From co-writer/director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the indie drama A Million Little Pieces follows James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who also co-wrote the film), a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug addict who is faced with the decision of treatment or death. Once in rehab, detox and therapy leads him on a journey of healing his soul, while connecting with the other addicts around him and making amends with his family. The film also stars Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi, Charlie Hunnam and Odessa Young.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson talked about the challenges of making this film on such a tight schedule, the approach to adapting this story for a film, watching what her husband goes through while he’s playing a role, their collaborative relationship on set, and why she wanted Charlie Hunnam in the film. She also talked about why she’s only done a small handful of projects, as a filmmaker, what she’d like to do next, whether she’d consider doing another big studio franchise film (after her experience on Fifty Shades of Grey), and the TV series that she’d love to direct an episode of.
SAM TAYLOR-JOHNSON: Yeah, it was 20 days. It was insane. It was crazy ‘cause it’s one of those things where [Aaron and I] wrote it together, over a couple of years, and when we started out, we were gunning for an $8 million budget. And by the time we got there, it was just so difficult to get a movie like this made. We were banging on doors and people were like, “The material is dark, and he’s not exactly a likable character.” So, it was hard to raise the money, and we raised enough to do a 20-day shoot. There was never a point where we were gonna give up, but it just got harder and harder and harder to get the thing made.
You’re directing your husband in this, which seems like it would be enough of a challenge, but he also had to go through such physically and emotionally intense moments. When you’re doing something like that, are you able to separate director and wife, and know and understand what his process is, or is it ever hard to watch him go through some of what he had to go through?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: There’s never any kind of separation ‘cause we’re so immersed in everything, and with what we do. Especially because we were writing it and producing it, it meant that, at the end of a shoot day, we couldn’t just kick back and relax. We’d have to deal with what was happening the next day and what the issues were, and rewrite some scenes that needed changing. We were in it, constantly. It was hard, in this sense that I’ve watched how deeply he immerses himself in his characters, so I knew this was gonna be difficult. I’d lived with Ray, from Nocturnal Animals, and that was really tough. As soon as he reads a script, he starts to slide into the character, and I see parts of Aaron disappear while the character starts to come alive, which is magical when you’re actually working with him, in that way. You know that you’re really dealing with the character, very close to the surface. With a character like this, it’s not easy because he’s having to go into a very, very deep, dark headspace. I wouldn’t mind doing a romantic comedy together. But because I’ve lived with whatever character he immerses himself in, I’m used to it. I know that part of him has gone, and there’s this aura of another person in our life, for awhile. I’m aware of it and used to it now. It’s been everything from John Lennon to a serial killer to what we just went through it.
When you were writing this together, were there ever times when you looked at him and were like, “Are you sure you want to do that, as an actor”?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: The good thing about him is that, anything you put in front of him, as an option to do, he trusts me enough to know that I wouldn’t be presenting it to him, as idea, unless I thought it was a big part of the story and worthwhile. But, there are some difficult scenes. For example, we needed to show James free-falling into that space where, as a bystander or a friend, you would say, “Oh, my god, that guy needs help.” We really needed to achieve that quite quickly, so we came up with the opening, when he’s dancing, and then he starts to get naked. It’s that moment where everyone turns and goes, “Okay, wait, he’s going too far.” So, we wrote it and he knew that it was a scene he was gonna have to play, but he didn’t realize it was gonna be the first scene he was gonna shoot, as his introduction to the cast and crew. But he’s pretty willing to go wherever the director needs to take him, in order to tell the story, so there’s never any, “I can’t do that.”
What were the biggest challenges in adapting this book for the screen and ensuring that you were telling that story within the time frame? How did you approach it, as far as the characters you wanted to expand on, the characters you had to cut, and the characters you had to condense?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: There were so many challenges. There have literally been non-stop challenges, through the process of writing, filming, and promoting it and getting it out into the world, in equal measure. This has been a real fucking challenge. Taking on a book of this size, its importance, its history, its controversy, and every single aspect has been about, how do we address this? How do we build this? How do we meet this challenge? So, the fact that it’s actually coming to the screen feels almost miraculous. Condensing it was one of the hardest things, but then it became quite simple, in the sense that we decided the truth of the journey is James. We spent time with him and had gone to the treatment facility where he’d gone, and we’d talked to the counselors who treated him, so we had a good handle on the reality of his addiction. He went in addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol, and he’s now standing in front of being 26 years sober, despite everything – despite addiction, despite public shaming, despite so many personal obstacles that are out there for anyone to Google. If you are, in any way struggling and looking for some beacon of hope, he’s a pretty powerful one, that he can survive and hold his head high and keep putting one foot in front of the other. In the book, there are so many character. Some people are five characters in one because there’s no room on screen for everyone. Charlie Hunnam represents family. It’s not the parents, it’s just the brother, and the brother is there, as a representative of family, and they have an incredibly tight bond and beautiful relationship. It was constant. Along with everything else, making an independent movie and getting it into the world is challenging.
