EXCLUSIVE: Tom Ford is waiting for me in the otherwise empty Cafe Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. He is the first to remark on the absurdity of how atmospheric this must look. He is as meticulously coiffed as ever, in signature dark suit, white shirt and tie. But Ford doesn’t come off staged, at all, once he warms to talking about Nocturnal Animals, which won top prize at Venice and just got him Best Director and Best Screenplay Golden Globes nominations this week.
Still, his sartorial splendor is intimidating enough to have left this journalist, for the first time since maybe high school prom, spending more than a few minutes figuring out what to wear (even though Ford agreed in advance not to judge too harshly). Famed for trailblazing fashion exploits that moved him from creative director at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent to launch his own Tom Ford label, Ford brought the same attention to detail to movies. That started with his 2009 directorial debut A Single Man, the self-financed drama about a man left so empty by the death of his lover that he becomes obsessed with the careful planning of his own death. Colin Firth won an Oscar nomination, and Ford left many surprised that a rookie filmmaker could display that level of confidence as a storyteller.
It took seven years, but he has taken a leap forward with Nocturnal Animals, which has the expected visual flourish but is grounded by a meticulous detail to telling a complex story. Ford directed the film from his scripted adaptation of the Austin Wright novel Tony And Susan, a relatively straight-ahead story about a woman sent a manuscript by an ex out to show he made good on his potential. Ford turned that into a disturbing trip down the rabbit hole reminiscent of American Beauty, with multiple storylines and bravura turns by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Laura Linney.
Your first film, A Single Man, sold after its Toronto premiere; the only major deal that year as the indie business cratered. Nocturnal Animals was a splashy sale on a script and a pitch in Cannes. What did you learn from A Single Man that informed how this one went down?
That first time, I couldn’t get anyone to believe I could make a film. I was confident I could, so I financed it myself and intended to sell it, which I did. I also started out here intending to finance myself, but I thought I’d mitigate my exposure by selling foreign distribution rights.
Working with Glen Basner, we printed up 200 scripts, circulated them, rented a ballroom, and I put together a little audio/visual presentation in Cannes. I pitched the film to this room, and then had individual appointments and we started off selling individual territories.
I didn’t want an American studio. I knew I was going to shoot in Los Angeles. I knew I was going to work on the film in America. I’m not good with a lot of voices in my head. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but I’m better at creating if it can be somewhat more organic and pure. I get confused when I hear too many voices, and the reputation of Hollywood studios interfering, re-cutting, all these things, just turned me off.
Focus Universal came to me during this process, when we had already started to take the highest bids but hadn’t signed anything. The budget at that time was $17 million—it would go higher—and we covered about $12 million. Then Focus Universal came to me and said, “We want the world.” I said, “No, thank you.” This went on for a few days, even after I’d left Cannes. And they finally just said, “Literally, write on a piece of paper what you want.” I won’t tell you what that was, but I did. I’m very lucky. They said yes to absolutely every single thing and they honored it, and they have been terrific. It has in a sense restored my faith in what it might be like to work with a Hollywood studio.
I still obviously had total final cut; they didn’t even see it until I handed over the deliverables. I was still able to work in a completely independent way. And the film also went over that $20 million budget a little bit.
By $2.5 million?
A little bit more but not much, which I covered and hopefully, I’ll get back. But it was great to have a partner from the beginning in planning the distribution. Focus has been wonderful. The creative team at Focus, the marketing team, they’ve been terrific, and Donna Langley’s been incredibly supportive.
Peter Schlessel, who bought the project, said that the film you delivered was so close to the one you pitched, at close to the price, which he thought was remarkable for a director making his second feature.
It is my second film, but I’m 55 years old. I’m not a kid. I’ve been in business a long time and I know how to deliver. I run a big company and I wouldn’t make a promise that I didn’t think I could keep. So while it’s early in my film career, it’s not early in my career and I felt very confident I could say to people, “This is what it’s going to be, this is about how much it’s going to cost, this is when I’m going to deliver it to you.” And I did that.
