It’s been seven years since Tom Ford made his directorial debut with A Single Man. Since then America’s most recognized designer launched his own fashion label, opened stores and became a father. In the midst of all that, he read Austin Wright’s novel-within-a-novel Tony and Susan after someone recommended it to him, and decided that this would be his next project.
The project came to life as Nocturnal Animals, a psychological thriller about loss, revenge, and isolation starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. Susan (Adams) is a gallery owner. Ford’s shoots her in big spaces from afar, showing her isolation. All is not as perfect as it seems in her world. One day, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal), and sees he’s dedicated the book to her.
Susan begins to read and discovers that the main characters sound uncomfortably familiar. In the story, Edward and his family are taking a road trip that goes horribly wrong when they’re accosted by a gang.
It’s a gritty and wonderful thriller with such fine detail, with superb performances all round. Watch out for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s turn as the baddie. The direction and visuals are rich and luxurious and haunting at the same time. It’s a film that will have you thinking long after the credits roll. I recently sat down with director Tom Ford in Beverly Hills to talk about making Nocturnal Animals.
Awards Daily: Seven years, Tom! I missed you.
Tom Ford: I know. Thank you. I have no idea. I certainly didn’t intend for it to be seven years. I opened 100 stores, I had a child, and it took me a while to find the right project, and I’ve been working on this for the last three. Seven years until you’re seeing it, but it was three or four until I found it.
AD: And how did you find it?
TF: A friend of mine who lives in the U.K read this book, Tony and Susan. I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s an absolute page-turner. It’s different than the film. I thought, “How am I going to turn this into a movie? I’m not sure but it speaks to me.” I was able to option it, and I learned a long time ago that if another major studio isn’t bidding against you and you can get something that you love, then get it, and figure out what you’re going to do with it later. Which is what I did.
AD: When you’re adapting it, did you change a lot?
TF: I changed a lot which is also what I did for A Single Man. For me, they’re totally different things. For the author who wrote it, it’s always going to be what it is, it’s a perfect thing and will always exist as a book. For me, as a filmmaker, I want to take the spirit of that and think of the best way to tell it visually which sometimes is the same, and sometimes is not the same. Writing the screenplay, I tend to write in what those shots are going to be because it’s a visual medium, and really you should be able to have a silent movie and understand what’s happening. Then you layer in language. Of course, I’ve been told I write very verbose long scenes, at least the actors have started to tell me this. [laughs].
AD: On the visual side I was drawn in and mesmerized with that scene.
AD: My thought was, what am I getting into?
TF: Good. Well, that’s part of the purpose. I don’t believe you should know where you’re going in a film. I wanted it to be that bit of a rollercoaster. That’s also a very purposeful opening because it’s a microcosm for one of the themes of the film. You have these women who have literally and absolutely let go of everything our culture says they should be. Those women are joyful. When I shot them I fell in with them, and when I edited them. Then we cut to Susan (Amy Adams) who’s sitting there trying so hard to be exactly what she should be, and she’s unhappy. That’s one of the themes of the film.
AD: And what a great theme it is. I love the characters. I spoke to Aaron Johnson.
TF: How good is he?
AD: He is brilliant.
TF: He is brilliant. He is not that guy, but he has you believing he’s that guy.
AD: I was scared of his character. I mean it’s stuck with me. It resonates.
TF: Good. Thank you.
AD: What conversations do you have with production designer because those visuals we see are stunning?
TF: Let’s talk about the story first because the visuals are there to serve the story right? That’s the main point for making any visual choice. I had a very strong idea of what I wanted it to be. You work with very talented people and you have to be collaborative, and that’s the idea so you hire people to work with you with who you have a shared vision with so Shane Valentino was the production designer. When we met, we just clicked. Same with Arianne Phillips who worked on the costumes and who I worked with on the last film, I’ve known her for over twenty years, we had the same language and we clicked. Seamus McGarvey, the DP, he came to me, I met him in London. Aaron’s wife is an old friend of mine who said I needed to work with Seamus. So, I loved his work. We sat down, we spoke short hand about art, films, photography. We knew what each of us was talking about. It’s very important to collaborate with people who share your vision, that helps if you’re a director and you have a specific vision but you want that added to and expanded upon, and you work with people of a like mind.
AD: When you’re developing the characters, did you have binders like you did for A Single Man?
TF: Absolutely. As you know, I wrote the screenplay and it does vary from the book. Maybe it’s something that comes from the fashion industry because that’s what we do. Every time we design a new collection you start thinking about what inspires me. You pull images, you put them on a wall, and you start thinking. It might end up looking completely different, but it gives you a place to start. The same goes for me with film when I’m writing, and it’s these little details that you write in that make it alive. I need that visual stimulus.
AD: A lot of when you shoot Amy is done in isolated shots especially in that house. You have that big massive space around her.
TF: I’m so glad you’re picking up on that. It’s the same with Jake’s character, we see him all alone in the desert, all by himself. We see Amy all alone going up those white marble stairs in that office building, or we’ve very close because we’re right in with them.
That’s what it’s about, it’s about connection and isolation. Intimacy and loneliness. It’s a human condition that we all feel. So there are very few mid shots. We’re really tight on Michael and Jake at the diner, we get that crack on Michael’s character where we realize he is vulnerable inside, when Jake’s character asks, “Is there anyone in your life?” and we see a glimmer of the fact that his character is a little more emotional than he’s letting on.
That whole scene is just close up because that’s what it’s about.
AD: Your casting is great.
TF: Hopefully it was the script that got them. Amy was the first that I attached to the project. I wanted her desperately because I wanted this character to be sympathetic. This is a woman you could hate, she has everything, she did something terrible to her first husband. It’s easy to think, “Oh poor you, I don’t care about you.” Amy has a soulful quality in her eyes, and you can’t not respond to her or to her characters. She has the ability to telegraph her thoughts when you’re watching her, for half of the story she’s reading so you’re just seeing her face. That actress had to be able to emote, and Amy is amazing at that. She’s also completely believable. She has such a youthful quality. She’s believable as someone in her twenties and believable as someone in their early forties.
Same with Jake, his range as an actor worked perfectly for the range that I needed for the character. This is a man who goes from being young and optimistic and idealistic, to someone who is absolutely destroyed and has had everything taken away from him. I can go on and on.
AD: One of my favorite scenes is the toilet scene. I was actually talking to Aaron about this. Was that in the script?
TF: I had to retouch it so we didn’t see everything. It was in the script, it wasn’t in the book. In the book, his character is playing baseball. I thought that it wasn’t cinematic, and that’s not how we can find this guy.
I found that by Googling– actually, I’m not going to tell you what I Googled because it doesn’t sound very nice. I was doing photo research and came across this photo of this guy sitting in front on a mobile home, sitting on a toilet, drinking a beer and talking on the phone. I thought I had to work that into the movie. I wasn’t sure where I was going to put it, and then I decided to put it there, when we find Aaron.
AD: How did this differ from A Single Man for you?
TF: It was bigger in every way. The script was complicated, the story was complicated, the story was complicated, there were more actors, more characters, and more personalities. I had to be like a psychologist. It was tougher to edit because of the three different storylines that had to connect. It was fun, but it was bigger. I don’t think I could have done it had I not done the first movie.
AD: Talk to me about the music and working with Abel Korzeniowski?
TF: Abel is a great great film composer. Again we share very similar tastes. I like a very rich, overblown old fashion movie score, and so does he.
AD: What do you want people to take away from the film?
TF: I want people to think about the people in their lives. The most important thing is to find people in your life who mean something to you and not to let them go. This is a story about what can happen to your life when you do let those people out of your life.