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Like Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Anastasia Steele, Sam Taylor-Johnson was a wide-eyed innocent—she’d directed only one feature, 2009 indie Nowhere Boy—when she got hired to direct the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of EL James’ phenomenally successful erotic novel. But during an 18-month whirlwind ride, Taylor-Johnson explored the world of S&M, overcame casting troubles (Dakota Johnson stars opposite Irish actor Jamie Dornan, who replaced Charlie Hunnam) and endured daily battles with the book’s highly opinionated author. Ahead of the film’s Feb. 11 premiere at Berlinale, the 47-year-old British director and mother of four (she’s married to actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson) reveals all the bruises, battles and benefits of working on one of Hollywood’s hottest projects.
How did you feel when you found out that the film would premiere in Berlin?
I didn’t know that was happening until it happened. I never thought that would happen. I’m super, super excited.
Is the Berlin premiere the first time you’ll see it with an audience?
It will be my first time with a proper audience, which will be scary and exciting. It’s been hard working on something that was so shrouded in secrecy; I wasn’t able to get much?feedback.
What research did you do for the film?
I met with a dominatrix and also met with a dominant who was on set in Vancouver. What was interesting was that this structure of it is so strong and so grounded in rules and dos and don’ts. And that trust is a huge element of it. That trust built in that way can be such an intensely powerful bond, and from that can come this intense love.
Did you watch any films for inspiration?
The obvious ones that we all looked at again that deal with sexuality were 9 1/2 Weeks, Last Tango in Paris and Blue Is the Warmest Color. But then I knew that this wasn’t solely about the sex — it was much more psychological and emotional and a real deep, dark romance. Last Tango in Paris was the interesting one, just on rewatch — not necessarily for inspiration but to wonder whether you could have gotten that film made today in the same manner.
How did you find Dakota Johnson?
Dakota was easy. We gave every actress who came in to read four pages of a monologue from Ingmar Bergman‘s Persona. It was a really long piece to learn, and it had a really complex, emotional journey in just that one passage. It meant that we could see quite clearly who was capable of taking a transition on this journey. Dakota came in very early, and she was really strong and really focused. And I kind of thought she was going to be Anastasia and then saw a few hundred other girls to make sure.
Finding Christian Grey proved more difficult with Charlie Hunnam dropping out after he was cast.
It was devastating at the time. It was tough because I thought I had a true collaborator with Charlie. But I started to sense that he was getting nervous about the fact that there were three books. It suddenly proved a little difficult of a concept that 10 years of his life could be this character. I think that made him nervous. But I now can’t imagine anyone else but Jamie playing it. We just went through a real bumpy ride to get there.
Did you feel any pressure to tone down the sex?scenes?
When we were at script level, there were times when people said there were too many sex scenes. We definitely cut back. I was always aware that I couldn’t make anything nearly as graphic as Blue Is the Warmest Color because this was a studio movie. For me, I didn’t feel like it needed to be graphic. When I watch movies, eroticism sort of ends when there’s penetration. The most erotic part is the buildup to that, so that’s where most of my focus was.
Do you think this movie needed to be shot by a?woman?
It’s difficult because I’m not sure how different it would have been with any other director. I do know that with Dakota and my relationship, which was a very strong trust and bond, that me being a woman was definitely better and helpful.
EL James was very hands-on with the film. Is that an experience you’d recommend to other?filmmakers?
It’s difficult. When you have an author and an auteur, it’s a difficult and challenging relationship. I’m not saying that at times it wasn’t helpful, but there were times when it was really, really frustrating.
What do you feel needs to happen for the film to be a success?
It lies in a few places for different reasons. If it’s loved by the fans, it would be a great success. For it to be liked by the critics would be great. Financially is less important to me, but I think it would enable me to do whatever I want on the next movie.
You just mentioned the next movie. Are you already thinking about the sequel?
I’m in the headspace that I’m never making a movie again. (Laughs.) Having had four children, I can say you can definitely equate it to the same feeling after you’ve just been through a long and difficult labor and someone asks you, “You going to have another one?” There’s definitely that feeling of “Not right now, no.”
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