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Nowhere Boy - Sam Taylor-Wood interview

Sam Taylor-Wood directs Nowhere Boy

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SAM Taylor-Wood talks about some of the many challenges of making her feature film directorial debut with Nowhere Boy and finding Aaron Johnson to play a young John Lennon.

She also talks about following in the footsteps of fellow artists turned directors such as Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel and why the late Anthony Minghella was such an influence on her…

Q. What made you choose a film about John Lennon as your debut?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I didn’t set out to make a film about John Lennon. It was more a case that this was the only script I read that was interesting. I actually think I entered into it completely naively, just thinking: “Wow, what a powerful story. I didn’t know this about John Lennon, so what a brilliant story to tell!” It wasn’t until I got to Liverpool that I realised: “Oh shit, this is an icon I’ve taken on.” It’s then that I felt the weight on my shoulders and thought to myself: “You cannot ruin this!”

Q. How much is fiction?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I’d say that most of it is pretty factually correct. Obviously, we had to think that we weren’t making a documentary and were making a film that was entertaining. So, there are parts where they’re having more fun in the concert halls and things like that. But there were a lot of things we had to really be rigid about sticking to, which means I don’t want to do it again in a hurry!

Q. How did you find Aaron Johnson to play John Lennon?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, he came as part of the casting process. Nina Gold had met with him before for other projects. He came in about eighth or ninth out of the 300 we saw and I said: “That’s it, great, we’ve found him!” But Nina said: “I’m sorry, we still have to see the other 200 odd…” But I was absolutely convinced that he was right for a number of reasons. He came in with the right intensity, he came in speaking with a Liverpudlian accent, which was weird at the time knowing that he was from Berkshire.

So, he had the charisma, the intensity, the accent but also – and most importantly for me – the experience. He’d been acting for 13 years, so I knew that he could also professionally handle such a big role and learn how to sing, play guitar and hold all of that together. It wasn’t easy to cast but he made it feel quite easy. It was only then, after we started seeing the other 200 and there starting to be doppelgangers, that I thought: “Well maybe I should pick someone who looks more like John.”

Q. Did you speak to many family members while filming?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Not during the process of filming, but I wrote emails to quite a few people – family members and friends – saying I was making this film and was at script level, so now was the time for input. I didn’t want them to come to me during the end of shooting. It was quite for a while and then a trickle of things would feed in. So, I used as much as I could from different ones. Some of them were really important and some I couldn’t use.

Q. There’s a lot of unknowns about Lennon in his pre-Hamburg days. Was that intriguing or scary?
Sam Taylor-Wood: It was intriguing but also challenging because I had to look at it and be quite analytical. In my mind, the Lennon that we know as the Beatles Lennon I felt was created through the pain and loss of his mother. If you look at some performances that he gives, his body language is very protective and his mouth is quite tight. He sort of sings through this sort of tightened face… I felt that when I was watching footage of him singing Twist & Shout it was quite tight. And then there was a transition when he meets Yoko, where he becomes almost child-like again and is all crazy in love and sort of out there with it. So, in a way what I tried to do what sort of look at that Lennon as a sort of prototype for a younger Lennon… a Lennon who was much more open and free with his thoughts and dreams and love, before the pain and damage came. It was quite difficult because there is so little documentation of him back then.

Q. What has Yoko Ono said about the film? Has she seen it?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, it was frightening because when I finished reading the script right at the beginning and saw that the film played out to Mother… that was the bit that completely finished me off. I was completely floored by that. So, I had this total and utter blind belief that we’d get the rights to the song. I didn’t realise how difficult it could be to get the rights. But we couldn’t get them until she’d seen the film – she had to see it and approve it.

