A Million Little Pieces is as raw, bloody and messy as James Frey wrote it. With the startling intensity he shocked Toronto with in Nocturnal Animals two years ago, Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Frey through his evolution from a hopeless, cornered animal descending down a drug-induced death spiral to someone who pulls out of the nosedive after reluctantly embracing help from a group of fellow addicts to create distance from the seduction of crack cocaine and hard liquor ravaging his body.
It’s a dark, scrappy, low-budget affair—necessary to relieve the pressure that led to the implosion of the studio version of this adaptation a decade and a half ago. When A Million Little Pieces was first published, it announced Frey as a major new literary voice—endorsed by Oprah Winfrey herself—and landed him a fast-tracked studio adaptation at Warner Bros. But it all blew up when press stories exposed that Frey had falsified elements of his background and the fate of characters in the Hazelden rehab clinic in Minnesota. Oprah brought Frey back out to defend himself, along with his editor Nan Talese, ostensibly to be part of a panel on truth. Instead, they found themselves alone on stage. Winfrey, who felt duped and betrayed to have strongly recommended a book and devoted a previous episode to extolling its virtues, subjected author and editor to a relentless hourlong grilling over incidents in the book that were embellished or which didn’t happen as described by Frey, who first circulated A Million Little Pieces as a novel, but was told it had to be called a memoir in order to get it published. Oprah dropped her endorsement; Frey’s literary agent dumped him over “trust issues,” and his publisher had to settle lawsuits and offer refunds to disgruntled readers.
But time heals, and what remains is a book that has offered hope to addicts. Frey was able to get his own career back on track, becoming a bestselling author and the proprietor of fiction factory Full Fathom Five. When Warner Bros. let go of its option, Frey wasn’t cash-strapped enough to need to relive that earlier controversy with a new film deal; especially not under the current, unforgiving glare of social media. “I kind of always thought the right people would come along and make it at some point and I was busy enough with other stuff that I never aggressively pursued it,” Frey said. “I also was perfectly happy if it never got made, and if it existed just as a book. I’m thrilled the movie did get made because I think in a lot of ways it ends that journey for me, at least publicly.”
The right filmmaker came along when the Taylor-Johnsons came knocking. Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson had been an inseparable couple since she cast him in her directorial debut, 2009’s Nowhere Boy, as a young John Lennon. They liked the idea of pulling something more modest together, after the miserable time Sam had directing the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie. She’d been expecting to make a trilogy out of E.L. James’s erotic fiction series, but even though her first chapter grossed $571 million, she withdrew. Speculation was that the unprecedented level of creative control Universal offered James, a first-time novelist, in order to beat out the offers pouring in from other studios, caused issues.
Sam had been captivated by Frey’s memoir since she read it shortly after its publication, when she was known for her eye as a still photographer, and before she ever made her feature debut. “I loved the way it was told,” she remembers. “90 miles an hour is a good way to describe the ferocity and pace of his writing. I remember feeling exhausted and elated at the end, thinking it would make an amazing movie. Later, I’d hear or read that some other filmmaker signed on and I’d feel a twinge of jealousy.”
After they met, she gave it to Aaron, who devoured it. He says: “The journey of redemption, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the rhythm James put into his writing which provides such energy, it made us want to try and translate that into a character on screen.”
“But it wasn’t available,” Sam sighs.
When the rights reverted, Sam’s agent asked her if she’d read it. “I said, ‘Stay right there,’ and couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.” She fished out an email for Frey, whom she had met socially in art world circles, and asked him if he could jump on the phone with her. Within 20 minutes he called. “I asked, was it true about A Million Little Pieces? He said, ‘Yeah, you want [the rights]?’ I told him yes. He said, ‘OK, go make the movie.’”
Frey may not have been eager for an encore of scrutiny, but he was moved by the Taylor-Johnson’s enthusiasm, and he saw a film that might help other addicts who felt as lost as he once did. He told Sam and Aaron that he didn’t need to be involved at all; that he wasn’t sure if he’d even watch the film. He changed his mind on both fronts, and can be glimpsed in a cameo in the film’s opening scene. He delayed his book tour to come to Toronto for tonight’s premiere at 8:45 PM at the Ryerson Theater. He may not totally be at peace with the way he was raked over the coals, but he says he’s moved on.
“There’s an area of literature that’s not really fiction and it’s not really nonfiction,” he says. “That’s where I’ve always worked, and I’ve not shied from that, even though I will say the book was submitted to publishers—all of them—as a novel.”