It sounds arrogant, but I guess when I think back to A Single Man, the thing that surprised me most was when people said, “Oh, I didn’t think you could do that.” Before, everyone said, “Oh, of course you can make a movie! It’s going to be great.” Afterwards, they said, “How did it feel? Because, you know everyone was laughing at you!” I was like, “Why were you laughing at me? I told you I could do it.” I’ve had failure collections but I pride myself in delivering what I say I am going to. I’m glad it worked this time.
Sure, you had a vision sketched out. What surprised you most while making the film?
You have to keep an open mind. You can write something, visualize it, map it out and go over the shot list with the DP. When you get there, you have to be willing to say, “OK, that’s not as interesting as I thought, but wow, this performance is great. Let’s shoot it.” An open mind keeps it fresh and helps it stay alive.
I wasn’t surprised the performances were great, given the actors and the space they had to perform. Laura Linney was terrific. She came in and did that in one day. We’d done a little bit, beforehand. She emailed me and said, “All right, my character would live in Highland Park in Dallas because that’s the fanciest neighborhood. These four houses are in Highland Park. Which one would I live in and why?” I wrote her back and I told her, exactly. She sent me a tape of Lady Bird Johnson and said, “This is the accent I’m thinking, does this work for you?” I said yes, exactly. When she arrived on set, she was prepared. I had Karl Lagerfeld make her suit. But her performance? Stunning and more than I could have even hoped for.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson was another. I was so impressed and to say surprised is probably not the right word. He’s a close personal friend. His wife and I have been friends for a long time. I was never expecting that of him. He was so inside that character. That scene in a lot of ways hinges on his performance. You have to be left questioning, what the f*ck is he going to do next, where is he going to go? Every take, he did something different. We would talk about it and didn’t let Jake know what he was going to do, which of course just threw Jake off and made the whole thing feel off balance.
Laura’s scene took three hours. Everybody was like that; you don’t get a lot of rehearsals with big actors. Amy Adams, I had almost no time with. Michael Shannon too. Actors just aren’t available for two weeks to come in for rehearsals. It just doesn’t happen anymore.
After terrifying everyone at the Toronto premiere, Aaron Taylor-Johnson gets onstage afterwards. A proper British gentleman. How did you know he could summon this visceral, primal, redneck psycho?
Did you see him in Kick-Ass? You would never know that guy was English. He’s so good with accents, and inhabiting characters. He’s different in every role he plays, to the point where he’s almost unrecognizable.
We were having dinner one night and he was telling a story. I don’t even remember what it was about but I was watching him. He didn’t realize this, but I was thinking, would Aaron be right for this? He started to tell some story, and he went off on something. It was like a glimmer of insanity and I thought oh, my God. You. Would. Be. Perfect. He was even better than I could have ever hoped.
Amy and Jake I went after in a more traditional way. I knew I wanted Amy and she was the first person I attached and then after Cannes, I went after Jake.
Amy is cold perfection, and we first meet her in that scene with overweight naked older women. What message were you trying to convey there?
It’s a microcosm for one of the themes of the film. These are women who have let go of everything that our culture says that they should be, and they were so joyful. I loved these women. They were so comfortable with themselves, with their bodies, absolutely uninhibited. I had so much fun the day that we shot and I had so much fun editing these women. I found them so incredibly beautiful and then we cut to Amy who’s sitting there absolutely exactly like our culture tells us a beautiful woman should be. Successful, and dead inside. That’s one of the themes of the film.
Not surprising you would be asked to explain…
I think a lot of people might think, OK, well, it’s really strange. Tom Ford’s in the fashion business. He uses all these thin models on a runway and this is how he opens a film. Our eye is led, but as a fashion designer, I learned a long time ago that anytime I find something arresting—even if I find it, at first, maybe not attractive, but arresting—I need to stop and look at it. Because usually there is some sort of incredible beauty in it, and culturally, our eye has been led to sort of look and say, “Oh, that’s beautiful but that’s not.” But yet, you start to really look at these women and at the happiness and joy in their faces, and they’re incredibly beautiful.
