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    We sit down with Sam Taylor-Johnson and talk life, family and Back to Black

    Petra Winter

    The director tells us about the joys of country life, daring art, and her new Amy Winehouse film

    Despite the dismal weather outside, you wouldn’t guess it’s raining as she enters the Cuvillies bistro. ‘Polished’ is the word that comes to mind: smooth blonde hair, subtle makeup, and a clearly high-quality cashmere coat paired with a matching chocolate-brown bag. 

    “That can only be from The Row,” I blurt out as I feel the soft wool on her arm during our greeting. Sam Taylor-Johnson laughs. “Yes, crazy expensive but a gift from my husband.” She drapes the piece and the soft tote bag on the bench next to her. 

    We are placed in a quiet corner of the French-Bavarian restaurant at the Rosewood Hotel in downtown Munich, so that no one disturbs. From the leather bench, Taylor-Johnson has a good view of the entire restaurant, including the ensemble of the Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory figures and the open kitchen. The light is dim, almost every table occupied with businessmen, hotel guests, and ladies who lunch. 

    The Row, soft margaux bag.
    The Row, soft Margaux. Image: Supplied

    The director is in town to promote her new film, Back to Black. In the evening, she has a big appearance in front of over 1,000 film distributors. The following morning, she’s off again very early to celebrate the 12th birthday of the youngest of her four daughters on her farm west of London. I had the chance to see the film about the life of the soul singer Amy Winehouse the day before. An impressive biopic with a brilliant lead actress: newcomer Marisa Abela. 

    Just like the singer she’s portraying, Abela has a magnificent voice. “During the casting,” Taylor-Johnson tells me, “she couldn’t demonstrate any singing skills.” Nevertheless, the director was sure she had the perfect Amy in front of her. “She was shy, but still had a magical presence in front of the camera – and after four months of singing training, her voice and emotional performance blew me away.”

    After consulting the waiter on various ingredients, aided by my attempts at translation, she apologises, “I’m unfortunately being difficult right now.” This is because she has just completed an F.X. Mayr cure and found that her body can no longer tolerate gluten after the stress of filming. So she orders rye bread and salmon without the intended side dish, but with cooked vegetables instead. For starters, a salad. I choose a beef consommé and a meat fillet on mashed potatoes.

    Sam Taylor-Johnson.
    Sam Taylor-Johnson. Image: Supplied

    The director made headlines 15 years ago when she met the 23-year-younger and just-turned-legal-age Aaron Taylor-Johnson on the set of her film Nowhere Boy. After their wedding in 2012 and the birth of two daughters, the waves calmed down. Sam Taylor-Johnson now talks about their 15th-century farm, three hours outside of London, and how happy the whole family is there. “After eight years in L.A., we decided to return to England. Now we have two cows, five chickens, and a few pets. Aaron takes care of them, he’s a passionate countryman. The other day, we had to catch the two cows on the road because they had escaped.”

    One can imagine the two in rubber boots and the fun such cow escapades bring. The three younger daughters, aged 12, 13, and 17, live on the farm, while the oldest, 26, is already a gallery owner in London. The father of the two eldest is art dealer and gallery owner Jay Jopling. At her gallery Incubator, Angelica Jopling exhibits mainly younger artists, “There’s someone new every two weeks,” says the proud mum.

    Before becoming a director, Taylor-Johnson began her career as a sculptor, photographer, and video artist. “It’s almost weird, but many people don’t associate me with my time as a visual artist – maybe because I was still called Sam Taylor-Wood then,” she speculates. The 57-year-old has never stopped exhibiting her work – most recently in December last year in Rome. “I still have a studio, I take photographs, but I’ve divorced myself from the art world.”

    Her photographs exhibited in Rome show the artist hanging from a crane in the California desert of Yosemite. “The crane operator on site was a bit too casual. I was hanging there, about
    100 metres above the ground, and he was writing messages on his phone, which made me slightly nervous,” she recalls.

    Director Anthony Minghella, who famously helmed the Oscar-winning film The English Patient, encouraged Taylor-Johnson many years ago to try her hand at directing and even offered to produce her first film. “He was convinced that I could do it, maybe because I’m stubborn,” she says, “when I want something, I push until it works. And I follow my instincts,” she shares.

    The bread on our table, meanwhile, remains untouched. “This somehow doesn’t look like rye,” she says, and looks wistfully at the crispy sourdough bread, of which I have already devoured half the basket. But the salad seems to please her.

    Marissa Abela performing back to black.
    Marissa Abela performing Back to Black. Image: Supplied

    With Back to Black, the director is in her creative element once again, 27 years after her first music film. Back then, she filmed with the Pet Shop Boys, and subsequently R.E.M. And she chose to depict the life of John Lennon in her debut feature film Nowhere Boy, with her future husband in the lead role. Her favourite movie, however, is Love You More from 2008, a short film based on the eponymous song. “I enjoy seeing how music transforms moods and influences people,” she explains. 

    The director feels a responsibility to do justice to the biography of a unique singer her film Back to Black. After all, the work of Amy Winehouse continues to be overshadowed by her untimely death. “I want to give her back her voice, to highlight the value and creative power of her work,” she says. “That’s why we loved her.” 

    Taylor-Johnson has succeeded in this. As a viewer, you see Winehouse’s world through her eyes. You understand her underlying motivation and at what stage of her life she wrote her heartfelt songs. Songs she would later use to channel and soothe her pain. At the heart of the film is the singer’s tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, then husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. He is both her driving force and her destroyer. In fact, her most famous song, Back to Black, is believed to address one of their many separations.

    Movie walk in the line played by Joaquin Phoenix.
    Walk the Line. Image: Supplied

    As our mains are served, Taylor-Johnson tells me she doesn’t eat some types of meat since she purchased the farm and now has her own animals. Some of them can be spotted on her Instagram feed: the poodle, the soft nostrils of a creamy-white cow. But the director admits that she actually isn’t a fan of the social media platform and doesn’t allow her two younger daughters to use it. 

    “I used to think it was good to stay in touch with friends when we lived in the USA. Now it mostly annoys me,” she quips. But then she remembers something that amused her on Instagram: Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler. The two comedians are some of her favourites.“The best thing Handler said recently at the Golden Globes was, ‘Greta Gerwig made over a billion dollars at the box office with Barbie. And now Hollywood producers are considering if she’s capable of making another film.’” She laughs heartily at the obvious sarcasm.

    Just then, one of her publicists comes to our table and apologises that they have to move on soon. A few minutes later, Taylor-Johnson slips on her soft coat, hugs me, and says goodbye with the words, “This meal has saved my day.”

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