So, I didn’t know even if she’d want to see it, or would approve it or be upset by it. But she sat down and watched it and it was literally a nail-biting couple of hours. But then she immediately was on the phone and emailing how much she loved it, and saying: “Thank you, that we’d really done good by John.” That meant so much because this was the woman who had lived with John and loved him. She’s fiercely protective of him, and rightly so. But her giving me that song was the biggest endorsement for me that I could have hoped for. She’s seen it twice, in fact, because she took Sean [Lennon] to see it.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Nowhere Boy

Q. How easy was it to bring Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff on board?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, Kristin immediately came to mind for Aunt Mimi because I thought: “Here’s a powerful woman who strikes fear…” But I’d kept in my head something that Yoko had said in a very early email, which was: “You must remember that John loved Mimi… and Mimi loved John.” That’s all I had from her… that quote. So, I had to find someone who could play Mimi with that complexity, and not just as a one-dimensional dragon. Someone who could actually be endearing and loveable as well as tough and a complete bitch at times.

It was more difficult casting Anne-Marie as Julia because she was more unknown and more complex in a sense. I couldn’t initially think who could play that role naturally and it wasn’t until I started seeing people. But she came in and gave this reading that just dictated how Julia was going to be played. It reduced me to tears, so she was a natural choice.

Q. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from the experience?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Not to take on such an iconic figure [laughs]. I think probably next film I’d like to have a bit more of a free reign. This film was very dictated by facts and living relatives. We were sensitive to all of that. Those restrictions were good to work within but I think I really learned so much that it’s hard to say one definitive thing.

Q. How much of an influence was the late Anthony Minghella on you?
Sam Taylor-Wood: He was a massive influence. He was the one that said to me: “Why don’t you make a feature film?” He also showed me the book and said: “If you’re interested in this book I’d love to produce it and have you direct it.” We then made a short film together. The initial film we were going to work on together was such a tale of grief that I couldn’t continue it after he died because I was in such a well of grief myself that I just had to walk away and try and find a different project. But he was the one that gave me the confidence and pushed me forward. After the short film, he said to me: “OK, you’ve made a great short film, don’t lie back on your laurels… get on with the next one.” So, there’s lots of little tips that he gave me. I miss him.

Q. You’ve adopted a very conventional approach. Were you tempted to make it more arty?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I shot a lot of material that would have been much more pleasing to people who were maybe expecting me to make an art-house type movie. There were some very beautiful shots and some long, lingering shots on certain things but when it came to the edit room I found they were just too self indulgent and were not propelling the story. I only had 90-odd minutes in which to tell quite an intense tale.

So, I had to make quite a conscious decision to leave behind all the sort of artistic big shots that I feel people would have identified as my mark. It was quite painful sometimes. But they just slowed down the story. I hung on to things for quite a long time but my editor was quite brutal with me and said we needed to keep the story motivated. If we stared at a flower for too long we’d lose half the audience [laughs]. I could also have told the story in a very different way, but I decided that I really wanted to tell the story in a way that would appeal to a big audience.

Q. Were you aware that you were following in the footsteps of other artists such as Steve McQueen [Hunger] and Julian Schnabel [The Diving Bell & The Butterfly] in turning to film? And did that add any pressure? Did you watch their work before you started this?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Yeah, yeah definitely. I like Hunger a lot. I’ve known Steve for a long time and I think he did brilliantly with that. You can really feel his work and hand-print all over it. But with Schnabel, it’s an interesting one. He makes quite big, bombastic paintings, yet when you look at his films they’re so sensitive and have such a lightness of touch… I feel like he’s almost separated himself in two. There’s one aspect to him of a big man making big paintings, and the other aspect of him, which makes really beautiful, delicate films. So, I was aware of following in a tradition. But lots of artists have made feature films… though not necessarily good ones!

Q. Do you know what your next film is going to be next?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I have no idea. I’ve got scripts coming through the door regularly, but I can’t even turn a page because I’m so drained by this experience. I think for the next six months I don’t actually want to do anything. I’d like to take some time out and consider it carefully. I’d also like to enjoy life for a little bit and not feel so pressured.

Read our review of Nowhere Boy

Read our interview with Aaron Johnson