In seeking to tell this tale that is not only a story-within-a-story but also an exploration of human desire, ambition and indulgence, Ford realized that he would be exercising both his directing and screenwriting skills to an even greater degree than with his first film.
Boldly exploring the psychological and emotional sea changes of men and women living – or trying to live –their own truths, the masterful Nocturnal Animals is the second film from extraordinary visionary, writer/director Tom Ford, following the acclaimed and award-winning A Single Man (2009).
Nocturnal Animals is a cautionary tale about coming to terms with the choices that we make as we move through life and of the consequences that our decisions may have. In an increasingly disposable culture where everything including our relationships can be so easily tossed away, this is a story of loyalty, dedication and of love. It is a story of the isolation that we all feel, and of the importance of valuing the personal connections in life that sustain us.
– Tom Ford
Nocturnal Animals follows one woman caught between her past and her present, while she consumes and is consumed by a story in the here and now. For the filmmaker, in adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 book Tony and Susan into a film, he found himself once again concentrating with equal intensity on both the written word and the moving image.
“Writing is one of the parts of film-making that I love the most,”says Ford.
”In the screenplay phase the process is entirely singular, and as the film at that point exists only in my mind it is in its most perfect form. When I write, I begin by collecting images that relate to the characters and their worlds. I look for images of interiors, locations, actual people who inhabit the different worlds of the characters that I am creating. I then start to write and often actually write into the screenplay the details that I have come across when doing photo research. The worlds our characters inhabit in Nocturnal Animals are two worlds that I am incredibly familiar with. Growing up in Texas and New Mexico, the part of the story that takes place in West Texas was easy for me to write, and the somewhat rarified world that Susan inhabits in Los Angeles is far too familiar to me as well.”
“I visualize every sound and image and often write in an almost shot-by-shot fashion. By the time that we actually get to filming, I have usually worked out most of the details of what I want to capture. The beauty of working with a strong production team and strong actors, however, is that more often than not spontaneous things happen while shooting that I could not have imagined and these can make the end product all the more rich and nuanced. It is important to keep an open mind when filming and to try to look at things with a fresh eye. While often they will be different than what I had imagined when I sat at my desk writing, more often than not the surprise of the actual moment and performance adds a great deal to the complexity and layers of the film.”
In seeking to tell this tale that is not only a story-within-a-story but also an exploration of human desire, ambition and indulgence, Ford realized that he would be exercising both his directing and screenwriting skills to an even greater degree than with his first film. While A Single Man transpired in 1962 with flashbacks to the years prior, it was largely one man’s world; by contrast, Nocturnal Animals bridges three characters’ odysseys while also closing off avenues of contact among them.
In adapting Tony and Susan into the screenplay for Nocturnal Animals, the contemporary lifestyle scenes drew him to visualize extremes for how isolated and lost the lead character of Susan Morrow truly is. He notes, “Style is not the ultimate goal for me when I make a film. Style without substance is hollow and empty. I do however pay great attention to style as it relates to the characters and the story. Sets and costumes can inform not only the audience but can help the actors inhabit the role fully. Consistency of tone is important to me, and the way that images are captured stylistically works with both the score and the sound design to create a cohesive world. I am of the mind that a picture does indeed speak a thousand words and that film is truly a visual medium. I think that a movie should play silently, and that words and language should be used only when necessary to move the narrative along.
“That having been said, I am told that I write very long scenes. It’s something that never occurred to me but that I think comes from my desire to form connections between the characters. In life I love nothing more than great conversation and so I suspect that without thinking I tend to create scenes with a good deal of dialogue interspersed with scenes where the audience is simply watching someone do something telling without speaking.”
The adaptation process took some time. Ultimately, his final screenplay diverges from the book. Ford explains, “The book Tony and Susan is beautifully written. It is a great story. The concept of a moral allegory told through a piece of fiction – the book within the book – I thought was fresh and original. I loved it the moment I read it and felt that it would make a great film. It was however not the easiest book to adapt and it took me quite a while to decide how to approach it. A book and a film are vastly different things and a literal interpretation of a book often does not work on the screen. For me it is important to take the themes of a book that speak to me and then to exaggerate and explore them on screen. In that way, Nocturnal Animals is true to the book even though some of the story elements are original and the setting is actually completely different from that of the book.
