“Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”
Tom Ford is a great designer – but the man also knows his cinema, and how to make good movies. I’ve been frustrated that he’s only made two – but they’re both exemplary. There’s 2009’s “A Single Man,” which earned Colin Firth his first Oscar nomination (and in my opinion, he should have won). And then we had to wait — seven years! — for “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), an absorbing thriller that stands the scrutiny of repeated viewings. Yes, the costumes and design are top notch, but it is Ford’s directorial impact on the viewer that is most haunting and wicked. It makes for a dizzying exploration of the wobbly divide between creativity and recollections of the past, and how experiencing works of art or literature affects us. How they can boldly become a form of revenge.
Ford manages quite a feat in his second feature – so much for the sophomore slump. It’s rather ambitious – he handles three narratives at once – and plunges you into all three strains of the imagination and how they affect one another. The eventual outcome is the cinematic equivalent of throwing a stone on a placid pond and watching the ripples on the surface. There’s also an obvious confidence in the direction – and a sense of rowdiness – the type that you feel when someone’s set up delicious and well thought out pranks for you and you start falling for them. This is a very sophisticated noir – and of course it looks magnificent.
Things start in an outré way during the opening credits. We meet Susan – a gallery owner in Los Angeles – and we’ve been watching her new provocative art exhibit. On the surface she seems successful – yet her vast home feels more like an austere prison of style. She’s enveloped in a cloud of ennui. Her handsome husband’s business is flailing, she’s been forced to sell some of her collections (including a Jeff Koons from her garden) and she knows he’s cheating on her. “Oh Susan, enjoy the absurdity of the world,” says her confidante, Carlos. Unexpectedly, she receives a package which she opens (getting a sharp paper cut from it should have been a warning), to find a manuscript from her first husband, Edward, a struggling and sensitive writer who was her first crush in high school – and whom she dumped. “I didn’t have faith in him,” she tells her assistant. “I panicked and I did something horrible to him. Something unforgivable, really.” The yet unpublished work is called “Nocturnal Animals” – a nickname that Edward had for her because of her restlessness at night.
Alone she starts to read the novel – and Ford plummets us into it – dramatizing the chapters. It’s quite a juddering juxtaposition to be transported from her placid environment to a dusty Texas highway where a fictional character named Tony – whom she visualizes as her past husband – is traveling late at night with his wife and young teenage daughter. The females’ hair color and complexion are similar to Susan’s, and the wife’s nail polish is the inverse. All of a sudden two cars start taunting the family in the middle of a dark midnight desert – driving them off the road – and a brutal kidnapping takes place. Tony will befriend a Texas lawman (a terrific Michael Shannon) who has his own ideas about impartiality. Ford shoots this sequence with unexpected and exhilarating grittiness.
Susan’s haunted by the harshness of the tale she’s reading – the way the daughter and wife are brutally separated from dad. It starts to trigger in her all sorts of emotions. She begins to suspect that the feelings and intensity portrayed in the novel might be really her own. And this is where Ford ups the ante – by starting a third narrative in which Susan is having vivid recollections of the life she used to have with Tony and the choices she made. Kudos to Amy Adams – who conveys a lot of Susan’s nuances with almost no dialogue. Abel Korzeniowski’s lush score – recalling Bernard Herrmann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock – increases the suspense and the psychological underpinnings that connect all three story lines. Most of the film she’s alone in her house – reading the novel – and the music is a mysterious foreboding that there’s a dark undercurrent in her loneliness. When we move to the fictional bloody thriller – the scoring is emotional and full. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates three distinguishing looks that coalesce. For the present timeline, he frames Susan as if she were in a thriller with lots of negative space around. Something may jump from the shadows at any moment. For the Texas section, we get an epic, traditional Western feel with open spaces and the intrinsic weight of the sky hanging over the characters. The flashbacks to a youthful Tony and Susan have the exciting quality and texture of a French New Wave film. There’s one shot that encapsulates the multi-layered world we’re navigating. The morning after Tony wakes up without his wife and daughter, he walks out and collapses to his knees with the horizon behind him and a chain-link fence. He’s at the convergence of a highway and a dirt road – the crossroads between cause and effect. “Nocturnal Animals” treads the borders between civilization and savagery, between justice and revenge – between the acts of our youth and a time of reckoning.
