​50 shades of female empowerment with sam taylor-johnson

Sam Taylor-Johnson on female directors, behind the scenes squabbles, and why you have to see '50 Shades of Grey' before you can judge it.

by Tish Weinstock
17 February 2015, 11:45am

Chuck Zlotnick

Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me. They also seem to be exciting artist-turned-director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who's finally put her second feature length film to bed: 50 Shades of Grey. Valentine's Day excitement took on a whole new meaning when the film was released worldwide last Friday, as hoards of loved-up couples and saucy singletons headed to a cinema near you. But it hasn't all been anonymous cards and love hearts. Despite sizzling ticket sales (the film made $81.7 million over the weekend), 50 Shades of Grey hasn't titillated everyone. Based on the best-selling sensation by E.L. James, the film, which charts the sexual evolution of shy, young Anastasia Steele, (played by the lovely Dakota Johnson), at the hands of BDSM-loving businessman and diehard dom Christian Grey (played by the dreamy Jamie Dornan), has attracted quite a bit of negative attention. And I'm not just talking about the somewhat vanilla reviews; I'm talking about the angry feminist backlash ("50 Shades is Domestic Abuse" and "Mr Grey is a Rapist" were only a few of the angry signs held up at the film's premiere). However, this is something the Nowhere Boy director is quite eager to correct. Yes, 50 Shades of Grey is a film about BDSM, but, no, it is not about abuse, nor is it about the victimization of its lead character. And here Sam Taylor-Johnson explains why.

50 Shades of Grey is quite a big departure from what you normally do. What was the motivation behind it?
I needed to do something like this because I'm sure this will resonate with lots of people. When you've had kids and you go into a meeting and people are like, ''what have you been doing for the last few years?'' and you say, ''I've been building my family,'' you can just see them zoning out. I wasn't getting sent anything, I was asking my agents to send me anything that was interesting and I would see scripts and say, ''yeah I'll do this,'' and they'd say, ''ok, well you're 15th in a queue of very powerful male directors,'' and I just thought I needed to go out there and do something that's going to mean that afterwards I could do anything. So this is definitely going to help.

With it being such a controversial book, was directing the film an immediate yes?
They literally didn't give me any time to think about it. I went and met Mike De Luca, the producer on this, and we were working on something else together but then it fell through and I was devastated. Then he said, ''why don't you come in and pitch for 50 Shades of Grey.'' So I read the book and thought, ''you know what? I can see how it could be made into a film, cinematically.'' Also I'd never seen anything like it. I'd seen versions but nothing like this; it's quite fresh and new. I thought that if I got it right it could be a good thing. So I went in and was very passionate. Then they called me up at 5am and told me I had it. But I couldn't tell anyone because it was embargoed. So I asked Aaron and he was said, ''go for it.'' And then I went feet first into it.

How much research into BDSM culture did you have to do for it?
As much as I needed to. In the initial stages I got in touch with this woman, a very well known dominatrix - an incredibly stylish, and beautiful woman. She really helped a lot in terms of distilling and getting rid of a lot of the myths that people have. The most interesting thing she said was, "how many relationships do you go into where you have to sign a contract where you go through what you will and won't do?" You have to have so much trust when you're going into this kind of relationship. You have to know your boundaries and your safe words. That trust creates quite a powerful bond of love and she said that she felt that with a lot of her people. So that was really interesting.

Throughout the film Christian Grey becomes increasingly dependent on Anastasia Steele and almost vulnerable, which isn't what we were all expecting. How important was it to show that side?
That's what I really wanted to achieve with the film. This isn't about disempowerment, as people expect. Dakota and I set out to really empower this girl. We wanted to give her the last word and leave him as the vulnerable one on his knees. Dakota is a strong girl and we thought we cannot have this girl become a victim in this whole thing. And also I didn't think, for the bigger picture, that it sent out a good message to the world if you had this girl non-consensually going into this arena and not feeling comfortable. We wanted to make it as though she was going on a sexual exploration and that she wanted to be a part of that journey until he crossed a very big line and she stood up and said no.

How important was it to have two relative unknowns in the lead roles?
Really important. We decided really early on that we needed to have complete unknowns so that we could sort of create them, so Jamie is Christian Grey and Dakota is Anastasia Steele. I didn't want anyone with a powerful character in the world already.

