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Inside The Wardrobe Of Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals

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Photo: Courtesy of Nocturnal Animals.
When Tom Ford announced that he was going to direct his first feature film, 2009’s A Single Man, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay British university professor living in 1960s California, many fans of the feted fashion designer assumed that he would conjure up the costumes himself. Instead, he turned to Arianne Phillips, the visionary stylist and costume designer twice Oscar-nominated for her work on W.E. and Walk the Line, to lend her expertise to the production. The resulting designs were the perfect complement to Ford’s immaculately crafted cinematic world, where no detail, aesthetic or narrative went overlooked. Phillips’ Instagram bio – “Illusionist, fantasy spinner, character builder, fashion loyalist” – is a telling indication of her character-driven approach and, indeed, from the protagonist George’s beautifully tailored yet worn-in brown suit to the young dreamer Kenny’s wispy, pale pink mohair sweater, Phillips used the costumes’ colours, condition, textures and silhouettes as potent visual signifiers of the characters’ states of mind.

Today marks the release of Ford’s sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals, an enthralling and complex thriller that combines unremitting Hitchcockian suspense with high-octane pulp to seat-gripping effect. It tells the tale of successful LA gallerist Susan (a mesmerising Amy Adams) whose meretricious existence, complete with rich, chiselled husband and imposing modernist house, has failed to bring satisfaction. She is hurtling towards a mid-life crisis when her estranged first husband sends her the manuscript for a novel he has written and dedicated to her – and she soon finds herself immersed in its perverse tale, forced to confront her guilt-ridden past. Ford seamlessly flits between the past, the present and the fictional with a sustained sense of mystery and unease, in what proves a searing story of betrayal and revenge.
Photo: Courtesy of Nocturnal Animals.
Once again the director called upon Phillips – then in the midst of preparing costumes for longtime collaborator Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour – for sartorial direction, and again she pulled it off with remarkable skill, the exquisitely realised costumes providing subtle hints to the story’s nuanced undertones: from Susan’s pristine, impenetrable attire when presenting a public facade, to the coiffed and pearl-adorned mother (a superbly detached Laura Linney) against whom the younger, more idealistic Susan so rebelled. As the film hits UK screens, we sit down with Phillips to discover more about her “detective”-like practice and her and Ford’s working dynamic.
How did you and Tom Ford meet, and how did your film collaboration come about?

We met socially in the late ‘90s – I got to know him and his husband Richard Buckley – and I stayed in touch with them. Then [a decade later] Tom invited me to lunch and told me he was going to direct his first film and that he wanted me to work with him. Of course I was completely flabbergasted and very flattered to be asked and shortly after he gave me the script for A Single Man, and that’s where it all started.

Was it intimidating to work with a director who is himself such an expert in fashion design?

It wasn’t intimidating at all, it was really exciting. When he told me he was going to direct a film for the first time, my number one curiosity was what story he was choosing to make, because that says a lot about a person. So I was very eager to read the script, which I did immediately and actually I did something I’ve never done before: I read it, I put it down, I took a walk around the block because it was quite moving, and then I went back home and I read it a second time. Reading a script can be tedious and boring – they’re usually full of a lot of technical information like camera angles and I don’t really connect to them but [that's] part of Tom’s brilliance as a director: how he adapts and writes the scripts – because A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals are both adapted from novels. As a costume designer, the greatest thing for me is working with a director who has written the script because it's in their head: they’re the ones who can be flexible on the spot in terms of whether they can adapt something, or they can explain something, so it’s a purer experience.
A Single Man was set in the 1960s, with ‘60s fashion, while Nocturnal Animals is set today, so your references must have been very different…

The vernacular that people often use is "fashion" but A Single Man is not about fashion. It’s a story that takes place in the 1960s and of course fashion is always a reference – if I’m working on a film set in the 1960s or the 18th century or currently, I’ll look at what was fashionable at the time as a time capsule for what was socially, politically, geographically relevant – but I don’t think about fashion when I’m designing costumes. There’s a very big difference between fashion and costumes because the whole purpose of costume design is to illustrate and create a character – to help tell the story and move it along.

So was the research process for Nocturnal Animals quite similar to A Single Man?

The story [of Nocturnal Animals] is contemporary but it takes place in three different worlds: the contemporary world set in Los Angeles, the flashbacks when Amy Adams’ character Susan is younger, which takes place in New York and Texas, and then the story within the story, which is its own world set in West Texas. It is a more complicated film: there is more subtlety, more of a story to tell, and it’s certainly a bigger film – the cast is bigger. The initial process was generally the same: as a director Tom is extremely prepared. I imagine the process started when he was adapting the script – he began amassing this bible of research and visual clues that informed his writing and the way that he wanted to shoot the film. That was everything from art references to photography references and character mood boards.

What is Tom's level of involvement in the costumes?

Tom is very character-based and he knows in his head how he wants the characters to look when he’s writing the script, so he was involved and he was present in almost all the fittings, which was really fantastic for me; and that’s kind of where the magic happens. The fitting is really a trial and error time when we discover who the character is and how the costumes should inform them and then we can start layering how the hair and makeup will look and so on, and all that preparation really helps so that by the time we’re shooting Tom can be really focussed on getting to the day’s work.
Susan’s character is in many ways the most complex, and certainly undergoes the biggest transformation in the film. Could you talk us through your process when devising her costumes?

Initially, the first thing I do is figure out how many costumes she has in the two different worlds: the flashbacks and the present day. I have extensive meetings with Tom one-on-one where I ask him a lot of questions about the character that might not be specific to the script; it’s kind of like being a detective because I need to find out what her motivations are, which would also inform the way she looks. So we have long, protracted conversations where we look at reference and research. Tom often comes very prepared with his point of view of the kind of woman she is – that can be anything from someone we know in pop culture or someone from his own past or a photo we’ve seen from a magazine; it could be anything, just to communicate her look.

The thing about Susan is that her character is really in two parts. There’s a real differentiation in the contemporary story between her public and her private persona. In her public persona she’s very precise and presentational, not a hair out of place, and in her personal persona at home, when we see her reading the novel, it’s a softer version of her, a more vulnerable one. That juxtaposition of her steely exterior and her inner turmoil is really important. Then of course when we see the flashback, we see a younger version of Susan that I would characterise as more hopeful and optimistic: a young person on the precipice of life and the excitement that that brings. So we really get this underlying theme of the emotional journey she’s on. Once all that philosophy about who she is is in place – the character arc of where she’s going and what the film is about – we discuss colour, silhouette and all the other ideas that inform the design. Then we look at a lot of vintage clothes and I figure out each costume, and then I make them, do fittings, meet Amy and she puts them on and then we do camera tests, so that by the time we’re ready to shoot, it’s perfect.

Nocturnal Animals is in cinemas nationwide from today.
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