Communicating through Fiction: Tom Ford on Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford on why all his scenes have their own 3-act structure, writing as catharsis, the value of a strict schedule and the importance of photo research.
Tom Ford is a visual storyteller. Whether he is working in the fashion or cinematic world, he closes his eyes, sees the story he wants to tell and then puts pen to paper (or pencil to sketchpad).
With a longstanding successful career in fashion design already under his belt, Ford wrote and directed his first film in 2009, the critically acclaimed A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.
2016 then saw the release of his chilling neo-noir Nocturnal Animals, which has rapidly been collecting awards and nominations. Having won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Tom received two Golden Globe nominations (Best Director and Best Screenplay), and a Writers Guild Award nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay.)
Most recently, the film has also received 9 BAFTA nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Tom.
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who has just won the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his role), Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan.
In Ford’s film version, Adams’ character is an art gallery owner with a distant past she would rather forget. But when she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband in the mail and an invitation to meet for dinner, she’s forced to confront her history, and read between the lines of a dark story she seemingly inspired.
As one would expect, the film is striking. Visually, of course, but also thematically. Ford weaves together three complex storylines, while the story-within-a-story structure allows him to stretch creative boundaries.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to him recently about Nocturnal Animals, how he manages to balance design with writing, and how the one has influenced the other over the course of both careers.
What appealed to you about this project?
Well, the film is very different than the book it’s based on. However, the central themes are the same, meaning that when I read the book, what appealed to me as a writer and a filmmaker was the idea of this device of communicating to someone through a work of fiction. Through a written work of fiction. And thereby communicating something that they had not been able to really communicate clearly. I loved that concept.
In the book, this woman does leave her husband for someone who she believes can provide her with a better life. She leaves a young, struggling writer for a medical student. And in the book, the young struggling writer goes on and becomes an insurance salesman and has three children, and her husband becomes a doctor.
But their quality of life, in terms of the financial appearance of it, is not terribly dramatic – which ultimately makes it not very cinematic. It took me two years to get the option for the book. And while I was doing that – and for almost a year afterwards – I knew something was speaking to me. I knew I loved it. But I didn’t know how I was going to structure it, or what I was going to do to it.
I altered A Single Man quite a bit as well, but I knew that I could figure out a way to bring out what spoke to me in a way that would make it cinematic. And in the end it was the same with Nocturnal Animals. Once I cracked the fact that I needed to dramatically exaggerate Susan’s life with Edward compared to her life with her current husband, I knew that I needed to have a sort of pivotal moment where he really realizes how devastating her leaving him was.
I then spent the next two or three months highly organized and disciplined. I really did say “OK, every day from 8am until 1pm I’m sitting down, not taking any phone calls. I’m literally doing nothing, even if I’m feeling uninspired and unmotivated, except writing this screenplay”.
It helps so much as a writer when you have source material. The first thing I did was literally go through the book and just get it out onto the page in screenplay form. Then I went back and reshaped, moved it around, altered it and added.
I believe you always have to make things personal. So I took this concept of our material, disposable culture – which is present in the book, but in a very subtle way – and exaggerated it. Because that is something that speaks to me.
Half of my life is spent very much a part of creating contemporary culture and immersed in the creation of material things…and I’m quite torn about that! I have a lot of reservations sometimes about what I do. I’ve come to terms with this, but I wanted to make this story personal by exaggerating that as a kind of subtheme of the film.
Let’s talk about the “story within a story format”. Did you find that having what was obviously a work of fiction within the larger context of a more realistic story gave you a unique creative freedom?
Absolutely. I loved it. It’s also a filter through Susan’s head – so it gave me the opportunity for melodrama. And because things didn’t have to necessarily seem real, they could be heightened, they could be exaggerated. Because it is fiction and we are viewing it through a woman’s imagination. So that was a lot of fun.
I have a hard time with realism. I want movies to be heightened realism, enhanced in some way. The fact that Edward’s story is fiction gave me that license.
There are a number of scenes of extended psychological torture in the film. Tell me about your approach to writing – and pacing – those scenes.
I’m an intuitive person. And I didn’t even realize that I’d written such long scenes until the actors said to me, “You know, this scene is really long!”
I don’t mean this in a bad way, but you know how some people can just tell a story at a dinner party and everyone laughs and their timing is perfect? While other people, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t. I don’t actually overthink these things – they’re intuitive. When I feel that I’m getting bored with reading a scene, I stop it or I change it because I know that the audience is going to be getting bored as well.
Things are more intuitive for me than laying it all out on cards and so on. I did do that, but I did it after the fact. I had already put together the framework of Act 1, Act 2 and so on. But it was only after I’d written the first draft that I broke the screenplay down into cards, laid them out, shifted them around and made sure that they made sense in the way the story was unfolding.
I then went back and reworked the screenplay slightly to make sure that it all worked.
Each scene itself almost has an Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure to it. They’re independent little things because I knew that I might want to move them around, in terms of flashback versus fictional story versus real-life story. I wrote them that way so that they could be moved around if needed.
