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“When a door slams in your face, kick it down” Sam Taylor-Johnson on being a female director in sexist Hollywood

Stylist meets one of Hollywood’s most celebrated female filmmakers, Sam Taylor-Johnson, to talk about her new movie A Million Little Pieces, working with husband Aaron Taylor Johnson, how she deals with online trolls, and why she still has to fight for every film she wants to make.  

Sam Taylor-Johnson, Hollywood director and prestigious artist, is not a handshaker. “Actually I’m a hugger” is the first thing she says to me on entering the room and glancing at my outstretched hand. She then proceeds to give me probably the warmest hug I’ve had in a long time, and immediately I’m sold.

I say I’m sold, but actually I’ve been a huge fan of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s ever since watching her directorial debut, Nowhere Boy, a moving biopic charting John Lennon’s early years, and the terrible tragedy that ultimately shaped and transformed him into the artist he became. The film was based on the memoir by Lennon’s sister. 

When I meet Taylor-Johnson, it’s to talk about her latest movie, another book to film adaption of a person undergoing a personal transformation following trauma. This time, it’s James Frey’s semi autobiographical 2003 novel A Million Little Pieces, which details Frey’s often gruesome experiences, recovering from crack addiction in a rehab facility in the US. 

Clearly the process of overcoming obstacles and emerging transformed is something that interests Taylor-Johnson. “If you’ve been through dark times, like I have, you really want to read that other people have been through them,” she says. “And how they have survived or overcome.”

A Million Little Pieces Film: Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson on set
A Million Little Pieces Film: Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson on set

Still, Taylor-Johnson’s decision to direct this particular story may be a surprising choice for those familiar with the massive controversy surrounding Frey. Originally published as non-fiction, the novel sat on bestseller lists worldwide for what seemed like forever in the early 00s, after being initially lauded by Oprah Winfrey as so utterly immersive and moving, that it kept her ‘awake at night.’

Frey was then disgraced when a damning report very publicly accused him of heavily embellishing the story in order to secure his book deal. Oprah called him out in a TV interview, and the publisher was forced to issue refunds for disgruntled readers.

None of this put off Taylor-Johnson, who contacted Frey as soon as she found out the book rights were available.

“I read the book when it first came out, and regardless of the controversy, I never forgot the impression it left on me, I never forgot the characters. Leonard was one of my all time favourite characters and of course James was too, but what I really loved was how dark it went, but how the dark matched with the light.”

“When I spoke to James, he said that every time he felt he was writing something dark, he would pull it back to something light and I think that’s what really set it apart from a lot of other memoirs or addiction stories i’ve read. The journey to redemption was a powerful one and thats what really kept me “interested.”

I ask for her thoughts on the story not being entirely true, and if that matters to her.

“I didn’t feel devastated or crushed by some of it being embellished. The line of truth is still there. What’s important is that he went into rehab addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol in 1993 and in 2019 he’s still sober. It’s enough for me to know that’s something important to show and carry through the film.”

I wonder what persuaded her to make the movie now, 16 years after the book was released.

“Stories of addiction are as relevant today as they were in 1993, 2003. The only thing that has changed are the drugs of choice. When James was in rehab crack was the biggest problem, today it’s opiates. This is a story that can hopefully reach anyone suffering from an addiction of any kind.” 

A Million Little Pieces: Aaron Taylor Johnson plays James Frey in the new film adaption of his bestselling novel
A Million Little Pieces: Aaron Taylor Johnson plays James Frey in the new film adaption of his bestselling novel

A Million Little Pieces is Taylor-Johnson’s return to directing, after making the first movie in E. L. James Fifty Shades series in 2015. Once the film wrapped, she famously made the decision to break away from the hugely lucrative franchise. After that, one would assume the doors would be wide open in Hollywood for Taylor-Johnson to direct the big budget films of her choice. But not so.

“I feel like I say it quite often, every time I make a film, afterwards I’m back at ground zero and I have to work my way back up again. You would think after doing a blockbuster like Fifty Shades of Grey, all doors are open. Well I was still banging on doors, and I was still not on the list.”

Hearing this from one of the most successful directors in Hollywood is hard to swallow, but depressively symptomatic of Hollywood.

“Honestly every single meeting I’ve ever gone to I’ve had to fight for pretty much. There have been big movies I’ve wanted to do, but I haven’t even been able to get in the door for a meeting.

I’m capable of coming in under budget, on time on an indie - as well as grossing huge amounts of money. Across the board I know I can do these things and yet it’s like I have to wave a banner and shout.”

A Million Little Pieces: Billy Bob Thornton stars as Leonard in Sam Taylor-Johnson's new film
A Million Little Pieces: Billy Bob Thornton stars as Leonard in Sam Taylor-Johnson's new film

“Shameful” she tuts when I mention the fact that award ceremonies continually fail to champion, or even recognise women in the best director category and beyond.

Often, industry figures excuse the lack of women in the ‘non acting’ categories by saying there aren’t enough female directors to award in the first place. I wonder whether this is something Sam recognises to be the case, in light of her own struggle to get ‘in the room’ to direct movies in the first place. But it’s not the sole cause.

“Look at the statistics. Only 4% of directors in Hollywood are women - which shows you its slim pickings, but if you look, last year some of the best films that came out were made by women and often those films didn’t make it to award ceremonies. Why is that? I don’t know.”

An example she gives is The Rider, the 2019 rodeo film directed by Chloé Zhao. “When I watched it, I thought it was going to sweep everything, its so powerful. But nothing.”

With that in mind, what advice does she have for aspiring female filmmakers looking to make it in the movie industry?

“When I get asked for advice on making it as a female director, I always say, when a door slams in your face, kick it down. Don’t give up and walk away.”

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The Taylor Johnsons co-wrote the screenplay for A Million Little Pieces
The Taylor Johnsons co-wrote the screenplay for A Million Little Pieces

Taylor-Johnson’s success then, is no small feat in light of all the obstacles she has faced. She is a fighter. This is also clear when we turn to the subject of her decade-long and very happy relationship with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who was the screen writer for the new movie alongside Sam, as well as playing the central role of Frey.

Scrutiny of the love lives of celebrities is nothing new, but in the case of the Taylor Johnsons, it seems to be a constant source of fascination. I ask Taylor-Johnson how she handles the fact that people online seem to genuinely feel it’s appropriate for them to comment on their relationship on social media. Her answer is simple and inspiring. 

“The only way to deal with it is to override and ignore, we’ve been together 10 years. If I’d listened to anything or wobbled or panicked for a second - we wouldn’t be where we are now, kids, happy, collaborating and making movies together.”

“It’s so important to not take to heart what other people think, which often comes from deep rooted resentments, or anger of their own” which, she adds “they should keep to themselves and not project onto other people.” 

Of their second project working alongside each other, Taylor-Johnson says of her husband, “we were looking for something to do together, something where we could really push the boat out being creative. I said to Aaron this would be such a great role for you because he so loves to immerse himself in a powerful role and lose himself in that character. He read the book and it was a yes.”

“And no, in case you were wondering, he didn’t have to audition”, she laughs. 

A Million Little Pieces is out in cinemas on 30 August 2019. 

Images: Getty

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