What was it about the two of them that made the film work?
You know what? Everyone always wants to hear about the sexual chemistry, but it was the fact that they are competitively funny that made it work. So they were both trying to out-humor each other, which meant that the set was just constant hilarity, which was also quite draining too. It was also why the film has more humor in it than was initially written. They were so in tune with each other's comedic sides that we just had to get it on screen as much as possible and a lot of it was improvisation. Like the scene where Anastasia is at the bar and drunk dials Christian. That was completely improvised and it worked really well. I think that was their powerful chemistry: their humor.

How challenging was it to negotiate between E.L. James' vision as the writer and your own artistic integrity as director?
Very challenging. I can't help but be honest about it. You get two people in the room who are trying, from my perspective, to creative something different and new and cinematic - but I also had to honor the book. Then you have someone else with a creative vision that actually created the whole thing; she created the book, the characters, she knows it better than anyone. So, of course, I had to listen. I'm quite stubborn too. There were definitely times we locked horns and we just had to thrash it out. It's almost akin to the book with all the power struggles.

What kind of things would you clash over?
There was nothing that wasn't picked apart. She has such a powerful vision that if we changed the color of a dress it would really unsettle her and we'd have to sit and talk about it and get it to a place where she felt comfortable. The prime example is the dancing scene. It's written as, ''the plum, fitted dress,'' and that absolutely was the dress for that scene, but I would say, ''you can't dance in that dress, you need something a little bit more flowing.'' It was great to have that wealth of information there but at the same time it was sort of like, "ok now leave me to my vision because I also need to create. I need to take it to another place."

How much of that stubbornness do you think was for the fans, after all 50 Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction?
I think that was most of it and she was right to do it. I'm not saying she was wrong at all but it was difficult.

Would that put you off doing the sequels?
I don't know because I'm not privy to those discussions. I'm the only one left out of the room. At the moment I feel like the same feeling when you've just had a kid and someone asks if you're going to have another one and you're like, "I've just had a baby, I'm still feeling the pain." But then hopefully, once I have my rose-tinted glasses back on, who knows what will happen?

Learning about the whole BDSM culture and the intricacies of the dom/sub relationship, did it make you feel differently about relationships in general?
The interesting thing I learnt from this, and how I approach the whole world generally, is cast no judgement on other people and what they want to get into and what excites them or what carries them through a relationship. You just can't judge where it's going to go and it's not your business anyway.

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted the sex scenes to be like?
I did, yes. The most important thing for me was that each one was characteristically different from the last one. I didn't want people to be like, "oh they're having sex again," and then just returning to the story. It needed to feel as though it had its own character arc. They had to be musically different, and with a different sensuality.

Obviously everyone wants to focus on the sex side of things, but how important was it to make it a love story?
Really important. We had to keep tracking the love story, and make sure it felt real, even though it was a complex one. It still makes me laugh, in America they gave it an R rating for ''unusual behavior''. But what might be unusual to you might not be unusual to anyone else. So there's a sort of judgment in that. But, going back to your question, it was very important to make it a love story and to keep it a fairytale.

How frustrating is it that most critics writing about the film haven't actually seen it yet?
Very frustrating. Talk about judgement. I know there were protesters outside at the premiere, but it's like, "how can you judge or protest against something when you haven't even seen it?" I feel like I've done something incredibly akin to the book, but incredibly different at the same time. To empower this girl and give her the last word was really important to us. It's difficult because everyone's trying to second-guess it. I'm so happy it's out now and everyone can see for themselves.

Are you going to look at the reviews?
Absolutely not. I don't want to read a thing, but the frustrating thing is that someone always tells you. They can't help themselves.

Was it hard working on a film where there was so much hype around it before it had even come out?
It was. The strangest thing was when the trailer came out and we were still working on it. I know it happens all the time, but it was just really strange. You just have to shut the whole pressure out; otherwise it's totally de-habilitating.

Do you think this is another big step in the path of women directors?
I bloody hope so. What I'm so proud of is that Donna Langley, who is the head of Universal, hired Angelina Jolie to do Unbroken, me to do this, Elizabeth Banks to do Pitch Perfect. She's just hired Sofia Coppola to do a big movie, so she's got a good thing going on there and I think it's a good blueprint for all the other studios to follow suit.


Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Chuck Zlotnick

50 Shades of Grey
sam taylor johnson