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"Any image onscreen needs to be worthy of being looked at": Tom Ford on his new film, Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford talks about his sleek, stylish new thriller and the movies and artists he loves.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Tom Ford at the premiere of Nocturnal Animals at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. September 2, 2016 Venice, Italy
Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Tom Ford at the premiere of Nocturnal Animals at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.
magicinfoto / Shutterstock.com

Tom Ford is still best known as one of the world’s leading fashion designers, the former creative director at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent who launched his own eponymous label in 2006.

So when his first film, A Single Man, was about to come out in 2009, eyebrows were understandably raised. Would it be just a famous person’s vanity project, or would it be legitimately good?

It turned out to be the latter; A Single Man garnered its star, Colin Firth, his first Oscar nomination, and premiered to critical acclaim. Now, seven years later, Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is about to hit theaters after debuting at the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall. Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, the film stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon in a complex nested narrative, and is every bit as sleek, quiet, and devastating as you’d expect from Ford, whose movies are as stylish as his suits.

In the film, as in the book, Susan (Adams) receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. When she begins to read it, she becomes engrossed in the story, which is about a man named Tony who is driving to a family vacation with his wife and daughter when tragedy strikes.

Vox spoke to Ford via phone in late October about his distinctive visual style, his influences, and why it’s difficult — but rewarding — to make a book into a movie.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

Where did you find the novel Tony and Susan, and what made you think it would be a good film?

Tom Ford

I read the book in probably 2011. It was rereleased in the UK before it was rereleased in America. It was written in 1993, and a friend of mine — he's a fashion journalist, actually — said, "You need to read this book. It's great."

I read the book, and I couldn't put it down. I absolutely loved it. ... The central theme of the story is really about finding people in your life that are important and not letting go of them.

Tom Ford attends the premiere of 'Nocturnal Animals' during the 73rd Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2016 in Venice, Italy
Tom Ford attends the premiere of Nocturnal Animals during the 73rd Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2016, in Venice, Italy.
Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

I wasn't sure how I was going to turn it into a film, because it's a very different book than the film that ended up on the screen. It's an internal monologue, so it was hard to adapt.

But I knew it spoke to me, and I've learned that when you find any material that speaks to you, try to option it. Usually I end up bidding against a gigantic studio and I can't compete. This time, no one else was bidding — no one knew about it, because it hadn't been rereleased in the States yet, and so I was able to get the rights. Then I sat with it for a couple of years, trying to figure out how I was going to turn it into a film. I only had a few more months left [in my option] and I thought, "Okay, I'm going to sit down and write this." By then, I had figured out what I wanted to do with it, and turned it into what became Nocturnal Animals.

Alissa Wilkinson

The book is structured as a book within a book, right?

Tom Ford

It is, and that structure was very interesting to me, and the idea of communicating to someone through fiction, as a writer, to communicate how you felt about something, and that's what [Gyllenhaal’s character] is doing, saying, "This is what you did to me. You stole my life. You killed me, in a sense." But at the same time, we learn in the opening letter that he says that in the end, she left him with the strength to survive from the heart. He takes his damage and turns it into the thing that has always eluded him, which is the successful novel that he knew he had in him.

Alissa Wilkinson

So if you've got a book to adapt that is sort of about a book, and you're thinking of putting it onscreen, what are the things that you’re thinking about? What's most important to you?

Tom Ford

Well, the first thing about screen is it's a visual medium, and you should really try to tell the story with as few words as possible. It should be able to be told almost visually, like a silent film. You need language where you need language — where you can't necessarily communicate what you want to say.

Now, the book is an internal monologue, as I mentioned. So we're actually hearing [Susan’s] critique of the inner novel while we're reading the outer novel, and I basically had to create a world for Susan and exaggerate things that are in the book in order to make them understandable in an hour and 50 minutes. Whereas in a thick 400- or 500-page book, you can linger over things, and they can be more subtle than they can in a film format.

Alissa Wilkinson

Are there any silent films you were thinking about, watching, or taking cues from?

Tom Ford

No, but I do usually end up watching the film silently, and when I'm writing I'm thinking that way. I'm thinking visually about what can be told through the shot. There are lots of moments in this movie where Amy [Adams] is reading or thinking, or we're with her, where there are no spoken words.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals Focus Features

However, oddly, I am also told — and have learned from the actors — that I do also tend to write very verbose, long scenes that are interspersed with these long, silent, nonverbal scenes.

I don't know. Maybe that comes from a lot of years of analysis and the need to talk.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel like images come to you first, or does the narrative come to you and the images come later?

Tom Ford

The narrative comes first, and the images come to support that narrative.

Alissa Wilkinson

I rewatched your previous film A Single Man, and was struck by your repeated use of overhead shots of people in bed. That happens in Nocturnal Animals, too.

Tom Ford

And the [camera] sliding up the body in the death scene happens in both films.

Alissa Wilkinson

That's right! Do you know you're doing that when you go to shoot?

Tom Ford

Of course. And I questioned it at first, because I thought, "Oh, God. You know, I did this in the last movie. Should I do this here?"

Then I thought, "You know what? Maybe this is going to become my signature." You know? Maybe with every death, we're going to slide up the body while we hear the breathing stop. Maybe this is my signature death scene, or my signature overhead scene...

There are certain shots that I was very aware I was repeating. But you also learn what your own style is, which — you know, if you'd said to me even after A Single Man, "What is your style as a filmmaker?" I think I could have told you.

