A taste of what to expect when a fairy tale doesn’t play by the rules.
Fifty Shades Darker, the second chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon invites audiences to slip into something a shade darker.
Ghosts returning to haunt, helicopter accidents, sexual exploration, revenge, a billionaire’s lifestyle, Thomas Hardy, sadism, abandonment scars, charitable acts, Venetian masks, adult toys…no doubt the heady amount of subjects and objects E L James worked into her record-selling trilogy has helped to fuel the global desire to follow the tale of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed were lensed simultaneously, resulting in two successive Valentine’s Day weekend releases in 2017 and ’18, further exploring the compelling romantic tango of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
The litany of reasons behind filming both chapters in the same period were clear to all involved. Naturally, with films that are successive stories, characters and environments are common to both—with actors in character, production up and running, and sets and locations primed for shooting. Economically, it made sense to maximize effort and time. Viscidi reflects: “We also had other reasons that were more important than strictly the financial ones—for the actors and director James Foley, to have both scripts and to understand where their characters and stories begin and end. It made it a more fluid process throughout the whole filming.”
Viscidi explains that while the first chapter was an awakening, the next two would delve deep into the characters’ motivations and world: “Dakota’s character in Darker has to evaluate what is it that makes her desire Christian, not just because he’s a good-looking man. But she actually begins to want to be in the Red Room with him, to experience the sexuality she was unsure of in the first movie. Now, she has to figure out what’s inside her that’s driving her, where she wants to participate in the same way that Christian wants her to participate.”
The dramatic thriller Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley (Fear, House of Cards) and once again produced by Michael De Luca (Captain Phillips, The Social Network), Dana Brunetti (Captain Phillips, The Social Network) and Marcus Viscidi (We’re the Millers, How to Be Single), alongside E L James, the creator of the blockbuster series. The screenplay is by E L James’ husband, Niall Leonard, based on the novel by James.
Dark Side of the Fairy Tale
Producer Dana Brunetti discusses that it was long the intention to explore the decidedly dangerous turn E L James’ second novel takes: “Fifty Shades Darker is more of a thriller. We have suspense, stalking, helicopter crashes…all in addition to the theme of this couple and their particular type of romance. Suddenly, their relationship is confronted with many more obstacles than previously, a lot of them from Christian’s past life.”
E L James, who is rejoined by her fellow producers from 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, reflects on the title progression: “For the second novel, I knew I wanted to keep ‘Fifty Shades,’ because it was quite memorable. I thought, ‘Where are we going with this?’ Then, I knew that in the second book that we would discover what was behind Christian’s darkness. Hence, ‘Darker.’”
De Luca found it difficult to believe it has only been a few years since he, Brunetti, Viscidi and E L James began work on bringing the first book to the big screen. “Taking this journey with Erika and my other fellow producers has been surreal at times,” reflects the producer.
“We managed to take what was already a literary phenomenon and bring it to worldwide audiences over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015, and here we are again. We have all grown considerably in these roles and never stopped being the caretakers for Anastasia and Christian’s story. It’s something we don’t take lightly, and my hat stays off to Erika for keeping us on track as we imagined this filmic world for her characters to inhabit. I’m extraordinarily proud of how far we’ve all come.”
For the adaptations, production went back to the source: E L James herself, working with the writer who had lived with the characters—and their creator—since the beginning—E L James’ husband, accomplished screenwriter Niall Leonard, whose task it was to translate these massively popular novels with their bold new emblems of mainstream sensuality into two screenplays.
The journey from print on-demand paperback to the creation of one of the most iconic and memorable literary sensations in decades was as shocking to their family as it was to publishers.
“I retain that role as the person who is the first sounding board, so, ‘Fifty Shades’ crept up on me,” Leonard muses. “Erika was publishing a story, and I knew it was interesting and dark. I knew that it was gathering an online following, but even so, when it burst into life in the real world, it astounded me how big the phenomenon was.”
