Arianne Phillips has designed outfits for Madonna’s stage tours, and she has been nominated for two Academy Awards (for W.E. and Walk the Line). I recently caught up with the acclaimed costume designer in LA to talk about working with Tom Ford on Nocturnal Animals. Ford of course has led Gucci in exciting new directions and creates an illustrious line of clothing himself. He’s known for his acute eye for detail. Both his films are executed with such beautiful precision and are visually stunning. Nocturnal Animals is set in three different worlds. Read how Phillips collaborated with Ford to create the world of West Texas, an ultra-glam LA, and softer flashback sequences.
Awards Daily: He made us wait seven years for this. But, this is the second time you’ve worked with Tom. You worked with him on his debut, and now. What was it like this time?
Arianne Phillips: You’re right. The worst part about working with Tom on A Single Man was having to wait seven years for Nocturnal Animals. [laughs]. He was very busy during that time launching a woman’s line and having a child.
AD: He was a busy bee.
AP: Busy bee, multi-tasker as he is. It’s really just been a continuation. Directing for him is second nature. As a creative director, he has a vision in creating this incredible brand and point of view, so he already had this leg up in terms of his ability to communicate his point of view. He has that experience in this massive success on a global scale where he’s become synonymous with his brand. We know he famously turned Gucci around, so what that brought to the table for A Single Man was this really refined, astute ability to communicate which ultimately is the number one attribute that a good director can have from my vantage point. Ironically, most directors are not great communicators. They’re not particularly articulate. A lot of them are visual. Our job is to get in their head. My job is to expedite the director’s vision and create characters that inform the story and move the story along. The great thing about Tom is he adapted both. He understands and there’s so much of him in the script. It’s my preference to work with a director who wrote or adapted the screenplay. It’s one-stop shopping, they can refer to any part of the script and are able to eliminate or expand any questions you might have.
The great thing about Tom is that in A Single Man, we were looking at a rack of clothes for Julianne Moore and he said, “Oh, I love editing.” It was an epiphany for me in terms of why we have a good chemistry because I love that too.
A great way of putting it as a director, they are editors, constantly reducing the story and character down to the essence of what is this about? So, you have the most concise character and succinct story that you’re telling. There’s the physical editing, but the editing in terms of story and character development is something he understood, and such an intelligent way to go about movie making. It is a painful process, for a director of constantly having to communicate what’s in his head, or having to reduce down to the practical, because sometimes when it’s on page it doesn’t make sense to film. Tom had all of that from the get go.
I’m sure in A Single Man, it was a learning curve for him on the practical side for him in how the prop person works or how the gaffer works. All these different collaborators. On a fashion set, it’s smaller, on a film you’re on a crazy timeline, he’s so brilliant, he did it once and he got it.
When it came to Nocturnal Animals, he wrote a script that was complicated. It was written in three worlds; the contemporary world, flashbacks, and the novel within the movie. Which is really ambitious for a director to take on. He had my respect at first read because it was bold. His maestro capabilities are that he was able to direct what these three worlds are about, and he was able to communicate how they work seamlessly together.
I think he’s brave to step outside the box that we put him in as a fashion designer and as a brand. Directing feels incredibly natural in his hands. I know storytelling is a big part of him, and he’s so collaborative. I felt so supported, and I trust him.
AD: As you mentioned, there are three parts to the film. You have the slick LA look, the grubby Texas look, and the flashback.
AP: It starts on the page, and we share mutual references. We create mood books and character books. We flood ourselves with inspiration and reference, and sift through, and edit. In the case of Susan, it’s very important that she has this steely exterior, that’s very presentational. She’s impenetrable, which is a juxtaposition for this inner turmoil, she’s in this unhappy marriage, and reflecting on what got her to this point in her life. We learn about her as a young woman in flashbacks. She’s more hopeful, softer, and rebelling.
There’s this complicated relationship with her mother, and it’s this processing where she becomes her mother, that cliché of her worst nightmare.
The costumes had to serve that steely exterior, and contextualize her in this elite world of a successful gallery owner. In the flashback, we see this younger, vulnerable place where she started, and that’s a character arc.
In the West Texas world, we see this cinematic dusty world, and we’re going into her mind. We see that, and it’s really Tom’s masterful direction, with Seamus [McGarvey, cinematogher], and all the creatives guiding how these worlds would live alongside each other.
AD: I do want to talk about the green cowboy boots!
AP: I’m so glad you noticed!
AD: How many costumes did you have to make, and how many were off the rack?
AP: I don’t know. I didn’t count. We made all of Michael’s costumes. We made bits of Aaron’s costumes. We made about 80% of Amy’s costumes. The green cowboy boots we made.
There are a lot of story clues for both the audience and the actor. We all know the experience of putting on a pair of boots and how your posture changes, the fact they were green, we made cinematic choices. They’re also character clues to him. He also wears a pinky ring that we created this horrible back story where he probably kept it from a victim.