In signing on to make Nowhere Boy, the biopic of John Lennon’s early years in Liverpool, Sam Taylor-Wood didn’t know she was stepping into “the world of Lennon”—a world filled with diehard fans, a skeptical and tough audience who would accept nothing but complete authenticity. Since then, the film has received a warm welcome at festivals and across the U.K., and its U.S. release on October 8 coincides with the weekend Lennon would have celebrated his 70th birthday—if not for that ill-fated night in December 1980.
In Nowhere Boy, we meet the teenage John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), just as his beloved Uncle George (David Threlfall)—who raised John with his wife Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas)—suddenly dies. John’s mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff)—Mimi’s sister—fell off the radar when John was a small boy, but when she resurfaces after George’s death, the two sisters vie for John’s affection as he simultaneously develops his career as a musician. (Julia teaches John to the play the banjo, the first instrument he ever played, and Mimi buys him his first guitar.) The two women could not be more different, and we watch as young John struggles to balance their conflicting displays of maternal love and affection. At the same time, we meet John’s first band, The Quarrymen, and we see the seeds of The Beatles being sown. Lennon’s early life is not a secret story, but it’s a wonder it’s never before been told on the silver screen.
Though Nowhere Boy is her feature debut, Taylor-Wood is no stranger to fame herself. Since the late ‘90s, Taylor-Wood has been a celebrated photographer/video artist across the pond, and her 11-year marriage to art dealer Jay Jopling cemented her as a mainstay in the London art scene. Since her divorce, she has continued to make headlines: her relationship with Nowhere Boy star Aaron Johnson—23 years her junior—has wagged tongues on several continents; they recently had a daughter together, Wylda Rae, who was with them on their U.S. press tour.
But during the recent roundtable interview we attended, conversation gravitated more toward the issues at hand—namely, knowing what we know now about his life and legacy, how do you make a movie about John Lennon, the boy? Taylor-Wood talked candidly about the challenges, the reaction from Yoko Ono and the family (and Paul McCartney himself), and just how frosty a reception she—and the film—found waiting for them in Liverpool.
What made you want to tell this story?
Sam Taylor-Wood: A friend of mine who was a fellow director told me, “I’ve just read this script that’s yours, not mine.” Which I thought was incredibly generous. That was Joe Wright, who directed Atonement. He gave me the script, and said, “But you have a few challenges. 1: I stole it. And 2: It’s with another director, and they are going into preproduction.” I met with the producers, and said, “In case anything happens…” I had to really fight for it.
You got Yoko Ono’s blessing. Did she have any input into the script?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I thought out of courtesy, I ought to write to people who were close to Lennon. So I wrote to Yoko, to Paul, and to some other members of the family. I said, “If you want any input, now is the time, not when we’ve finished it.” Yoko came back pretty immediately, and said a lot about the relationship with John and Mimi, and that was really helpful. One of the most important things she said to me was, “Don’t forget that John loved Mimi, and Mimi loved John, and that’s all you need to know.” Because, really, in a way, she’d been demonized a lot in biographies, and [Yoko] said, “Don’t paint her as this dragon, because she wasn’t.” She taught John about Oscar Wilde and Van Gogh, and she was very cultured, so there was a lot more to her than I’d read about.
I got Paul’s call in a supermarket one day. I was literally among the cornflakes, and my phone rang. He said, “This is Paul.” “Paul?” “McCartney.” [Gestures] “Ah! Everyone be quiet! I’ve got Paul McCartney on the phone!” I was sort of huddling in amongst the cornflakes, trying to make sure I still had the reception, and I borrowed a pen from someone and was writing notes my arm. He was giving me all sorts of fantastic details: “When we first recorded ‘Hello Little Girl http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hello_Little_Girl’ it was on this sort of recorder and this kind of tape”… the kind of stuff I never would have been able to find out. That was amazing.
Has the family seen the film?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Yoko took Sean to see it, and I know that he really enjoyed it. She saw it a second time with him, but she wanted to watch it the by herself first time. Julian—I’m not sure if he’s seen it.
He has an art exhibition going on right now—
Sam Taylor-Wood: I know, we went down to see it the other day. It was a really funny evening—I dropped my shoe out of the car and a truck ran over it, so I had to walk around the show barefoot. [laughs]
Is there one thing you want the viewers to take away from the film?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I guess it’s a better understanding of what created the man that everyone loves the music of, and the art of, and who he became, and the political activist—where did that come from? I didn’t know the story of his childhood and background, and so I felt that it was worth telling, so people can appreciate that and then understand him a little better.
What were you most surprised to find out about John’s life?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I didn’t know any of it! I guess that was the most surprising thing. I thought I was a fan—but how come this story’s never really been told? He was also actually more middle-class than people thought, and that Paul was more the working-class guy.
I found it a surprise that he didn’t play guitar from a young age—that Mimi got him his first guitar when he was already a teenager.
Sam Taylor-Wood: And also, he learned the banjo first, such a different instrument.
In the film, there are some unsettling scenes between John and his mother, Julia. It’s subtle, but there is a sort of sexual tension there. Can you talk about the decisions you made in shooting their relationship?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, the Philip Norman biography had just come out, and it talked about this moment between John and his mother, and that John had said… well, he had thrown into the world that there was this moment of sexual tension. I felt like it was something we couldn’t ignore, with the timing of the book. So we just touched on it, and then ran away from it. [laughs]
How does it feel to suddenly be the poster child for Lennon?
