Sam Taylor-Johnson on art, age gaps and Amy Winehouse: ‘Filming sucked me to a place I didn’t know how to get out of’ | Sam Taylor-Johnson

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s most famous image back when she was Sam Taylor-Wood, the talented Young British Artist, was a self-portrait standing in a black suit holding a rigid upwards-pointing hare. Hares appeared in her work elsewhere and it is a cornered hare, ready to dart any second, that comes to mind as I sit opposite her now. She’s 57, and has the clean beauty of someone who spends time in California, but uses London teenager slang, like “bare” to mean “very”. She is wearing a blue Sézane shirt that the eldest of her four daughters gave to her on Mother’s Day, embroidered with “Sam” – which was going to be “Mum” except her daughter feared she wouldn’t wear it – and eating seed crackers and a ­pistachio dip, which she insists I try.

She hopes I don’t mind that she’s sitting here in a London restaurant “with my zip and button undone. Because,” her voice rings with amusement, “why not wear jeans when you’ve got a tummy ache?” It’s been upset for days, a possible consequence of being “in a hole” for two years making Back to Black, her Amy Winehouse film. Anyway, she is glad to catch me fresh from a screening of it and is ready to hear what I think.

Self-portrait in Single-breasted Suit with Hare, chromogenic print, 2014, based on a work of 2001. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/Sam Taylor-Wood

This is her fourth film. All are beautiful to look at, but the story of Winehouse, the singer who died aged 27 of alcohol poisoning in 2011, might be the most devastating. Taylor-Johnson says she “seems to pick intense, deep subjects”, as if by accident. Like Winehouse, her life has always been everywhere in her work. Plus, for very different reasons, both artists have been picked over for their choice of partner. Winehouse was pursued by paparazzi through Camden’s cobblestone alleys because of her bad-boy, drug-hound husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Taylor-Johnson has been called a “groomer” online by deranged teens because she is married to heart-throb actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 23 years her junior.

She has a soft spot for Nowhere Boy (2009) about the young John Lennon because it was her first feature (and where she met Aaron), but “Back to Black probably is the best thing I’ve done”. You see, she learned from the “horrendous” experience of directing Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), on which there were incessant struggles with author EL James, “never to compromise my creative process again”. And what she drew from A Million Little Pieces (2019), the low-budget adaptation of James Frey’s crack memoir, was teamwork and never to forget the “nuts and bolts creativity of art school”. (She gleefully recounts mixing brown paint for consistency and rigging up a system with pin-pricked rubber tubing to create the effect of shit sliding down walls.)

On Back to Black, she set out to immerse herself fully in “Amy’s psyche: her world, her life, her trajectory, her music, her lyrics, her environment. I became instinctive in her space. That was really what I loved doing and what I feel I’m good at doing.” The more she walked in step with Winehouse, saw what Winehouse saw, the more she felt she was slipping into “madness”. It took its toll, “emotionally, mentally, physically, because it sucked me to a place that I didn’t understand how to get back out of at the end. I can’t really explain that without sounding, you know, quite out there.”

The result is at times impressionistic, at times poetic. Taylor-Johnson was told by Janis, Amy’s mother, about a canary Amy kept called Ava, a bird she loved so much that when it died she put it in a sunglasses case and insisted on taking it to a cemetery for a proper burial. “That really stuck with me. That bird is so reflective of her, her state, the fragility of it.”

Navy pinstripe suit,; gold long chain,; gold pendant, Other jewellery, Taylor-Johnson’s own. Photograph: Linda Brownlee/The Guardian

It’s the second Winehouse film; the first was the Oscar-winning documentary Amy (2015) by Asif Kapadia. Taylor-Johnson describes hers as the “love story” between Winehouse (played by Marisa Abela) and Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell). Poor old Reg Traviss, her boyfriend when she died, doesn’t get a look in. Winehouse had issues before meeting Fielder-Civil, not least bulimia. She liked a drink – “rickstacy” in the film, an evil-sounding concoction made with banana liqueur – and was partial to the odd spliff, but opened gigs shouting, “Class A drugs are for mugs”. By the middle of the film, she is both obsessed with Fielder-Civil and smoking a crack pipe. Because it’s Winehouse’s perspective, Taylor-Johnson turns the volume down on the entire universe shrieking Leave him! as she became visibly more addicted. “Amy loved him,” she says, “and we’re seeing him through her eyes. Whether we judge him for what’s right or wrong is a separate issue.”

