His Second Act

Fashion maven and Nocturnal Animals writer-director Tom Ford on defying doubters and why, for him, filmmaking is sacred.

©2016 Focus Features
Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.
December 9, 2016 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Tom Ford

Don't let anything hold you back, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it… If you can visualize it, and you can match that vision with a certain relentlessness, you can make anything happen.

Poor F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nearly a century after The Great Gatsby scribe penned his finest works, it’s become damn near indefensible, his declaration that there are no second acts in American lives. International fashion maven, professional provocateur, and pop culture icon Tom Ford, for one, is having a helluva good time proving Fitzgerald wrong—and Ford’s shirts actually do smell like money!

While the 56-year old aesthete—born in Texas, raised in New Mexico by way of New York and Paris—has for decades cloaked, clad, and otherwise habilimented the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament (via superlative, company-salvaging stints with Gucci and YSL, and since 2006 as king of his own jungle…er, label), William Goldman would probably be the first to tell Ford that it’s a long way from shaving a capital letter into a supermodel’s pubic hair to typing “Fade Out” at the end of 120-pages.

And, for what it’s worth, Ford would be well within his right to remind Goldman that nobody in Hollywood knows anything.

A mere decade ago, Ford—whose prior creative writing CV featured but a handful of grade school short stories—encountered Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man, and instantly identified his calling: to adapt the novel into a feature film. Isherwood’s novel is a slim volume about a University professor from London, making his social and professional rounds throughout Los Angeles in 1962, the very day he intends to commit suicide. It does not exactly howl “cinematic.” Yet Ford—who leapfrogged the basement-dwelling, cable-pulling, fast food and film school grunt work de rigueur for most aspiring moviemakers—took no half measures in making his feature film debut.

In short order, Ford launched his own production shingle, Fade to Black, procured rights to Isherwood’s novel, rewrote David Scearce’s existing adaptation, seduced a world-class cast, nailed down a comfortable budget (from his own wallet), produced and directed the film, and then “road-showed” A Single Man around the world and on the festival circuit. It was not beginner’s luck that landed the film the Venice International Film Festival’s Gold Lion Award. Turns out, Ford is as intuitive and brilliant with a Dutch angle as he is an alligator briefcase with ruthenium clasps.

This fall, Ford returns to cinemas with Nocturnal Animals, a stunning, briar patch of a psychological thriller teeming with anguish, the perennial threat of doom, knotted questions of identity, and Rorschach gusts of sudden violence. It is a masterclass in tone, style, and formal expression, starring Amy Adam and Jake Gyllenhaal. Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals has already been anointed one of the year’s best films by major critics associations. Take that, Scott Fitzgerald!

It threw many people for a loop when fashion superstar Tom Ford announced he would write, direct, and produce a feature film, and then surprised some of those people by being so damned good. What were the origins of storytelling in your life?

Well, I've always been a storyteller. I was born that way. If you're a storyteller, then you're a storyteller. Whether that means getting a lot of attention as a child for recounting a nice day to your teacher or parent or telling an exciting and emotional story as a fashion designer, then that's just what you do: you’re a storyteller.

You’ve said previously that your approach to fashion was always informed by a storyline in your mind. That makes screenwriting somewhat connected to fashion design, no?

If you are going to be a successful fashion designer, then you have to be saying something. I hope I’m not being ridiculous by suggesting that a writer is going to be in better shape if he or she has something to say, too. The tools and materials by which you convey that “something”—whatever it is you’re needing to say—are different, but it is sort of about storytelling in both instances. You’re also telling stories for radically different reasons.


Clothing for me, I love it. It is creative. However, it is also definitely and pretty much always business. It is for selling. Pure and simple. On the other hand, when you're creating a character and you're working on a film, it's something much more sacred. It’s something that will live forever. Fashion and film have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

It’s long been speculated that you might lay down the high-end fabric or fold up your director’s chair, eventually choosing one over the other—as if Tom Ford can’t have it both ways. Thoughts?

