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Dakota Johnson takes control of the ‘unsexy’ side of making movies: Producing

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Actress Dakota Johnson photographed under a tree
Actress Dakota Johnson has created the production company Teatime Pictures with Ro Donnelly, and has two films at Sundance.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Dakota Johnson is, by her own account, six minutes late. Logging on to a recent video call, she explained that she had gone looking online for a weighted blanket for anxiety and had no idea there were so many different kinds.

“I just need this one thing, and then you’re inundated with options,” she said, “and then that’s like the story of my life. I just end up putting things in a basket and then never buying them.”

Johnson has good reason to be stressed out, though you wouldn’t know it from her placid, playful demeanor, soothing, honeyed voice and varied, low-key enthusiasms. Having launched to stardom as an actor with the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and currently garnering acclaim in the awards-season contender “The Lost Daughter,” Johnson also stars in two films at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday in a virtual format for the second consecutive year. The projects also happen to mark the first finished films produced through her company, TeaTime Pictures.

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Writer-director Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” premiering Sunday in the festival’s U.S. dramatic competition, features Johnson as Domino, mother to an autistic teenager (Vanessa Burghardt) and engaged to be married. After she meets 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff), who recently started working as a bar mitzvah party starter, things take a turn.

Then “Am I OK?,” directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne from a screenplay by Lauren Pomerantz, will premiere the following day, with Johnson starring as Lucy, who finds her longtime friendship with Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) thrown into disarray by Jane’s impending move out of the country for work, as well as Lucy’s realization that she is a lesbian.

A man and a woman linger in a doorway, looking at one another.
Cooper Raiff, left, and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Written and directed by Raiff, the film is premiering in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

For Johnson, 32, bringing the two films to Sundance is a statement of purpose for TeaTime and her grander ambitions for the company.

“As an actress, especially when the film comes out, I’m always finding myself bumping up against something,” she said. “I’m finding either it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not what I signed on to. That is not the film I wanted to make or that we talked about making.’ Cause for so long, my career has been, I prep and I show up and I do my work, and then that’s it. And I’ll come in for ADR and then I’ll promote the s— out of your movie and I’ll traipse myself around red carpets. And you don’t have any say in how it turns out, and your integrity as an artist is kind of stunted.”

With “Am I OK?,” for the first time she found herself grappling with much more, all the things previously kept from her in the process of making a movie. Which in this case included two COVID shutdowns of 10 days each on a movie intended to have a production that lasted only 20 days.

“Of course there’s things that are stressful in terms of like, ‘OK, how do we do this? How do we get around this problem and save money?’ All the things that are so unsexy about making movies, but then I feel better about it,” said Johnson. “I feel like every single decision that is made can be made with artistic integrity, it can be creative. It can be, ‘OK, how do we make this work but still push the boundaries a little bit, still reach the hearts that need to be reached?’

“It’s not about control. It’s about contribution. It’s about collaboration,” she said. “It’s about really reaching for an idea and sticking to it and maintaining the integrity of whatever story is trying to be told.”

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It’s not about control. It’s about contribution. It’s about collaboration.

— Dakota Johnson on her move into producing with TeaTime Pictures

While the rest of the world has been cycling through varying stages of shutdown over the past two years, Johnson has been particularly busy. She launched TeaTime Pictures with partner Ro Donnelly in 2019, and they had already set up a few projects when the pandemic brought the industry to a halt in early 2020. As things got back into gear eventually, she made four movies in fairly quick order, shooting “The Lost Daughter” in Greece, “Am I OK?” in Los Angeles, “Persuasion” in England and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” in Pittsburgh.

“Maybe that’s why I need the blanket, because it’s been really hardcore,” Johnson said. “Somehow I just didn’t stop during COVID.”

“Am I OK?” was originally supposed to shoot in 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. Notaro first met Johnson after Johnson’s boyfriend, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, emailed out of the blue to ask if Notaro could perform stand-up at Johnson’s 30th birthday party. The two hit it off and stayed in touch, with Notaro reaching out as she and Allynne, who are married, were looking to cast their debut feature as co-directors.

“She’s not somebody that comes onto a project without an opinion or a note,” said Notaro. “She knows what she’s doing, and she knows what she wants to do. There’s no confusion there. There’s so many people that take on producer roles that are silently sitting by, and that’s just not the case with her.”

Two women lying in bed facing one another.
Dakota Johnson, left, and Sonoya Mizuno in ‘Am I OK?,” directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, an official selection at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
(Emily Knecht / Sundance Institute )

Raiff first met Johnson over Zoom while she was shooting “The Lost Daughter.” Raiff, the 24-year-old filmmaker and actor who won the grand jury prize at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival with his debut feature, “S—house,” pitched Donnelly and Johnson the idea that would become “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Then he began developing the script with the TeaTime team, tailoring the role of Domino to Johnson.