Were you surprised that some wondered if that scene was done at the expense of these women?
That would be the audience making that judgment because all I’m doing is putting these women on screen. If the audience judges that, then that’s perhaps the responsibility of our culture which has told the audience, all of us, that this is what we should think about these women. But if you really look, there’s great beauty there, because they are who they are.
Amy Adams’ Susan draws our sympathy at the beginning. She is in this superficial marriage to this guy who’s obviously cheating on her, and she is alone. But she becomes progressively harder to like as we learn more about her and her…
Well, yeah, when you observe her relationship with Edward and her withering criticism of his work, and then she tosses him and his unrealized potential aside for a shortcut to an upscale life. Describe what went into drawing that character. The scenes with her mother told you a lot.
Watch Amy’s face in the scene with her mom. She withers, very subtly, and she says he has a different kind of strength. Her mom says, “What kind of strength is that?” “Strength to believe in him and to believe in me.” The way Amy delivers that, it’s almost like she can barely believe in herself and she knows her mom’s about to shoot her down. But she says, “He has the strength to believe in me,” and she doesn’t believe in herself. She’s the one who doesn’t believe in herself, which is why she leaves Edward. She is a victim of her insecurity, of her upbringing, of her background, of that particular world, a culture that tells her she should be beautiful, have beautiful children, a beautiful house. That’s a woman’s responsibility, which is an antiquated way, which as she says, “My mother, she believes in an antiquated idea of what I should be or how I should be.” You know, we all make mistakes and she will go on to make the most major mistake, one that triggers much of the plot.
You like her more than I did.
At one point, she says, “I can’t believe what I’ve done,” and we all make mistakes. We start out in life thinking maybe one way is the path we should follow. There’s a great line about how midlife is when you get to the top of a wall, when you’ve climbed a ladder and get to the top, only to find the ladder has been against the wrong wall. That’s what happened to her. She’s hit a moment where she has all these things that she believed she was supposed to have. And she’s empty inside because she threw away the important thing.
The novel provided the subplot, but how much of Susan was informed by people in your own life, or people you observed?
A lot of it is autobiographical. As Edward says, you know, nobody really writes about anyone but themselves. I believe that, that you write what you know. That level of materialism, the disregard for people in your life and spirituality, is something I’ve certainly battled. 10 years ago, I hit the point where Susan reached, and I moved past that.
What drew you out of it?
Well, I had a drinking problem and a drug problem, which I should probably quit mentioning because the press seems to make a bigger thing than it needs to be. You know in America, people like to talk about, “Oh you battled that.” Truthfully, work drew me out of it, along with whatever pulls you out of a mid-life crisis. A lot of psychology, finding a new voice in contemporary culture. We could go on for a long time about rediscovering, reconnecting with a certain sort of spirituality.
I came to terms with materialism. We live in a material world. Velvet feels great. Cashmere feels great. Steak tastes great. Good wine, if I still drank, tastes great. We are material but you have to keep all of that in perspective because really, as your parents told you when you were a kid, the best things in life are free. There are connections with people, the sky, the earth. Susan has lost her way in that, so she is quite autobiographical.
Susan, and the character of George in A Single Man, were both autobiographical to a certain extent. George was me grafted on to Christopher Isherwood and then Colin Firth grafted on to me and Christopher Isherwood. All of us are quite similar. In the movie, on the day he’s planning on killing himself, he puts on a suit, shines his shoes. He’s holding himself together, like a crustacean, and so is Susan. She’s built this hard shell because inside, she’s…
Empty or tortured or damaged, vulnerable, and she’s trying to hold herself together through perfectionism. If the outer world is perfect, maybe she’ll be OK. And that, I definitely can relate to.
When Christopher Nolan directed Inception, he color-coded each of the dream sequences to help viewers navigate the complicated narrative. You tell stories on parallel tracks. Explain what you did visually to distinguish them.
