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Director Tom Ford Used Two Key Rules for ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Focus Features’ “Nocturnal Animals” is only Tom Ford’s second feature as writer-director, but already he knew the two key rules for a filmmaker: Do your homework and hire the right people.

After a long career in fashion, Ford made his movie debut with 2009’s “A Single Man.” Like its director, “Nocturnal Animals” is sleek and glamorous, but there is a lot going on below the surface.

Adapting the novel by Austin Wright, Ford tapped into his fashion background by using a lot of visuals — even when writing the script — grabbing various images from online. “I make binders for every character and their world. And then before writing a scene, I look at that character, so they’re fresh in my mind.

“Certain images work their way into the script. I found a photo of a person sitting on a toilet on their front porch, talking on the phone and drinking a beer. I thought, ‘We have to use that.’”

It’s a brief moment in the film, but it conveys much more about the character than the softball scene that’s in the novel.

When Ford cast Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor- Johnson, he shared these binders with the actors. He adds, “Three-quarters of directing is hiring the right actor.”

Most directors know the technicals of making a film, but surprisingly few know how to talk to actors. Ford’s cast enthuses that he’s a rare director who helped them understand their characters (and the art of acting).

“You have to respect every actor’s process,” says Ford, who earned Golden Globe noms for both writing and directing. “Good actors want to give you their best performance. You have to inspire people; that’s part of your job as a director.”

That chemistry is equally important when hiring the team behind the cameras.

“Somebody taught me to hire people you want to have dinner with. I would want to have dinner with every person on my below-the-line team. Of course they’re very qualified and that’s the most important thing, but they’re also kindred spirits.” And this helps create a good atmosphere, he says. Some people believe tension leads to more edgy creativity. “I don’t like tension,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s counterproductive. Why put your energy into tension and fighting? Put it into the work.”

And the work is complicated. “Nocturnal Animals” intercuts among three worlds: the life of a successful art-gallery owner (Adams); flashbacks to her marriage to a struggling writer (Gyllenhaal); and her visualizations of the novel that her ex has sent to her, many years after the breakup.

The worlds start to overlap and spiral, because the depictions of the novel are in her head, says Ford. “For example, she sees a photo by Richard Misrach, with two guys pointing guns at each other in a grassy field. Later, when she’s reading his novel, the characters are in that same grassy field, which we re-created. She might not even know it, and the audience might not be conscious of it. But there are all these little connections and they hopefully register unconsciously.”

The film is marketed as a sexy thriller and it definitely has those elements, but it’s also a tale of personal values. “It’s about finding people who are important in your life and not letting them go. Materialism is fun but don’t get carried away with it. I parody today’s world and the superficiality of it — which I helped contribute to,” he adds with a smile.

The film seems 180 degrees from his earlier film, but Ford says there are parallels there too. In “A Single Man” George (Colin Firth), “like everyone, has a heart and soul; but he also has a shell. Susan [Adams’ ‘Nocturnal’ character] is like a crustacean; her protection is all from outside layers. Inside, she’s not like that. She’s polished and controlled, but trying to hold onto what is soft.”

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