'Fifty Shades' Director Explores Passion, Performance And Control Fifty Shades of Grey is expected to be a blockbuster — and the director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, is a relative unknown outside of the art world, where she's a star. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a profile.
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'Fifty Shades' Director Explores Passion, Performance And Control

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'Fifty Shades' Director Explores Passion, Performance And Control

'Fifty Shades' Director Explores Passion, Performance And Control

'Fifty Shades' Director Explores Passion, Performance And Control

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/385726801/385793990" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Sam Taylor-Johnson directs Jamie Dorn and Dakota Johnson on the set of Fifty Shades of Grey. Chuck Zlotnick/FOCUS/UNIVERSAL hide caption

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Chuck Zlotnick/FOCUS/UNIVERSAL

Sam Taylor-Johnson directs Jamie Dorn and Dakota Johnson on the set of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Chuck Zlotnick/FOCUS/UNIVERSAL

Universal Pictures put a woman in charge when it hired Sam Taylor-Johnson to direct Fifty Shades of Grey. It also got an art world star nominated for such prestigious awards as Britain's Turner Prize. Truth be told, Taylor-Johnson sounds slightly relieved to discuss her photography and videos instead of the movie she's in the thick of promoting.

"It feels so far away from me right now," she says, in her plummy London accent. "And it's so nice to talk about again — gives me a bit of a breather."

Accent aside, Taylor-Johnson is hardly from a posh British background. Her father was a biker. Her mother was a hippy who meditated in orange robes before abandoning the family when Taylor-Johnson was only 15. She went on to attend Goldsmiths College, a school that forged a movement known as the Young British Artists.

"They were just a most raucous, rebellious group of artists in revolt," says Margo Crutchfield. Now curator-at-large for Virginia Tech's Center of the Arts, she organized Sam Taylor-Johnson's first major US solo show back in 2008. Crutchfield says the YBAs, as they were known, were exuberant post punk troublemakers.

"Probably some of the most provocative work made in recent times," she says.

Exhibit A: Damien Hirst, who suspended sharks and sheep in formaldehyde. Exhibit B: Tracey Emin, best known for displaying an unmade bed surrounded by underwear, empty liquor bottles and condom wrappers as something of a sarcastic monument to an ex-lover. Comparatively, the artist then known as Sam Taylor-Wood was understated. Still, themes of sex and sensation surfaced in such work as her recreation of the Last Supper that imagined Jesus as a topless woman.

"There was a lot of experimentation in the early days," Taylor-Johnson dryly concedes.

Throughout her career, Taylor-Johnson's work has explored vulnerability, passion, performance, celebrity and control. Take her series of portraits of leading Hollywood men such as Paul Newman, Laurence Fishburne and Dustin Hoffman. All of them, crying.

"I didn't want to do something where it's just a projection of ego and a big smile and, you know, 'Here I am, at the top of my game,'" she explains.

Taylor Johnson's video portrait of soccer star David Beckham, commissioned by Britain's National Portrait Gallery, shows one of the world's most famously active bodies sleeping — for an hour and seven minutes. At the time, says Crutchfield, she was married to another art world celebrity.

"Probably the most powerful art dealer in Europe if not the world at the time," Crutchfield notes. But Taylor-Johnson left him soon after directing her first feature film, 2009's Nowhere Boy. It's about the Beatles' early years in Liverpool, before they became famous, and Taylor-Johnson married the actor who played John Lennon. He was 19. She was 42. She'd already had two children and had two more with him — even after surviving cancer twice. Not long ago she directed her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who she describes as a muse, in a music video for R.E.M. He's dancing down a city street in a faded yellow T-shirt.

"I can't wait for us to work together again because he's so talented," she says. "And that R.E.M video is, I think, one of the best things I've done. It was so much fun."

It was admittedly less fun, she says, to film Fifty Shades of Grey.

"I mean, the thing is ..." she pauses. "I'm an artist and I had lots of sort of wild ideas about how to do this. And wildly off-the-wall ones."

For example, a sequence she fought for showing jellyfish as a sensual metaphor for the heroine's state of mind ended up on the cutting room floor. The movie Fifty Shades of Grey ended up as a straightforward, respectful adaptation of the book, but critics still mostly praise it as more sophisticated than its source material, from the Helmut Newton-inspired cinematography to the female-dominated soundtrack, with powerful singers such as Beyoncé, Sia and Anne Lennox. It's a woman's journey, says Taylor-Johnson, that ends with the male lead vulnerable and emotionally exposed.

And the movie Fifty Shades of Grey teases the fundamental idea of who holds power — from the woman who tells the story, to the women readers who enjoy it, and the woman director who put it on the screen.