Rapid Round: James Foley on Why 'Fifty Shades' Works Better on the Big Screen Than on Demand
The veteran director also explains how the final installment in the franchise, 'Fifty Shades Freed,' will be different than the other two films.
James Foley had a long and varied career before joining the Fifty Shades franchise as the director of the penultimate and final films in the series, Fifty Shades Darker, currently in theaters, and Fifty Shades Freed, which is set for a Feb. 9, 2018 release.
Foley took over as director from Sam Taylor-Johnson, who directed the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey — the first in E.L. James' series of erotic novels — and clashed with the author, who's also a producer on the films. Foley says while he doesn't know what happened between James and Taylor-Johnson, he has "a great relationship" with James, whom he likes and respects a great deal. He adds that while the author was on set for the second film and offered her input, she always deferred to him as the director.
The helmer, whose last movie was 2007's Perfect Stranger and prior to that directed such films as Glengarry Glen Ross and Fear, explains why he wanted to work on the Fifty Shades franchise and how the middle film fits with the first one and the final installment, which was shot simultaneously with Darker.
A director who's also worked on the small screen, helming episodes of Netflix's House of Cards, Foley also explains why the Fifty Shades stories work best on the big screen following speculation ahead of the first film that the series might be released on VOD while still in theaters.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Foley also revealed which of the actors he's previously worked with that he's most eager to team up with again, and offered some behind-the-scenes details about Darker's memorable Working Girl tribute.
What made you want to direct the second two installments in the franchise?
I was intrigued by the dynamics of what goes on between this particular man and this particular woman. I was particularly intrigued about how the power dynamic shifts back and forth in Darker and how that affects their emotional relationship and everything else. And I just thought it was an opportunity to do something which had a sort of psychological intrigue to it — psychological and sexual obviously.
What was the most challenging part for you of conveying that or anything working on this movie?
The modulation of their behavior and their desires and how it kind of fluctuates through the movie [was the most challenging thing]. There's kind of not a straight linear line. It kind of pushes and pulls, in their actual life, in their dynamic, and in their bedroom. And I liked how there was that differentiation made between what people do when they fantasize with sex and what they do in regular life in terms of their relationship outside the bedroom. There was something intriguing about that and not altogether logical. Because I don't think sex and emotions follow any particular logic.
Coming into a franchise with the second film, how did you try to keep the tone consistent from the first film but also make it your own for this movie?
I just felt that my only obligation to the first one was that that story had happened as a backstory in Darker, as a backstory to these characters. It was inclusive to who they were. I didn't feel any particular allegiance to the tone or style or anything in the directing of it. It was a story element that I felt had to be paid attention to.
What was the working relationship like with E.L. James?
I don't know what happened on the last movie because I wasn't there, but I had and have a great relationship with her. I met with her before I signed on because I knew about the conflicts that had happened in the past. So I wanted to see how we related as people and what she expected and all that. And I found that I really connected with her and personally liked her very much. I gave her respect that she'd written these books, and she was one of the producers so she was around on the set. But the relationship was totally deferential to me as the director. And the input she had is once, twice or three times a day, she'd come up and whisper in my ear about a certain scene and what had transpired in the book and sometimes I said "Oh, great; that's a great idea." And sometimes I said, "I don't think that's going to work for the scene in the movie." And she was totally OK and never winced or anything. And that went all the way through the editing and everything else. She had her two cents but she was very aware that it was a movie and it was going to be different and I was the director, so I felt very respected by her.
You filmed this back-to-back with the final movie. How did you decide where to break the two stories and how cognizant were you of the final movie when you were making this one in terms of trying to set things up and foreshadow things?
We shot them simultaneously. Sometimes we were doing Darker in the morning, and in the afternoon we were doing Freed. And there are certain physical elements that change in terms of people's hairstyles. But also the style of Freed is different than Darker. I won't put an adjective to it, but it's something that came out of discussions between myself and the cinematographer in terms how we were going to differentiate the movies. So we were going to kind of change our stylistic mindset. What that is specifically I can't put a description on it. For instance at the end of Darker, in the tail credits, there's a little teaser, and just when it comes up, to my eyes it looks like a totally different movie and a totally different reality. And that just came out of subtle changes in style and in the photography, and [Freed] will hopefully have a reality of its own.