“Tony and Susan is to a great extent an inner monologue that is taking place in Susan’s head. I had to create scenes in her life to convey the feelings that she expresses in the book in her mind, but do so visually in order that we would understand what she was feeling without resorting to what would have essentially been a voiceover throughout the entire film. Also, the basic theme of Edward’s novel is a bit vague in the book and I felt that it needed to be exaggerated in order to be clear on screen.”
He adds, “On a more practical note, the setting of the book has been relocated, in part because the book was written in the early ‘90s, before the use of cell phones was widespread. The method of the crime that the book centers on could not occur in today’s world of cell phones and online communication if I had not relocated the story to a place in which there might not be cell phone service. I chose to locate the story in West Texas –the original story takes place in the Northeast – as there are still places there where one could imagine that there would be no cell service. It is also a part of the world that I know well, and I subscribe to the old adage: write about what you know.
“In the book Tony and Susan, the character of Edward Sheffield comments that ‘no one ever really writes about anything but themselves,’ and I chose to keep this in the film as I believe completely in this statement. We all see things through the filter that is our being. When Edward writes his fictional novel Nocturnal Animals, it is literally made up of details and emotions from his past with Susan. Most of these were of my invention, but I wanted to emphasize that Edward was writing a personal story that was clearly about his life with Susan and an explanation to her of what he felt that she did to him. For example, in one of the flashbacks we see Susan reading one of Edward’s short stories and she is bored by it and he is devastated. In that scene she is lying on a red sofa. This clearly is imprinted in Edward’s mind, as when he chooses to kill the character who represents Susan in the novel he places her body on a red velvet sofa. The killer in the novel drives a green Pontiac GTO from the ‘70s, and this same car appears in a flashback scene when Susan leaves Edward. Details from their lives together are scattered throughout Edward’s fictional story and have clearly cemented themselves in Edward’s consciousness. In the same manner, many things from my own life have worked their way into the screenplay for the film.”
Ford confides, “One of the themes of the film that hit home personally for me was the exploration of masculinity in our culture. Our hero(s) Tony and Edward do not possess the stereotypical traits of masculinity that our culture often expects yet in the end they both triumph. As a boy growing up in Texas, I was anything but what was considered classically masculine, and I suffered for it. I empathize with the characters of Tony and Edward, and their perseverance speaks to me.”
The forward momentum of the narrative – the story-within-the story- is a literal page-turner. In retrospect it seems to have been destined to be replicated in an immersive movie going experience. What drives the movie is the characters’ respective needs for closure. Some have put into motion their efforts before we even meet them; others grasp at it seemingly out of sudden necessity.
Conveying the full impact of three main characters’ epiphanies and decisive actions was something that Ford undertook in A Single Man. With Nocturnal Animals, the call for portraying the three main characters went out for two lead actors who had established both a rapport with moviegoers as well as a proven performance ability to access a spectrum of emotions.
Ford was drawn to Academy Award nominee Amy Adams “because of her spectacular ability to telegraph emotion without dialogue but with just her face and soulful eyes. Amy is truly a great actress. There is something in her eyes that feels raw, and truthful. I wanted the character of Susan to be sympathetic. It would be very easy to hate Susan because, as she says in the film, she ‘has everything’ and yet she is unhappy. She has chosen a path in life that is opposite to her true nature. She is in a sense a victim of her upbringing and of what is often expected of women in our culture.
“For much of the film the character of Susan is reading and reacting silently to what she has read. This is where Amy’s incredible ability as an actress stands out for me. She is so honest in her performance and was able to access Susan’s pain in a way that makes us empathize with, rather than hate, Susan. Her portrayal of Susan is subtle and nuanced, and was in many ways the most difficult role in the film as she could not rely on grand gestures or even language to convey the pain that the character feels.”
As evidenced in her portrayals in such films as The Master and American Hustle, Adams’ facility with steering her characters into shades of gray while still retaining audience identification meant that “the character of Susan could possess many layers of complex feelings while on the surface seeming to remain calm and composed,” says Ford.
