“Do what you want with it.” That was more or less what James Frey told the director Sam Taylor-Johnson when she and her husband, the Golden Globe-winning actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, approached him about bringing Frey’s 2003 book A Million Little Pieces to the screen. “I’m not going to be there,” Sam remembers Frey saying. “I’m not going to read your script. I may not ever see the movie. But if you respond to the material and you like it, do it!”
For Sam, director of Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey, adapting Frey’s bestseller about his struggle to get clean from drugs and alcohol in a Minnesota rehab was a longtime dream. It also ended up proving a challenge: “Every step of the way with this movie has been pushing a boulder up a hill,” she says now. Chief among them is the fact that A Million Little Pieces remains controversial. After massive initial success, some reported that parts of the book, which was initially published as nonfiction, were fabricated. Frey eventually admitted the book wasn’t completely factual and was subject to a now-infamous appearance on Oprah. (It’s now categorized as a novel.) The veracity of Frey’s book was a subject of national fascination at the time and caused a massive uproar, even if now—in the era of Anna Delvey, college admissions scandals and impeachment filings—a memoirist embellishing his story seems positively quaint. Still, some asked why the Taylor-Johnsons would want to do it at all. “People already had opinions about James,” says Aaron. “People already didn’t like him.” But Sam had loved the book for years: “It’s a story of personal redemption,” she says. The long shadow cast by the scandal never changed her belief that it was a story worth telling.
So they made the film—for which they wrote the screenplay together, with Sam directing and Aaron starring as Frey—on a shoestring budget in 20 days, assembling a starry cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi. (The fact that they were able to pull off the memorable scene where Frey wakes up bleeding on a plane with no memory of how he got there was a particular triumph for Sam: “We couldn’t afford the f-cking airplane,” she says. “We just needed six seats, a bit of roof, and a bit of floor!”) Sam and Aaron remember the film being well-received by the audience at the premiere in Toronto last year, while reviews were mixed. After that, they struggled to find distribution; Sam says interest waned after renewed media attention on the book’s troubled narrative.
The film, which will finally open on Dec. 6, places the viewer squarely in Frey’s perspective as he attempts to sober up. It’s an unusually raw depiction of the ugliness of addiction, anchored by Aaron’s visceral performance. As he struggles to accept the reality of how bad he’s messed up his life, the movie’s Frey isn’t particularly likable. Over a recent lunch in Los Angeles, Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson explained why that was never the point.
TIME: I came to set nearly two years ago when you were in production, and remember being struck by how emotionally invested everyone seemed, at every level, in making this movie.
Aaron: That’s why we were able to shoot it in 20 days. You had everyone’s full time and attention making the best they can out of the budget, and they did it all for the love of Sam and the project. We went out for actors that we had pictured on our walls for months.
Sam: This time last year, it was going to gather dust on a shelf, never to be seen. I really had to believe in a higher power, in the sense of giving it up to the universe. If the story is good, it’ll find its home.
TIME: You thought it would never even get released?
Sam: Yeah. It was the wildest thing. We went into Toronto on a high, with good press, and a great premiere, all that. The next day it was like free falling into a dark void. I opened the hotel door and saw our publicist standing there, ashen. Someone had written about the controversy, and the distributors were no longer interested. Everyone was moving away. I felt like a pariah.
Aaron: After we showed the movie, we had people dancing up and down to bid for it. When we played it, the audience laughed and cried. It felt like such great energy. A lot of people in the industry want there to be controversy around a thing—that’s how you sell it! And from the most controversial book of its time, we give you…So we didn’t expect it to go down the way it did. The whole thing is: Oh, that’s the guy who made it all up, right? No! He wrote it as a piece of art. And he said to us: I made it as art, you go make it as art. That was the beauty of it.
TIME: One of the things that makes addiction movies so challenging is that addicts are not particularly likable. How did you solve for that?
Aaron: The biggest myth in Hollywood is that your protagonist has to be likable. You only have to feel empathy, and want the character to succeed. The point was to make him human, and cynical, and reluctant to change—because trying to change is the hardest thing of all. But by the end of the movie, do you want him to drink that pint of whiskey? Did you root for him? Then we’ve done our job.
Sam: I mean, it’s difficult to make a movie, first off. It’s really difficult to make one about someone that people don’t like—an unlikable protagonist. But why make him likable to get the movie made? The story should be about someone going through the journey of recovery, the pain of it, the distrust of the experience. To fight back on something that gives hope and redemption. And to have something which says, at the end, it’s still possible. However much you think this isn’t going to work for you. That was the most important thing, and to be able to do that with some kind of creative freedom—even if the next stage of the movie’s life turned out to be hell.
TIME: Often stories about addiction fix a kind of neat causality onto their characters, suggesting that a character is a certain way because of some trauma—when mental health is much more complicated than that.
Sam: In one scene, James says, “You’re trying to find a reason [why I’m an addict]. There is no reason.” That was important.
Aaron: It’s a Hollywood formula. But you don’t have to have this heroic, lovable guy, with the cause of it being, Oh, well, he came from an abusive background. There are so many people struggling with addiction who feel the shame of having nothing to pinpoint it on. We wanted to tackle a story of addiction that’s real.
TIME: After this, you’re making studio romantic comedies for the rest of your career, right?
Sam: Yeah, from here on! No—the past year has definitely had me asking, how do I measure my success? The success of pulling off the airplane scene and having everyone applaud. There are movies that I did that were strategic successes but personally, the most miserable two years. This was going back to grassroots to remind yourself of why you love doing what you do.
Aaron: Being in our bubble getting to be creative felt of an era which is starting to go away. The platforms have changed. If you do your movie on a streaming platform, you’ll get a far better budget. You instantly get a global release.
Sam: But I’m really romantic about films still being in the cinema. I want to hang onto that for as long as possible. When we were writing it, there was a moment where we could have gotten a much bigger budget and done the book as a ten-part miniseries.
Aaron: What was it you said? That you wanted it to be a distilled shot of whiskey, not a pint of beer.
Sam: Wrong analogy!