For filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, it’s all about the story. And the story in James Frey’s initially acclaimed book, “A Million Little Pieces,” captivated her—a profound attraction which remained steadfast despite the controversy that later arose when it was revealed that parts of the memoir about drug addiction, rehabilitation and redemption were fabricated or embellished.
Though the once marquee studio property was reduced to a tainted project—underscored by Oprah Winfrey rescinding her glowing review of the book and chastising Frey on TV for misrepresenting the facts—Taylor-Johnson still saw both value and humanity in the story itself.
“The way it affected me when I read it never diminished over time—even when its fudging of the truth became known,” she affirmed. “It’s still a story worth telling—one of addiction, community, hope and redemption. It’s a beautiful story full of hope, not just the darkness of addiction.”
So when the opportunity came up to put together a film based on “A Million Little Pieces” after its fall from grace, Taylor-Johnson embraced it. She and her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, wrote a script on spec after Frey granted them the film rights. (Warner Bros. returned the rights to the author after the controversy emerged.) Sam Taylor-Johnson assembled a notable cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Frey. And she brought in world-class artisans such as: editor Martin Pensa, nominated for an Oscar (shared with director Jean-Marc Vallée) in 2014 on the strength of Dallas Buyers Club; Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, a two-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee—for David Fincher’s The Social Network in 2011 and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo the following year; and production designer David J. Bomba whose credits include the acclaimed feature Mudbound, and the Netflix series Godless.
On a shoestring budget which entailed a mere some 20 days of shooting, A Million Little Pieces came to fruition with Taylor-Johnson at the helm. Her perseverance took the feature to its world premiere at the recently wrapped Toronto International Film Festival. At press time, she was awaiting the emergence of “a brave distributor” to take on the movie.
Taylor-Johnson described A Million Little Pieces as an unbridled, unabashed “passion project,” and she’s committed to seeing the story get its day in the sun because it’s message is so vital. She pushed back against the criticism in some circles that the film should have somehow addressed the Frey controversy. She explained that her focus was to do justice to the story in the book—one which provides a much needed source of inspiration, “a story that takes us from the dark into the light.”
She found the experience of making the film to be a positive affirmation of her creative pursuits. It provided a contrast to the box office hit she directed, Fifty Shades of Grey, where certain creative elements were out of her control in properly adapting a best selling novel. In cobbling together A Million Little Pieces from the ground up starting with the screenplay adaptation of another best seller, Taylor-Johnson had the needed measure of control to help fully bring her creative vision to pass.
Informing her journey was not only her experience on Fifty Shades of Grey but assorted other exploits spanning short and long-form fare. She directed the Sundance Film Festival-winning short Love You More in 2008, written by Patrick Marber and produced by the late Anthony Minghella that earned both BAFTA and Cannes Palme d’Or nominations. Her feature film debut came in 2009 with the critically acclaimed, BAFTA-nominated Nowhere Boy, based on the childhood experiences of John Lennon. 2015 saw the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, which made $94 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. and went on to make over $550 million worldwide.
Taylor-Johnson’s filmography also includes music videos for the likes of Elton John and REM. She additionally directed the first two episodes and was an executive producer on Netflix’s Gypsy, a psychological drama starring Naomi Watts.
Via Hey Wonderful, the indie bicoastal production house under the aegis of founder Michael Di Girolamo, Taylor-Johnson directs commercials and branded content. Her ad credits span such clients as H&M, International Women’s Day, Edwin Jeans, and the men’s luxury fragrance, Givenchy Gentlemen. The recent spot for the latter marked her first collaboration with cinematographer Cronenweth, which led to them reuniting on A Million Little Pieces.
“On the commercial, I had an instant synergy with Jeff,” recalled Taylor-Johnson. “When I was writing the script (for A Million Little Pieces), I approached him. He became my cinematic partner. I knew we were going to create something that was aesthetically and cinematically beautiful. He brings an edge which we very much needed for this.”
Of editor Pensa, Taylor-Johnson said, “He was willing to work at high speed on a low-budget project. We had a postproduction schedule of 12 weeks and a 20-day shoot doesn’t give you a whole heap of material. His contributions were enormous.”
Production designer Bomba came straight to A Million Little Pieces from director Dee Rees’ lauded Mudbound. “He created this whole world for us despite having limited resources,” shared Taylor-Johnson. “There would be a bus station that he could only dress a third of—but he made it work and helped us realize the desired overall look for the film.”
Taylor-Johnson related that working with Cronenweth, Pensa, Bomba and a brilliant cast was “energizing and exciting. I’m as high as a kite over the joy of this experience. Now I want others to experience this movie because the story is relevant, human and healing.”