One of the moments in the movie that Dakota Johnson's talked about a bit on her press tour is the Working Girl tribute, where she essentially repeats some of her mom's lines from that movie. How did that come about?
That was an idea of the original screenwriter, Niall Leonard. He just felt like, when he was writing that scene, it reminded him of that movie and he just went with integrating that dialogue. Dakota was obviously aware of it and embraced it. I feel like it's sort of invisible in the film. It doesn't all of a sudden step out of its world and become Working Girl, but I think it's a nice inside baseball nod to her mom.
You directed a number of episodes of House of Cards for Netflix. When Fifty Shades was first being talked about as a movie, there was speculation that it could be released on VOD while it was still in theaters. Obviously that didn't happen and isn't happening with this movie. Why do you think these movies work on the big screen or could you see them being good for VOD or streaming?
There's something between television and features where I feel like the story and the reality of the environment of the story can fill up a television screen, a big television screen. So on House of Cards, I felt as if the environment and the expansiveness of the environment — so much of House of Cards is interior in the White House — so I felt like House of Cards fills up to the brim the small screen because it's not dependent on visual expansiveness. But I feel like in Fifty Shades, it's very much a fantasy and very much the textures of it and the world of it, the world of Christian Grey, that's kind of seductive, needed the big-screen treatment to produce those images that would be part of a fantasy, so I think it's a story that by necessity fills up the big screen as opposed to — it would be too small, the visuals would be too small on television. So it feels like a different scenario to me.
Looking back on your long career and working now in Hollywood, what do you love or enjoy the most about the industry and what do you dislike the most about the industry?
What I love is that it's fluid. I've had a very fluid career of ups and downs and lefts and rights, and I always just responded to what I was interested in at the moment and I was very unconscious about genre. So the thing I would say I least like is there is an understandable tendency to, of course, pigeonhole somebody or identify them as, "He does this kind of movie, so if we're making that kind of movie, we should get him and he'll make it like the other ones he's made." That is of no interest to me, personally, to repeat myself. So I've always just followed my nose, for better or for worse, sometimes for worse. What's best and what's worst [about the industry] are almost the same to me. Because what's worst is you get pigeonholed and what's best is I haven't been. It means that I'm still making movies, despite hopping all over the place, so there's a great thing about Hollywood where it's not so purely linear, in terms of a director having a success critically and commercially and continuing that in an unbroken stream, which is true of no one, but the idea that you can make missteps and then redeem yourself by doing something else and then you're resurrected. What's horrible is you're buried so fast when you have a misstep or flop but there's resurrection potentially and that is the best part.
Are there any types or genres of movies you haven't made that you'd like to?
No, I don't think of it that way. I very much respond to whatever script it is, and I've been for better or for worse ignorant about genre. I remember when I made After Dark, My Sweet, which was clearly based on a noir novel, but I didn't think about that. I didn't think, "This is noir, therefore these are the rules of noir." And I remember some of the reviews, when it came out, were questioning for better or for worse, sometimes good, that the movie didn't have any noir conventions. It was set in the desert in the bright sunshine. But to me, when the reviews came out and mentioned its relationship to the noir genre, I was like, well I didn't think about that. I didn't consider that I was meant to adhere to certain prescriptions that had been established as noir. I don't think in terms of genre. I think in terms of what fascinates me and what intrigues me and what I feel is engaging for the year that you spend making the movie, what's personally engaging, not adhering to any kind of conventions.
Is there anyone you worked with previously that you'd like to work with again?
Almost everybody. I'd particularly like to work again with Mark Wahlberg. I think for all of his success, Mark has tricks up his sleeve that are going to surprise people. So he's probably top of my list.