Why Sam Taylor-Johnson Says It Took Years to Regain Confidence After Directing Fifty Shades

Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson reflected on her "tough" time making the 2015 movie with author E.L. James, and how the experience affected her approach to filmmaking.

By Gabrielle Chung Apr 10, 2024 8:19 PMTags
Watch: Dakota Johnson on How "Fifty Shades" Has Evolved Her

Sam Taylor-Johnson will see you now.

After all, the Fifty Shades of Grey director spent several years reevaluating her craft after experiencing a challenging time working on the 2015 film with author E.L. James, who wrote the erotic novel which the Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan-starring flick was based on.

"This was her book and she had a very particular vision of how she wanted to see this film, and I had a diametrically opposed vision," Taylor-Johnson shared in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published April 10. "Where we got to is where we got to. The success of it was great, but the experience of it was tough."

In fact, she took a step back from filmmaking following the shoot. "It took me about four years to regain my confidence and composure," the 57-year-old noted. "I'm going back to being an artist where I can make all my own decisions, answer to myself and present the world with something that I've created." 

Fifty Shades of Grey: Behind-the-Scenes Pics

The British filmmaker—who is married to her Nowhere Boy collaborator Aaron Taylor-Johnson—has been open about the challenges she faced while filming the adaptation. Ahead of the movie's premiere in 2015, Sam admitted that there were "so many voices" on set that it made it difficult to bring her personal vision to life.

"I want to protect my vision and that's the hardest thing," she told Red magazine. "Don't try and knock it out of me."


Mike Marsland/WireImage

As for James? The writer has also acknowledged that she and Taylor-Johnson had creative differences.

"That was a challenging experience," she told U.K.'s The Times in 2019, sharing that she "would do a lot of things differently" with the franchise's first film. "I had a far more creative process on the second and third movie, working with someone who had vision and dynamism and embraced the material."

For more titlating facts about Fifty Shades of Grey, keep reading.

1. Finding the Screenwriter

American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted in June 2012, "I'm putting myself out there to write the movie adaptation of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'..." And he meant it, publicly lobbying via Twitter and telling whomever would listen that he wanted to adapt E.L. James' book for the big screen.

"I read the book out of curiosity. If it had not been as big of a hit, I would not have picked it up," Ellis later told Vanity Fair. "I realized, Oh, this isn't well written. It isn't a good book. But this is a really good story, and it would make a really good movie."

Instead, Universal's Focus Features went with Kelly Marcel, who had penned the screenplay for Saving Mr. Banks—about Walt Disney's struggle to get Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to let him make a movie about her magical nanny. The Wolverine scribe Mark Bomback was brought in to polish the Fifty Shades script in late October 2013.

"I had never been on a project with that much secrecy around it," Bomback later told The Hollywood Reporter about the experience. "The set was on lockdown, and it was just really fascinating. I was able to watch something that everybody was speculating about sort of unfold in front of me."

2. Angelina Jolie as Anastasia Steele?

There came word in June 2012 that Angelina Jolie had—if there was any truth to the rumor at all—perhaps had an informal discussion about directing the movie, having made her feature directorial debut in 2011 with Land of Milk and Honey.

Jolie went with the adaptation of Unbroken—the beyond-inspiring story of Olympic athlete turned World War II pilot Louis Zamperini, who crashed, survived 47 days floating in a life raft and then survived a POW camp—for her follow-up project instead. 

Gus Van Sant, who like Bret Easton Ellis pictured a more graphic, possibly NC-17 film, and Danish director Susanne Bier were the last two names on a shortlist that James and Focus Features had whittled down—but producer Michael De Luca had been a producer on a movie Sam Taylor-Johnson was going to do before it fell apart, and suggested she take a meeting about Fifty Shades.

Asked how she'd handle the book series' rabid fandom, she mentioned that her last movie, Nowhere Boy, had been about the Beatles. And she was hired.

3. Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey?

Casting rumors ran rampant as to who would play Christian and Ana (Matt Bomer was flattered; Emma Watson was not; Taylor-Johnson wanted Robert Pattinson), but Charlie Hunnam really was planning to make the film his next big project after Sons of Anarchy ended.

"There are so many fans of that book and I know that on the surface, I'm probably not what everybody imagined," the British actor told Entertainment Weekly in October 2013. "Because reading is so personal and people bring a character to life in their imagination, they feel ownership over that character." He added, "That's daunting if I allowed myself to think about it too much. I'm taking it very seriously and intend to explore the nature of who this character is, what motivates him—and also dress up nice and look good in those suits." 

Days later, he exited the project, officially due to a scheduling conflict but reportedly due to creative differences with the film's creative team, including Sam Taylor-Johnson, as well as second thoughts about whether it was the right career move for him.

As of 2017, Hunnam said he had still never seen the movie because that whole to-do was too painful of a memory. 

According to The Hollywood Reporter at the time, Hunnam was only getting paid $125,000 up front for the role. Which seems... skimpy.

4. How Dakota Johnson Got the Part

Young actresses ranging from Shailene Woodley and Elizabeth Olsen to Alicia Vikander and Felicity Jones were said to be in the running, but once Dakota Johnson landed the role of Ana, she kept it.

