When Universal and Focus Features were looking around for someone to make the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, they interviewed a lot of candidates, but it didn’t take them long to choose the relatively untested British director Sam Taylor-Johnson. “It was so fast,” says Taylor-Johnson of the hiring process. “I’d put together a whole load of ideas, flew down from Vancouver… Eight o’clock the next morning, my phone was ringing off the hook—‘You’ve got the job. We’re announcing it today.’ Suddenly I was on a bullet train, doors were shut, and off I was going.”
Here are the six most surprising things about the woman charged with bringing the racy book to the big screen. (Some of these might explain why Hollywood jumped at the chance to give her this movie.)
1. She’s a highly respected artist. Taylor-Johnson was part of the Young British Art crowd in the 90s. Her photographic work has been exhibited at the Tate and National Portrait galleries and she’s been nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. In 1997, she was given the award for Most Promising Young Artist at the Venice Biennale.
2. She’s rich. When she split with her first husband, the art dealer Jay Jopling, they were reportedly worth $154 million. Some of her photographs have sold for upwards of $100,000. (She’s not as rich, however, as Erika Leonard, who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey under the pseudonym E.L. James, and is now reported t0 be worth about $80 million.)
3. At 47, she’s a mother of four. Taylor-Johnson’s oldest child Angelica is 17 and her next three are all under 8. Her 17-year old has already seen the movie. “Watching it through her eyes was really interesting because I could gauge where I felt uncomfortable with her watching it,” she says. “So then I sort of revisited those areas and thought, is it more graphic than I think it is?”
4. The father of her two youngest children is 24 year-old actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has starred in, among other things, Godzilla and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. She got pregnant with their first child together when he was 19, after they worked together the movie she made about John Lennon, Nowhere Boy. And she wants her next movie to be with him as well: “What I’d like to do is something where I’ve developed it, where I’m working with Aaron on something and we’re in control of it,” she says.
5. Like Christian Grey (and Lennon), she was raised in an unconventional home. Her father, who was a biker, left home when she was 9 years old, and her mother Geraldine moved the family to a commune-like situation, until she departed as well (and secretly moved to a house further down the same street). At 15, Taylor Johnson had to more or less look after herself. Her mom now runs a spiritual healing center, GrailHaven, in rural Queensland, Australia, where, under instruction from what Geraldine calls “an angelic vision in the gardens,” she sells flower essences, oracle cards and bottles of sacred water that will “assist the birth of the 5th Ray.”
6. Taylor Johnson is a two time cancer survivor, having beaten both colon and breast cancer. After the breast cancer she did a series of photos in which she was tied up and suspended by a guy called Master Rope Knot, who, says Taylor-Johnson, was a bondage expert by night and I.T. man by day. “I think it was a sort of celebration of my sort of physical self and being under strain,” she says. The bonds were later erased in the photos so it looked like she was floating effortlessly. The experience gave her a taste of the appeal of bondage. “On a very basic level you get fight or flight panic, which releases adrenalin and serotonin. And then you suddenly go into this sort of slightly sort of chemical other world through that sort of giving over to being restrained I guess,” she says. “But it’s not something I took up after this.”