VENICE, Italy — The last time Tom Ford came to the Lido, the director crossed overnight from the world of fashion into the awards-season big league with his acclaimed debut “A Single Man.” But instead of capitalizing quickly on his new kudos, Ford slipped out of the film world. He finally resurfaced Friday with his sophomore outing, “Nocturnal Animals.”
“I’m sorry it was seven years,” the director told a packed Venice press conference after its first two screenings. “It kills me that it was seven years!”
Based on the 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, Ford’s new film tells the story of Susan (Amy Adams), a jaded art gallery owner trapped in a failing marriage whose life is changed when her estranged ex-husband, Edward, (Jake Gyllenhaal) mails her a copy of his debut novel (the “Nocturnal Animals” of the title). The book centers on a violent attack on a couple and their teenage daughter during a nighttime drive in the wilds of Texas. As Susan reads the novel, she begins to reflect on her doomed relationship with Edward, and the two stories intertwine.
“They’re really all the same story,” explained Ford. “The inner novel is explaining to the reader – Susan – the pain that this man felt, so the pain we feel in the inner novel is the pain that Edward felt when Susan left him. They’re all twisted together.”
Ford adapted the novel himself, keeping the film’s central conceit but adding his own flourishes. “A book is a book,” he noted, “but a film is a completely different thing. It’s a totally different medium, and sometimes the essence of a book, if you translated it literally, would be lost, because you’re telling a visual story. In the book, we’re experiencing an inner monologue, in the head of Susan, Amy’s character, and so I had to create scenes that explained visually what she was feeling and what she was going through. It had to change dramatically.”
Ford added that “the other major change was to shift the crime story from the northeast of America to West Texas. This was really because the book was written in 1993. In today’s world, you’d lock the doors of your car and call for help on your cellphone. So I had to move it to somewhere where, theoretically, there could be no cellphone service. And also, I believe in that old line, ‘Write what you know.’ And West Texas is a place I know very well.”
The film marks a change of pace for star Jake Gyllenhaal, who revealed that Ford identified very closely with the emotionally fragile Edward. “When I was sent the screenplay,” Gyllenhaal recalled, “I had just played a few characters that were all very physical and all about responding physically and emotionally – being able to protect and having the capability of protecting their people they loved. So I couldn’t have gotten this script at a better time. When I had sort of worn that other road out, here comes a guy who doesn’t know how to do that – he only has a bloody, beating heart.
“It was not easy to film those scenes, to just let people take your family away from you. It was a difficult week of shooting, with constant questioning of Tom, who kept saying, ‘No, you’re just gonna stand there and take the hits.’ It was frustrating. But wonderfully frustrating.”
Reactions on the Lido were mixed, but Ford will probably be fine with that. “Maybe I’m old fashioned,” he said, “but I think there needs to be – I don’t really like the word moral – a moral to the story. You need to think about it. Things can be entertaining, but if you leave the theater and it doesn’t stay with you, doesn’t haunt you, doesn’t challenge you, then it’s not successful, for me. So I hope to make films that make one think.”