The cinematic version of Fifty Shades has been adopted by the tens of millions of fans who have been there to experience Christian and Ana’s journey since the beginning.
Given the record-setting sales of E L James’ “Fifty Shades” novels, and the first two films’ impressive global box-office take, those at the center of the Fifty Shades’ pop-culture event are more than forthcoming about their longtime involvement, as well as how it feels to see the end of the seminal trilogy appear on screen.
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson return as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Freed, the climactic chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. Bringing to a shocking conclusion events set in motion in 2015 and 2017’s blockbuster films that grossed almost $950 million globally.
Fifty Shades Freed is directed by Fifty Shades Darker’s James Foley. The screenplay is by Niall Leonard, based on the novel by E L James.
Believing they have left behind shadowy figures from their past, newlyweds Christian and Ana fully embrace an inextricable connection and shared life of luxury. But just as she steps into her role as Mrs. Grey and he relaxes into an unfamiliar stability, new threats could jeopardize their happy ending before it even begins
Producer Dana Brunetti begins: “As a producer of these films—bringing to life these books that fans are just ravenous for and seeing the phenomenal success of them—well, it’s been extraordinary. It’s not something that a lot of people—whether a producer, a writer, a director, a cast or crew member—ever get to do in their entire careers. To be able to do this with three different movies, it’s been extremely rewarding and satisfying. I’m extremely grateful to be able to be accepted both in the ‘Fifty Shades’ family by Erika, but also by the fan base, because they are very critical—the last thing any of us wanted to do was mess up that thing that they love so much.”
Signs along the way let filmmakers know that they were far from messing up, beginning with the explosive box-office performance of the first film. When the trailer for the second film, Fifty Shades Darker, debuted online in September 2016, in less than 24 hours, it racked up more than 114 million views, shattering the previously set record for highest-performing full-length trailer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with 112 million views.
Book author and producer E L James was and is surprised by the depth of emotion the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey stirred up in fans. At one point, she was even satisfied with the story concluding with just one book. E L James explains: “The first two books were written as one, and I’d stopped at the wedding proposal and thought, ‘This is great. I’ve left them in a good place.’ But I got readers urging me to write more. I remember being on holiday and I was listening to Michael Bublé’s version of ‘You Will Never Find Another Love Like Mine,’ over and over again. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. If I’m going to write more, what would it be?’
“I knew the only thing I could do was to have Ana pregnant and to see Christian’s reaction, which is not great,” E L James continues. “I knew that’s where I wanted the story to go. That’s why I started writing the third book—to see him absolutely terrified, furious, when she announces that she’s pregnant. He goes completely ballistic, because he’s a scared child himself.”
As production decided to film both installments, Darker and Freed, simultaneously, all were in place to pick up the story of Ana and Christian moving through the world as a married couple. Still, rather than just one cinematic tale split into halves, the team was committed to treating each project as a thematically and stylistically separate entity. This choice was reinforced by the selection of James Foley as both chapters’ director. The filmmaker came armed with experience of simultaneous productions on separate installments of the lauded cable series, House of Cards.
Foley offers that filming both chapters simultaneously offered its share of rewards. “It wasn’t as if it was doubly challenging, because the movies are directly continuous with each other. It’s always dire holding one big story in your head. If you’re filming one movie at a time, you’re still doing it out of sequence, and have to hold the whole movie in your head. This time, our movie was just longer, but the emotional throughline was directly connected. It wasn’t like Freed starts 10 years later, where Christian and Ana are totally different people. It starts a few months after Darker, so there is a real continuum that made it possible to do.”
Brunetti reflects, “Jamie Foley is such a great storyteller, and I feel Darker and Freed both stand on their own as individual movies. If you haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey, or you don’t see Fifty Shades Freed, Fifty Shades Darker stands on its own as a movie; even though it’s part of a trilogy, it still works. Same thing with Freed. They all stand on their own as great stories and compelling movies.”
Regarding the title choice of this chapter, E L James explains, “In the third book, Christian finally learns to let go and accept what’s coming to him. I think he’s freed. And seeing the woman he loves with a child is the most healing thing that could ever happen to him.”
But the tone of Freed, overall, is far from merely a romance of the healing kind. Screenwriter Niall Leonard, who returns to this chapter, notes: “Freed opens with a mysterious man visiting the offices of Grey Enterprises. We realize quickly that he’s Jack Hyde and up to no good. Rather than starting with this idyllic existence that Christian and Ana have, we’re starting with the threat of Jack. It becomes clear that everything they do in this movie is constrained by the threat of his revenge. From the get-go, our heroes are never safe, happy or utterly content. Christian is aware of this and doesn’t tell Ana, thinking he’s protecting her. But of course, as a husband and wife, you don’t always protect somebody by keeping secrets. Eventually the truth comes out—it becomes another hurdle for them to face together, and another issue in their constant efforts at building trust between them.”
