battle: 25:20 Brilliant. Number four, I like this one, which job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 25:26 In the industry, I would say I’d be an actor looks so much more fun from where I’m standing.

Mike Battle: 25:34 Number five, this is really hard. If you could work with one person living or dead, who would it be?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 25:39 could not come up with the answer for this one easily? This is a tricky one. If it was somebody alive, I’d probably say Mark Rylance as an actor. I just yearn to work with him. I watch him in everything I can see him, in a theater, in film. And he’s just the person that ignites a fire within me, and a desire to work with him.

Mike Battle: 26:05 Number six, what is a book that everyone should read?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 26:07 A book that everyone should read? I would say anything by Emile Zola, because that was my first sense of incredible storytelling. And I think the first one I read was called Labette Humane and it’s just, yeah, powerful storytelling from a very human place.

Mike Battle: 26:30 And finally, if you won an Oscar, who would you thank?

Sam Taylor Johnson: 26:34 This is an odd answer, obviously, I’d thank my husband, Aaron for being the most supportive person on earth. But putting all of that side and the obvious ones I actually probably would thank my parents for giving me a really messy upbringing that sent me into a creative, escapist place, but lent me the ability to then become a filmmaker. I never thought I would say that.

Mike Battle: 27:06 And on that note, that brings our time to a close. Thank you, Sam Taylor Johnson, for joining us. You’re definitely our number one, director, writer, producer, photographer artist combo we’ve ever.

Sam Taylor Johnson: 27:17 Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.

Mike Battle: 27:18 Thank you for listening to another episode of Red Carpet Rookies. To help us grow and be able to interview more amazing film and TV professionals, please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the Apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you’re an Android user. If you’re interested in regular updates, the best thing you can do is to join our mailing list at redcarpetrookies.com. Alternatively, find us on Instagram at Red Carpet Rookies (@redcarpetrookies) or on Twitter at RC Rookies Pod (@rcrookiespod). I also tweet regularly about my own learnings in the business at Mike F Battle (@mikefbattle) on Twitter. So, please come and say hi. Thank you again for listening. We’ll see you next time.