I did do the same with the grading. However, I wanted it to hold together as a complete film. And while there are three stories, it’s really one story. But I’ll talk first about the grading and then we’ll come back.
Susan’s world is cold, so it’s desaturated. It’s in blue tones. When there is color, it’s sharp and garish. The inner story, which is meant to be visceral, is gritty and a little bit oversaturated. Everything is rich in that way. The color tone in the flashbacks are warm, because when we remember things we tend to romanticize them, even if it’s a fight or if it’s a love scene, so there in Susan’s head, they are warm.
That was the period of her life that was warm, in contrast to the period of her life which is now so cold and gray. Which is why it’s not a sunny, happy Los Angeles. It’s a gray, foggy… You don’t live in L.A., but it does get like that; the gray, foggy L.A. and that weather looks terrible because that city is not built for fog and rain. It’s built for sun and it all looks like it’s made of cardboard and going to fall down. Whereas London looks great in the rain because it was built for it.
I also wanted particular colors to be emphasized throughout all these stories, particularly the color red. Red is passion, red is blood, red is anger, red is vivid. It can mean a lot of things, but the story is really all one story because they fuel each other. For Edward’s anger, when we see him through the windshield wiper, we then cut to the inner-novel where Tony explodes and says, “I should have stopped it,” because that is what drove him to write that scene. And what he’s saying in that scene is, “I should have stopped the moment my family was stolen from me.” Which was that moment in the car, and seeing her with him… they start to fuel each other.
There are a few instances like that, and they start to spin into the same story. They had to also link in a certain way and by the time we get to the end, her world is quite colored again and vivid. Her dress is green. The restaurant is warm because she’s alive again. She’s been awakened and so the color pallets sort of merge.
Most book adaptations are faithful to the source material. Using the characters from the Austin Wright novel Tony And Susan, you ended up with something more original and metaphorical. How long did it take for you to find the handle on the story you wanted to tell?
It took me a couple of years. I optioned the book because it spoke to me. The central theme of finding people in your life that you love and not letting them go or throwing them away is what spoke to me. Our culture, everyone throws everything away. We throw stuff away.
I also loved the device of being able to communicate through a piece of art; in this case Tony’s novel. Tony And Susan is an inner-monologue, just like A Single Man. We just hear this woman thinking. She doesn’t do anything but sit in her house and read while her children are playing Monopoly. Nothing happens, so I knew it would be very hard to film. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it into a film. But I knew I loved it, I knew it spoke to me, so I knew I had to option it.
Luckily, it came out in the UK in 2011 and wasn’t released here until 2012. So it was on no one’s radar and I was able to get the option for it. I had a couple of false starts, thought about it, worked on it a little, thought about it. Once I finally figured it out, it took me six weeks. Then I sent it to Amy Adams and she said yes.
What was the “eureka” moment where you cracked the code?
It was in elevating Susan’s position in life and grafting my own ideals of pain and pleasure onto her character. In the story, she leaves the writer Edward for a medical student. She leaves for reasons of security. Edward’s character becomes an insurance salesman, and has three children, and their lives are more or less the same sort of suburban life, and the end is quite lukewarm. They don’t set up a place to meet. She reads his book, critiques it, puts it aside to make dinner for her family. So the themes are there but not in a way that could make them cinematic that an audience would watch. I had to exaggerate everything so that it would be clear. The hard thing was to figure out how to exaggerate the themes. So I made it a melodrama and made everyone archetypes, and made that inner story a fairytale so it’s a work of fiction being seen through her eyes.
That is why both Edward and Tony are played by the same actor, and Tony’s wife in the novel seems so much like her?
She’s casting Edward because she knows nobody ever writes about anyone but themselves. She sees that red sofa and realizes, “Oh, that’s the red sofa I used to lie on when I was always criticizing his work.” She walks into her entry hall and she sees that photograph she has by a great artist called Richard Misrach, with the two guys standing in the field of grass. I re-created that exact field of grass for Edward’s death scene. All the things in her life, his life, they all mesh. I’m rambling.
