Our Diverse 100: Meet Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director challenging assumptions about women behind the camera

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson. (Courtesy of Sam Taylor-Johnson)

British director Taylor-Johnson helped redefine expectations for female directors with the box office success of 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.” She also was nominated for two BAFTA awards in 2010 for her debut film “Nowhere Boy.” This Q&A is part of a special series examining diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Read more profiles here.

You came to movies from the art world. What do you consider your first film job?

When I shot my short film “Love You More,” which I made with Film 4 in England, I knew it was going to potentially have an audience and get me work. It was the first thing where I felt like I was stepping into a new industry.

Was there a person in the industry who made you think Hollywood was a field that was open to you?

[British director] Anthony Minghella was my mentor. We had met on a jury for the British Independent Film Awards. Because I wasn’t in the industry, I felt I could be really outspoken. He called me and said, “I’ve seen a lot of your work and I think you’re a filmmaker.” It was like a golden ticket. That was somebody taking a leap of faith and pushing me forward in a new industry.

How have you felt being a woman has impacted your career?

The hardest time was when I wanted to go back to work after having my four children. When I said, “Yeah, I’m ready everyone,” it was silence out there. It was tumbleweeds blowing through my career. In meetings, there was a sense of, “How’s she going to manage four kids and pull off our movie?” which no one ever wonders about the fathers. I was thinking, “Are you kidding? I manage the Family von Trappe?”

On “50 Shades,” I think they wanted to have a woman director. It was a very welcoming environment for me to step into.

What was your reaction to the conversation that emerged around #OscarsSoWhite?

I thought it was well overdue. It feels kind of crazy that it was such an issue in our current day. It needed to be brought to the forefront.

What’s your favorite Oscar moment?

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been mildly obsessed by them. In England you have to get up at 3 a.m. to watch them, so I was particularly dedicated. I loved Joe Pesci’s short speech, and the Marlon Brando one where he had Sacheen Littlefeather go up. It’s so impassioned and moving, and it feels like that same Oscar speech could be given today.

What’s your favorite movie?

Can anyone name just one movie? Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” “The Godfather II,” “A Woman Under the Influence.” I watched “The Piano” thinking, Wow, it communicates so much about the emotion of the character — the power of the acting within it, and the idea of working with people who can do such a thing made me want to be a filmmaker. Also “Bridges of Madison County.” I love stepping into the dark, sitting down and being told a story.

READ MORE: Here are 100 people in Hollywood who could help fix the Academy’s diversity problem

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