Of course, sailing upwards from the wreckage of this turbulent, edge-of-sanity love, is the lyrical and musical genius that formed the tracks on Back to Black. Did Taylor-Johnson meet Fielder-Civil? “No. We had a few meetings set up, but the closer they got, he would cancel. Jack [O’Connell] met him and was like, ‘I understand who he is. He’s somebody I could’ve hung out with.’” Alison Owen, the film’s producer, found him charismatic, and understood why Winehouse fell in love with him. “And that’s so important. I couldn’t present Blake as someone twisted, tortured. He had to be somebody who we as an audience understood and loved.” And, anyway, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t believe in “stupid one-dimensional demon” characters.

Although she met the Winehouse family, “out of respect, because it would’ve felt really wrong if I hadn’t”, she paid less attention to Winehouse’s diehard fans. She knew they might disapprove, just like the Beatles fans who had made an “overwhelming” noise over Nowhere Boy. “So, it wasn’t my first rodeo of handling massive fanbase subject matters, but I had to push everything out [of mind]. I’m shooting, thinking, ‘Is this how she would want it to be seen?’ Right down to door handles and curtain fabric, an earring or sofa.”

Winehouse is rooted in her Jewish background. Her heritage was important to her, Taylor-Johnson says. She wore a Magen David necklace, “and I wanted to couple that with her family connection”. Winehouse’s grandmother Cynthia (Lesley Manville), for instance, is a huge influence. Winehouse’s father, Mitch, like Fielder-Civil, has been vilified after her death – accused of greed and a failure to get her proper treatment. (He called the Kapadia documentary “horrible”). Here, Eddie Marsan gives a sympathetic portrayal. Yes, Mitch is a bit controlling, but father and daughter are close and loving. “I actually met Mitch with Eddie on that table over there,” Taylor-Johnson says, pointing to a quiet corner behind me.

Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse and Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil in Back to Black. Photograph: Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

She thought at first Abela wouldn’t “inhabit the grit and the toughness” of Winehouse. “Because Marisa is sweet, gentle, charming, self-effacing; quiet. There were other girls who came in and had that raw energy.” But Abela said, “Give me a minute”, as Taylor-Johnson was setting up the camera. “And then she looked up and into the lens. I went, ‘Oh my god, it’s her.’ She just summoned the spirit.”

Taylor-Johnson still cries at key moments, despite having seen the film “a gazillion” times. Did she come to understand what lay behind Winehouse’s self-destruction? “Not really. Most addicts I know say, ‘I’m the only one who could have ever saved me.’ So it’s difficult to cast blame. I spent a lot of time with James Frey, for example. He was like, ‘I have no idea where it came from. I had a healthy upbringing. Great parents. Middle-class. Happy.’”

“Sorry,” she says, breaking off to double-kiss someone from Los Angeles. She seems to know everyone here, including all the waiting staff. The sofa she’s parked on faces the door, so there’s constant interruption. When she returns, she says she and Aaron, also British, have recently moved back to the UK. They made this sudden decision one evening two years ago, when summer was high and hot and England looked seductive. “We were like, ‘Let’s not go back.’” Meaning: let’s not go back to California. “It was June. It was heaven.”

So, the family uprooted. That is, Angelica, 26, and Jessie Phoenix, 17 – her daughters with ex-husband Jay Jopling, the art dealer – and Wylda Rae, 13, and Romy Hero, 12, her daughters with Aaron. They have settled in Somerset, in arcadian bliss, along with dogs, cats, cows, pigs, chickens and rabbits. “I’ll turn to Aaron and say, ‘Should we get another dog?’, and he’ll look at me for a minute and go, ‘Yuh.’ He always says yes to any mad thing I suggest. That’s why we’ve got 14 animals.”

She’s not sure if she regrets the move now, with a stomach ache on a rainy day in spring, she jokes. “Post-pandemic, it was that feeling of wanting to come home. I mean, LA is great if you’re always in the nature aspects of it – walking in canyons, down at the beach, surfing. But shopping malls are the most depressing places to find yourself on a Saturday afternoon. I much prefer Golborne Road [near Portobello market, in west London]. Or Bath or Bruton or Frome.”

Vest and leather shirt, both; leather trousers,; boots, Photograph: Linda Brownlee/The Guardian

The Taylor-Johnsons are an unconventional pairing, because it’s still unusual for a high-profile woman to be much older than her husband, as opposed to the other way around. Arguably, the director–lead star dynamic was in some senses a reversal of the dealer–artist dynamic of her marriage to Jopling. She met Aaron when he was cast aged 18 as the young John Lennon on Nowhere Boy in early 2009. Their chemistry was unmissable to those on set. She was 42 and recently separated from Jopling. Aaron was not “groomed”, as the online trolls suggest, but the one pursuing her, he has said. They were engaged by the time the film premiered in October 2009 and their first child was born the following year. They married in 2012.

