Joe McGovern
July 25, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Seven years ago, critics and audiences were taken completely by surprise by A Single Man. The sensitive, stylish drama, adapted from a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, was about one day in the life of a dapper college professor (Colin Firth) who has decided to kill himself rather than live with the grief of his lover’s death.

For his poignant performance, Firth was nominated for an Academy Award. He lost — but when Firth scored the Best Actor Oscar the next year for The King’s Speech, he took a moment to acknowledge A Single Man’s first-time director from the podium: “And my very fortunate friendship with Tom Ford, to whom I owe a very big piece of this.”

From the office of his name brand headquarters in London, Ford smiles at the mention of Firth’s Oscar speech shout-out. “It was so sweet of him,” says the 54-year-old superstar designer, who became world famous two decades ago as the creative director of Gucci and Saint Laurent. “Colin is a very loyal, solid, terrific person and I was so spoiled to make my first film with him.”

Ford has been even more spoiled on his follow-up movie, the dark, wicked, double-narrative Nocturnal Animals, which stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal (seen here in these exclusive images) in the lead roles. Like Ford’s debut film (co-written with David Scearce), this one is also based on a novel, which Ford once again adapted into a screenplay himself.

Merrick Morton

The 1993 book Tony and Susan was written by a Cincinnati author named Austin Wright, who died in 2003 at the age of 80. It starts with such a tantalizing hook: A married woman named Susan receives in the mail a manuscript called Nocturnal Animals from her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t spoken to in years. As she begins to read Edward’s book — a tense page-turner about a family under siege by hoodlums on the highway late at night — we read it right along with her. And we wonder, what does it all mean? Is the book an act of forgiveness? Or an act of revenge?

Ford was certainly intrigued, enough so that he optioned the book’s rights. “I think that what Edward has done,” he says, “is written this book and sent it to his ex-wife and through that, he’s saying, ‘This is what you did to me.’ But it took him 20 years to express himself to her. And what really spoke to me was the whole part about the choices we make in our life. And how long we sometimes wait to make them.”

In the story-within-the-story, we meet Tony (Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher), and their daughter (Ellie Bamber) as they depart for vacation in their car and cross paths with three dangerous men (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on the road.

Their plot is filmed with extreme faithfulness to the novel — but Ford’s boldest move was to make the world of Susan (Adams) so adventurously different than it was in the source material, where she is basically just sitting on a couch flipping pages in the book. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan is a complex art dealer living in Los Angeles, dealing with feelings of apathy and a growing isolation from her husband (Armie Hammer). She’s seen here in her sleek, modern-art-dappled home, as played by Adams.

 

“I have obviously always admired Amy as an actress,” Ford says. “But after working with her, she is breathtaking. I cast her because, after watching Big Eyes, I found how much she could say with just the smallest emotions. And of course this character is reading a book for most of the film. So Amy’s face had to telegraph everything that’s going on. Her ability to do that, in that respect, makes her maybe the strongest actress working today.”

Also, it’s worth noting that Ford is the first director to finally cast Amy Adams and Isla Fisher in the same movie, where their uncanny resemblance actually has thematic resonance. “Isla’s character, as the wife of the inside story, represents Amy’s character,” the director says. “So I was thrilled that I got to cast both of them.”

Gyllenhaal has a dual role in the film, also appearing in flashbacks with Adams as her husband when they were both in graduate school. Ford enlisted the Nightcrawler and Brokeback Mountain actor partly for his ability to be convincing as someone in his mid-20s or late-30s. “But also because I’ve been so impressed with Jake’s career choices, especially lately, constantly pushing himself in more unpredictable directions. And as a result, you’ve seen his career,” Ford makes a upward swooshing motion with his hand, “going like this. And you can see why.”

Here, we see Gyllenhaal with Michael Shannon (right), who plays a detective investigating the violent act that occurred with Tony’s family on the highway.

 

Nocturnal Animals is expected to appear at film festivals this fall before opening in theaters on Nov. 18 from Focus Features.

Ford promises an experience. “What is movie-making,” he asks, “other than an hour and 50 minutes to do something in a cinematic way that says to an audience, ‘Boom, boom, boom.'”

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