You were originally set to work with Charlie Hunnam on Fifty Shades of Grey. What do you like about him, as an actor, and what made you think of him for this?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: I was devastated when it didn’t work out with him for Fifty Shades, but the beauty of what came out of that was a friendship. He and I really connected, in the short time that we spent together, and I knew I was gonna go to him for something. And so, when Aaron and I were writing, we were like, “He would be the perfect, soulful, beautiful, pained brother of James.” Charlie is such a deeply soulful, thoughtful person. I haven’t seen him too much in those roles, and I love I what he brings to the camera, when he’s in that. It was that thing, where I just keep thinking, “I’d love to see more of him.”
You’re such a great and interesting storyteller, and your husband speaks very highly of you, as a storyteller, so it seems crazy that you’ve only made a small handful of films and directed on one TV series. Has that been a choice, or is it just a challenge to get the projects made that you want to do? Why aren’t we seeing more stories from you?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: Because it’s really difficult. And you have to have so much energy ‘cause there are so many obstacles and goals. It’s funny ‘cause I feel like every time I make a movie or TV, or whatever, I’m back at ground zero and I have to remind people of my capabilities, doing everything from a big blockbuster to coming in on time and on budget, on a 20-day shoot. I feel like I have to say, “Just trust me and give it to me, and give me the funding, and I’ll bring you something special.” But it just seems like it’s always difficult because it is always difficult. You have to be quite resilient to be a filmmaker, especially as a woman filmmaker because you’re constantly bumping your head on the glass ceiling. So, it is challenging, but then, getting a movie made is challenging, in itself. I do feel like I have to gear up a certain energy, which you have to sustain, in order to get things even moving.
Do you know what you’re going to do next? Have you thought about what you’d like to do next?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: I think I’m gonna do a movie very soon, but I can’t tell you. I hate saying that, but I can’t. If it happens, it’s gonna be another independent movie, just because I like the spirit of it. Making A Million Little Pieces was really about community filmmaking. When we wrote the script, he wakes up on the airplane, and that’s a scene that people remember from the book, but we couldn’t afford the airplane. We had to call a cast and crew meeting and said to everyone, “Listen, we’re already on a crazy tight schedule, but if we want the airplane scene, we’re gonna have to cut an hour from the day, in order to save the money to afford six seats, and the ceiling and floor of an airplane, to shoot that scene.” That was really difficult, but at the same time, when we achieved it, as a whole community of cast and crew, the day that airplane arrived on a flatbed truck, there was rapturous applause and celebration. It’s things like that, where you’re like, “I love filmmaking. This is amazing!” We also had to be creative ‘cause we didn’t have special effects. We had to figure out how the sewage and shit was gonna come down the walls and he was gonna dance in it, but we only had one take, so we couldn’t repaint it. It’s constant creativity, on every level, so I quite like the end of the world. The only thing I’d like is a bit more money because that means more days. Literally, we were doing every single tiny thing, across the board, but it gives you creative control. So, we’ll see.
Could you ever see yourself directing another big studio franchise film again?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: It’s difficult because I think I went through the toughest version of that. It’s hard to retain your ultimate vision. When you’re head-to-head with someone who has a completely polar opposite vision, that’s difficult. I would imagine that it’s not always like that, but I quite like having a bit of creative flexibility. If a studio is a studio where you can have that, which can be true because other filmmakers I know have said, “These guys are good, work with them.” So, we’ll see. It all comes down to the material. If someone says, “We have this, and we’ll let you run with it,” I’d be like, “Okay, thank you.” It’s really about who will trust you with the vision that you have, since that’s the reason they hire you. When people are allowed to create the vision that they were hired to do, it often pays off well. It’s just about trust. People get scared, especially when there’s a lot of money involved.
Is there a TV series that you watch, that you would love to step in and direct an episode of?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: Succession. I don’t even need to think about it. I love Succession, so much. One of the things I love about what I do is that I love working with amazing actors and characters, and character actors, and that TV show is full of brilliant actors and brilliant characters. Brian Cox is incredible. Sarah Snook amazing. I love Cousin Greg. And I’ve always wanted to work with Jeremy Strong ‘cause he’s so good. Something like that would be fun.
Clearly, you went through a lot, getting this film made. Now that it’s done, what are you most proud of, as far as the final product and the story that you were able to tell with it?
TAYLOR-JOHNSON: I’m most proud of our resilience, in not giving up when the going got tough on this journey, quite often. Partly because of the history of the book, and then partly because of the nature of independent filmmaking, in this current climate, it was not easy. So, I’m proud that it’s coming to a theater, somewhere near you, hopefully. I’m also proud to have taken two and a bit years out of our lives to tell an important story that seems more relevant and important now, than it’s ever been. It’s never not relevant. When I spoke to the counselors at the facility, I learned that there’s just a different form of drug that affects people, throughout different decades. Back in ‘93, it felt like there was much more of a stigma, with reaching out for help. Today, someone in your family who went for an operation might have started taking something. It feels much more like people feel less stigmatized about reaching out for help, in a good way. When James went in, it was very hush-hush, and it was something that people didn’t really talk about so much.
A Million Little Pieces is now playing in theaters.