“I think it put a strain on the marriage,” says John. “She saw things in a completely different way [the second time she got cancer]. She changed her priorities. She didn’t want to go out so much. She put a lot of it into her work. She did that still life of the trees, which is one of the most beautiful pictures she’s ever done. Her work got really beautiful.” Most of Taylor-Wood’s best-known work dates from this period: her 2002 “Crying Men” series, including Paul Newman, Ryan Gosling, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law; the stark, arresting video she shot for John’s song “I Want Love,” featuring Robert Downey Jr. lip-synching the words; her 2004 video portrait of Beckham, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, which shows him sleeping after a training session in Madrid, his hands tucked sweetly beneath his head, like an eighteenth-century shepherd. Taylor-Wood’s sweet tooth for celebrity has garnered her some criticism. But whereas Andy Warhol coolly anatomized the desire instilled in us by the famous, Taylor-Wood’s work takes in the whole range of emotions—protective, proprietary, maternal—that fan out around these tenderized icons.
“With the ‘Crying Men’ series, I was literally making them shed the tears for me,” she says, “because I was so stoic throughout [the cancer treatment]. It’s nothing to do with bravery. The people that die do not die because they are cowards. But you get tunnel vision. I developed a core of steel to get through it. And then once you’re better and everything falls away, you still have this tunnel-vision focus, but you’ve got no outlet for it. I found that incredibly unnerving and frustrating at first. That’s when it shifted to my work. Pre-cancer, I wouldn’t have had the balls to make a movie. I had the tits. Well, one tit,” she says with a laugh. “But not the balls.”
Nowhere Boy might swap the high-concept chic of the art world for the more staid conventions of the biopic, but thematically it is of a piece with her previous work. The word “Beatles” is never uttered in the film. Taylor-Wood deliberately stayed away from real footage of Lennon in her research (“If you look at him when he sang ‘Twist and Shout,’ it was through tight lips and gritted teeth, this very defensive stance”), zeroing instead on Yoko-era Lennon, when he was “much more innocent and wide-eyed and optimistic again.” While Ono has given the film her blessing, Paul McCartney had some objections, particularly to a fictional scene in which Lennon bloodies McCartney’s nose. “He hated it,” says Taylor-Wood. “I told him it was the only way to get the two of them embracing at the end of the scene.”
The film comes so packed with Taylor-Wood’s signature issues that some Beatles fans may feel Lennon slips out of focus. Was he really such a walking bruise? What happened to the famously biting wit? “I’m very conscious that there are Lennon obsessives out there who know every single detail down to buttons and shoelaces. I just know somebody is going to come up to me and say that guitar string was actually 1962 not 1957,” says Taylor-Wood, who does not pretend to be a die-hard fan, even though she once replicated an Annie Leibovitz photo of John and Yoko. “What I connected with was the way Matt Greenhalgh’s script was trying to get to grips with Lennon, who he was and how he became who he was, and the retreat into imagination during a turbulent childhood. I definitely connected with that—the retreat into imagination and the turbulence.”
As she’s finishing that thought, Johnson reappears at the restaurant’s window clutching their little girl, who is fast approaching a little turbulence of her own. “Oh, look. There’s Daddy,” she says. “I might have to go. Sorry, there’s nothing like a screaming baby to make a mother twitch.”