What is most important to Frey is that, while some of the specifics were embellished, he has hung on to the sobriety he came away with at Hazelden in Minnesota. He celebrates 25 years of sobriety this month. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t hear from somebody about how the book changed their life in some way. It wasn’t intended to be a self-help book, but the continual gift is that it really does help people.”
A Million Little Pieces is one of three major addiction tales at Toronto, along with the Steve Carell-Timothee Chalamet-starrer Beautiful Boy and the Julia Roberts-Lucas Hedges-starrer Ben is Back also films that capture the despair and desperation of drug addicts and their families in the opioid scourge that still grips America. There is hope, but no certainty in the endings of any of these films, and listening to Frey, there shouldn’t be. He still struggles even though addiction is long in his past. He has found it important to not invest in the extreme highs and lows in life, because they are triggers.
“So if I’m deeply depressed, and I struggle with depression, but when I’m at the worst of it, I will want relief and relief is drugs or booze,” he said. “When I’m extremely happy, I will think oh, wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate with drugs or booze, right? The older I get the fewer times I hit those spectrums. Day to day generally, I wouldn’t say it’s a huge struggle, but it’s also not something I take for granted and I’m pretty aware of it. I don’t believe that I could ever use the chemicals that I used and survive them, and I don’t want to die.”
For all the controversy with the memoir, Frey wasn’t the only one looking at the movie as an opportunity for redemption. Sam Taylor-Johnson needed it, to recapture her voice as a filmmaker. And while her husband could only offer moral support during her miserable experience Fifty Shades of Grey, here he had an opportunity to help.
Once the Taylor-Johnsons got the rights, they put most everything else aside, and things moved quickly. “I always had such a gut response to the book, and Aaron immediately felt it was a character he wanted to play,” Sam says. They’d never written together before, but they were in production a year after doing the rights deal. In that 12 month window, “We had to write a script, find a financier, get a cast and a green light,” Aaron remembers. “It was a bit fast for my liking. But, to Sam, even that pace made her impatient. She kept saying, ‘I just want to make it, let’s make it.’”
They found their financier in Brad Weston and Pam Abdy’s new venture Makeready, and producers in The Picture Company’s Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman. They assembled a remarkable cast for a 20-day shoot accomplished for under $5 million. Billy Bob Thornton shines as Frey’s rehabbing mobster friend Leonard, Charlie Hunnam as the brother who escorts the disheveled Frey to rehab and whose calm tethers Frey through the storm and Odessa Young as Lilly, an addict Frey connects with at rehab. Ryan Hurst, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi, Dash Mihok and Charles Parnell play key roles around them. Casting Hunnam was Sam’s idea, after they came so close to working together on Fifty Shades of Grey, when Hunnam was briefly set for kinky billionaire Christian Grey.
“After the experience we went through together on the movie we didn’t make, Charlie was always at the forefront of my mind,” she said. “Whatever I was doing next, he was going to be part of it. Aaron and I said early on, ‘Charlie is the brother, and let’s hope he wants to be part of it. He was the first person who saw the script, and he came onboard straightaway, without hesitation.
“The very difficult lessons I went through on Fifty Shades—every negative aspect of that experience—helped me here,” Sam says. “I felt bolstered by the positive aspects of how this movie was made, the tightness our crew and cast that developed. I am never one to look back with regret; for me it is how an experience feeds the future. How am I going to change so I don’t repeat an experience that was uncomfortable and difficult?”
The film enters Toronto as a buzzy acquisitions title and the hope is to land a distributor to release the film in 2019. Already, Aaron Taylor-Johnson sees a moral victory in the experience.
“Sam has her voice back,” he says. “To see her go from that big studio movie, where she had to make compromises, the most exciting thing for me was to be able to help some magic happen for her. It was a year in which we said, ‘We’re not taking jobs, we’re just sitting down, writing this ourselves, and fully immersing in doing it well.’”
As for the controversy behind the book’s publication, the movie tips a wink at it by opening with a quote from Mark Twain: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
“Some might have seen the controversy as a roadblock,” Aaron says. “If anything, it allowed us to impose our own artistic interpretation of the book. We were able to adapt it based on our own emotional responses, and interpret it in a physical and visceral-visual way that lent itself to Sam’s filmmaking. We never read or were indebted to any draft or the vision of anyone else. This was a real blessing for us two, to be able to say what we wanted to say.”