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Sam Taylor-Johnson on leaving London, coping with criticism and taking a break after ‘Fifty Shades’

The ‘Nowhere Boy’ director talks the personal toll of filming of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and her latest project, Netflix TV series ‘Gypsy’

Ellie Walker-Arnott
Written by
Ellie Walker-Arnott

Two years after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ hit cinema screens, British artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson is back. She’s swapped feature films for binge-able telly and new Netflix series ‘Gypsy’, which stars Naomi Watts as a thrill-seeking New York psychotherapist.

It’s been a while since ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Did you decide to take a break after that experience?
‘There was no choice. I needed time out. It was an intense ride, a learning curve and I came off it depleted. I needed to re-evaluate my choices and decision-making process. I don’t regret it in the sense that I’m proud of what I achieved with it, but the personal toll was tough.’

What do you do to unwind?
‘I’m not good at switching off at all. I find it really hard. I’m someone who needs to be doing five to ten things at a time. I put my whole heart into everything I do. There’s no just one foot in. [After ‘Fifty Shades’] I just needed to be at home with my family, walk the dogs, bake cakes, re-enter the normal world again.’

‘Fifty Shades’ was the subject of intense scrutiny. How did you cope with the attention?
‘I don’t read anything. A lot of people say it, but I say it and mean it. It’s a road to nowhere. You start reading and you’re like, “Oh fuck. People think that? Shit.” It’s debilitating. I wouldn’t have made half the great life decisions I think I’ve made if I cared about what people think.’

Why was ‘Gypsy’ the first project that you wanted to do after ‘Fifty Shades’?
‘I read the script and thought it was an incredible character arc for a woman to play. Jean Holloway [Naomi Watts’s character] is such an antihero. It’s so unusual for women to be painted that way. She has a beautiful home, the perfect husband, a cute daughter and a strong therapy practice in Manhattan but it’s not giving her what she wants from life. She starts doing some really questionable, morally destructive things.’

You directed the first two episodes of ‘Gypsy’ and then stepped away. How was that?
‘It was really weird. It was the first time I’d ever done that and I don’t know if I’d do it again. The letting go was really difficult. I had no control. There’s no middle or end. It feels like you’ve not finished your job.’

Have you watched the entire run now?
‘No, I haven’t. I’m on episode seven. It’s hard for me to binge-watch. If I get 45 minutes on my own it’s a miracle.’

Naomi Watts in Netflix's ‘Gypsy’Naomi Watts in Netflix's ‘Gypsy’

Do you wish you’d directed all ten episodes?
‘I’m not sure I would have had the stamina for six months at that pace. It’s quite extraordinary. TV is radically different to working on a film set. There’s no time to ponder or consider. For the first couple of days I was shocked at how fast I had to think. It’s 16-hour days of non-stop, relentless energy.’

You were born in London. Do you miss it now you live in LA?
‘I can’t actually believe I’m going to say I miss grey skies. I miss London parks, British accents. My two youngest daughters have proper American accents. It’s funny. They are like, “Mom!”’

Is London still home?
‘I grew up in London – I always refer to it as home – but it was nice to make a big change. To discover something felt adventurous. LA is a much slower pace of life than I had here. We don’t go out much. We’re very much in nature. We have coyotes coming into our garden. I found a couple of black widows the other day.’

Growing up, did you want to direct films?
‘I was completely fascinated by movies from a young age. I can remember first going to the cinema to see “Snow White”, being absolutely riveted and diving under my seat in terror when the witch came with the apple. After that, queuing up for “Grease” was an important moment in my life. I feel like my life has been peppered by significant movies.’

Have you struggled to get your voice heard in Hollywood?
‘Definitely. There was a movie I wanted to do a while back and I just couldn’t get into the room. I believe in persistence. Even with “Nowhere Boy”, they didn’t really want me to do it. I had to keep pushing. It does feel like now, with “Wonder Woman” and Patty Jenkins, Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” that there are so many female directors, but it’s important to remember that it’s only 4 percent.’

What’s next?
‘Aaron [her husband] and I have written a movie. We’ve adapted a book into a screenplay, which we’re filming in January. I have an art studio in LA too. I don’t have a gallery at the moment. I’m slightly working in a void. But my studio is right by David Hockney’s so it feels like I’m existing in the right world.’

‘Gypsy’ is available on Netflix now. 

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