Was she at all hesitant, I ask. She had experienced abandonment by her father, then when she was 15 her mother handed her a note and said: “Give this to your stepdad, I’m leaving you all.” Did that not make her cynical about relationships? “If I had been cynical for a second, it wouldn’t have worked. If I had questioned anything, it would never have worked. I’m quite instinctual. I’ve gone feet first into everything in my life. I’m always, ‘This seems amazing’, and I jump straight in and go through the experience, whether good or bad. It’s definitely a ‘Fuck it, let’s go with it’ approach. And I’m a great believer that the heart overrides everything. Love conquers all.”

In interviews, she has often stressed that the family is never apart. They used to move en masse, all six upping sticks to film sets; alternating jobs “one on, one off”, so that one parent could always be hands-on with the children. More recently, Aaron’s career has really taken off. This year alone he stars in Kraven the Hunter, a superhero blockbuster; Nosferatu, with Bill Skarsgård and Nicholas Hoult; and at the time of writing he was tipped as the next James Bond (a rumour he seemed to scotch, saying, “I don’t feel like I need to have a future drawn out for me. I feel like: whatever’s drawn out for me, I can fuckin’ do better”). For the first time in their married life, they were separated when he flew alone to shoot The Fall Guy in Australia for six weeks while she was on Back to Black. “We drafted in his parents to help with the kids and we all went, ‘Bye!’” She mimes waving Aaron off on the plane. “But that was tough and neither of us enjoyed it, so it’ll be back to one on, one off  now.”

The couple arriving at the screening of Nowhere Boy at the London Film Festival, 2009. Photograph: Joel Ryan/Joel Ryan/AP

I am curious: does the age gap ever show up? In terms of different interests or cultural reference points? “No, it never does. I mean, it’s coming up now because you’re asking. And it comes up on the outside perspective of people who don’t know us, because I guess people will always … ” She flicks her hand but can’t capture the word. “We’re a bit of an anomaly, but it’s that thing: after 14 years you just think, surely by now it doesn’t really matter?”

Both of them have distinct fanbases. She says she only really likes being recognised in the street if she’s with one of her children and can say: “See? I’m not just a mum. I am actually important in the world, so you can actually help me by putting your socks on.” Who are Aaron’s fans? She gives me a look. “The obvious,” she says, by which she means teenage girls. “And every so often a diehard, big-bearded Marvel fan.”

Interactions are “mostly” nice in person, but there are vicious people online. “They’re abusive about anything,” she says, nonchalant. Does she avoid going on social media? “No, I don’t. Because it’s just there, but it doesn’t mean anything. It is just people upset with their own sadness; with misgivings about their own life.” Do their children face prejudice? “Not really. Or, if so, I don’t think they care. They see two loving, happy parents, so it doesn’t really register. They just think people are a bit mean, or mad.” She says again that they have been married for 12 years and together for 14. She was with Jopling for nine. “So, if you think of it in that way, then the age gap doesn’t really make any difference.”

Sam Taylor-Johnson (then Wood) graduated from Goldsmiths in its “golden era”, a photographer and video artist. Michael Craig-Martin and Jon Thompson were among her lecturers. Students, including her then boyfriend Jake Chapman, were taught to be “artists in the real world, not just sitting in your studio”. The ethos, she says: “Do it, don’t wait.” Her early works such as Fuck Suck Spank Wank (1993) – in shades with her trousers down – capture the sulky, defiant spirit of the YBAs.

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She and Jopling got together before he was the king of the British art scene, when his now famous White Cube gallery was just a 14 x 14 sq ft space. “Tiny: it was like an office room. One of the first times I went there, he had a Tracey Emin show, just her little drawings on the wall.” She quips of the Emin-Jopling decades-long professional relationship, “Tracey used to say, ‘He’s a great dealer and a great deal more.’ They are still going strong, Tracey and Jay. She is the great love story in his life.” But Taylor-Johnson is still on good terms with her ex-husband: “We get on really well.”