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“I think Domino really kind of combines all of her talent really nicely and her sensibility,” said Raiff. “She can flirt with a wall but is also very deep and brings so much unsaid but that comes through so well because of her just insane presence onscreen ... all of the things that are so amazing about Dakota as a performer and also just as a creative person.”

Before launching their company together, Donnelly, who previously worked at Netflix, had met Johnson through a mutual friend and came to realize their taste and vision aligned.

“We were friends, so we both were scoping each other out,” said Donnelly. “I really wanted to work with some female talent, and she wanted to do something bigger than just some vanity deal..”

Late last year, Johnson and Donnelly sold a minority equity stake in their company to Boat Rocker, the Canadian studio where they have a first-look deal, and executive Katie O’Connell Marsh joined TeaTime Pictures as a partner. Her role is to help it expand into something more than a production company, with plans toward building a creative community that can be used to launch curated products.

Of Johnson, O’Connell Marsh said, “I’m most inspired by her endless ambition. She thinks of things in terms of how to look at what’s just ahead, what’s going to be relevant. What’s going to be both cool but also incredibly accessible.”

“She has great taste, and she can speak as an artist when she’s talking to other artists, to a writer or a director or to other actors,” said Erik Feig, whose company Picturestart was involved in producing and financing both “Am I OK?” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” “But because she’s been in this business for so long and she knows it so well, I think she also really understands truly the business of the business. That is kind of a unique combination to see.”

Johnson is at an intriguing crossroads as a performer, in an unusual position where she can play relatively carefree characters trying to figure out their lives in the manner of a rom-com heroine, as in “Am I OK?” or 2020’s “The High Note,” while she can also play darker parts reflecting people with more responsibilities grappling with where they have found themselves, as in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” or “The Lost Daughter.” It’s rare to see someone who’s able to successfully navigate both sides of that maturity divide.

Which brings up the question of where Johnson considers herself in her own life and whether any of her recent roles reflect how she feels about herself.

Actress Dakota Johnson, left and Ro Donnelly, partners in the production company, Teatime Pictures
Actress Dakota Johnson and Ro Donnelly are partners in the production company, Teatime Pictures.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“No, not at all,” she said. “I don’t feel like any of those roles reflect where I am. Maybe moments in films, retrospectively I may have been there either emotionally or relationship-wise or something, but I don’t feel like there’s a movie that I could go, ‘Oh, that’s me in my life.’

“I don’t know if I would want to do that,” she said. “I think I might want to just live my life.”

Before her breakout role in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, Johnson grew up around the business of Hollywood, thanks to her parents, actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. And she brings that background, as well as a series of eclectic career choices, into this new step of producing.

“Growing up on-set and experiencing so many conversations around this job and this industry and the people in it and then having my own career for the last 14 years, I think I just want to make a difference,” Johnson said. “I want to make it better. I want to have a better experience. I want to give more opportunities to amazing people to make things. I want to make more. I have such big dreams, it’s out of control. And I have so many ideas, and I just need to get them out. Even if they’re horrible and Ro’s like, ‘No, not that one.’”

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“Dakota is such a creative person, I like to say she’s like the wind. She’s just always moving and dreaming, and she’s pretty ethereal,” said Donnelly. “I definitely am the more realist of the two of us, but I love her big dreams. We definitely balance each other out.”

Ro Donnelly
Ro Donnelly, producing partner of actress Dakota Johnson.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

After the Sundance premieres of “Am I OK?” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” both of which come into the festival looking for a sale to a distributor, Johnson plans to continue expanding TeaTime Pictures. Though they have some 25 projects in varying stages of development, the most immediate next project is likely “Daddio,” written and directed by Christy Hall and set to star Johnson and Sean Penn. There is also a series adaptation of Bexy Cameron’s memoir, “Cult Following,” to be adapted and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones for Johnson and her longtime best friend, Riley Keough.

If there was a time when it was a struggle for Johnson to put the notoriety of the “50 Shades” movies fully behind her, she now looks to enter the next phase of her career fully under her own control.

“People always have opinions about everything and especially other people, especially famous people, especially famous naked people, so sometimes it’s just like mosquito noise to me,” Johnson said. “I think that I just want to do what is true to my heart, and I have done. And though things don’t always turn out what they were supposed to be when I’m there as just an actor, the choices I’ve made have always been from my heart and not for any other reason.”

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