I’m excited to see what Tom Ford does next, but here’s hoping we don’t have to wait seven years.
Edward: “When you love someone, your work it out. You don’t just throw it away. You have to be careful with it, you might never get it again.”
Available to stream on Netflix and to rent on Apple TV, Redbox, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Based on the novel by Austin Wright
Written and Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen
Writer/Director Tom Ford on Bringing “Nocturnal Animals” to the Screen
“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.”
Writer/Director Tom Ford on the Making of “Nocturnal Animals”
“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…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…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.” (deadline.com)
Writer/Director Tom Ford on The Worlds of the Characters
“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.” (deadline.com)
Jake Gyllenhaal on Joining the Cast of “Nocturnal Animals”
“[Tom] sent it to me. I knew Amy was attached to it. He offered me the role. Sent me the script. I remember reading it and then I had a phone call with him a few hours later. I remember sort of being left vibrating from the screenplay. Like shaken. Shook up by this, particularly the initial scene, that scene in the desert. It was written so brilliantly. And how these storylines intertwined and then how it ended. I think how it ended really put a stamp on the whole story for me. Then he talked to me about how the story was to him. That he had a scenario in his life that he always regrets and he wrote for this situation and was very vulnerable to me about it and his feelings. And the reprise of the visual elements and things in the story that keep coming up and they are connected and how he wanted to shoot it and how he wanted my wife to look like Amy and they would both be redheads and how he wanted Amy for a very specific reason. And he had picked me for a very specific reason and I think all of that together just, it hit me pretty hard in a period of six or eight hours. This piece, this vision of his piece came to me. And I said I wanted to do it on the phone. In six hours I had decided to do a movie with little thought.” (theplaylist.net)
Amy Adams on Tom Ford
“He created an entire world for Susan to exist in, which really helped inform the character and in a way he became my muse on set,” she enthused about the designer-turned-director, before revealing the unexpected discovery that she made during the filming process. “I tell him that he is my muse rather than the other way around. He just has this graceful way about him, which is so very Susan. And suddenly I was like I think Susan is Tom. I came to this understanding, I knew it was a personal story but I ended up feeling like she is Tom.” (vogue.co.uk)
About Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey
McGarvey was born in Armagh, Northern Ireland. He began his career as a still photographer, before attending film school at the University of Westminster in London. He has collected two Academy Award and two BAFTA nominations for his cinematography on Joe Wright’s 2007 drama, “Atonement” and his 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina.” He was BAFTA nominated in 2017 for Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” In addition to the Oscar nominations, McGarvey won the British Society of Cinematographers (B.S.C.) award for “Anna Karenina,” as well as a nomination for “Atonement,” and also earned BAFTA and A.S.C. nods for both projects. Atonement also earned him nominations for the British Independent Film Award, the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, while walking off with the top honor from the Phoenix Film Critics Society. McGarvey has also won three Evening Standard British Film Awards for “Atonement,” “Anna Karenina” and Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours”; and a quartet of Irish Film & Television Awards for “Atonement,” “Anna Karenina,” “Sahara” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” In 2004, he was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s prestigious Lumiere Medal, sharing the company of such pioneers as Jack Cardiff, Freddie Francis, Roger Deakins and Ridley Scott, for contributions to the art of cinematography. Upon graduating in 1988, he began shooting short films and documentaries, including “Skin,” which was nominated for a Royal Television Society Cinematography Award, and Atlantic, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (now Sam Taylor-Johnson). The latter project, an experimental, three-screen projected film created in 1997, earned Taylor-Wood a nomination for the 1998 Turner Prize, and would lead to an ongoing collaboration between McGarvey and the director.
