It's been seven years since Tom Ford moved from fashion to film with his directorial debut, A Single Man, but perhaps his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals, just needed time to untangle. The dramatic thriller presents two stories in one: In the main story, depressed gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) is sent a manuscript written by her estranged ex Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and as she pores over it, we watch the tense tale unfold onscreen. In that potboiler, ordinary man Tony (Gyllenhaal again) endures the road trip from hell as a band of wild country boys (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abducts his wife and daughter, leading him on a revenge mission aided by a wry lawman (Michael Shannon). As they play out, both stories become more intertwined, and Ford, too, found his passions and fears reflected in the film's fragmented narrative. Earlier this fall, I sat down with the candid designer turned director for a freewheeling conversation about Nocturnal Animals that touched on manscaping, the controversial opening credits, and the film's surprisingly personal touches.
Let's start by discussing a small role, though the hair is big. I loved Laura Linney's cameo in this film as Amy's mother. She's the ultimate rich Texas Republican.
I love Laura. Had I known she was going to do that and be so spectacular, I would have given her more scenes! I thought she was great. Well, she was kind of based on my own mother.
Would your mom realize that if she watched the film?
She will if you write that! My mom is a Democrat, very much a Democrat. But I did grow up smelling what was called Aqua Net, because the first thing my mom would do is that hair.
Most directors employ Laura Linney or Amy Adams for their humility, so it's interesting that you cast them and gave them both this lacquered shell. What made you think of Laura for that role?
Well, when I was searching for Amy's mother, I went online and searched for "best American actresses."
Of course! "Best American actors," "actors over 30" … you know. And I noticed, actually, that Laura's facial structure was quite similar to Amy's. So I just emailed Laura and said, "Would you do this?" and sent her the script. She asked me a really interesting question, which I liked: She went online and looked at Highland Park, which is the fancy neighborhood in Dallas, and she sent me four houses that she'd pulled off the internet and asked, "Which house would this character live in?" And I wrote her back and said, "Well, she wouldn't live in this one because her husband wouldn't like it, and she'd really like this other one, but she would think it was too feminine for her husband, and blah, blah, blah." We talked about her accent, which she based on Lady Bird Johnson, and then she showed up on set and [she and Adams] just got along like that. [Snaps fingers.] I think when you have two great actors, it can just be so much fun to watch.
I've rarely seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson as activated as he is in your film.
I want Aaron Taylor-Johnson to be a megastar. First of all his wife [director Sam Taylor-Johnson] has been a friend of mine for 20 years.
What did you think when they first started dating?
Well … oh … I hate to turn this into something that's … you know, when I first heard they were dating, of course, I thought, "Oh my God, age difference, Sam!" But I had dinner with them shortly thereafter, and the two of them together made so much sense. They absolutely clicked, and it was so genuine, it was so real. They have two kids together, as you know, and she has two kids from her first husband, and they are a lovely family. I adore Aaron. I've known him socially, obviously, since he's been with Sam, and that was the only thing I hesitated about.
Sometimes when you've known people socially, you don't think of them in the same way as you would if you don't. However, I was having dinner with him one night and something he said, some way he moved, made me think, "My God, he could be so fucking good as this character!" So I offered him the role. He was the big surprise to me, because he was so serious and so prepared. I don't want to say he was the most professional actor on the set, but he was spectacular in every way. Just for him and not because we're friends, I want him to be a big star because he's so talented.
I do think people will look at him differently afterward.
It's interesting, he's not so much known here. In America, everyone knows Michael Shannon, but not so much in Europe. In America, everyone knows Laura Linney, but not so much in Europe. Aaron's more known in Europe, but I think also, maybe he slips so much into his characters that you don't realize it's the same person. He inhabits a role.
I laughed when Jena Malone came onscreen in her absurd, high-fashion gallery-girl outfit.
I had so much fun putting her in that outfit! I could not quit laughing, because I know those girls in L.A. The shorts, the man-shoes, oh, yeah. It was very interesting watching it with a North American audience. It played totally different than it did in Europe.
