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Through the Lens…Tom Ford on Nocturnal Animals

Our Through the Lens series continues with screenwriter and director Tom Ford discussing two key scenes from his latest film, the gripping Nocturnal Animals. Amy Adams plays Susan, a gallery owner, married and living in Los Angeles. One day she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and finds that he had dedicated the book to her. Susan sits down to read it and is enraptured by the story, a thriller about a man who takes his family on a road trip. However, the trip quickly turns into a nightmare when a gang of men terrorize Tony and his family, and he watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are abducted.

The film is exquisite as Ford shifts seamlessly from gritty Texas to modern-day Los Angeles. It needs to be seen more than once to appreciate every fine detail, from the score to cinematography to the costume design.

Below, Ford discusses the abduction scene and the movie’s final scene, explaining how their structure is important to the story, and how they’re ultimately linked.

The Abduction Scene :

 

The most important scene in the film is the abduction scene on the side of the highway. If that scene had not worked, I’m not sure the film would have worked. It’s such a pivotal scene because it is Edward’s way of explaining to Susan the brutality of what he felt when she stole, in his mind, his wife and family away from him. It’s important that she feels that pain, and it’s important the audience feels that visceral pain that he felt and that he is now making her feel.

In terms of how we shot it, it’s shot very differently than how we shot the rest of the movie. It’s shot handheld. We were out on a highway so we had to fake what would have been a very bright moonlight. We did that with BB lights which were up on gigantic poles very high up, they were almost like stadium lights. We had to shoot the scene because of the lighting and because of how expensive and difficult to install, we had to keep the lights where they were and flip the cars around and move them to the other side of the highway to get the different camera angles so that we could shoot in two directions. A lot of the implied lighting was coming from the car headlights which we supplemented with additional lights that you don’t see from behind the car, and from flashlights which we also supplemented. They’re supposed to be out in the middle of nowhere without streetlights, so the idea was bright moonlight, headlights, reflections of headlights and handheld cameras.

The most important thing about the scene here was that it felt off balance. That was driven by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character because he had to seem completely unpredictable. That you didn’t know where this was going. Is this a nice guy who’s going to change their tire? Is this someone who is going to kill them? What is he after? So his behavior vacillates between being nice, and attractive, but not really nice because he throws you. He goes from doing something nice or saying something nice, and all of a sudden he’s not. Because he was off balance, it threw Jake’s character, Isla’s character, and Ellie’s character into a situation of What do we do? Where are we going? What’s this guy going to do? How do we react? It this menace? Is this a lot of menaces? Are they kidding around with us? Is it more serious?

That was all driven by the unpredictability of his Aaron’s performance, and a lot of the other performances were reactions to that. That’s not to diminish them, but they had to be able to react in a very believable way because as actors they knew what was going to happen in the scene. They know that the wife and the daughter are going to get abducted. In a sense, all of the performances had to be really right. It’s equally hard to act truly terrified as it is to act completely off balance.

That scene was key. It’s seventeen and a half minutes long. It was shot over three nights and there was a day of blocking it out and rehearsing.

It was the most physically challenging for the actors because they actually were the ones getting picked up and thrown to the ground. Ellie got thrown to the ground. That was just the actors getting thrown down take after take. It was emotionally and physically tough on the actors, the crew and everyone. It was in many ways the most important scene in the movie.

The Final Scene At Yamashiro:

That was shot in studio mode, the cameras were fixed and set. We shot that over one night. It was quite a long time, surprisingly, because we had so many different shots from the time she arrives and moving the camera.

The most important thing about the scene is Amy’s performance. Her face has to tell the story of being hopeful and excited and potentially embarking on a new chapter of her life to the realization that he’s not going to come, and the realization of what the book was meant to say to her, and the realization on her face is that she is by herself. In the end, she is left alone by herself.

It was shot at Yamashiro. Their first date takes place at Mr Chow in New York, we shot it at Mr Chow in LA. I wanted this scene to be in a place that was beautiful. Notice how she’s dressed, that’s part of the scene, all of a sudden she looks younger. She’s taken off a lot of the makeup. Her hair is not ironed straight, it’s looser, it’s got a wave to it. She’s in a green dress. She’s taken a lot of the jewelry off. She’s stripping back to her true self. She’s approaching the naturalism of the time that Edward would have known her when they were married. She’s still an older woman and has led a different life, but she takes off some of the artifices. She’s meant to be fresher. It’s a renewal in a sense which is why I put her in a green dress. Colors for me of what characters wear are very important. This is a reawakening for her.

I chose the restaurant for the romance of it. The gold wall behind her with the delicate bamboo painted on it. The softness of that restaurant, the beauty of it, the color of the orchid which is sitting in front of her. It’s orange which I chose to look great with her hair and dress. I wanted it to be very romantic, which set both her and the audience up for a wonderful and beautiful evening which then turns hard, and becomes the opposite of that.

Some people see the ending of the film as a tragedy, and in a sense it is, but it I don’t see it that way because it is a transformation for this woman. She has been miserable in her life, and while this is painful, she is not going back to that life. The wedding rings have come off. The lipstick has come off. Whatever she is going to do next is going to be better.

The spell of this material life she has been leading has been broken. It’s not the way she was hoping it was going to play out, but it is in a sense what she needed to happen in her life at that moment in time. It’s a cathartic experience.

The room, the way it’s shot, the softness of the lighting on her face, is meant to play up that emotion of hopefulness, reawakening, and ultimately, the very close up of her bloodshot. That last shot of her face where we see that she is just destroyed. It’s all hit her.

Those are two of the most important scenes. We need to understand that he has stood her up to make us understand that the purpose of the book, in a certain way, was revenge. We don’t know that until we see that he’s set this whole thing up to say something to her and to make her feel that pain. That abduction scene is key to driving home that same message to her character and to us the audience. Revenge. He’s also trying to say, “Look, I did it. I did it. You didn’t believe in it, but I stuck with it. I was stronger than you, and this is what I have to show for it.”