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This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the making of Fifty Shades of Grey seems to have been like a protracted visit to the Red Room of Pain as she battled constant conflict with 51-year-old author EL James. With the first installment of a hoped-for trilogy set to open at $60 million or more over Valentine’s Day weekend, insiders say the director — to whom stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are said to be loyal — likely will not return for a rematch. While Johnson and Dornan are booked for a three-peat, Taylor-Johnson, 47, only signed on for one film. So far, sources say there have been no discussions on her returning.
In the March 2012 auction for the red-hot property, Universal gave James, whose real name is Erika Leonard, unprecedented control over everything from casting and wardrobe to dialogue. Taylor-Johnson tells THR that “pretty much throughout the whole process of everything,” James was “incredibly vocal” and protective.
“We’d often clash and have to find a way to work through that to get to some sort of resolution,” says Taylor-Johnson. “She would be the first to say as well that it was not easy. It was not easy. But we got there. I think both of us felt it was an incredibly painful process.”
James’ publicist and Universal declined comment, but she told MSNBC on Feb. 6 that the shoot “was hard in places,” adding, “People are going to butt heads, and that is exactly what happened.”
Producer Michael De Luca, who won’t be back for sequels as he joined Columbia in December 2013, has said that James saw herself as “the keeper of the flame” for her fans. Sources with ties to the film, which cost about $40 million, say Taylor-Johnson was striving to make a movie that would be better than audiences might expect (her last movie was 2009’s Nowhere Boy). Her approach won the backing of Johnson and Dornan, who “loved and embraced Sam and were on Sam’s side 99 out of 100, if not 100 out of 100 times,” says one source on the film.
James is said to have pressed for more explicit sex, while Taylor-Johnson pushed for a more subtle approach. “The negotiation of who’s dominant and who’s submissive is throughout the book, and we can see where that came from,” says another source with ties to the project. “[James] was being one of her characters. It was a bit much.”
But James had the whip hand, so to speak. “She was given a lot of power, and she used every opportunity to flex that power,” says one insider. “It was really challenging to control EL’s — I don’t want to say ‘crazy’ but — impulsive instincts.”
James worked on a script with Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), but there was a polish by Patrick Marber (Notes on a Scandal, Closer). Insiders say James would not brook changes. “She will not allow herself to be rewritten, even if it’s ‘and’ or ‘but,’ ” says a rep with ties to the project. The problem, says another source with ties to the project, was that “EL is just not experienced. She was given a lot of power but had never been through a movie shoot.” James “just didn’t seem to grasp that in all adaptations, some things need to change. You can’t just put the book on the screen.”
The rep credits Universal chairman Donna Langley with helping Taylor-Johnson through the “grueling process.” As James took stands on issues such as the color of a dress, says this source, only Langley was able to influence her: “It had to be the head of the studio to have weight with Erika.”
It seems the battle between author and director climaxed over the ending of the movie. The first book ends after Steele asks Grey to hit her with his best shot. He obliges, and Steele recoils and leaves him. While Taylor-Johnson wanted to end the movie with the safe word “red,” James insisted that the final word be “stop.” The difference may seem insignificant, but sources associated with the project agree that the version favored by Taylor-Johnson was part of a smarter ending. (“Stop” is not the last word in the first book but nonetheless matched James’ vision.) “Erika would not let go,” says the rep. “Maybe fans would say she did the right thing.”
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