In 1997, Taylor-Johnson won Most Promising Artist at the Venice Biennale. That same year, Angelica was born and she and Jopling married. But she returned again and again to the doctor fearing something wasn’t quite right. “I felt like I had no energy. I felt like shit. I was feeling all these pains and not eating really well. Maybe the passing blood thing should have been a red flag. But it was just like,” she mimics a doctor’s annoyed voice, “‘You’ve just had a baby. That’s what it is.’” That December, she was diagnosed with the first of two primary cancers she has had (“I think it’s called being unlucky”) and a foot and a half of her colon was removed on Christmas Eve. In 1998, she was nominated for the Turner prize, while undergoing treatment.

Two years later, in 2000, she had breast cancer. “You won’t believe it, but I got misdiagnosed the second time as well.” She had enrolled with a “fancy” doctor and went to see him with an underarm lump, thinking, ‘That’s not normal.’ Without an examination or tests, she was dispatched on grounds she didn’t need any more prodding or needles. “Let’s leave you alone,” he told her (“very English”), and so the cancer was left for a whole year. “So bad,” she says now. “I had to have a mastectomy and six months of chemo. I see him on the street and I want to punch him.” She watched the opening of Tate Modern from the chemotherapy ward.

All the pain and fear of death she felt was channelled into her art: Still Life (2001) is the speeded-up film of a decaying bowl of fruit; A Little Death (2002), a hare, arranged legs upwards, decomposing stomach first. Later she made Suspended (2003), a series of photographs in which, dressed in vest and knickers, she appears to float. She had hired a bondage expert to tie her up in different shapes and positions, and afterwards digitally removed the ropes to create a sense not of torturous constraint but freedom, of letting go. Although, she said afterwards: “I don’t think you ever really let go of cancer once you’ve been through it.”

Her later work features a lot of celebrities. There is David (2004), a 107-minute video of David Beckham asleep that was shown at the National Portrait Gallery, and a series of photographs of actors crying that included Laurence Fishburne (2002) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (2004). Was that the precursor to a move into film? “I always wanted to make films in the back of my mind,” she says, but it wasn’t until she met Anthony Minghella when they were both judges for the British Independent Film Awards that the opportunity presented itself. She said she was mouthing off, ‘That film is a piece of shit, blahlala. And then someone would say [puts hand up], ‘Actually, I produced that.’” This somehow tickled Minghella. “He said, ‘You’re very … ’, I think he meant opinionated, but he said ‘… knowledgable. Have you ever considered making films?’” They made Love You More (2008), a gem of a short film written by Patrick Marber that revolved around a Buzzcocks soundtrack. “It completely gave me the bug for film-making.”

Was her art abandoned? “It feels like two different sides of my personality: my art world life and my film world life,” she says. She’d like to return to it, “but because I exited the art world, it’s a really strange position to be in in terms of trying to come back in again”.

She shows me some new work: a series of exquisite photographs of her suspended from a crane in Joshua Tree, the US national park, surrounded by nature. They represent a moment in space and time, of reflection, feelings she had about living in America, the alien landscape – beautiful, but at the same time “brittle and quite brutal”. In hindsight, she realises stringing herself up 50ft in the air above ginormous rocks was pretty dangerous. “And painful. I did the first ones nearly 20 years ago. I’m still pretty physically strong and fit, but, I’ve got to admit, I noticed the changes. I was like, waaaahhh, as I went up. And hanging upside down. It really fucking hurt. For about three weeks I wasn’t able to walk properly.”

Demin shirt, Hair: Mike Mahoney. Makeup: Emma White Turle at the Wall Group. Stylist’s assistant: Rosalind O’Donoghue. Photograph: Linda Brownlee/The Guardian

In December, she put on a new exhibition of this work in a gallery in Rome. “And no one … ” she falters. I think both of us are surprised by what she is about to say: that few people came. “It really blew my mind.” Apart from the date – too near Christmas – she and the gallerist both wondered if people had failed to make a connection between Sam Taylor-Johnson and Sam Taylor-Wood. “They didn’t realise that we are one and the same.” The idea that this might be a problem “just hadn’t crossed my mind”. She and Aaron blended their surnames when they married, which Aaron described as the desire to be part of one another. It seems astonishing, nonetheless, that she would sacrifice the name recognition she had built up over years of hard work.

But then Taylor-Johnson emphatically does not believe in looking back. One critic described her as someone who lives “a chronologically compartmentalised life”. Perhaps this survival skill was forced on her by her bolting parents. When I ask about moving to East Sussex aged 11 with her mother and stepfather, she says she is processing it in real time as we speak. The entire period was bleak. The house, in the village of Crowborough, “had a very dark atmosphere” – ironic, given it was named Sunny Villa. “It was an old house, which makes it sound grand, but it was not.”