For those who saw the movie and are unsure of the clues, you are laying them out pretty good here.
When Susan leaves Tony, it’s in front of a car body shop and there’s a green GTO. That’s burned in his mind. So when he writes that book, Ray [Taylor-Johnson] drives a green GTO because that is burned into Tony’s mind. There are links between all those stories.
Once I figured out how to take these people and make them archetypes—to turn it into almost an operatic, melodramatic noir film where everything is heightened—that was the thing that made it work. Things were beautiful but very subtle in the book and I’m not sure they would’ve played as powerfully if it had remained that subtle on the screen.
Michael Shannon’s dying lawman is right out of an Elmore Leonard or Cormac McCarthy novel, with a bit of Clint Eastwood.
I can’t recall if it was John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock or another director—maybe not Hitchcock because he didn’t have great respect for actors—who said a director’s job is 70 percent casting. Cast brilliant actors who you suspect are right for the role, then figure out their process and help them to their best performance. They want to shine on that screen, so then you’ve got to give them space to let them do that.
One thing I do, all the time, and especially with Amy in this part and certainly with Colin in A Single Man, is I don’t tell them that I’m going to not cut. I just keep the camera rolling and keep the crew quiet, and the actors kind of go, “F*ck, he’s not cutting. Sh*t.”
What do you get from extending the scene?
With a good actor, you end up getting authenticity. They’re forced to go into themselves. Amy especially, I’d just keep rolling until the film runs out. Colin’s crying scene. I just didn’t stop. So he had to keep going into himself, and finally, he just lost it.
That was memorable. It made us understand the weight of his loss.
When they think they’ve given their performance… I give them plenty of space and I think you have to trust them. You can’t get inside their bodies and make them do things. I’m also very calm. I’m not one of these directors who scream and yell and torture actors. I think I’m good with actors because I think I respect them.
Firth seems a consummate pro, a good thing to have on a director’s first film. What did you learn from him?
That actors are your safety net and you must always only work with great actors. Even if the script is flawed, or your editing is flawed, you’ll get great performances. Work with great actors.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a very masculine actor, who was totally emasculated on that Texas roadway in Nocturnal Animals…
And he struggled physically with his own personality not to jump in and be more physical.
How do you help him check those instincts? That was a very difficult scene to sit through, a father’s worst nightmare. Trying to decide if these rednecks are harmless, or deadly. Do I make my stand right now, or endure their taunts until they go away? He makes all the wrong decisions and has to live with the aftermath.
And there are three of them and one of you, and two women, and do they have a gun? They’ve got crowbars. What’s going to happen? All I had to do was keeping reminding Jake who his character was. Purposefully, the character in the novel is meant to seem weak because in the outer world, that’s what Susan’s mother called Edward. But guess what? That’s the last thing Aaron says to him, “You’re too weak.” And that is what gets Tony to pull the trigger.
He does appear weak to us, but he was an honest guy who was blindsided. He’s on that roadside going, “Are they going to help us or not? F*ck, what do I do?” He has a blackout moment, which Edward also had too. He loved Susan, his soulmate. It never even occurs to him that she’s going to have an affair and leave him, let alone abort their child. So in the inner novel, the character has to seem weak and be blindsided, and then beat himself up about it, break down and finally pull himself together enough to blow that guy away when he calls him weak.
It was hard for Jake, and it was very physical. Those guys really were grabbing, and you know Jake’s natural instinct would be to punch him. We had a running machine put in for Jake, and I’ll tell you, he did a lot of running while we shot those scenes, trying to get some of that physicality out.
It is not a picture postcard of Texas, the state where you grew up. Were there some memories that informed why you set it there?
The original story’s set in the Northeast, in pre-cell phone 1993. Now you would lock your car doors, call for help and we wouldn’t have a movie. It’s a bit of a fairytale, but I had to find a setting where there was a void; absolute emptiness.
