Filmmaker Tom Ford didn’t build his reputation as one of the world’s foremost fashion designers by making a mess.
Elegance is key in everything Ford does — from his eponymous clothing company to the two impeccable movies he’s directed — 2009’s beautiful, mournful, Oscar-nominated A Single Man, and now the ingenious puzzlebox Nocturnal Animals, in theaters Nov. 18.
Both films deal with dark subject matters — suicide, bereavement, crushing remorse — but in both cases, Ford’s greatest asset as a filmmaker has indeed been the cleanliness of his vision. Nocturnal Animals, especially, takes a very complex meta-novel (involving no fewer than three different narratives) and presents the action in a fluid, lucid style that’s never for a moment difficult to follow. (Ford adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 book Tony and Susan.)
Here’s an attempt to explain the film’s fascinating spider’s web of a plot: Susan (Amy Adams) is a jaded Los Angeles art dealer who receives a manuscript from her ex- husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the violent story of a family man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) terrorized by miscreants on a Texas highway, the novel comes to life. Susan becomes unmoored, while in flashbacks beginning two decades earlier, Susan and Edward (Adams and Gyllenhaal again) fall in and out of love. Also, in the interior story, throw in Michael Shannon as a gnarly detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a dangerous hoodlum.
“When I wrote the script, I wanted each scene to be complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Ford tells EW. “And I knew that these were contained scenes that I could shift around, and then I shot enough of — I love this word — interstitiary scenes as well, so that I had the option to move them around and link them. At one point, Susan walks into her entry hall and she’s staring at a photograph of a grassy field. Well, that grassy setting is exactly what I then constructed for a crucial scene at the end of the film.”
But Ford’s clarity and cleanliness also worked as a disadvantage. There was one moment on the set that, despite the director’s considerable imagination and talent, was a bit outside of Ford’s wheelhouse. About halfway through the film, Gyllenhaal’s character Tony (in the plot’s interior story) is grief-stricken and described in the screenplay as arriving home to a messy desk.
“For that scene, it was written that the desk was a mess because his life’s a mess,” Gyllenhaal tells EW. “And Tom allowed me to play Tony as a real mess — but, I mean, it’s a Tom Ford movie, so he looks pretty great. On the day of the shoot, I came to the desk and it was perfectly organized. I was like, ‘Tom, It says it’s a mess, you wrote that it’s a mess.’ And he told me, ‘I don’t know how to do a mess, can you do it for me? I don’t know what that means.'”
Gyllenhaal pushed a few things around and added some clutter to the workspace. “It was an incredible moment, just watching Tom’s incredible focus. I moved everything around on there and he was like, reluctantly, “Um, okay, roll camera.”
Check out the fantastically atmospheric trailer for Nocturnal Animals, below. The movie opens in select theaters Nov. 18 before going into wide release in December.