Much more laughter here. They don't know Michael Shannon the same way, so they don't know what's coming. The archetype of Jena Malone as the gallery girl with the phone … that's a well-known archetype here that's maybe not as well-known in Europe. So it was really exciting to hear that laughter, because it was much more the way I imagined it when I was writing.
It's rare to find a drama that's willing to go to such outlandish comic places.
Life has that! Oh my God. Sometimes when someone dies, that's one of the ways you get through that pain, is to make a joke. We have enough reality. We have real life all the time! It's a movie, and I want it to be a movie.
I believe I read that after A Single Man, you planned to make a comedy next.
I did write a comedy. I have that comedy. Everyone who has read it says it's so inappropriate that it really couldn't be made.
Now you have to tell me about it!
I can't. Even the title is inappropriate! I really just can't tell you. Anyway, there's another book I've identified that my agents are trying to get the rights to, and if they do, that would probably come first. It's not going to be another seven years, though. I don't know where the last seven years went! I opened all these doors … I had a child, that's where a lot of it went. I wanted to be a hands-on father, which I am. I have never been away from Jack for two weeks before, and he's going to be so mad at me when he FaceTimes with me.
You're responsible for helping define the notion of beauty and encouraging materialism, but this film posits that those are empty pursuits.
The important thing is to keep it in perspective. While you can enjoy those things, while you can love them, they're not ultimately gonna bring you happiness. For me, happiness comes from my husband, Richard, our 4-year-old child, and the people in my life who mean something. Those are the things that are really important, and that's what the movie's about: not letting those people go.
Do you feel more vulnerable as a filmmaker than you do as a designer?
[Long pause.] At the risk of alienating people in the fashion world, perhaps yes. Because it's more important to me.
Why is it more important to you?
I'm a commercial fashion designer, I'm about things that sell. As Susan says in the film, I'm too cynical to really be an artist. Making a film, for me, is the closest I will get to being an artist. I don't do it to live — this sounds spoiled, but I have money that comes from other sources. I do it for passion. I do it because I love it, which is also why I couldn't work with a studio controlling this. So I am more vulnerable, because when you care about something, you're going to be vulnerable.
So how much do commercial considerations play a part in your filmmaking?
They don't, really.
Not at all?
I mean, it would be really nice if this did well. It would help me get the next one made, so from that standpoint, I care. But I do think the two go hand-in-hand: If the audience enjoys something, and if you create something that speaks to people, then it will naturally be commercial. Maybe they're not unrelated, but I don't start with that in mind. It's funny, I went to Cannes — I decided to finance this, but I was going to sell the foreign distribution rights to help mitigate my losses in advance — and I sat down with somebody from an American studio and the first thing he said to me was, "Have you thought about the trailer?" And I said, "You know what? I haven't even made the movie yet." And I looked at my agent and said, "Yeah, this isn't working."
How do you feel when someone tells you they loved A Single Man?
That means more to me than everything. Absolutely, more than anything in my entire life. When I was making A Single Man, my greatest fear was that I was going to die before I finished it. Now, don't believe everything you read in The Hollywood Reporter where it says I'm obsessed with death, but the movie was so personal, and I grafted so much of myself onto the character of George, that I thought, "If anybody ever wanted to know what Tom Ford was really like, all they have to do is watch that film." Every bit of my being is in that movie.
How much of you is in Nocturnal Animals?
A lot of my being is in this, too, but it's spread between Amy and Jake. I didn't realize it when you walked in, but I can now deduce that you're gay …
Was that not obvious when I started this interview by queening out about Laura Linney?
Well, I suppose, a little. But as a kid growing up in Texas, I wasn't the macho, football-playing guy, you know? I was the one people called weak. I was the sensitive one. I was the one who might have blanked out in a situation like the one Jake finds himself in, and I related to that completely.
So it is cathartic to make a movie like this?
Absolutely. Of course it is. As Jake's character says, "No one writes about anything but themselves."
This interview has been condensed and edited.