Having grown up in Texas until I was 11, I know that part of the world and what it feels and smells and sounds like. I don’t necessarily know those people, although I’ve seen them. I grew up in a nice middle-class family in Austin, Texas, which was very different than that.
My grandmother was closer to Susan’s mother; I remember my grandmother saying to my little sister, “If you don’t date poor boys, you won’t fall in love with poor boys, and if you don’t fall in love with a poor boy, you won’t marry a poor boy.” She thought that was an appropriate thing to say to a young girl.
Once I’d figured out to put Susan in this world, I wanted the gritty contrast of that other world, and so Susan and Jake are also both from Texas. I gave them that link, which doesn’t exist in the book. It just fits together though it’s hard to explain the writing process.
Success in one creative business doesn’t always transfer to another. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was an incredible film and you could see Julian Schnabel’s painting influences there. How helpful were your skill sets in creating and launching fashion lines in forging such a confident vision onscreen?
I had a point of view. You have to have that if you’re a painter, a sculptor or a fashion designer. And you have to have something to say and a point of view if you’re a filmmaker. I think I’m a good storyteller who for years told stories through fashion. Each collection tells a story, and has a lot more work behind it than maybe people understand or give us credit for.
Well, even more than that. You know fashion designers are probably some of the greatest experts on film that you can imagine because every time we start to design a collection, that is an inspiration. I have built entire collections around Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant. We know film backwards and forwards, and images and sets and clothes and costumes and people and characters, and so we’re storytellers in that sense.
But the real thing is that when you’re a creative director like I am, and you have a large company with hopefully, a point of view and something to say, you have to hire great people and know how to work with them. They have to be talented and you have to know how to inspire them and lead them and give them the space to create their very best. That’s exactly the same as making a film, where you’re pushing and leading gently towards your ultimate vision. The skill set is very much the same.
I’ve also worked with Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Mario Testino, Steven Meisel. I know how to frame. I know how to light, I’ve been doing that for years. Even technically, I understand a lot about that aspect as well.
Ridley Scott once told me he can read a script and visually frame out every shot, while he’s doing it. His brain is just wired that way. His challenge became learning good storytelling because that was not his strong suit. You have the advantage of being a writer, as well. Where did that come from?
I have no idea. I always loved to write, as a kid, and in high school I won awards. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a screenwriter. I think I might have a hard time making a film I didn’t write because it’s so much part of the process of thinking about what I want to say, as the totality of the film.
It’d be interesting to see if I could make a film from someone else’s script. I would have to rewrite it probably.
You went seven years between films, the way you do it. Weren’t there good scripts handed to you?
Lots. But I don’t like not being in control. So if it’s controlled by somebody else—if I don’t own the underlying material—I don’t even want to read the script. It doesn’t matter how enticing, who’s attached. I don’t want it. I can’t do it, so I have to develop it and find the right thing.
I’ve written two original screenplays. One’s terrible, one I might make next, we’ll see. It is extremely politically incorrect satire. In today’s world, I’m not sure satire means anything because what’s going on in our world is already satirical.
The shocking election results have prompted speculation that this kind of hangover drove those ’70s films with themes of counterculture and paranoia. Maybe there is a place for what you’re talking about?
Without getting too much into politics. I wanted Hillary to win, I voted for Hillary, but there are enormous amount of people in our country who feel absolutely disenfranchised, left behind, who don’t have jobs, and feel that no one is speaking for them. From a Democrat side, I learned a lot and we have to address this. These people need jobs and hope. There’s always something to learn from everything. I know that I’m not necessarily addressing the point that you brought up but anyway. As for what’s next, I need some space. Promoting a film is exhausting. I finished editing, we went right to Venice two weeks later, and it’s been like that ever since.
What was most gratifying about the reception and top prize in Venice?
Oh it meant so much to me, because I lived in Italy. I still have offices there and manufacture all my clothes in Italy. I have so many Italians that I work with. I was there, of course, with Colin for A Single Man when he won Best Actor. This prize meant an enormous amount to me, and I literally flew all the way back from New York to pick it up, and then went to Toronto. It really touched me.