In 2008, Sam Taylor-Wood directed her first short film Love and More, which was produced by Anthony Minghella, and was screened in Main Competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for a BAFTA in 2009.
Nowhere Boy is her feature film directorial debut. It chronicles the crucial formative teenage years of John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), depicting the events and personal circumstances that led to the formation of the Beatles.
Set in Liverpool, circa 1955, the smart and troubled fifteen-year-old has two strong women vying for his love and attention – his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who gave John away when he was a child, and his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who stepped in to raise him.
As John follows his musical talent in an attempt to escape from his mundane life, he forms a band with teenager, Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sam Taylor-Wood spoke with us about the challenges of making her first full-length motion picture.
What was the most challenging thing for you in bringing the iconic figure of John Lennon to the screen?
I guess all of it really was a challenge. I approached it as a coming-of-age story and really the transition of boy-to-man, and all the pain and turmoil that he went through.
I tried to keep the iconic figure of John Lennon out of my mind as much as possible but, at the same time, incorporating as many details as possible. But I couldn’t feel that I was weighed down by that too much otherwise it would have inhibited me.
Can you talk about the process of casting the roles of John and Paul?
I looked for musicians who couldn’t necessarily act, to see whether they would work. And then I looked at people who were unbelievable look-alikes. There was a Paul McCartney one that came in and I nearly fell over. And then it was just trying to navigate a path through that and find someone for each of those characters that could basically inhabit everything.
Both Aaron and Thomas, who play John and Paul, had to learn the guitar, had to sing, and had to get the accent and the voice right.
What was the challenge of filming in Liverpool now, when it has changed so dramatically?
It was tough. I was adamant that we were going to film in Liverpool, and I felt it needed to be as strong a character as anyone else, because it’s so famed for the birthplace of their music. Trying to navigate and film around it was hard. Luckily there were a couple of preservation areas where we could film on.
Were you a Beatles fan?
Not really, and I say that because that wasn’t the interest. I feel like being British it’s in your DNA. It’s like the Queen, it’s just there. I grew up with the Beatles, with my parents being fans, but it was a different generation of music. For me, Lennon was important because the first time I saw my mom cry was Elvis’ death and the second time was Lennon’s death. So it was that significance of seeing your mom cry. She was a big Lennon fan.
Was it important to you to get the approval of John’s widow, Yoko Ono, and Paul?
I think it was but partly because I hate confrontation and I like to feel like I can somehow keep everyone happy. But there were moments where I felt like that wasn’t going to happen. So I wrote to as many people as I knew that would be affected by this film being made. I said, ‘If you want any input or say in it then please do.’ And I did this at the beginning of the process, not at the end.
Both Yoko and Paul came back with various insights and details that were really useful to me. And then they stepped away, because I think they were nervous of what I might do. When we finished filming I needed them to approve the music..
I read you got calls from Paul while you were in the supermarket.
Yeah, I did. If you can imagine, it was surreal, I was like, ‘Be quiet, I’ve got Paul McCartney on the phone!’ It was him giving me details over the phone, and me trying to grab pens from the checkout people, and writing on boxes of Corn Flakes.
What kind of details did he give you?
He gave me a couple of things. He gave me the make of reel-to-reel recorder that they recorded some of the songs on, and the tapes that they used. Details like that. But he also told me about John’s mannerisms and details of how he was so short sighted, and the thing with Aunt Mimi telling him constantly about putting on his glasses.
He also said Mimi was formidable and strong yet, at the same time, she was this very dear, caring woman. That was important to hear from both Yoko and Paul, because in a lot of biographies she’s quite demonized, and I didn’t want to paint this one-dimensional fearsome woman.
What kind of feedback did you get from Yoko Ono?
We had to shoot three songs without the music rights. We didn’t have the rights to Hello Little Girl, In Spite of all the Danger and Mother. I just shot the film nevertheless, hoping, and if we didn’t get those rights we would have been screwed.
But from Yoko’s perspective she wouldn’t give any feedback until she saw the whole film. That was a nerve-wracking experience. We sent her the film, she watched it by herself in New York, and then she called after, very emotional and very complimentary and said, ‘I’ll give you the rights to Mother, which I’ve never given before.’ She felt this was the strongest portrayal of John that she’d seen.