Early on in her career, British visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood and her then-partner recreated the famous portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, originally taken by Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone just hours before the Beatle was shot dead. “What was I thinking?” Taylor-Wood laughs. Now, of course, that art project has a whole other meaning for the director, who makes her feature film debut with this week’s Nowhere Boy, a depiction of the teenage life of the young John Lennon. Set in 1950s Liverpool, the movie presents a displaced Lennon (Aaron Johnson) torn between two key women — long-time guardian Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and free-spirited birth mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) — and how that turmoil fed into the creation of the rock ‘n’ roller he would become.
We caught up with Taylor-Wood and asked her about some of the pressures surrounding the project, casting her leading man, and what Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney thought of her handiwork.
RT: At what point did you decide to take on this film?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, I’d been looking for material. I’d been reading so much crap, basically, and this one was given to me by a fellow director, Joe Wright, who directed Atonement, and he said to me: “I’m looking for my film and I’ve read this but it’s definitely your film, not mine.” That was such a blessing from him. I read it and just thought it’s the most powerful script I’d read, and felt completely and utterly compelled to make it. And then I had to fight for it because there was another director on it. So there was a little bit of drama before I got there.
Why did Joe think it was your film?
I don’t know, I think it was mainly because he knew a little bit of my background. I’d made a short film about two teenagers losing their virginity to Buzzcocks records, so I guess this was a coming-of-age story centered around music. So there might have been a similarity there.
The script was written by Matt Greenhalgh, who also wrote [Joy Division film] Control, and there’s a similarity between those two in that they’re both about the influence that two different women had on a musical icon. Was that something that also appealed to you?
Oh definitely. I had seen Control. It was definitely something that interested me because it was a great thing to think, “Behind every great man,” you know. [laughs] This was two very interesting women. I think the contrast between the two women was also very interesting to me — one being very stoic, post-War, and the other a seemingly free-spirited, pre-’60s kind of woman, very vivacious and larger than life; especially with Lennon looking for his mother and then finding this completely exotic woman who was different to the one that had brought him up. All of that was really fascinating to me.
The film is very much about the influence of the “two mothers,” so to speak. Was there ever a point where you were thinking of pushing it more toward the music?
I was trying to strike a balance between the emotional content and the coming-of-age story with the birth of a musician and rock ‘n’ roll and Lennon as we know him, and trying to give the music fair play and also the influence of rock ‘n’ roll on his life. So all of that was kind of in the melting pot together to try and create this.
This is the rather obvious question, but was it a daunting subject, John Lennon?
Yeah, it was. Well — you know what — it wasn’t daunting when I read it. I just thought, “Wow, this is such an incredible script; this is the film I wanna make.” And then because I had to fight for it I kind of lost sight of the fact that it was about Lennon; I was more just trying to get my hands on this project, and when I did I was caught up in the whirlwind of excitement that I had the film. It wasn’t until I went to Liverpool and put my feet on the earth that I suddenly felt the weight of the icon on my shoulders, you know: going to The Beatles museum, and every second thing is Beatlemania, and every person I met had their opinions here and there. So that was when I started to really feel the weight. And then second to that was when I then wrote to Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney for whatever memories they wanted to share, or their blessing, or whatever; that was when it started to dawn on me.
Speaking of the weight of expectations. So, Yoko approved the use of songs for the film — what was her initial take on it?
I don’t think she read the script; she might have, but she told me to remember one important thing: Aunt Mimi had been very demonized in a lot of biographies, and she said, “You have to be fair to Aunt Mimi because she really loved John; and John really loved her.” And that was all she needed to say, really, for me to have a better understanding. Here was a woman who, yes, was formidable and stern, but who was also the woman that nurtured and loved and cared for him. The other detail that Yoko gave me was that Aunt Mimi had taught John about poetry and painting, about Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde and all those things, so it sort of gave me a much more rounded picture of her than I’d had before.
Along with Yoko’s approval to use songs, you had obtain permission from Paul McCartney. What were his thoughts?
Well, he was reluctant at first, because I felt that he was nervous as to how he was going to be portrayed in the film, or about another film on The Beatles — which it wasn’t. At first he was very forthcoming with details, and said, “Lennon was like this… ” and offered some funny stories, and then he gave me details of equipment, and really valuable things. And then both he and Yoko I felt got nervous and sort of stepped away and let me get on with it. Then at the end, he saw it, and we’d shot three scenes without music rights — rather frighteningly, the whole film had to be done and dusted without music rights for them to approve. It was a nerve-wracking experience, because we either did or didn’t have a film depending on what McCartney and Yoko would say. Thankfully he liked it enough to give us the rights, so that was enough of a validation.
Aaron said that Paul couldn’t remember being punched in the face by John, as happens in the film. Was that a little embellishment?
Yeah, it was. In the scene following that scene, it was important for us that we have a scene in which Lennon and McCartney come together in a sort of recognition that they’d both lost their mothers. And to get to that moment, without it being sappy and wet, Matt had written this whole angry, violent outburst by Lennon; so it came from that. It kind of needed a crescendo to reach that moment. Someone hits someone, and of course, our film is about Lennon, so… [laughs]
The way the shot pulls out on them embracing is great.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite shots that one, because it’s such a moment of two men just having that moment of loss and acknowledging that.
You’ve said that you knew Aaron was Lennon when he walked in the door. What was it about him, especially as he was in the middle of filming Kick-Ass at the time?
He’s a perfectionist, as I’ve since come to know. When we were auditioning I knew he was shooting Kick-Ass so I didn’t have high expectations, because I thought he’d be in the world of, you know, Superbad and that kind of genre, and be that kind of geeky kid. So when I opened the door to him and he was already talking and being Lennon-like, I was already impressed. I thought for him to pull that off in such a short space of time was kind of incredible. He just had an intensity and a slight sort of madness to him, because he was sitting there talking to himself, as Lennon, and having conversations with himself. He didn’t want to speak to me as Aaron, so I just had to listen to him be Lennon. It showed me that he had the intensity to take on the role — and also the courage to take on the icon.
The film opens with the chord from “A Hard Day’s Night” — was that a sort of wink that, “This is a music film, but it’s not really about the music?”
Well, yeah — there was a slight “Eureka!” moment when I was editing. I knew that opening scene needed something else and I thought, “People are coming to this film, or a lot of people, because they’re Lennon or Beatles fans,” and it was almost like an acknowledgment of who this film was about and who he goes on to become. So in a way, that whole opening scene, I wanted it to be like a vision of the future, if you like — so he’s sort of running, with the girls screaming and the noise in his head. Slightly dream-like. I just wanted to get the heartbeat thumping of all the fans. [laughs]
Nowhere Boy is out now.