FIFTY SHADES OF GREY – THE AUTHOR AND THE DIRECTOR
Erika Leonard, better known as E. L. James, is the 51-year-old British author who created a compendium of her sexual fantasies, called the book Fifty Shades of Grey, and watched in shock as the book and its two sequels (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, making her more than $100 million.
Now meet Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of the first film in the Fifty Shades trilogy. Like James, Taylor-Johnson is British. Taylor-Johnson, now 47, was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 29. At 33, breast cancer. At 40, divorced. None of these experiences, she said, did anything but make her stronger. “I’ve experienced, you know, a few major challenges in my life, and I think it definitely gave me a determination to go feet first into things,” she said. Has making Fifty Shades been a challenge? “Oh, yes, definitely,” she said. “But once you’ve experienced the kind of fear I’ve experienced, the fear of taking on something big like Fifty Shades is a silly fear, that’s just fear of your own ego.”
There are few book-to-film projects in recent memory that have been as anticipated, debated, and kept under wraps as Fifty Shades of Grey. E. L. James says, “When I started out writing Fifty Shades and sharing it with friends on the Internet, I had no idea this is where this would all lead. But when they went viral and started selling in millions, Hollywood came calling, and the demand for a movie, from studios and from fans, became almost overwhelming. I used to work in TV [as a producer], and I enjoyed it, but like a lot of TV people, I’d always wondered how it would be to work on a movie. I thought this would be my one opportunity. There’s a special thrill seeing what used to exist only in your head and on the page up there on a screen for an audience to experience together. In a way, your daydreams come to life before your eyes, if not always in exactly the way you imagined.”
When the Fifty Shades film rights came up for sale in 2012, they created an explosion in Hollywood. At least six studios and dozens of producers were interested. Focus Features won the rights, paying what’s thought to be as much as $5 million, with a far bigger than usual slice of the gross proceeds for the author. James was thrilled, and not just about the finances. She made sure she’d be involved in an immense number of decisions, including Fifty Shades’ casting, script, and choice of director.
With an estimated budget of $40 million, James and the team set about finding a writer, director, and cast. The job of screenwriter ultimately went to Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), yet another British woman in early middle age.
Casting Fifty Shades was a little like the casting of Gone with the Wind, with the country engaged in a debate about who should play Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Should Mila Kunis play Anastasia? Emma Watson? Not all of these women actually wanted to be in the movie, a career gamble considering the racy material. After Dakota Johnson auditioned, the team was basically sold.
The role of Christian was much harder to cast. James had her heart set on Robert Pattinson, her inspiration for Christian,—but eventually settled on Charlie Hunnam, the rough, blond star of Sons of Anarchy. Later, Taylor-Johnson and the team pivoted to Jamie Dornan, who stars in the hit BBC series The Fall. “It’s common knowledge the casting process had its ups and downs, but I was won over by Dakota and Jamie—they seemed the perfect fit,” says James.
In Vancouver, when production started, James came to the set every day. “One day I remember really well was the very first day of shooting,” she says. “I was impressed by how calm and focused everything was on set. But, in fact, there were more than a few tense moments. James was an amateur among sophisticates. Taylor-Johnson had her own ideas about how to shoot the film, including the sex scenes. Their knowledge of film and reference points was completely different.
James didn’t have much to do with set design, other than sketching floor plans for Christian’s penthouse, which helped production designer David Wasco incorporate doors and corridors leading to rooms and annexes used in Books II and III. “His spaces are tightly controlled, the art and furnishings, the architecture, all deliberately chosen with an undeniable sophistication but completely devoid of feeling other than an isolated aloofness,” says Wasco.
James, however, had her own ideas not only for the script, which she guarded fiercely, but also for the dialogue, the costumes—and the sex. The sex scenes, Taylor-James says, are tastefully handled: “Its details, flesh and fingers and skin and eyes and looks.” She thinks that if you saw the actual sex “the mystery would be gone. You see a lot, but you don’t have to see anything graphic.”
So….will the movie be a hit? Time will tell.
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