Nowhere Boy Director Sam Taylor-Wood on Lennon, Passion, and Aaron Johnson

In America, we'll get our chance to know Sam Taylor-Wood soon, and she's hoping you'll keep an open mind. In her native Britain, the 42-year-old is different things to different people: a famous visual artist (with headline-grabbing portraits of stars like Robert Downey Jr. and David Beckham), a cancer survivor, a feature film director making her debut with the young John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, and a tabloid fixture for dating the movie's 19-year-old-star Aaron Johnson (soon to be seen as the lead in Kick Ass) and becoming pregnant with his child.

Movieline sat down with Taylor-Wood last week in advance of her film's Sundance premiere (Nowhere Boy's U.S. release is thus far undated by the Weinstein Co.) to discuss the scrutiny of Beatles fans, the tyranny of physical resemblance when making a biopic, and the circuitous, fortuitous theft that got her the project in the first place.

Your first Sundance was four years ago. What was your impression of it then?

Much the same as it is now. [laughs] It's kind's odd. It feels so alien, this desert with snow, where the street feels like it's a set that's been made to entertain you. It's a bit strange.

When you were looking to make your feature film debut, did you think you would end up directing this kind of movie?

Not at all. It was a complete surprise. After [Taylor-Wood's short film Love You More] had done fairly well at festivals, I had been sent scripts and was going on general meetings with producers and studios. Everyone kept saying, "Well, what sort of material do you like? What kind of film are you looking for?" The only answer I could come up with is, "A good one." [Laughs] But I definitely wasn't looking for a film that was factual and about the real life of a person, let alone someone of such a high stature [as Lennon] -- it was just the power of the story. I had read so many scripts that hadn't even begun to touch me, and this one just completely rocked my world.

It has so many parallels to your own childhood -- like Lennon, you grew up not knowing that your real mother lived nearby in town. When you were sent the script, was the sender aware of that?

See, I wasn't sent the script. It was really cloak and dagger! A director friend of mine named Joe Wright, who directed Atonement, he was reading a lot of scripts. He went into his agent's office and there were three scripts and his agent said, "You can have a look at two of them, but there's one you're not allowed to touch because it's just come in." Then she went out of the office and he stole it. [Laughs] He read it and called me immediately -- to his credit -- and said, "This is one of the best scripts I've read, but I know it's yours, not mine. Read it, but you've got a few hurdles in your way because there's a director attached and they're going into pre-production now."

Those are definitely hurdles!

He said, "But I just know you'll get it." The other director left to do a bigger-budget project, thankfully; then the producers didn't want me to do it because they knew they had a great script and they didn't want a first-time director. I stalked them and they got so fed up with me! I kept saying, "You need passion to direct this script, and I'm so passionate about it. You have to give it to me."

A lot of your most notable previous work dealt with some of the most famous celebrities on earth. What is it like to direct them, as opposed to directing a cast of mostly newcomers in Nowhere Boy?

When I was making those photographs and working with some of the people you're referring to, it was directing as much as it was anything else, for sure, but working with these newcomers was really fun to do. Everyone was so open to new things and new ideas, and there was so much excitement. One of the actors asked me, "Is this going to be on TV?" I said, "Well, we're aiming a little bit higher." [Laughs]

There are some real-life events moved around in the timeline. Was it liberating to do that, or did you worry about how Beatles fans would react?

Really, it came down to Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the script. He had so much information to try to pack into the film, and you have to be aware of what makes drama and what details to include. I sort of trusted his timeline on things and hoped it was as accurate as possible.

But you're the one who'll have to face the music, right?

Of course. [Laughs] Yeah, I know. I think I was quite naive when I stepped into this film, because when I read it, I really focused on the relationships between Lennon and his mother and his aunt. I felt like I was so embedded in their relationships that, in a sense, I forgot that it was John Lennon and the Beatles and all that until I went to Liverpool. Then I realized what I was dealing with.

The thing is that the drama of his teen years is basically interesting enough to stand on its own. Even if it weren't Lennon, it's a very dramatic story.

Well, exactly. It sort of feels like an added bonus to the story that you can say "...and this is John Lennon's life." It was frightening when I went to Liverpool. That's when I realized, "Oh, there are going to be a lot of people focused on the details. There's a lot of people out there who are complete Beatles nerds and they're really going to pull me up on a few things, so we have to be as tough and accurate as possible. I think we were pretty much there, although there were a few things.

Do you try to put on blinders to block out those other reactions?

I have to. I have to. Otherwise, it would completely stop me in my tracks from making it, and I couldn't do that.

How worried were you about physical resemblances?

I was at first. When we sat down with the casting director, a Paul McCartney would walk through the door and I'd just go, "Perfect!" And then he'd start acting and I'd think, "Shit." [Laughs] I really had to make that decision, because there were people who really looked like him, and I had to go with people who I thought really embodied the soul of that person. I just couldn't find someone [identical] who could act, sing, learn the guitar back-to-front, and pull off that role, so in all cases, I went with solid actors. It was a weight on their shoulders, as well, to be playing those icons, and both Aaron and Thomas [Sangster, who plays Paul McCartney] had to learn the accent, how to sing, how to play, and have the balls to carry that. It takes a particular kind of person to do that.

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