Adams muses, “I’m a certain age so something that I can identify with is being at a certain point in your life where you become very reflective and you start evaluating choices and thinking about what your choices will be moving forward. I understood that aspect of Susan, as well as her feeling burnt out with artifice. She can never really let go of the conflict between the person she wanted to be and the person she chose to be.
“I felt I had the opportunity to experiment with this character. On the set, Tom would allow the camera to sit, and roll, for a long time. Sometimes you can get self-conscious, but then you have to work through that and struggle to find your way to something wonderful. So often, directors will call ‘cut’ when they see an actor struggle, but Tom knew it would get us to deeply emotional moments.”
Although they had not acted opposite each other prior, Ford felt that another Academy Award nominee, Jake Gyllenhaal, would match up well with Adams. He observes, “On a practical note, it was hard to find two established and strong actors who could be believable playing characters in both their 20s and early 40s. Jake and Amy have that ability, and their subtle changes in mannerisms and speech patterns between their young selves and their more mature selves were masterful. They both managed to carry this off beautifully.”
The filmmaker was equally confident that Gyllenhaal could put himself out there for the wrenching scenes in the story-within-the-story. Ford states, “I was drawn to Jake for the part of Edward/Tony because I admire the risks that
Jake takes in his performances. This was a tough and emotionally demanding role. I felt that Jake would do a brilliant job and I was certainly not let down.”
Gyllenhaal, upon initially reading Ford’s screenplay, found himself “profoundly moved, and shook, by it. The script communicated, in a lot of ways, what it feels like to have a broken heart. It’s also about how we want to be perceived and how we present ourselves to other people – so then, who are we really, what is someone’s real truth? I feel that Tom is at war with the idea of aesthetic over honesty, and that film-making is a medium in which he can express this.
“I found Tom giving me a tremendous amount of space and quiet – which I need, to be vulnerable in front of the camera. He’s extraordinarily detail-oriented.”
The crucial supporting roles of Lt. Bobby Andes and Ray Marcus, who would seem to represent different extremes of the law, were filled by, respectively, Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon and British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Both actors were sought by Ford because of their versatility, a quality which has allowed each to disappear into characters from different eras and nationalities – so much so that filmgoers might not be able to remember where they have seen these actors before.
As Ford explains it, that quality was vital “to get at these men in full; the characters may only exist in the manuscript that Susan is reading, but the portrayals had to capture her imagination and rivet the audience’s attention.”
Shannon remarks, “I loved the idea of playing a character in a novel, and I do feel that Tony and Bobby are two aspects of their author, Edward. Bobby is a classic, iconic character; there’s a long history of characters like him that I may have referenced – some of his traits would come out of the subconscious. He is hardwired to pursue justice; dealing for years with nefarious people, he has seen a lot of lives adversely affected, so he wants to help Tony find the strength to confront the men who committed these crimes.”
Gyllenhaal reports, “Working with Michael is a joy. His interpretation of Bobby was fascinating to watch, as the situation Bobby and Tony are in is deeply serious – but Michael would still bring a wry quality to a lot of the scenes, which was really refreshing.”
Shannon smiles, “People hear ‘a Tom Ford movie’ and may think everyone will be walking around in tuxedoes. Bobby really doesn’t think about having ‘a look.’ Basically he just has cigarettes and a gun.
“Jake is a fearless actor, someone who always wants to go for another take – which I like because I’m kind of the same way. Aaron would show up in-character, he would come into the make-up trailer in the morning just on edge, unable to sit still; he harnessed a feral energy to play Ray.”
Taylor-Johnson reflects, “I read the script and thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do this.’ There was no angle for me to relate to this character. Then I met with Tom and listened to how he wanted to see Ray on-screen, and I put all my trust in him to go do this challenge. I started watching documentaries and reading about serial killers in American history. I’d never done a Texan accent before, and our dialect coach Michael Buster helped me get a resonance away from the twang of what people think a Texan accent is.
The filmmaker is satisfied with the enveloping quality of Nocturnal Animals as not only a compelling and suspenseful journey but also an inward-looking one. His expectation is that the viewer will be “open to identifying with more than one of the characters.”