"She's just so Anastasia Steele. She's the best partner a producer could have," Michael De Luca told E! News, calling Johnson "our rock." He said that the actress was "helping us look through the candidates [to play Christian] to see which chemistry kind of captures our attention."

5. Enter Jamie Dornan

About two weeks after Hunnam's exit, Jamie Dornan officially signed on. A source told E! News that the Belfast-born actor, best known then for ABC's Once Upon a Time, "had a really good read" at his audition, but as far as chemistry with his leading lady, "the studio isn't worried about Dakota. They think she could handle whoever the guy is."

"I'm sure he'll do a great job," Hunnam told TMZ in passing.

6. Production Starts

Originally scheduled to start in November, principal photography was pushed back a month as they got their casting ducks in a row.

Cameras finally started rolling on Dec. 2, 2013, with Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for Seattle.

7. Release Date Changes

"The release date is preserved and we're gonna kind of keep going," De Luca also said that October, days before the film's release date was changed from Aug. 1, 2014, to Feb. 13, 2015.


8. Laters Baby

Dornan's wife, Amelia Warner, was about 8 months pregnant with their first child when he was cast as Christian, but she packed up and moved to Vancouver, where daughter Dulcie was born on Nov. 21, 2013.

"Then Jamie had a brand-new baby the first week of shooting," Taylor-Johnson recalled to Vanity Fair.

9. About Those Sex Scenes

To make everything as comfortable as possible for Johnson and Dornan during the sex scenes, Taylor-Johnson tried to downsize the crew in the room as much as possible.

"I didn't want [Dakota or Jamie] to have to come re-shoot those kinds of scenes," the director told Vanity Fair.

"It was a closed set, and so we couldn't be there for those very intimate scenes...but so much of the movie turns on those intimate scenes," producer De Luca explained. "We'd be in our trailers, but [the actors] were miked, and we had cans—you know, headphones—but I actually got shy from listening. There was something about not being there and having the audio that made us feel like peeping listeners, and so we all put them down."

James legendarily wanted as many scenes as possible to play out exactly as she'd written them, but Taylor-Johnson focused on "details, flesh and fingers and skin and eyes and looks." She felt if they showed too much "the mystery would be gone. You see a lot, but you don't have to see anything graphic."

10. "Crazy in Love"

The first trailer was going to go viral anyway, but it didn't hurt to have a slowed-down version of Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" setting the mood.

"Obviously I know how ‘Crazy in Love' goes, but I knew there was the possibility her vocals would be different," violinist and recording artist Margot told TIME. "It's almost more vulnerable and beautiful this way, because you do do crazy things when you fall in love. To hear the mood reversed and flipped makes it even more powerful."

11. Ellie Goulding Has Entered the Chat

Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do" was made specifically for this soundtrack and was nominated for two Grammys and a Golden Globe—but the Oscar nomination went to The Weeknd's "Earned It" (which in turn lost to the latest Bond tune, Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall," from Spectre).

12. Feud Rumors

Who wants a fantasy when you could have feud rumors? Dornan was (and is) married, so there was no prospect for a real-life romance, à la Robsten, so the next best thing apparently was to speculate that he and Johnson weren't getting along. A few uncomfortable-seeming joint interviews didn't help any, but how comfortable would you be having chat after chat on camera about nudity and sex scenes?

"Look, people are going to say that because it's a story and people like to create a little bit of hype leading up to the film," Dornan told E! News at Fifty Shades of Grey's London premiere. "It's an obvious story to come up with, you know, if I was into the world of coming up with fake stories I'd maybe start to do that on a blog." He quickly added, "No, I would never become that person, but I understand it. It creates a bit of…whatever."

13. Reviews Are In

The reviews ranged from middling to savage to hilarious (not Cats-caliber hilarious, but still very creative), but the movie was a blockbuster, raking in $570 million worldwide on a reported $40 million budget. The sequels, both directed by James Foley, made $381 million and $372 million respectively.

14. Box Office Debut

Its $85 million opening weekend held the record for the highest U.S. opening for a female director until Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman opened with $103 million in 2017.

15. Director Exits

Taylor-Johnson didn't return to the franchise, at least in part due to her problems working with James—who exercised as much creative control as she could, even bringing in her husband, Niall Leonard, to write the script for the sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

"We would have proper on-set barneys," Taylor-Johnson recalled to Porter magazine in 2015. "I'm not confrontational, but it was about finding a way between the two of us, satisfying her vision of what she'd written as well as my need to visualize this person on screen."

She also told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015 that James "would be the first to say as well that it was not easy. It was not easy. But we got there. I think both of us felt it was an incredibly painful process." James said in an appearance on MSNBC that "people are going to butt heads, and that is exactly what happened."

Opening up to the Sunday Times magazine in 2017, Taylor-Johnson said she didn't regret doing the film, per se, "because that would just finish me off. With the benefit of hindsight would I go through it again? Of course I wouldn't. I'd be mad."

She continued, "I like everyone, and I get really confused when they don't like me. I was so confused by EL James. I don't understand when I can't navigate a person, when there's no synergy." 

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