You just directed one of the year’s most anticipated movies. Your film has grossed over half a billion dollars. The studio wants to make two sequels. What do you do?
Well, if you’re Sam Taylor-Johnson, you run run run away from the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. Word spread during the Fifty Shades press tour that Taylor-Johnson didn’t get along well with author E.L. James, who has a significant amount of creative control over the films. (No doubt she insisted that Fifty Shades of Grey feature all those riveting contract negotiation scenes and fan-favorite aircraft montages, plus some peacock feathers.)
So who will direct Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel currently planned for as soon as possible Universal wants that skrilla let’s make it rain baby 2016? It’s hard to imagine any well-established directors taking on Darker—although just imagine the J.J. Abrams reboot!—but it’s become common for up-and-coming directors to take on franchise work as a pathway to the big leagues. Think Rian Johnson doing Star Wars 8; think Colin Trevorrow doing Jurassic Park 4; think Ryan Coogler doing Rocky 7: Son of Apollo.
Think Peter Strickland, the director of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, a pair of masterfully weird genre oddities. Duke of Burgundy is the key comparison point here: Arriving in theaters at roughly the same time as Fifty Shades of Grey, Burgundy is also an erotic BDSM kinkfest, inspired by ’70s euro-softcore like Emmanuelle. More than a few critics compared Burgundy to Fifty Shades, partially because they’re both kinky and partially because Burgundy is a million times better. Strickland’s an idiosyncratic director, and it’s hard to see him taking on sequel work—but if he wanted to take on a large film, Fifty Shades is a franchise that seems uniquely built for him.
Then again, maybe Fifty Shades Darker should take the Moneyball approach, finding an undervalued-asset director who deserves a visual showcase. For way too long, Kimberly Peirce has been trying to find the right project to follow through on the promise of Boys Don’t Cry. Her version of Carrie was intriguing, but suffered from a weirdly sanitized adaptation—something that nobody would expect from Darker. (Peirce’s finest work since Boys Don’t Cry might actually be as a talking head in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, where she rails against the MPAA’s restrictive policies on female orgasms—something which feels like a potentially press tour-defining talking point.)
Likewise, Mary Harron has spent the years since her masterpiece American Psycho as a journeyman director, but the Notorious Bettie Page helmer has a style tailor made for a Fifty Shades film. (Hell, Christian Grey is basically a slightly less crazy Patrick Bateman.
For that matter, if we’re talking about sexy movies, why not go back to the source? Adrian Lyne directed new-classic erotic thrillers Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful. Back in 2013, he bemoaned the fact that Hollywood had stopped making movies like that. Clearly, Hollywood listened.
With most franchise film adaptations, a director is hamstrung when it comes to plot, character, and even set design; their main contribution is often visual. It would be interesting to see what kind of stamp arthouse stylists like Harmony Korine or Sofia Coppola could do with this sudsy-camp material. It’s worth remembering that Coppola was once in the running to direct the two Breaking Dawn films. Actually, given the debt that Fifty Shades of Grey owes to Twilight, maybe we should take a closer look at that franchise’s directorial lineup. Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon also made the sex-research film Kinsey, which admittedly doesn’t feature a masquerade-ball lady-auction. Eclipse director David Slade has defined the visual aesthetic of NBC’s Hannibal, a decadent kinkfest that feels very close to Fifty Shades‘ wavelength.
Or maybe Pixar can take the reins and reboot the Fifty Shades series as the charming tale of a gang of mischevious ties who are always getting tied up in various knotty shenanigans. Who would you like to see direct Fifty Shades Darker? Lisa Cholodenko? Matthew Vaughn? Zack Snyder?