Three years ago, Sam Taylor-Johnson was in the position to have one of the top studio franchises of the decade. She’d directed the adaption of the best-selling novel 50 Shades of Grey and have the fastest-selling R-rated film in history. But she decided to walk away from the sequels and, instead, returned to the world of independent films. But she wasn’t done adapting best-selling (and controversial) novels. Back to her indie-roots, with her husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson (the star of her first feature Nowhere Boy) alongside her once again to star and co-writer, they adapted James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces into a new film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Despite all the controversy surrounding the book, the power of the book had not only moved Taylor-Johnson but inspired her to pursue directing. Talking to her after the premiere of the film, Johnson was a full of nervous energy during her press day.
Lesley Coffin: Is this the way you feel when you wrap and then when you finish the edit or only when you premiere a film?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: No, this is the first time I’ve experienced this feeling. We shot the film in about 20 days and the day we stopped, I had so much adrenaline. I felt like I was still running and free-falling. It took me a good couple of weeks to really come down. I felt so nervous and emotional about how this would be received. I care about it more than anything I’ve ever done.
Lesley Coffin: You’ve never felt this emotionally connected to a film before?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: No, never. This is a film I wrote with Aaron, on speck. We had no idea if we’d get the money. The whole thing’s been a guessing game. And to have it premiere at a festival like this, was just overwhelming. I’m usually quite good speaking to crowds, but I just felt useless.
Lesley Coffin: Having done the studio films and now coming back to studios, had you considered pitching to studios?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Yes, I read the book in 2004 and I was an artist at the time, not a filmmaker. And I was immediately desperate to make it as a film. I wanted to become a filmmaker to get it made. And now I feel that this was the way the film had to be made. I didn’t want to make it on such a low-budget of course. But having shot it at that speed gave it a grittiness and earthiness that is at the heart of the character. And if we’d had a bigger budget, we would have possibly had to do that differently to get the film made. At a studio, there may have been compromises and changes, they may have disagreed with the nakedness of the character. All the vomit and shit would have had to be taken out. Doing it this way was the right way to do it.
Lesley Coffin: When you started writing it, were you writing everything as if you could make that ultimate version and then pulled things out as the budget and time became a reality?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Not being writers, we read a lot books about writing and watched masterclass with Aaron Sorkin. But condensing a 550 page book, which is very beloved, into a script was tough. I think our first draft was 240 pages. Then we got it down to 150-something pages. And I asked a friend of mine in development to read it. And she told me, “I’ll be back in the morning and when I return you will have 90-page draft.” And we had to cut it that night. And because you only have one night to do it, we had to be merciless and focus on the core of the story we wanted to tell.
Lesley Coffin: Is editing a movie the same mindset you need to edit a script?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: No, it was harder. We were losing scenes we wanted to shoot that we couldn’t film because it took us away from the primary locations of the film. And they were scenes we liked and wanted to film, but we couldn’t afford to include them. Once you go into an edit with all your footage, you can see what works and what doesn’t. But when editing a script, you have to be savage. It was much harder to edit the script.
Lesley Coffin: You and Aaron are married and having talked with a number of co-writers and co-directors, lot of them say co-writing is the hardest part of the collaboration because they’re debate so much. Did you find that to be true?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: It was a really good working relationship. Aaron is so focused, he can work 8 to 10 hours and just locks into what he’s doing. He has laser focus, and I just don’t have that. I constantly have to be moving and going. But that worked. I would talk about a vision I had for a scene, and he would figure out a way to write it. He has brilliant sense of structure, probably because he’s been reading scripts since he was 8. So me free-forming ideas and him locking things down was a very practical approach. Our biggest debates were always around Leonard. I was so in love with Leonard and read both books twice, and we’d be writing scene about James and I would say “what about Leonard?”
Lesley Coffin: Speaking of Leonard, Billy Bob Thornton is a great actor, but he’s also a great writer and director. When you’re working with actors that come from both sides of the camera, do you want their input?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Billy Bob was great because we’d write these long monologues and he was always so respectful but would say “do you mind if I say it like this.” And I was always like, please, it’s great. When an actor has such a great grasp on their character, if they wanted freeform a little bit it can be a blessing. When they have it wrong, it’s a curse. But when they have it right, it’s an absolute blessing. And then of course his ability to understand structure and dialogue was a huge advantage to us.
Lesley Coffin: When you read the book was it before or after the controversy?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Before any of that had come out.
Lesley Coffin: Did learning that change how you feel about the book? Did it change that initial reaction you had to the power of the story?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: It didn’t change at all. The experience I had after reading the book didn’t change after the truth was revealed. I wanted to remain true to my experience reading the book. The core of the book, the aspect which drew me to the book, was James’ true story of finding sobriety. And when filmmakers adapt any book they make changes, they merge three characters into one, they change the order, they remove entire scenes. So it was just about the core aspect of the book that appealed to me. The book is about a broken human spirit, at the last point of despair, finding a community in a professional treatment center. That was the story. We went to the treatment center where James had been, talked with the councilors. And took on a different sense of responsibility. This isn’t just about staying true to the book. It’s about telling an honest story of addiction and recovery.
Lesley Coffin: You employ magical realism in small parts of the film, you only use it in a few scenes. What points in the story did you feel those elements really called for that approach?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: It felt like at the beginning was the best place to do that because his grip on reality was so loose. He had one foot in the world of drugs and one foot in detox. We wanted to represent that in a physical way. So the scene when he enters rehab, and he’s such a mess, the walls start dripping with sewage. Because it feels as if that’s what he feels like in that moment, that’s the place he conformable. The rules being read and the florescent lights are frightening. He feels like he’s in shit, but he’s comfortable in shit because he knows that world. It felt like a good way to express that. And that small moment when he looks at the food and it just rots on the plate, it was another way of showing how he’s feeling. But once he’s in recovery and starting to make progress, there was no place for that. He’s back in reality.
Lesley Coffin: There is always a question regarding how to depict AA on screen, the question of how do you show that honestly, without it becoming exploitative?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: I didn’t want to play out people’s stories. It didn’t feel right to write fictional stories about addition and put those in the mouths of actors. I wanted it to be about the things counselors say over and over and ideas which are challenged. But I didn’t feel we needed to hear everyone’s story of addiction. The meeting scenes were about showing the steps and process of recovery?
Lesley Coffin: Once you had written the screenplay, how long did it take to get this film produced?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: It happened very fast. We started writing in January of last year and got financing just before Christmas and were shooting in February. We knew the two people who started MakeReady production, they’d come from two different companies and started their own. And we were their first movie. They didn’t have a lot of money to give, but they wanted to make a stamp in the industry. They wanted something that told the world the kind of movies they wanted to be making.
A Million Little Pieces made its World Premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
© Lesley Coffin (9/13/18) FF2 Media
Photos: A Million Little Pieces (Courtesy of TIFF)/ Michelle Quance for Variety