Mirrors are everywhere inside the immaculate London headquarters of fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford. But all of them are angled slightly askew, so visitors need to tilt their head to see a proper reflection. It’s an apt metaphor for the dazzling puzzle box that is Nocturnal Animals, in theaters now.
Ford’s second movie, after 2009’s Oscar-nominated A Single Man, starts with a tantalizing hook. 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 hoodlums on a Texas highway, the novel comes to life for her and the audience. (The story-within-the-story costars the great, grizzled Michael Shannon as a Texas lawman and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a long-haired psychopath.) By reading the novel, Susan becomes unmoored. And meanwhile, in flashbacks beginning two decades earlier, we watch as she and Edward (Adams and Gyllenhaal again) fall in and out of love.
That’s a lot of plot to absorb all at once, but Ford has assembled Nocturnal Animals with the sleekness and elegance for which he’s known. People might not guess from its bold style — including a much-discussed, nudity-filled opening credits sequence — that the movie is the spookiest, cleverest, most dangerous, and most personal thing Ford’s ever done.
Originally from Texas (“I won’t bore you with how many rattlesnakes I’ve shot,” he says), Ford became famous in the 1990s as the creative director of Gucci, having spearheaded some of the fashion world’s most risqué ad campaigns. After launching his own eponymous business in 2005, his segue into filmmaking with A Single Man was met with skepticism — until the movie opened to critical acclaim.
“People, of course, know the billboard version of me,” he says between sips of espresso, “and they think, ‘Okay, yeah, Tom Ford, so this film is going to be all slick and pretty and blah blah blah.’ I feel really trapped in that misconception sometimes. And that’s a great deal of what this film is about.”
In reality, Ford is not the flashy, unserious fashionisto of his reputation. Some may be surprised that his main reason for stalling seven years between movies is a rather domestic one: Jack, his 4-year-old son with husband Richard Buckley. But Ford loves that filmmaking has allowed him to revise his notoriety as a provocateur. “And I’m sensitive about comparisons to the fashion world,” he admits.
At 55, he looks two decades younger, still movie-star handsome in his Tom Ford jacket, with its large-girth lapel, and a white shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel. In his Westminster, London, office on a summer afternoon, seven months before Nocturnal Animals’ release, he’s hilariously self-aware, apologizing for closing his eyes when he speaks, “as if I’m Stevie Wonder or something.” His innate charm (“Diet Coke?” he purrs, “or with calories?”) belies his control-freak ethos. “Oh, look at your little college-student notebook,” he says. “Isn’t your tape recorder too far away?” When the device is slid across the table, he says, with a sly edge in his voice, “Tell me when you turn it on — so I can transform.”
But seconds later, he jumps up and swings open the office door. We zigzag through the maze of his swank corporate fortress. “Menswear moves at snail’s pace, so it’s very calm in this section,” he points out, causing smiles among his staff, while giving directions to me from the rear: “Turn left, left again, now right.” When we arrive at a white wall, he turns a knob on an unnoticed door and enters a dark, small room where his editor Joan Sobel is working on Nocturnal Animals’ final cut. “I’m highly scheduled,” Ford says. Editing in a closet, he explains, is how he’s able to run a $1 billion fashion brand while also directing movies.
From inside that cubbyhole, you can imagine the other secret doors at Tom Ford headquarters — with a composer behind one, a sound engineer behind another — and the secret doors in his mind. For someone so open, he keeps certain things locked away, such as the premise of the comedy he wants to write. “Your jaw would drop if I gave you details,” says Colin Firth, a Best Actor nominee for A Single Man. “There was certainly one idea which I thought, ‘He’d have to have some balls to do that.’ ”
Ford identified with A Single Man’s hero — a heartsick gay professor — but his subconscious is rooted deep within the characters of Nocturnal Animals. “One side of Susan wants to break out of her shallow, empty world, and the other side is insecure and clings to it because by structuring her life she thinks she can control it,” Ford says, adding, “Yeah, it’s autobiographical.”
The connection to Edward, the writer, is less overt. “I’m not just creating clothes,” Ford says. “I’m creating whether these people live, die, their emotions, everything.” But Gyllenhaal believes that another character is really the director’s stand-in. “When I was playing Tony, Tom acted out a scene in front of me,” the actor says. “It was a moment when Tony breaks down in agony and screams to the heavens. I remember thinking, ‘That pain is inside him.’ ” The scene was later cut. (Gyllenhaal also recalls a day on the set when Ford was incapable of making a mess.)
In early September, Ford wasn’t feeling any pain at the Venice Film Festival, where Nocturnal Animals scooped up the Grand Jury Prize. He jetted from debuting his fall fashion line in New York back to Italy to accept the award.
The movie’s reviews have been great — he knows because he’s read every one — yet he’s still zinged by critiques. “It’s been accused of looking like a perfume commercial,” he says six weeks after the festival premiere. “Which no one ever said about Douglas Sirk or Brian De Palma or Hitchcock or other people who spent weeks working on their actress’ hair and makeup and clothes and sets. The beauty and the looks of things are part of the storytelling!”
He sighs, perhaps realizing that this fight is not worth his time. “I’m not defensive about it — but I guess maybe I am.”