In the end they stayed exactly in the order that they were written, but I was apprehensive, because it is complicated weaving three different stories together. And I wanted the ability to not be locked into something, had they not worked in the order that I’d written them.
The film addresses the idea of writing as catharsis. Have you found that it has the same effect on you personally?
Writing is absolutely cathartic. Absolutely. Psychiatrists often have you keep a journal if you want to work through things in your life. It is completely cathartic and I have always found it so.
Often I’ll write someone a letter and just put it in my draft file and not send it. Partly because, of course, when I look at it the next day I think “Oh, that’s really terrible, that was mean and awful.” But also I don’t feel the need to send it. In a way, I’ve worked it out, said it, gotten it out of my system…it’s in my computer but I don’t need to send it because I’m over it.
I don’t find writing remotely stressful; I find it so much fun. I mean, of course it’s stressful when you’re trying to crack something and realize “this isn’t working, what am I going to do?” But that’s like a puzzle. That’s fun. Yes, it’s torturous – you’re thinking “this is a disaster and it’s never going to work”. But then when you do crack it, you think “OK, this is great, I’m going to do this instead”. That’s what makes it fun for me.
Given that you also have a career as a designer, your time must be of the essence. How do you decide which film projects you are going to pursue, and then make the time to see them through? Is it a challenge?
Actually no. I am so highly scheduled. This is one of the fortunate things about working in the fashion industry, and something I don’t think people realize: when you do six to eight collections a year, those collections are shown on a specific date every year and you can’t alter that. That’s the fashion calendar, that’s when everyone’s there, that’s when your show is.
That’s the date that it has to ship to the store – it can’t ship to the store a month later if you don’t have an idea. It has to ship on that day. And then you backtrack and build a calendar. I can tell you what I’m doing on March 15, 2018, and I’m not kidding. It’s on a piece of paper and already calendared.
So that’s when you work backwards and say “if that’s when it has to be in the store, then this is when it has to be done, and that’s when I have to show it, and that’s when my fabrics have to be done, and that’s when my first sketches have to be handed off, and that’s when my second fitting has to happen”. You’re locked into creativity by your calendar. And you don’t have the option to not be creative on those dates.
So in terms of writing, I knew that “OK, this is my window to write this screenplay, I have these six weeks from here to here, I’m going to clear my calendar from 8am until 1pm and that’s when I’m doing it”.
I only have one window during the year when I can make a movie with the schedule of my other life. I made A Single Man at the exact same time – I do pre-production in the summer, I have to shoot in the first few months, and then I can edit after. But I have one window, and had I missed that I would have had to wait another year to make this film.
I’m so scheduled, and maybe that sounds dull, but I’m used to living that way. That’s how I work.
The influence of your career as a designer is evident in the visual aspect of your films. But has it also influenced your writing?
Sure. But I think it’s sort of a “which came first” situation. I’ve always been visual. I’ve always been able to close my eyes and imagine just about anything. That goes back to my childhood, to my parents, and the fact that they allowed me to be that way. It’s also something you’re born with – you’re either a visual person and a storyteller, or you’re not a visual person and a storyteller.
Now, you can be a storyteller without being visual, but I happen to be a visual storyteller. And I think that’s the reason I became a designer.
I absolutely write while thinking of the shot. Film is a visual medium. I do believe that quote that says you should essentially make a silent movie and have people speak when they need to speak. Film is visual storytelling, telling a story through images. So I try to do that.
Now I also tend to write very talky scenes! But ultimately I am a visual storyteller.
In fact one of the very first things I do, before I sit down to write, is photo research. With Nocturnal Animals, I already knew what I wanted to turn these characters into, so I just did photo research for every character, and for the West, and for Susan’s world and for their past world. And I literally wrote a lot of those things into the screenplay.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character sitting on the toilet? That came from when I was googling – and this is terrible – “white trash Texas hicks”. I clicked on images and of course page after page of images came up! I saw this real-life guy sitting on a toilet in front of a mobile home, shirtless with his pants pushed down, drinking a beer, talking and laughing on the phone,. And I thought “OK, I have to find a way to work this into the film”.
So that’s how we discover Aaron’s character. Whereas in the book, we discover him on a baseball field, wearing a jersey and playing baseball. It’s just not remotely interesting to me! So I wrote that in.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything.
And as for me, if I get try to make a beautiful first sentence, or make whatever I’m writing fit into an exact structure, that just doesn’t work for me. I write in a complete stream of consciousness and sometimes they’re just words, not even total sentences. But just get it out. Get it down on your computer – or on a piece of paper if you’re really old-fashioned – but get it out. And then go back, look at it, shape it, make it perfect, choose the words carefully, edit it. But don’t be held back by trying to fit something into a framework right off, because it’s more important that you get the emotion.
That’s the most important thing – having something to say. Whether it’s what you’re trying to say in this scene, or what you’re trying to say in the film. What’s your message?
So even if you’re just writing down words that have something to do with your message, get them out. Then go back and turn those words into sentences, those sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into scenes and dialogue. That’s what works for me.
Featured image: Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features