It had thin walls covered in brown hessian and was damp, and so riddled with rats that when she went to her attic bedroom at night, she could hear them scrabbling above her head. (She is now so phobic that walking down the street with the actor Naomi Watts in New York recently, two rats popped out of a drain close to her, and, “I was two or three blocks away before Naomi even noticed.”)

From this “terrible fucking squalor”, her mother and stepfather had run a “post-hippy, meditating, yogi-kind of, but not quite” commune with a constant carousel of strangers. Taylor-Johnson, her younger sister and half-brother were largely left to their own devices in a way that she describes as “unhinged and boundary-less”. I ask what she means by this. “I’m racking my brains as I process my childhood. Because they didn’t care, is the simple answer. At 14, I could go out and come home three days later. They’d be like, ‘Oh, hey.’ Which is quite difficult and confusing as a kid.”

About six months after her mother, Geraldine, left, Taylor-Johnson was walking to school and saw a kitchen blind go up in a house nearby. There in the window was her mother. She hadn’t seen or heard from her since she left. The blind went quickly down again. Geraldine had run off with another man.

Geraldine has since written a memoir claiming she left because a series of visions guided her to seek the holy grail. She subsequently moved to Australia with her third husband. Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, was struggling through O-levels, moving into a bedsit by 17. “You go through that phase of anger and hurt and pain. Then there comes a point where forgiveness is as healing for you as it is for the other person. It gets to a point where you don’t want to carry that pain and anger any more. And, then also feeling, ‘Actually I’d quite like a relationship with one or both of my parents.’” That is made difficult by the fact that Geraldine still lives in Queensland. “Yeah, she’s really full-on.” Her father is remarried and living in Barbados, “so I don’t really see him, either”.

Does she understand their behaviour? “They had me when they were 18, so I understand to a certain degree. But I’m a parent, so, at the same time, I think, ‘Wait, how could you have headed off like that?’”

A waitress interrupts to ask if the gluten-free option Taylor-Johnson has ordered is because of an allergy or a preference. Taylor-Johnson tells her not to worry, but afterwards mutters: “I could explain that gluten just fucks my stomach up.” She went to the doctor yesterday, but the doctor flapped her away saying, “It’ll go”, in the way that UK doctors do. “In LA, I’d be given five different things.” She laughs unhappily, and says that in a way she admires the stoicism of the British patient.

She regrets telling an interviewer a few years ago that she was an alcoholic, because she’s not. She just meant the YBAs used to drink a lot in the heady 90s. Actually, after being ill “your capacity to do anything harmful to yourself in any way just makes you panic”. She stopped drinking completely in the pandemic. Then in August, thought, “Oh, this is ridiculous. Of course, I can have a drink. Oh boy, battery acid on a fragile system.” It took until Christmas to recover, she says. “I’m not even joking.”

Her friends give her the eye-roll when she says this, but with a life so busy shuttling between Somerset and London, she has to be careful not to be capsized. “There’s no downtime.” She tries to decompress with an evening routine that involves taking a magnesium salt bath, listening to a podcast and drinking a mug of Yogi bedtime tea. And there’s Aaron. “He gives me that sort of stability, calmness. I’m definitely the kind of frenetic, mad energy that needs someone to anchor me. Keep me a bit more grounded. Which he certainly does. He really loves being quiet, in nature. He’s a real stay-at-home person.”

The fear of cancer comes and goes, she says. Mostly, it’s “deep in the rear-view mirror. But when I have to go for annual check-ups, it comes quickly into the forefront.” Sometimes, she will cancel appointments and not tell Aaron, who “gets very irate. I turn into a tantrum-y five-year-old, like, ‘I’m not going.’” She shakes her head furiously. “I could throw myself from a moving car on the way to any hospital appointments. Aaron has to double lock the car to make sure I can’t get out, then get me there, push me through the doors, hold me down. It’s quite a process.”

She says nothing bothers her – not stepping on set with hundreds of people, not the fans, not the trolls – because, “the most frightening thing I can do is walk through those hospital doors”. She’s laughing as she says this, but also packing her phone into her bag to leave. I imagine Aaron trying to reassure this wild creature in the car before she leaps away. I feel as if I am trapping her myself as I glance down at my last few questions and attempt a stalling tactic. But the instinct to escape is hardwired, like the restless need to keep moving forward.

Back to Black is in UK cinemas on 12 April.

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