UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. — This is the man who’s telling the “Fifty Shades” story on film. Ask him how he feels, and no words could be more fitting than these:
“I feel nakedly optimistic,” said director James Foley, a University at Buffalo graduate whose long Hollywood career now includes directing “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second installment in British author E.L. James’ steamy “Fifty Shades of Grey
” book-turned-movie trilogy, opening this week nationwide.
It’s late January, and Foley is sitting upright in a black swivel chair in an editing room inside the Alfred Hitchcock building on the Universal Studios lot. Work on “Darker,” which he shot last year, is done. Next, he’ll be finishing the third and final movie, “Fifty Shades Freed,” which was shot directly after “Darker” but won’t premiere till 2018.
Behind Foley is an Apple computer with four monitors, each displaying a freeze-framed image of a man standing behind a woman, looking into a mirror. His eyes are smoldering. Hers are seductive. He is wearing a crisp white shirt. She’s in slinky lingerie. The man is Christian Grey, a billionaire with an appetite for the exotically erotic, played by the actor Jamie Dornan.
The woman, played by actress Dakota Johnson, is Anastasia Steele, a recent college graduate who is Grey’s girlfriend, but in the most nontraditional -- and unmentionable -- of ways.
“I fell in love with these characters,” said Foley, who didn’t direct the series’ first movie, which grossed more than $560 million globally but was critically maligned. In the opening story, Christian and Anastasia meet in unlikely crossing of their distant worlds. (He was the big-donor graduation speaker at her college; she interviewed him for the school newspaper.)
“In ‘Darker,’ ” Foley said, “it becomes a much warmer: more human interaction, where the man and the woman are on very equal footings in terms of their desires, their feelings, their emotions, their fantasies. It’s a liberation for both of them in a very different way.”
Foley, who is 63, has steely eyes, close-cut silvery hair and a tightly trimmed goatee. He dresses simply, usually in black, and immerses himself in the nuances of the stories he tells. In his long career, he's told many. Foley has directed storied cinema (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” "Fear"), groundbreaking television (“House of Cards”) and pop culture classics (Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video).
“Fifty Shades” is his return is big-studio moviemaking after a decade away. In an interview with The News, he was verbose and candid about where his new films fit “in the pantheon of cinema.”
Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for space, clarity and language:
Q: How do you feel heading into the premiere of “Fifty Shades Darker”?
A: I feel nakedly optimistic. I’m being naked in saying I’m optimistic because, of course, it could not work out that way and you have egg on your face. But I don’t mind eggs. I like eggs.
I feel like I went into it as a real opportunity and challenge. The challenge was to make a good movie out of one of these books, because frankly I didn’t think the first one was a good movie. So my first reaction about signing up for it was, You’re out of your mind.
But then I read the books. (It’s) not Shakespearean prose, but a sexual, romantic dynamic between a man and a woman that was fascinating to me. In “Darker,” (that dynamic) grows and matures and is quite dramatic in trying to find its equilibrium as a love story
It’s played out in a sexual way — surprise, surprise. I really like the sex in the movie, actually. I think it’s perfectly calibrated.
But I’m not delusional. The movie is not going to win Oscars. But I don’t think it’s going to win Razzies. (laughs) That’s my goal — to not win a Razzie! (Note: The first “Fifty Shades of Grey” installment won several Razzies, a spoof award.)
Q: The extreme success of the books feeds interest in the movies. Is “Darker” a movie that someone who hasn’t read the books could still enjoy?
A: Absolutely, 100 percent. I stand by it in that regard, as long as it’s within the context that the movie is kind of an upscale comic book. Maybe (that is) why it’s so successful, because it’s like every other movie that’s based on comic books. It works.
The nature of relationships in these movies – certainly in “Darker” – is not super subtle. It’s more in your face. So one might call that melodramatic. One might call that pandering, or something.
