'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

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Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn't have many film credits to her name, but there's really only one that matters right now anyway. She is the director of "Fifty Shades Of Grey," the movie adaptation of the blockbuster romance novel laced with S&M. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, it is not her usual cup of tea.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Sam Taylor-Johnson is an art world star. She's been nominated for some of its fanciest awards, including Britain's prestigious Turner Prize. The London-born artist, in the midst of promoting her "Fifty Shades" adaptation, sounds delighted to be asked about her photography and videos instead.

SAM TAYLOR-JOHNSON: It feels so far away from me right now and it's so nice to talk about again (laughter) - gives me a bit of a breather (laughter).

ULABY: Taylor-Johnson grew up in a 1970s hippy household, everyone meditating in orange robes. She hated it. Her mother abandoned her and her siblings when Taylor-Johnson was only 15. She went on to attend a college, Goldsmiths, that forged a movement known as the Young British Artists.

MARGO CRUTCHFIELD: They were just a most raucous group of artists in revolt.

ULABY: Margo Crutchfield curated Sam Taylor-Johnson's first major solo show in the United States. She says the YBAs, as they were known, were exuberant post punk troublemakers.

CRUTCHFIELD: Probably some of the most provocative work made in recent times.

ULABY: The YBAs concocted conceptual art projects like a huge shark floating in a glass case or an unmade bed surrounded by underwear, empty liquor bottles and condom wrappers. Artist Tracey Emin intended it as a sarcastic monument to her ex-lovers. Sam Taylor-Johnson, then Taylor-Wood, was comparatively subtle. Still, she played with themes of sex and sensation, like her photo recreation of the Last Supper with Jesus as a topless woman.

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: There was a lot of experimentation in the early days (laughter).

ULABY: Sam Taylor-Johnson's art explored vulnerability, passion, performance and control. Her series of portraits of leading Hollywood men included Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman.

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: I thought, you know, I don't want to do something where it's just, you know, a projection of ego and a big smile and, you know, here I am at the top of my game.

ULABY: Instead, she photographed the actors crying. Taylor-Johnson did a video portrait commissioned by Britain's National Portrait Gallery of soccer star David Beckham sleeping for an hour and seven minutes. At the time, she was married, says Crutchfield, to another art world celebrity.

CRUTCHFIELD: Probably the most powerful art dealer in Europe if not the world at the time.

ULABY: But Taylor-Johnson left him soon after directing her first feature film.


AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As John Lennon) (Singing) Hello, little girl. Hello, hello, girl.

ULABY: "Nowhere Boy" was a very well-reviewed movie from 2009 about The Beatles' life in Liverpool before they found fame. Taylor-Johnson married the actor who played John Lennon. He was 19, she was 42. She already had two children and had two more with him after surviving cancer twice. Not long ago she directed her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in a music video for R.E.M. He's dancing down a city street in a faded yellow T-shirt.


R.E.M.: (Singing) Hey, now, take your pills.

ULABY: It made me wonder if you think of him as a muse.

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. I can't wait for us to work together again and to make a movie with him because he's so talented. And that R.E.M. video was - I think it was one of the best things I've done. It was just so much fun.

ULABY: It was sometimes less fun, she admits, to film "Fifty Shades Of Grey."

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: I mean, the thing is I'm an artist and I had lots of sort of wild ideas about how to do this and wildly off-the-wall ones.

ULABY: "Fifty Shades Of Grey" the movie ended up as a straightforward, respectful adaptation of the book.


JAMIE DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) I'm used to getting my own way.

DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) It must be really boring.

ULABY: Critics say Taylor-Johnson's take is more sophisticated than its source material suggests, from the Helmut Newton-inspired cinematography to the female-dominated soundtrack.


ANNIE LENNOX: (Singing) I put a spell on you.

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: You know, we start with a very strong, strong woman with Annie Lennox at the beginning of this movie.


LENNOX: (Singing) 'Cause you're mine.

S. TAYLOR-JOHNSON: And then at the end I sort of wanted to feel that we had gotten to a place of a vulnerable man.


THE WEEKND: (Singing) I'ma care for you, you, you, you. Yeah.

ULABY: Sam Taylor-Johnson is teasing the fundamental idea of who holds the power - the woman who tells the story, the women who enjoy it and the woman who put it on the screen. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


THE WEEKND: (Singing) 'Cause girl you're perfect.

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