I don’t know if I can have it both ways, but I’m going to try. And then maybe a third or a fifth or a tenth way, too. I’d been working in fashion for a very long time before I realized that it didn’t allow me to say all the things that I wanted to say or to touch people as deeply as I wanted to touch them. So maybe I’ll want to tell stories one day in a medium other than film. Who knows?

You didn’t waste much time getting your first film going. From the outside looking in, it was “Tom Ford realizes he wants to make a movie, so Tom Ford went and made a movie.”

As soon as I realized I wasn’t telling stories as completely as I wanted to, I immediately started making the changes that led to A Single Man. I bought a house in Los Angeles. I started spending a good bit of time here, being very pragmatic, laying the groundwork, building the relationships, and starting to talk about the fact that I wanted to make a film. When I would announce about 18 months later that I was going to do exactly that, I hoped everyone would find it perfectly natural. It was. To some people.

Building a career in Hollywood almost always requires strategy. It also usually requires a fair amount of paying one’s dues and grunt work. It was a little bit different for you, no?

Coming to filmmaking when I did, I’d already had a good deal of success in other worlds. I financed these films myself. I’m going to ask someone to give me their hard-earned money to make a film? I design tuxedos! I wasn’t going to ask that of people. I paid for these movies myself. What I mean is: I’m very aware that entering the film industry as a 40-something millionaire is very different than trying to catch a break when you’re 18-years old with nothing. That has cultivated in me an appreciation of both paths, which continues to deepen. My path may seem an odd path to many, but it has allowed me to have the freedom to make films that are important to me and are really very personal. I do not take that for granted. And for whatever it matters: that's what money is about for me. It's not about things. It's about freedom. And I am very well aware of what an enormous gift I have in that.

I mean to take nothing away from your work as a filmmaker. These are both extraordinary films.

No, no, no. It's okay. I'm almost self-conscious about it because I know it sounds like, "Oh, yeah, well, he can just bankroll things and make any movies he wants," and whatever. So yes, I'm self-conscious about it.

Let’s go back to your first efforts as a writer.

Oh, I mean, I wrote a little bit of this and that, here and there, but not really much. I had a wonderful English teacher in school, in high school, I went to a little school in New Mexico, who gave me The Elements of Style, the Strunk & White book. It's just the best little book for writing ever. And then I won... this is so corny to talk about… I won some Southwest writing award for kids, some little thing in school, and that felt good. I mean I could always write well—or I always was told I could write well. But that's when you’re in school. That doesn’t really qualify you for writing screenplays, does it? I don’t know.

Were there screenwriting lessons to be learned when you got behind the camera to direct A Single Man?

You learn on the first film you direct from your own screenplay, first of all anyway, is brevity. I tend to be verbose in real life, so sometimes I'll write things that give away too much, so then I'll have to cut it back. And then cut it back again. And cut it back some more. You realize ultimately that in the end you don’t need as many words as you thought you did. Now, I tend to write these big, long scenes where no words are spoken and where we just watch, or I’ll write these scenes where it's two people together and there's just an enormous amount of dialogue. It's funny. I didn't notice those two extremes so much on the first film, but on Nocturnal Animals, the actors actually brought it to my attention. They were, like, "Oh, my God, this scene. It's such a bear of a scene!” I'm, like, "What are you talking about?" "It's just so many pages." Actors are good for writers, and not just because you need them to tell your story. Actors are critical for writers. A writer may not be thinking of something as a big scene at all, but an actor will tell you if it is or not. The greatest actors are always in pursuit of saying what they need to say in as few words as possible, and that’s a good thing for writers to learn. Reduction, reduction, reduction.

What else does directing teach Tom Ford, the screenwriter?

Actors are really the only way to know for certain if you’re dialogue works. When I’m writing, I’m actually saying every line of dialogue out loud to myself, over and over and over again, so I know that the words fall off the tongue. My tongue. But you need to get it to great actors. Put the words in their mouths. Does it still sound right? How do those words feel to them? Everyone speaks a little bit differently, and every great actor, when they inhabit a character, inhabits that character a little bit differently. I'm very open to an actor making those small changes to a character’s skin, but they have to be changes like that.