But now I could really tell you, because you start to see similarities that you're not even aware you're making because they're just your taste. You're looking at a framing on something, you're saying, "No, let's move the camera over here. No, let's do that. No, let's do this. No, let's do that."

Then when you look at it all together, you realize, "Oh, this is my style as a filmmaker. Oh, okay. I see what I'm doing." Because you're not setting out saying, "This is my style as a filmmaker. I'm going to do it this way." It's something that you start to learn.

So yes, I was aware I was repeating those shots — the same angles for those shots. I'm not comparing myself to Hitchcock, but he comes to mind because there were also certain angles and shots he used all the time. I think most filmmakers have that.

Alissa Wilkinson

For sure. I actually had planned to ask you this, so I will now: If you were going to describe your style as a filmmaker, what would it be?

Tom Ford

Well, it's interesting because I've been reading that my style has been compared to Douglas Sirk. ... I would never have drawn that conclusion, because I feel I tell a story differently than Douglas Sirk. However, I do understand why people would reach that conclusion, because everything is quite heightened visually.

I think that any image that appears onscreen needs to be worthy of being looked at, and so I do tend toward a very constructed frame and give a lot of thought to the color of everything, to the look of everything. But I do believe it's in service to the story.

I mean, Hitchcock is one of my favorite, favorite filmmakers. I like that kind of overblown music score that Bernard Herrmann often did for Hitchcock.

... In this particular genre, there's so many. Roman Polanski, Rosemary's Baby is it in her head? Is it not in her head? Is this in Amy's head [as Susan in Nocturnal Animals]? Is this not in Amy's head? Is this real? Is this fiction that she's reading? One of my favorite directors for this type of film also is Richard Brooks, who did Looking for Mr. Goodbar and In Cold Blood.

But I know I'm not describing my style as a filmmaker.

I would say even Brian De Palma — quite slick. One of my favorite movies that I actually used as a lot of the inspiration for [Nocturnal Animals setting in] West Texas, especially in terms of sound design but even in terms of texture, is The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich. The texture, for example, even in the pool hall, was the texture that I used as inspiration for inside the trailer, and the wind — the sound of the wind, the thwacking of the screen door, that sort of empty, desolate feeling of that part of the world.

Anyway, influences — I love film. All of it kind of goes inside of you and I think then comes back out, hopefully through the filter that is you, and is a different take on it all, and not necessarily literal.

Alissa Wilkinson

That makes me wonder, because you're a person who's worked across different kinds of creative fields. Are there artists from other disciplines that you feel might be coming out in your own work?

Tom Ford

Oh, my God. I mean, I'm not a painter or a sculptor, but there's a reason that certain works were in the film, because they're works that really speak to me. I mean, John Currin's Nude in a Convex Mirror” is one of my all-time favorite paintings. At one moment, Amy Adams's character looks at a Damien Hirst [“Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain”], in formaldehyde pierced with arrows. That's what she feels like, and that's what that's meant to be. That's why she's standing there staring at that.

Note: The next question and answer pair contains light spoilers for Nocturnal Animals as well as its source novel. Skip below to the next photo to keep reading without being spoiled.

Alissa Wilkinson

In the book, is Amy Adams’s character working with art?

Tom Ford

Oh, it's totally different [in the novel]. Her character is a housewife. She has three kids. Jake Gyllenhaal's character remarries. He becomes an insurance salesman. In the inner story ... he goes back and has an affair with one of his students. He's a college professor.

[Susan] doesn't have an abortion; they don't set up a meeting. When she's finished reading the book, she puts his note aside and cooks dinner for her family.

Alissa Wilkinson

Wow. Okay.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals
Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford

But don't make it sound like it's not a good book. It's a really, really, really good book.

Alissa Wilkinson

I bought it right after I saw the film, because I knew I wanted to read it now.

Tom Ford

It's an excellent book. Read it. Read it. It's excellent. It's amazing. But I also believe a book is a book and a film is a film. I don't think I could ever make a film from a book that was a contemporary, popular hit, because people expect so much. I think that's a very hard thing to do. People expect you to be quite literal, and a book is subjective. If you read the line, "She's the most beautiful woman in the world," every single person will come up with a different vision in their head, and so it'll always be disappointing when you see that onscreen. Not always, but most of the time, because it's not going to match your idea.

So the fact that this book was a book from the 1990s and was not as well-known, but yet was a spectacular book — I don't mean to sound like I'm talking badly about the book. It's a great book, but it gave me the freedom to interpret it freely.

Alissa Wilkinson

What did you see as the most important thing to preserve from the novel — the thing that really was at the core of the story?

Tom Ford

The central theme, which is don't throw people away in your life. Don't throw people away. When you find people you love, hang on to them.

Alissa Wilkinson

You've experienced a lot of life changes since A Single Man — you got married and became a father. Is that part of what attracted you to that theme?

Tom Ford

No. I think that I've been aware of that for a long time. Richard Buckley, who I live with, we've been together for 30 years ... I've always been aware of holding on to those people, so having a child didn't have anything to do with that.

I think the sort of struggle with contemporary culture and materialism is one that's been ongoing with me, because of course I actively participate in the creation of that. I've struggled with that for years and finally, I think, come to terms with it. We live in a material world. Materialism is fine. It can bring a certain pleasure to your life if you're lucky enough to live in the world where we can enjoy those things. But you have to keep it in perspective.

The important thing is the people in your life. I realized that quite a while ago too.

Nocturnal Animals releases in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on November 18, expands to limited release on November 23, and rolls out nationwide on December 9.