Sam Taylor-Johnson talks collaborating with her husband Aaron on ‘A Million Little Pieces’
Sam Taylor-Johnson met her now husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, on the set of the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy in 2008. She was the director; he was the star. Now, the couple has teamed up again for the film adaption of James Frey’s controversial addiction-memoir: A Million Little Pieces. (Quick backstory: Frey has admitted to fabricating large parts of the book.) Sam told us about the movie, which comes out December 6th, and what it was like to direct her husband’s love scene with another woman…
Katie Couric: What was it about this book that, 15 years or so after reading it, you decided you needed to make it into a movie?
Sam Taylor-Johnson: I read it back when it first came out. You know how some books almost shift your DNA? Something just resonated with me. It was such a powerful character and story. I loved the way author James Frey wrote. I hadn’t read anything that was so creative — how it was freeform, like a stream of consciousness. I remember thinking, “This would make an incredible movie! Lucky person that gets to do this!”
And then I kind of tracked and followed it over the years. Aaron remembers that the first time he ever came to my house, he saw the book on my side table. I said, “Oh, you’ve gotta read this, it’s such an amazing book.” But other people were already discussing making it into a movie, and I’d get a pinch of envy when I’d hear someone else was doing it. But life went on.
Then one day I got a call from my agent, and he was like, “Have you ever read A Million Little Pieces?” And I was like, “What?! Tell me immediately!” He said, “The author has the rights, if you’re interested.” I couldn’t hang up on him quick enough so I could email James. He called me within ten minutes, and I said “I hear you have the rights back. I’d love to try to talk you into giving them to me.” And he just said, “Oh, you can have them. Go ahead and make it a movie. Go make art. Be creative and wild — that’s the spirit in which I wrote it.” It was like winning a golden ticket.
How did the controversy surrounding the book come into play while you were adapting it into this film?
It’s not a documentary, so I didn’t feel like I needed to address it. What resonated about the book for me was that story, and James’ journey. The controversy was there to be read about, and commented upon, but I felt like it was a separate thing. I wanted the film to focus on what resonated with me within the pages.
You met your husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson on the set of your film Nowhere Boy. This is the first movie the two of you have collaborated on since then — what was that like?
We’ve had many creative projects together in between, like a REM video and a fragrance campaign. And of course we’ve had children together! But this is the first feature film since Nowhere Boy. We were waiting for something that felt right, but we also tend to work “one-on, one-off,” so one of us can always be with our children. The set wasn’t really an environment to bring the kids to, of course, but we shot the whole film in 20 days. So it was a wild, adrenalized ride. We shot right outside of Los Angeles and pretended like it was Wisconsin in the winter.It was a tough shoot, and we had a very small budget. But it really dictated the movie we made, because it is very pared down and shows a real singular journey. We only shot at one location — an old hospital that has a very strange energy. So luckily my mother-in-law came and looked after the kids.
You’ve said that Aaron tends to take on the persona of the characters he’s playing… was James hard to live with?
The last character which was really hard to have around was Ray from Nocturnal Animals. Aaron really embodied that character — long nails, toxic on the inside, eating and drinking all the time. So when we decided we were going to go into this world, with this character’s headspace, I thought, “What am I doing?” I didn’t relish where we were going to go, knowing how much Aaron was going to take on. But at the same time, I’m used to it. It’s part of our life. This was a tough character for him, and it was a tough world to get into — but I get the joy of being able to work with someone who gets so deep in character that they tell the story exactly as it should be told.
Is that one of the things that drew you two to each other in the first place — that you are both so invested in your work?
Absolutely. It was a strong connection from the start. I could read the mood he was in from the blink of an eyelash. That was helpful for me when I was working with him as a character on set…and that just grew stronger. When we were doing A Million Little Pieces, I felt the same energy as when we first worked together. I want to keep going this way, to keep working together, and keep making movies together. We actually wrote the screenplay for this movie together over the course of 18 months. We had a strong writing partnership, and that was a new experience.
What were some of the best and most difficult aspects of directing your husband? And I have to ask, was it weird directing your husband in a love scene with another woman?
I think that since we began our relationship working together, we already had that director-actor relationship established. As soon as we’re back on set, that dynamic comes out straight away. I can really tell when he’s honed in on a scene, and really on track. The hardest thing is when I want to talk to him like he’s my husband — “Okay Aaron, we’ve got one take, do not eff this up!” Then I have to remember to speak to him as an actor on my set: “Hang on a minute. Aaron, I have one take, so if you wouldn’t mind getting it right, that would be great.”
When Aaron and I were writing the film, and we wrote the love scene, it was very much about the intensity of what the characters are going through. How connected they are, and how they relive the memory of their past drug use together through motion rather than words. It was a very intense scene to shoot. When I’m working, I’m totally focused and professional, but I’m also human. At one point on the day we shot the love scene, I turned to my assistant director and said, “Really? You had to schedule this on Valentines Day?”
There is a scene in the film when James says that addiction is not a disease like Alzheimer’s or cancer. His counselor argues that it has to be, because nobody would choose the destructive life that addiction causes. You survived both colon and breast cancer at a very young age — did you draw on your own experience when portraying the suffering the addicts in the film are going through?
When I had cancer, I had absolutely no control. When you’re sick, you convince yourself, “I can somehow change this.” But you can’t. Ultimately it’s something that you’re in, and surrounded by. When we were writing that scene, we talked about that. We talked about addiction as a disease, and not something you choose to have happen to you. I’ve been through cancer twice, and treatment for it. Having lived through that experience, and having been lucky enough to have survived, it really colored how I wrote and directed that scene. It was a really tough scene to write. It was a tough scene to work on. It felt very personal.
Do you and Aaron have plans to work together again?
As soon as filming was finished, we were like, “What should we do next?!” Writing and collaborating together was so exciting. I would love for my next project to be with him, but it’s about finding the right story to tell. This film was a tough one — to be in that world for that amount of time. So next, I think I’d quite like to do a musical together, or something uplifting. But we haven’t found the right project! Aaron is an incredible dancer. If you’ve seen the REM video, you’ll know what I’m talking about. So I’d love to do something that utilizes that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.com