Sam Taylor-Wood: It’s an auspicious time for the film to come out—they are releasing the film on what would have been his 70th birthday, that weekend. The thing is with Lennon—when you enter the world of Lennon, so many serendipitous things happened, that you almost feel spooked.
Sam Taylor-Wood: For instance, there was a moment where I thought I was in too deep. This is a big film about a big man with big people around, and if I mess this up, I was never going to make a film again. And I went into an uncharacteristic (for me) panic place, and I got into the car and thought, I am going to have call these producers and say, “I don’t know…” I got into the car, I put the key in the ignition, and Lennon’s voice came straight out of the radio, and it was Starting Over. And it was just one of those moments where I thought, Okay, I’m going to do it.
There was another day… where we had just got the location for a shoot the day before. It was totally 1950s—like 1950s in aspic. Aaron sat down in this chair to do a scene, and it wasn’t working, and so we moved the chair… and underneath the rug that was underneath his butt, basically, was this newspaper with Lennon, this big picture of him from 1968. And it was like, Whoa! There he is. It all went fine after that; we were all just calmer.
Growing up in the UK, the Beatles were so beloved. Did you run into rabid fans?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Yeah. My biggest shock—I arrived in Liverpool for location hunting, and [told people what I was doing, and they] were like, “You’d better make this good. This is our man. This our hero.” I was like, “Dear God, I cannot mess this up.” Everyone in Liverpool—the knowledge that they have of the Beatles—they might not want it to be, but it’s in their blood. It’s like the Queen for us—you may not like it, but it’s there.
Were any of the locations authentic?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Strawberry Fields is the real Strawberry Fields, and the gates were the original ones. And Blackpool—that’s the authentic pier.
Liverpool is pretty easy—they were raring and ready for us to make this film there… The difficult part really was shooting around the fact that so much had been rebuilt. There were scenes where we were literally going up to the edge of a 1970s building, and then having to stop there and trying to shoot without satellite dishes, and things you don’t even think about, like double-glazing [windows].
We tried to shoot on the street of The Cavern Club, but it was really difficult—next door to the Cavern Club is Vivienne Westwood, and down the street is Uniqlo, you know? So we had to recreate that street.
Did you recreate the cottage where Mimi and John lived?
Sam Taylor-Wood: We [had to] recreate Mendips because it’s a national trust protected house. Also for practical issues—it’s too small, we couldn’t have shot in there. The biggest difficulty [in not being anachronistic] was really doing that on such a small budget. If you had a big budget, you could build everything, or you can… convince people to change their 1970s windows on their 1950s house. But we didn’t have that kind of money, so I felt like we were in some sort of craft class at times. We had to do things with sticky-back plastic and toilet tubes. [laughs]
How has your background as an artist helped your shift into filmmaking?
Sam Taylor-Wood: I think it helped having an eye for detail, the framing, the composition. I think to be an artist, there’s a sort of personal antagonism with yourself, and soul-searching, and wanting to tell the world ideas—all of that really gave me the confidence to make the film more than anything.
What were the toughest days on set?
Sam Taylor-Wood: The music days, because I’d have a bunch of actors who thought they had to play as well as these great legends. But I had to keep reminding them that they weren’t the great legends then—they were just these guys starting out, and they were learning as well. They weren’t THE BEATLES at this point.
Can you talk about the casting?
Sam Taylor-Wood: It was tough mainly because the choice was between finding a lookalike, a musician, or an actor—there were musicians who could play brilliantly, and there were doppelgangers… Aaron came in, and he had the intensity needed to play the role: he was absolutely self-contained, and he was absolutely focused. I thought he was going to be able to carry this as well as inhabit the person.
There were so many Paul McCartney lookalikes—it was unreal—but we had to find somebody (Thomas Sangster) who could really embody who Paul was at that time.
Is there a particular screening you’ve had that stands out?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Oh, yeah, definitely; that would be the one in Liverpool. I stood up front and introduced the film, and I felt the coldest front of frosty daggers everywhere, coming at me… We went off to the side, and we were like, “This is really scary.” And we knew that Pete Shotten, Lennon’s best friend, was in the audience, and John’s uncle, and family and friends. It was like they were, “Okay, bring it on. Show us what you’ve got.” And then at the end, I had his uncle come up, and was incredibly emotional about the film, and Pete Shotton as well—it was an emotional time for them and us to have that feeling that, “Okay, we did good. We served them well.”
It was a feeling of, I am making someone’s real life story, and this is really a challenge. I didn’t want to upset anyone—I hate confrontation, and I hate making people upset. So for me I felt I really had to do justice to him and the family.
Did you ever foreshadow, growing up, that you would have such a connection to The Beatles?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, my mom was a big Beatles fan, but she was particularly a Lennon fan. I remember the moment when Lennon died; I remember her crying. But I also remember her crying when Elvis died—those were her two heroes. And so in that sense, he was already slightly under my skin.
Are you more likely to do another film about a real person?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Well, I said, “Never again.” But people’s lives are interesting. Apparently, there’s a new biography out about Tammy Wynette, which I’m desperate to read. Maybe that would be a good next one…
Watch the trailer: