Tom Ford crafts a layered thriller-within-a-thriller with ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Filmmaker and fashion designer Tom Ford talks about his new film, "Nocturnal Animals."
(Kirk Mckoy / Los Angeles Times)

First thing on a recent Monday morning and Tom Ford looked more impeccably put-together than just about anyone else on their most glamorous Saturday night out. Dressed in a sharp black suit and a crisp white shirt elegantly unbuttoned to reveal an expanse of chest, he confidently strode across his efficiently austere West Hollywood workroom/office to greet a visitor, everything around him seeming an extension of a singular aesthetic vision.

In the world of fashion, Ford has designed under the iconic labels of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent as well as the company that bears his own name, his sleek, sexy clothes becoming the contemporary epitome of off-handed luxury. Ford introduced himself as a filmmaker with 2009’s “A Single Man,” which earned actor Colin Firth an Academy Award nomination, and his new work, “Nocturnal Animals” is in release now.

Ford’s day job as one of the world’s best-known and most successful fashion designers puts him in an unusual position regarding his filmmaking. While audiences and critics may bring expectations that his movies occupy the same precise world as his fashion work, Ford sees them as very different endeavors with very different purposes for him.


“Well, I’m not doing it to make money. I make my money doing other things,” he said. “Fashion is where I make my living, and so consequently, when I design a fragrance, I think, ‘Is this going to sell? I love it, OK, but is it going to sell?’ And that’s not the way I think when I approach film. It’s ‘What do I want to say?’ ”

In the coolly unnerving “Nocturnal Animals,” Ford takes on the empty consumerism and lack of personal connection in modern life, which might also be seen as something of a rebuke of his other career. Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a Los Angeles fine-art dealer weary of her high-end world, who receives a package from her ex Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing a novel dedicated to her.

As she reads the book, she imagines its story in her mind, as a man named Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) has his wife and daughter taken from him after a confrontation with the dangerous Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a barren stretch of desert highway. Tony later enlists the help of local lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to help him get answers and possibly revenge. Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Laura Linney, Jena Malone and Isla Fisher all pass through in brief supporting turns as the film becomes a complicated treatise on memory, meaning and materialism.

Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Armie Hammer and Aaron Taylor-Johnson star in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.”

Pretty much anyone looking at “A Single Man,” an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Isherwood in which Firth plays a man named George Falconer who is contemplating suicide, or the psychologically intense “Nocturnal Animals” wants to make comparisons with the strong iconography of Ford’s fashion and advertising work. In particular, “Nocturnal Animals” makes savage satire of a world of glamour and artifice that feels like it could be familiar to Ford. Yet for him, the two endeavors remain distinct.

“They’re not comparable,” Ford said. “Because fashion, I’m just making surface. It not about what’s inside, it’s surface. Film, the surface has got to be there to serve the character, to serve the story.

“The personality of the brand is totally different than telling a story. While that comes from me, that doesn’t have anything to do with who I am inside, deeply inside. Whereas film can be about what you are deeply inside. I don’t think you would realize from looking at my ads as Tom Ford that I struggle with materialism and spirituality or sorrow or depression or, in the case of George’s character, suicide. I’m not really going to do very well selling suicide.”

The new film creates three distinct looks for three storylines: a deadened, de-saturated world for Susan; a vivid, poster-bright look for the desert of the story within the story; and gauzy, diffuse images for Susan’s memories of her time with Edward.

To create this unique blend, Ford turned to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a two-time Academy Award nominee who has worked on films such as “Atonement,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Avengers,” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” McGarvey was surprised that Ford did not turn up with photographs, movies and visual references — but rather simply talked about his vision for the picture. McGarvey was similarly surprised by Ford’s openness once on set, his ability to make decisions in the moment.

“What makes a good director is the way they can look at a situation and very quickly make judgments that feed into the film,” McGarvey said. “I know a lot of people use the word precision, they’ll apply the analogy of his couture, but there actually was so much on this film that was very elastic, kind of done on the fly. He’s very good at gutsy, intuitive decision-making.”

Fashion, I’m just making surface... Whereas film can be about what you are deeply inside.

— Fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford

The world of fashion has notoriously long been difficult to capture on film, often veering too quickly into grotesque farce. Ford said he had not seen “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s horror picture that includes a fashion designer character who bears a resemblance to Ford, nor has he seen either of the recent biopics on Yves Saint Laurent.

“I have never seen an accurate interpretation on film of the fashion world. Reality is sometimes more potent than any amount of fiction,” Ford noted. “Although I could possibly do it, and I maybe touched on it a little bit in this film, but I wouldn’t want to. I live that life, so I don’t really want to make an entire movie about it.”

Ford looked toward his impeccably organized desk, with seven awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America on a pedestal on one side and a Marc Quinn statue of model Kate Moss in a contorted yoga pose on the other, to note that his schedule is planned about a year in advance. To make “Nocturnal Animals,” it took a year to clear out the four months he needed for pre-production and shooting.

During the seven months in which he edited the film, he also designed a collection, shown last fall, that he noted was “one of my favorite collections in a long time, because I was so excited and so happy.” So maybe his two worlds aren’t so separate after all, funneling as they do through the singular sensibility of this particular person.

Audiences will have a chance to hear Ford’s views on “Nocturnal Animals” and see some of his influences during a four-night program at the ArcLight Hollywood this week. Kicking off the series Nov. 28 is Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on Nov. 29 and Richard Brooks’ “In Cold Blood” on Nov. 30. And then on Dec 1, Ford will appear for a Q&A after a screening of his new film.

As for his next movie, Ford mentions that he has two scripts he has written, but that he isn’t sure if either will make the cut. Once he is finished promoting “Nocturnal Animals,” he will take a moment to decide.

“Right now I don’t know, right now I’m exhausted,” he said. “I’ve got to take a few months to think, what do I want to say next.”

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