As the family grew adjusted to E L James’ skyrocketing fame, as well as the filmic reception of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” they focused their attention on assuring the purity of the subsequent books’ translations.
“For Darker and Freed,” Leonard continues, “she was keen that the movies had to be done quickly and that they had to be close to the books. Knowing the story and the fandom, I was very familiar with the parts that mean a lot to Erika and to her fans. I was keen to see those properly included. With experience as an adapter and screenwriter, I felt qualified to take on the project. The studio was willing to have me on board to take these enormous, sprawling novels and condense them into something that was of movie length…without losing any of the relationship and the important parts that fans really wanted to see.”
E L James is the first to admit that it was an unexpected and unusual collaboration in bringing her Christian and Ana to life in another medium.
“It was an interesting time while Niall was writing,” she reflects. “He would go off and do his thing, and then he’d bring me a draft and ask, ‘What do you think?’ Then, we’d have discussions until we were ready to submit it to the studio.” In her typical dry fashion, the author adds: “He was very private about it, but we’re still speaking to each other. So that it worked out well.”
Leonard offers that knowing your spouse will be your editor is a curious thing indeed.
“I was quite nervous. Then I heard her laughing in the next room, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m off the hook; she’s enjoying it. We got over that first hurdle of her accepting my work. Then, we had to work together revising it. Sometimes, we’d have a bit of a ding-dong about particular scenes, and I’d say, ‘I really want to do this,’ and she’d respond, ‘That’s not true to the story.’”
To be certain, the screenwriter promised the creator of his source material one thing before they began adaptations. “If it ever came down to the crunch, it was always to be her decision,” Leonard says.
“Christian Grey is not this cutesy, handsome, all-things-to-all character. He’s dominant, dangerous and a real challenge. His journey into being rescued by Ana is a tricky one, and the only person for this is Erika. She knows every step, and is the North Star. If you follow her lead, you can’t go wrong.”
Director on board
When he made the decision to take the director’s chair for both films, James Foley joined the rarefied ranks of very few directors who have maximized time and effort by filming back-to-back projects.
Brunetti discusses the process in finding the one who’d captain the team: “When we were determining who the next director was going to be, there was speculation on whether we were going to shoot Darker or Darker and Freed at the same time. I knew James from House of Cards, as he directed a majority of the first season and was our show director/showrunner.”
Not only was Brunetti a fan of Foley’s work for Netflix, he has long enjoyed many of the filmmaker’s features.
“Glengarry Glen Ross is one of my favorites. We met with him, and his thoughts on the film were fantastic,” says the producer. “We saw a lot of different directors after that for Darker and made a short list. Then, when we began to discuss making both films at the same time, I knew that is how we shot a lot of House of Cards—two episodes at a time, and we would cross-board them. I pushed for James, not just because of his experience shooting this way, but because of his understanding of the books and take on what the films should be.”
Viscidi agrees with the decision to which fellow producers De Luca, E L James and Brunetti arrived: “We needed someone of that caliber who could direct the actors in a strong, confident and accomplished style. In the first meeting with Foley, he said he wanted to expand and open up the film. He appreciated the first movie—thought it was good, sexy and provocative—but wanted the characters to be more a part of the real world, get them outside more in the next chapter. He wanted to see Seattle more, and have the characters interact more with the world around them.”
Foley discusses his interest in joining the franchise: “‘Fifty Shades’ defied a genre; it’s full of elements, drama, romance, fantasy, all mixed together. It is a special kind of combination—a special kind of brew—like you brew beer. It’s has its own fizz.”
No stranger to adapting lauded work, the filmmaker felt a connection with the protagonists of E L James’ work. He reflects: “I’ve always been interested in psychological realism—movies, dramas that have a psychological complexity to them. What I got from the three books was that they were a master study in the field—particularly of Christian but also of Ana. There was something interesting in the journey that they took together, and how each of these psychologies interacted with each other and wind up changing each of them over the course of the three books quite dramatically. It was that evolution in their selves which was the most important thing to me.”
