Dakota Johnson Describes the Lack of Creative Control on the 'Fifty Shades' Sets

'Fifty Shades of Grey'Credit: Universal Pictures
What would it be like starring in a huge movie at 23 years old? 

Remember when the Fifty Shades books seemed to take the world by storm? One day, it felt like they were everywhere. People were reading them on planes and in parks, and the inevitable movie series was fast-tracked. There were a lot of questions about who would be ready to take on roles that thrust them into the spotlight and demanded physicality from the performers.

Enter Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. At just 23 years old, she was trusted with the role of a lifetime. Now, as she's grown into the movies and past them, she's looking back at the chaos and weirdness that summarized them in her mind.

Creative control on Fifty Shades

Johnson recently sat down with Vanity Fair to talk about her career. In it, she discusses a range of topics from her encounters with Hunter S. Thompson to the strangeness of internet culture.

The one I think was most pertinent for our readers was the way the Fifty Shades movies went down. 

As Johnson says, “I’m a sexual person, and when I’m interested in something, I want to know so much about it. That’s why I did those big naked movies.”

But in the end, she's not sure she had the right idea going in, because, “I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making.”

Just how different was it? 

Johnson said the problem lay within the lack of creative control. They were constantly battling the studio and author (EL James) for creative control. And it was never ceded.

Part of the problem with James is that she didn't want anything from the book to change. 

“She had a lot of creative control, all day, every day, and she just demanded that certain things happen," Johnson told Vanity Fair. "There were parts of the books that just wouldn’t work in a movie, like the inner monologue, which was at times incredibly cheesy. It wouldn’t work to say out loud. It was always a battle. Always. When I auditioned for that movie, I read a monologue from Persona, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be really special.’ ”

'Fifty Shades of Grey'Credit: Universal Pictures

But expectations changed immediately when her costar, Charlie Hunnam, left the project over those creative differences. He was replaced by Jamie Dornan, with whom Johnson grew very close, despite rumors they didn't like one another. She said he was like a brother, and that their bond helped carry them through any weirdness on set. 

The contract covered all three films, and Johnson was worried that if she bucked the system, there could be dire ramifications. 

“There were a lot of different disagreements. I haven’t been able to talk about this truthfully ever, because you want to promote a movie the right way, and I’m proud of what we made ultimately and everything turns out the way it’s supposed to, but it was tricky.”

Playwright Patrick Marber was brought in to punch up the script, but James was not a fan and wanted to go back to the original draft.

Johnson said, “We’d do the takes of the movie that Erika [EL James] wanted to make, and then we would do the takes of the movie that we wanted to make. The night before, I would rewrite scenes with the old dialogue so I could add a line here and there. It was like mayhem all the time.” 

'Fifty Shades Freed'Credit: Universal Pictures

Creating the right atmosphere on set

This mayhem extended over all three movies. The first film's director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, left because of the insanity. Johnson said that really put pressure on everyone else, and it changed the vibe. 

“We were doing the weirdest things for years, and we needed to be a team: ‘We’re not doing that,’ or ‘You can’t do that camera angle.’ Sam didn’t come back to direct after the first movie, and, as a female, she had brought a softer perspective. James Foley came on to direct, and he’s an interesting man. It was different doing those bizarre things with a man behind the camera. Just a different energy. There are things that I still cannot say because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s career and I don’t want to damage anybody’s reputation, but both Jamie and I were treated really well. Erika is a very nice woman, and she was always kind to me and I am grateful she wanted me to be in those movies.”

This is a really interesting lesson for our readers. The vibes on the set matter. Actors need to feel comfortable.

That might require making sure an intimacy coordinator is on set at all times to help out, or it might mean making sure the author of the IP is not given so much creative control that it derails the collaboration process. While a lot of these are things directors must handle, development executives need to be aware of them while entering into projects as well. 

Johnson's career certainly has skyrocketed since her involvement in that trilogy. It will be interesting to see how things shake out from here. While she started with a tiny role in The Social Network, now she's a bona fide leading lady with more choices in front of her. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here. 

Let us know your reaction in the comments.     

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