While it may sound fated that the couple will find that fairy-tale ending, Leonard is quick to disagree: “I would think that Erika herself might resist this idea of destiny, because it suggests that no matter what you do, you’re going to end up at a happy place. In fact, Ana and Christian have to make a big effort—they have to reach beyond themselves, to go way out of their comfort zones—to find each other and create this relationship that saves them. ‘Destiny’ makes it sound too easy—it’s a deliberate journey, it’s a struggle and a time of great conflict. Hopefully, we won’t have the sense that this was all easy, because it isn’t for the characters.
“For us, the marriage is the beginning of a new adventure, a new story, a new series of challenges,” the screenwriter continues. “It’s not the be-all and end-all. Erika was wise to make that her focal point of the start of the third book, because it’s a whole new journey for our characters.”
It was crucial for E L James to start Freed where Christian and Ana have to face up to the realities of what it is like to be married and how, when you marry someone so quickly, things don’t always go according to plan. “That puts a bit of a question mark at the beginning,” reflects the author. “That, and new threats come into Freed. So, we’re finding our beloved couple getting to know each other and finding a way of living with each other. As someone who’s been married for a very long time, you do sort of knock the corners off each other, as it were, in a relationship, and that’s what Christian and Ana are beginning to do.”
E L James’ professional and life partner, Leonard relished that mix of the personal and the circumstantial, but also found it perhaps the most challenging to pen. He says: “Exploring their journey within that marriage was a big challenge and, hopefully, we did it right. I was helped by the fact that Erika, being a very entertaining writer, put in some great stuff, like car chases and heists and helicopter crashes. I took the liberty of moving some incidents about from book two to book three, in order to keep the story moving quickly. Still, I think that the third was the one that presented the greater challenge.”
While one might conclude that having the series creator on set as producer would be constraining, director Foley offers that wasn’t the case. “In her role as a producer, Erika would interject sometimes, but not very often. When she would do it, she would do it in the most respectful way, just raising a question, instead of making it feel like she was trying to pressure you to do something. Because she was just raising a question, I always was open to thinking about it. Sometimes I would agree with her, and sometimes I wouldn’t, but it was very friendly. We became good friends, which we still are.”
For her third time as Anastasia Steele, Dakota Johnson dove headfirst into Ana’s challenging world and emboldened sense of self. She updates us with where the characters are: “In Freed, there’s more suspense, more of a thriller aspect, with additional characters and more action—all of that is intertwined with the love story. A love story that has evolved and deepened. Anastasia and Christian are married, and Anastasia has received a promotion, raising the intensity of both her private and professional life.”
She agrees with E L James and Leonard, though, when she states: “This is an epic love story but we do our best to keep it grounded and relatable. It’s one of those inexplicable connections between two people that is completely undeniable. Throughout these stories, you find the protagonists faced with situations that require one or both of them to bend their wills and adapt to their version of love.”
Jamie Dornan was likewise fascinated by the swirl of personal challenges and dark intrigue facing the couple in Freed. He says: “Christian’s reaction to Ana being pregnant is not positive. It’s the exact way that you don’t want your partner to respond when you say you’re pregnant. He feels like he is in no position to be a father. Where they are in their life and the kind of relationship he wants to have with her, a baby’s just the last thing that he wants—it would not fit into his structure. Emotionally he feels that having had such an awful early childhood, why—when his birth parents were so awful—why would he be any better? That terrifies him.”
Terrifying on another level is the threat Christian begins to perceive behind the series of unfortunate events that have begun to take place. Dornan explains: “Once he realizes that both the helicopter and the computer server were sabotaged, he knows that Jack Hyde was involved. He knows him to be a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. In that way, he is very similar to Christian.”
Alongside fellow filmmakers E L James and Brunetti, returning to cap the trilogy are producers Mike De Luca and Marcus Viscidi, who also served double duty as unit production manager on both Darker and Freed.
Viscidi was perhaps keenest of anyone to shoot both films together, knowing it was the most logical and creative decision. “It wasn’t daunting for me; in fact, I encouraged the studio. There was a lot of debate. I encouraged them, as I wore one hat from the financial side, saying, ‘The advantages of shooting Darker and Freed combined is that we were able to build these incredible sets for both movies. Why strike them, hold them for a year and then set them up again?’
“But I had other reasons that were more important than just strictly the financial ones,” the producer continues. “For the actors and for James Foley, for them to be able to see Darker and Freed, to read both scripts and to understand where their characters are—starting in book two and finishing in book three—it helped them. It made it a more fluid process, throughout the whole filming. Even if you’re going occasionally from certain Darker sets one day and some Freed the next, it still helped tremendously.”
“It’s very bittersweet to watch the trilogy come full circle,” reflects De Luca. “This passion project we all began several years ago has become so much more than any of us could have anticipated. It’s not simply a labor of love to those of us who have been tasked with shepherding Erika’s brilliance to the big screen, the cinematic version of Fifty Shades has been adopted by the tens of millions of fans who have been there to experience Christian and Ana’s journey since the beginning. With this chapter, it’s been hard for all of us to say goodbye…for now.”