Why Director Sam Taylor-Johnson Is Our Guru On Life, Work, & Finding Beauty In Pretty Much Everything
For Sam Taylor-Johnson, life doesn’t just imitate art, it is art. Though she’s probably best known for directing Fifty Shades of Grey (a challenging experience she’s been refreshingly open about), it’s her work on smaller, gem-like films like Nowhere Boy and the forthcoming adaptation of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that speaks to her originality and empathy, not just as a storyteller and director, but as a person genuinely captivated by the human experience.
She’s one of the most unique and successful women directors working today, but Sam originally launched her career as an artist in the ‘90s alongside other defining art-stars of the day like Damien Hirst. Such success followed a tough childhood—her father left when she was nine and she was estranged from her mother at 15. Sam made a surprising discovery, however, just a few years later while walking down the street and seeing her mother through a window. “She was living three doors down from where we were living alone, me, my sister, and my brother,” Sam tells Refinery29 global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich on this week’s UnStyled podcast. “The thing is,” she adds, “I'm quite empathetic, so I do kind of understand what she was going through and the process that took her there.”
These kinds of life lessons in betrayal and forgiveness could be what drew her to John Lennon, the subject of Nowhere Boy. It was the first film she directed where she cast—and eventually married—the lead, her now creative partner, Aaron Johnson, who had a similarly lonely upbringing. “You don't necessarily always understand why you connect with material,” she says of initially reading the script. “I read it and just… my heart felt like it was being ripped out.”
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time Sam had been drawn to Lennon in her work: in 1993, she created 26 October 1993, a collaboration with photographer Henry Bond, in which the pair re-enacted a photo of Lennon and Yoko Ono taken by Annie Leibovitz hours before his assassination.
Since meeting on set in 2008, Sam and Aaron have developed the rare romantic partnership—not unlike that of John and Yoko—that allows them to thrive in creative collaboration. They’re latest project, a film they co-wrote and Sam directs, A Million Little Pieces, is based on the best-selling and highly controversial memoir/novel, in which Aaron also stars.
From first reading the book—which she immediately envisioned as a movie—to finally releasing the film on December 6, it took Sam 16 years to make A Million Little Pieces. Over the course of that time, it bounced between various filmmakers and studios, but she never stopped dreaming about making it herself. Ultimately, Sam got the rights, paying Frey (who has since become a friend) just one dollar for the film. Sam and Aaron wrote the script in a few months, and made the film for under $4 million, a bargain by Hollywood standards.
It’s precisely this kind of resourcefulness and determination that allow Sam to exist among the four percent of directors in Hollywood who are women. “The needle feels like it's moving, but I don't feel like it actually is,” she shares. “[Talking about it] is great and there are discussions, but it's still tough.”
For the rest of us, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s journey as a visionary filmmaker is a powerful reminder to be patient and persistent, but there comes a time when we have to take destiny into our own hands. “It's getting in the room,” Sam says. “That's the hardest thing—kicking that door down when it slams in your face.”
Hear the rest of Sam Taylor-Johnson and host Christene Barberich’s conversation live today by listening to Unstyled and subscribing on Apple Podcasts today.