Adapting a famous book isn’t an easy feat. Luckily, Sam Taylor Johnson found comfort in doing just that with A Million Little Pieces, alongside husband Aaron Taylor Johnson. While he ended up starring as the lead character, struggling addict James Frey, under Sam’s direction, the entire project was “more of a collaboration” than anything else.
“We wrote it together. We spent 18 months really pulling the book apart and then creating the story from that. So, it’s a collaborative spirit, the whole movie, especially with the two of us and knowing how we both work and how we both think,” the director, 53, shared exclusively with Us Weekly. That said, she was well aware Aaron, 29, was going to put in 100 percent when it came to the character — and what that meant for them as a real-life couple.
“Aaron goes very deep into character. Because I’ve lived with it, I understand that and I’m prepared for it,” the England native said. “I lived with Ray from Nocturnal Animals, which was interesting. So then when I said to him, ‘I feel like you should play James Frey,’ there was a part of me just thinking, ‘OK, here we go.’ He goes extremely into character and loses himself and becomes, to a degree, who he’s playing. So often, throughout the movie, I was watching him on set and just being blown away endlessly by the performance that he gives.”
A Million Little Pieces tells the story of Frey’s up and down battle with addiction as he tries to check himself into rehab. In order to tell the story, Aaron and Sam tapped into Frey’s mind — but were also given permission to do what they wanted from the author.
“It was pretty amazing just to have that creative freedom and for him to have just given his blessing in that way,” the Nowhere Boy director said. “He came to set one day for a couple of hours — and then we didn’t see him again. He didn’t have a clue. He had not read the script. He had no idea where we were taking this.”
While the movie does follow the book “to a degree,” due to time and budget constraints, a lot does get left out, Sam admitted. “We had to really distill it. For me, the truth of it is the story of James’ recovery and rehab treatment center. We’re really very, very close to him. A lot of the book is there with the spirit, but not necessarily all of the characters.”
The tale may be dark but the couple didn’t want the tone of the film to be filled with pain. “There’s as much humor as there is to the darkness, so it’s not just a bleak tale of recovery,” she said. “We had a very small budget and we shot it in 20 days, so we had a real strong camaraderie and tight community. Something that one of my friends who has been through the recovery process and has been in treatments said you laugh as much as you cry and you get into this almost intense humor to match the despair sometimes because that’s a relief.”
Additionally, after spending time with Frey, she pulled out as much of his humor and lightness as possible to bring to the forefront. “When you go to those bleak places — as soon as you sort of hit the depths of despair — I wanted to bring us right up into the light as fast as possible so that ultimately the movie has hope,” she said. “That’s the biggest message I feel I wanted to get across with this.”
Sam also shed light on the controversy surrounding the book. “Here’s the thing. It’s not a documentary. At this point, it’s fiction,” the director explained. “It really feels like it’s taking you through the journey of recovery through his eyes, loosely based on the story in which he told in that book, which he mapped out so beautifully in his storytelling.”
In order to fully bring that storytelling to life — which includes a great amount of inner monologue — she got creative with the music. During one scene, James is entering rehab, walking through a fluorescent-lit corridor and suddenly begins dancing. She and Aaron then discussed how to pull that mood and make it alive on screen.
“We put on ‘Singing in the Rain’ and Aaron danced to ‘Singing in the Rain.’ Then, obviously, we took that out,” she said. “Atticus Ross did the score. Suddenly, it’s a very different feeling and you’re just with him as he kind of skids in through the doors of the treatment center.”
A Million Little Pieces debuts in theaters Friday, December 6.
With reporting by Marc Lupo
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