The relationship quickly established by director and author/producer was soon harmonic. “Erika was very clear about the arc of the story and how she wanted Christian and Ana’s characters to develop between the two films,” observes Viscidi. “James was able to take that information, turn it around and implement it in his vision. It was a great working relationship, and Erika trusted him implicitly from day one.”
Foley addresses one of the key elements of working with E L James—indeed, one of the key elements of any successful film production—when he says, “It’s been the sweetest thing—we were pals throughout the process. There was compromise—I compromised, she compromised—but the film was not compromised. We got the best combination of our talent. I was very respectful of the books—they have their own kind of magic that worked on so many people. I sought to transfer that magic to the screen, and having her around was great. Erika was very supportive and always respectful.”
“James Foley stepped into the Fifty Shades Darker production almost as if he’d been with us since day one,” says De Luca. “He brought this deep respect—not only to the cast and crew who’d been part of the first production—but an honor for Erika’s source material and Niall’s distinctive, significantly darker take on the next two pivotal chapters. Foley is the consummate filmmaker and gentleman, and the exact right filmmaker to bring innovative ideas about what Darker and Freed could become. He has this ability to elevate our production to a level none of us could have expected.”
No Rules, No Punishments:The Curious Couple Returns
While Fifty Shades of Grey introduced movie audiences to billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey and curious college student Anastasia Steele, the next two episodes would challenge everything audiences expected of the couple who had ended their relationship at the end of the first film.
With the whirlwind of launching Fifty Shades of Grey behind them, Dornan and Johnson set to work on the Darker and Freed set, ready for the unique set of challenges that lie ahead. “The evolution that we have seen in Jamie and Dakota has been nothing short of astonishing,” raves De Luca. “They were dropped into this rarified on-screen space of iconic coupledom and asked to establish immediate intimacy…all while the world looked on and analyzed every movement in their nonverbal language with one another. The Herculean task of embodying the characters of Christian and Anastasia would have made many a performer crumble. But they rose to every challenge. As actors, they continue to impress me to the lengths they’ve gone and the depths of their ability to discover nuance and emote passion.”
“Darker is a deeper exploration into these two people,” says Johnson. “It feels like they are on this tumultuous, twisted path, and they’re not simple characters. It’s not lovey-dovey, easy-breezy bullshit. It’s darker. We are not sugarcoating any of the real, raw and difficult things in this relationship. No matter what kind of relationship is going on between two people, there’s a universality in the difficult things, all of the particulars of Ana and Christian notwithstanding.”
One of the major players in Fifty Shades of Grey is a woman who never actually appears—but the wake in which she has left Christian radiates outward and affects everyone in his life. Ana flippantly refers to her as Mrs. Robinson—in reference to Anne Bancroft’s character in the film classic The Graduate, who seduces the much younger man, played by Dustin Hoffman. The duplicitous friend of Christian’s mother, she brings the 15-year-old Christian into her bed and her lifestyle.
The character—Elena Lincoln—is an integral part of the story of Darker, and who better to inhabit the enigmatic woman than the distinguished Academy Award®-winning actress whose C.V. includes her own cinematic venture into the dark side of a romance in the memorable and shockwave-causing 9½ Weeks.
Screenwriter Leonard took to the predatory character with a certain amount of glee. He says: “It was great fun writing Elena, because she has this immense self-confidence. She’s assured, sexy, experienced, intelligent and successful—all the things that Ana feels she isn’t—so she’s incredibly intimidating. Ana feels utterly dwarfed by her presence and threatened by it. Casting Kim Basinger in the part is an absolute dream, because she just comes across with this wealth of sophistication.”
With her “author” hat squarely on her head, E L James reasserts: “All of the ‘Fifty Shades’ books are romance books, full stop—they should be, and hopefully will be, romantic films. In this one, we discover more, go deeper, and there’s also the first hint of Christian’s old life, with that coming back and infecting the couple as they try to get it together. That’s one of the reasons why it’s darker, because there are these threats in the wings that come in to destabilize what should be a happy romance.”