But I really believe part of cinema is magic. Sometimes when you’re editing, you watch a take of this one particular moment with an actor, and they do it 10 times. But one of those times somehow hits something. It’s called “God’s take.” I think there’s a matter of good luck.
Somehow, various strains of things came together in this movie. The biggest probably was the maturation of the actors (Dornan and Johnson) and their relationship with each other. They had been through “Grey” and that’s an intimate kind of war to go through. Frankly – obviously, I suppose – filming sex scenes is not the easiest day on the set. And if the actors who are engaged in those scenes are at each other’s throats, I can’t imagine how horrible that would be.
Anyway, these guys were like total mensches. They’d been through the first. They’d been through the publicity. They were kind of grounded and focused on what they were doing, and much freer to not be second-guessing themselves. I think the consequence of that is the chemistry between them is greatly enhanced. The acting performances are greatly enhanced.
I will take that, even though it’s not hit Rotten Tomatoes yet. And I don’t expect any great love in Rotten Tomatoes. But I expect better love than the first. That’s my goal.
Q: What are the challenges of filming sex scenes that are as comfortable as possible on set, but also enhance the movie?
A: The biggest issue in directing a “Fifty Shades” movie is the sex. Its renown is from sexual encounters. I was very much down with that. It was very much part of why I responded to the books: These people’s relationship was very volatile and very extreme, which I think is just mimicking other people’s relationships, which are maybe slightly less dramatic, but have the same dynamics going on.
The sex-scenes stuff was not the fun day on the set. But I was very aware that it wouldn’t be the most fun day on the set, so I set it up to be – this sounds strange – as mechanical as possible. Delivering storyboards, exact things, what shots we needed. Not just doing it and filming it at every angle and seeing what we get. You try to minimize how many times they have to do it, and try to be smart about what your focus is in the lovemaking scenes.
Q: From that perspective, are the “Fifty Shades” movies the most intense you’ve done?
A: It’s far less explicit than in “Darker” and “Freed,” but there was sex stuff in a movie I did called “After Dark, My Sweet” with Jason Patrick and Rachel Ward. (Note: Foley adapted the screenplay for the 1990 movie from a book.) That was intense; not the most fun day of my life. Days. But I’m really proud of the product.
Actually, the very first film I did (in 1984), called “Reckless,” was rated X, which was the moniker at the time. (Note: Foley cut a scene and lowered the rating to R.) The designation now is NC-17. Which means no one under 17 admitted, whether you’re with a parent or not?
A: We had that on “Darker” for a short time. But it was amazing. We cut very little. ... But it’s kind of silly, all that judgment about sexuality and ratings.
Q: How important a factor is trust?
A: It’s the factor, because I am the person who’s going to present it on screen to the public. So they have to feel confident that no matter what they do, I’m not going to release something that’s ugly or humiliating.
That’s a big jump to trust somebody like that, because you’re walking around and there are always two cameras. There’s a crew – a reduced crew on sex stuff, but still a bunch of dudes who are standing there…
I feel quite proud that I’ve never had an actor shut down on me and just say, “No!” There’s always been a collaboration of trust.
Q: How did “House of Cards” impact your career?
A: Majorly. There’s the career trajectory we all have to live through. It’s at its highest in the beginning (with) expectations of your first film. Then it’s about, “What was your last film and how successful was it?” Previous films become irrelevant, because you’re not hot.
I feel as if my experience has been – and I’m not complaining – as if nobody knew who I was before “House of Cards.” I was a brand-new person in “House of Cards.” Which is good because you have no baggage. You’re just a “House of Cards” director.
So I’m certain, actually, that Universal deciding they wanted me to direct these movies was not 100-percent on “House of Cards.” The previous work mattered. But “House of Cards” delivered the ignition switch to make me a person they would hire.
Now that I’ve done this, even before it comes out, I’d be wise to make another deal. Because “Fifty Shades Darker” is hot at the moment, and will be for the next three weeks. (Foley laughs.) So I’ve got three weeks to decide my fate!