His four dozen credits as director of photography include Joss Whedon’s superhero film,”The Avengers,” the industry record holder for highest opening weekend box office upon its release in May 2012; Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” Gary Winick’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity,” Mike Nichols’ “Wit,” Michael Apted’s “Enigma,” Michael Winterbottom’s “Butterfly Kiss,” McGarvey’s first feature film credit; and two projects marking actors’ directorial debuts: Tim Roth’s “The War Zone” and Alan Rickman’s “The Winter Guest.” He also served as cinematographer on the pilot for the BBC/HBO TV series “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” directed by Anthony Minghella. He reunited with director Wright for his 2009 drama “The Soloist,” and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood (now Sam Taylor-Johnson) on her acclaimed 2008 drama, “Nowhere Boy,” her 2011 short, James Bond Supports International Women’s Day and the Death Valley segment of the 2006 erotic drama Destricted. Following his work on “Godzilla,” he re-teamed with Taylor-Johnson on her big screen adaptation, and Hollywood directorial debut, of the bestselling novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” His documentary work includes “Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home,” which followed his work on Wright’s “The Soloist,” and filmed in the same locales; “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” “Rolling Stones: Tip of the Tongue” and “The Name of This Film Is Dogme95.” Supplementing his work on features and telefilms, McGarvey has also photographed and directed over 100 music videos for such artists as Coldplay, Paul McCartney, Dusty Springfield, The Rolling Stones, U2, and Robbie Williams. In 2015, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Dundee University and an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Ulster. He is also an Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh College of Art. (edfilmfest.org.uk)
About Writer and Director Tom Ford
Tom Ford was born in Austin, Texas. Ford briefly attended New York University before transferring to Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York City. He graduated in 1986 with a degree in interior architecture and then worked during the late 1980s as an in-house designer at New York fashion houses Perry Ellis and Cathy Hardwick. He was hired in 1990 by Dawn Mello, then Gucci’s creative director, and began work as the company’s in-house designer. Four years later, after Gucci was acquired by Investcorp, a Bahrain-based investment firm, he was appointed creative director. Ford then moved to Milan with his companion, journalist Richard Buckley, with whom he shared houses in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and other cities. As Gucci’s creative director, Ford delivered a successive series of mostly 1970s-inspired, critically acclaimed fashion collections for women and men, as well as handbags, shoes, accessories, and two new Gucci scents: Envy and Rush. He also aesthetically transformed Gucci’s image from what American Vogue called a “logo-laden” look to one that transmitted a sophisticated sex appeal. In addition, Ford had good instincts when it came to publicity. In 1995 he hired the French stylist Carine Roitfeld and her frequent collaborator, photographer Mario Testino, to create a new, modern image for Gucci’s advertising campaigns. The Gucci style—the clothes, the models, the hair and makeup—served as a source to which the industry looked for creative inspiration. Ford also courted the interest of such Hollywood actresses as Goldie Hawn, Rita Wilson, Gillian Anderson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as that of Lisa Eisner, a prominent wealthy Los Angeles socialite.
Gucci’s rising profits reflected Ford’s growing popularity in the fashion world. The house had been almost bankrupt when Ford joined it, but by 1999 it was a public company worth about $4.3 billion. Gucci’s acquisition of Sanofi Beauté (from 2000 known as YSL Beauté), owner of the French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, for an estimated $1 billion in mid-November 1999 catapulted Ford into the public spotlight. In 2000 it was announced that Ford would succeed Alber Elbaz as the designer of Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line, Rive Gauche. In 2001 French holding company Pinault-Printemps-Redoute took control of Gucci. Ford’s inability to come to terms with the corporation regarding his contract precipitated his departure from Gucci in 2004. The following year he founded the fashion house Tom Ford. The label’s flagship store opened in 2007. Ford had long expressed an interest in filmmaking, and his debut directorial effort, “A Single Man,” was released in 2009; he also penned the screenplay. The critically acclaimed drama, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, starred Colin Firth as a gay professor who contemplates suicide after his lover’s death. Ford next directed and wrote “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), a thriller about an art gallery owner (played by Amy Adams) whose ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) pens a violent, vengeful novel that parallels their lives; the film was also based on a novel. (britannica.com)