You entered the world of filmmaking having been recently crowned “The King of Sex” by The Guardian. I don’t recall Francis Coppola or John Schlesinger nabbing similar titles.

It's a title I haven't come remotely close to achieving in real-life either! That was written really just because of the advertising work I’ve done over the years. It couldn’t be about anything else. I don’t really think about sex that much! I think about making things beautiful. I suppose I find the human body beautiful, and sex is an extension of the human body. None of it shocks me. And none of my creative choices are arbitrary. I've also always done these things for a reason. One of the things that most people think about when they think about my work is that time in the mid-‘90s when I shaved a “G” into a woman’s pubic hair. I was designing for Gucci at the time. Mid-‘90s, fashion was all about logos. Logos, logos, logos. Everybody had their logos all over everything—every coat, every bag, every pair of shoes. Gucci did it as much as everybody else. It was almost comical. So I was out in L.A. and I encountered a fashion model that said to me, "Oh, my God, everyone in L.A.’s having their pubic hair cut into different shapes. I just had mine cut into my boyfriend's name! Wanna see?” I thought, "Okay, this is too funny, this logo thing. Branding has gone too far!” I mean, Sex and the City even did an episode about it, right? So I took a minute to process all of that and I thought, "Why don't we just take it all the way, and we'll just shave a ‘G’ into the girl's pubic hair?" It got major press. I got banned in a few places. I don’t know. Then The Guardian called me “King of Sex,” and a couple of days ago, a journalist asked me, “Why don’t people ever kiss in your movies?” So go figure…

Why don’t people kiss in your movies?

Well, I've only made two films! But there has never been a sex scene in my films. There's only been really one kiss between Colin [Firth] and Julianne [Moore] where she pounces on him near the end of A Single Man. I guess it's probably because I don't like gratuitous sex in a film. It has to be part of the story. Gratuitous sex scenes are just so typical now. You have the couple. They fall in love. The lights get low. Then we have to go to that corny, porny sex scene where we're not allowed to see right butt cheek or left breast. It's like, “What does that add to the story?” So let’s go with this: “The King of Sex” actually only likes sex when it is germane to the story.

There was a protracted break between your first and second films. Explain?

I had to negotiate with the author’s estate for two years to get the rights to Nocturnal Animals, and then it took me about a year and a half to figure out how to adapt the book because, like A Single Man, it's one of those books that is an inner monologue. It was very tricky to adapt. I knew I loved the book, and that it spoke to me, but I also knew I would have to make quite a few changes just to create the characters that were outside of the narrator’s head. I also had some very strong ideas about how to make the story even more personal to me, things that spoke to me very deeply. Honestly, I sat with the novel for a long time and then I had a couple of false starts for about a year and a half, before finally writing the first draft in about six weeks. It took two or three months of revisions after that, and then I sent it out.

Why was the novel that became Nocturnal Animals worth those efforts to you?

Because it spoke to me. I mean, I had read a lot of things after A Single Man. I’d been offered a lot of things, but none of it really resonated with me. At this point in my life, I know myself well enough to say: I've had complete autonomy for so long that I don’t think I could actually make anything that I don't own the underlying material to. I just don’t think I could. I make films as a personal expression. That’s why I’m doing this. I make my income from the fashion world. Fashion is a commercial endeavor. I view film as a much more sacred thing. Of course, I want my films to be commercially successful because I want people to see the movies, but my first goal is to make a film that I'm proud of. I couldn't imagine losing control of something that I'd worked hard on, so I turn down everything I get offered. At the end of the day, Nocturnal Animals became mine.

There are not a lot of films out there today like Tom Ford's films. A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals would not be terribly out of place alongside some of the great movies of the early ‘70s.

Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I grew up in the ‘70s, and those are films that really spoke to me. I love old-fashioned films. I love old-fashioned scores. I like heightened reality. I like melodrama. I like exaggeration. I like those old-fashioned films for those reasons. They're films. After making A Single Man, if you'd asked me, "What's your style as a filmmaker?," I would not have been able to answer you. Now, after making two films, I can look at them both and say, "Oh, okay. I get what I'm about as a filmmaker," because I've consistently made the same creative choices. I tend to like things very chromatic. I like them exaggerated. I like an immaculate production design. I like lines of dialogue that are comical, but almost to the point of camp. I like teetering on that edge. I can tell you what my style is as a filmmaker is, and then we'll have to see if that remains my style for the next movie.

When you finally got the rights to Austin Wright’s novel, how did you approach the adaptation?

Everyone writes differently, but for me, I try not to obsess about structure, grammar, rules of any kind. I just try to write as fluidly as possible. Just start here and get there. Almost stream of consciousness. Just get it out, get it out, get it out. Then read it, chop it up, move things around, refine it, polish it. It’s purely intuitive for me. I don't start out with cards. I don't start out with a road map. I have an idea. I have a rough plot. I have what a story means to me, but that’s it. After I’ve gotten all the way through that draft, then I’ll go in for revisions and only then will I break it down into Act I, Act II, and Act III. Outlining and index cards and all of that, it would inhibit me. I know it works great for a lot of writers, but I don’t think I could write the first line if I had to answer to an outline. For me, the only way to get it done is to just write, and then it’s all about molding.

Has becoming a father informed your relationship to stories and storytelling? Little ones tend to enjoy a good bedtime story, right?

Oh, absolutely! And he’s a wonderful little storyteller himself. He’ll start these stories off in one direction and then they take these very sudden, dramatic turns that an adult would never think of. Kids’ minds are so nimble and free. I love that. They’re not restricted by all the rules that we are, so his stories just explode into this beautiful and strange directions. It’s funny, I was talking to a screenwriter the other day—a very, very well-known screenwriter, lots of big awards—and he was saying that sometimes when he writes, if he's having a problem, he goes to a desk drawer and pulls out something else he'd written, but never quite nailed. He just puts the two things together and ends up with something really good. That’s how my kid works, too.

Both of your films function in that way, too, to some extent. We are uncertain at their start, where they will lead, though their conclusions feel always inevitable. In your films, the slow dawning of essential or fundamental truths is something of a rollercoaster for your protagonists, and that can exact some fairly horrible tolls.

I love that you say that. That essential truth often doesn't feel great, but the result of it… Some people see the end of Nocturnal Animals as quite brutal, but I see it as transformative. Transformation can be brutal, I suppose, but it’s also necessary. It’s alive. Earning our freedom, it’s necessary. It’s alive. But it can also be quite brutal. Moments of clarity, they can arrive and brutalize us until we appropriately acknowledge them. “Waking up is saying ‘here and now,’” right?

Great line from A Single Man.

Yes, first line of the novel and of the screenplay. Thank you. I loved that line so, so, so much, but I was unsure if I should use it. Even if someone had never read the novel, they might have read the first line of the novel, right? But ultimately, I was told by one of Christopher Isherwood’s close friends, “Make it your own. Chris always felt that a book was a book and a film was a film. That's his book. It'll always be his book. You take it and make your movie. If you want to use some of his lines, do it.” That set me free.

Two films into this career, do you have any words of wisdom for the aspiring screenwriter?

Don't let anything hold you back, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. Remember I was telling you earlier how I thought I had mapped out my transition from fashion into film so brilliantly, that I expected I’d staged it all so fluidly that no one would be terribly stunned that I was now making films? That didn’t really work! I thought the people around me were actually encouraging and supportive, but a lot of them were actually secretly laughing and thinking it was just a joke and that I was a joke and that I could never pull off making a film. That was a surprise, but it also didn’t stop me. I knew I was going to do it. In my head it was so clear. If you can visualize it, and you can match that vision with a certain relentlessness, you can make anything happen. If you hit a wall, go around the wall. If you can't go around the wall, go under the wall. If you can't go under the wall, go over the wall. If you can't go over the wall, just knock the fucking wall down. Don't stop. You cannot give up. You have to persevere.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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