"Nowhere Boy" Looks at the Young John Lennon

Director Sam Taylor-Wood on her film and falling in love with her teenage star.

By Kathy Heintzelman
From left, 'Nowhere Boy' stars Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff

When British artist Sam Taylor-Wood signed on to direct her first feature film—Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon’s life as a teenager and his first steps toward music—she had no idea how completely it would change her own life. At 42, she fell in love with her 18-year-old leading man, Aaron Johnson, and in July she gave birth to their daughter. Now the couple awaits their film’s release in the U.S. on October 8 (it came out in the U.K. last fall, to excellent reviews and four BAFTA nominations, the British equivalent of the Oscars).

The film depicts Lennon’s musical awakening, including joining forces with Paul McCartney, and his complicated relationships with the two most important women in his young life: his mother, Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff), who gave up raising him when he was a child but reconnected with him in his teens; and his mother’s sister, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the stern but loving woman who, with her husband, ended up raising Lennon. Taylor-Wood talked to MORE about her film, the input she received from Paul and Yoko, and her own unexpected love story.

How did you create the film’s incredible late-’50s atmosphere?
That was something we worked hard on. I didn’t want everything to scream 1950s but just sort of have a sense of it. I really enjoyed doing research and working with different teams, obviously the costumes and everything, to make it not feel in your face. And then the way we shot it, [director of photography] Seamus [McGarvey] and I, we looked at different sorts of film stocks.

Well, you definitely achieved something very evocative. I hear that Yoko Ono has given her blessing to the film.
Yeah, she was really supportive. What happened was: Initially when I read the script and got the job to make the film, I wrote letters to all those I thought ought to know and said, "If there’s any input you want to have on any level, it’d be welcome." And I got an email back from her, which was encouraging, and then nothing throughout the whole filming, which I expected in a sense. She didn’t want to commit to anything, I think, until she saw the film and saw how I’d handled it. So then she saw the film and I got this fantastic letter where she really gave it her blessing and then most importantly gave us the rights to [Lennon’s] song "Mother," the closing song. She’d never given those rights before, so that was a big deal.

And did you also talk to Paul McCartney during the filming?
Yeah. He would randomly call because I sent him this letter with my number. And then I was in the supermarket and my phone rang— "Hi, it’s Paul McCartney and I just wanted to say that when we recorded this song it was recorded on this piece of equipment, and here’s a funny story about John so that you get a sense of what he was like." So that was sort of magical and helpful. 

Has he seen the movie?
Yes, he has.

What did he say?
He had one issue with the fight scene. And then he told me, "It’s a movie, it’s not a documentary, and as a movie I really enjoyed it." So I thought, that’s as good as it gets really.

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