"I don't work with Tom Ford the fashion designer. I work with Tom Ford the movie director," said "Nocturnal Animals" costume designer Arianne Phillips. "I've never worked with Tom Ford the fashion designer, actually."
Now, let me just say that watching the movie for the second time wasn't any less devastating or harrowing than the first. But an additional viewing of writer/director (not fashion designer) Ford's long-awaited followup to 2009's "A Single Man" did give me the chance to really take in the gorgeous, character-establishing costumes by Phillips, as well as the consistent color cues (hint: red and green) that connect three distinctive story lines together into one powerful movie.
Based on the novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, the film centers on Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy, unhappy art gallerist, who receives a manuscript dedicated to her from her estranged ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). With her husband away "on business," Susan spends the weekend reading the novel-turned-film-within-a-film. On a midnight road trip in desolate West Texas, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), along with his wife and daughter (played by Adams doppelgänger Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are menaced by a trio of terrifying joyriders. Flashbacks of Susan and Edward meeting 20 years ago are also interspersed throughout the film.
"I think the burden was on the costumes to help set the tone differently in each story," said Phillips, who received an Oscar nomination for "A Single Man." Even showing Susan in her present day life involved a dichotomy represented through costume. "As Tom directed and explained to me — there's the inner life and the outer life," she said, about how Susan presents herself at work or a dinner party with her also cultural and financially elite peers versus exposed while alone in her cavernous home.
"That exterior almost has to be juxtaposed to her internal world of alienation, isolation, an unhappy marriage; almost like a midlife crisis not dissimilar from Colin Firth's character, George Falconer, in 'A Single Man,'" Phillips continued. "The costume really has to create for the actor and the audience this visual veneer in a way to this complicated internal life."
When we first see Adams, after a provocative and controversial opening sequence, she's at a glossy art opening in a low-cut, long-sleeve black sheath dress — setting the tone for her severe, almost-armored aesthetic, complete with moody dark eyes and lips, to face the outside world.
"We wanted something stark in contrast [to the white art gallery] that was about a strong silhouette and that felt architectural and appropriate for a woman of her milieu," Phillips said. "It made sense and it was powerful, and yet Amy's abilities as an actress — you see the vulnerability in that character — and that complicated relationship she's having with herself with the post gallery opening." When a makeup-free, emotionally vulnerable Susan is alone at home reading Edward's novel, she swathes herself in soft, comforting cashmere knits.
And while it might look like gallerist Susan's sexy, high-powered wardrobe is full of Balmain, Céline or Prada, it's not. "I didn't want to use any designer clothes on Amy that were going to take the audience out or date the film in any way," explained Phillips. "So we tried to create our own world with her costumes that felt relevant to the time period, yet didn't say too much. If that makes sense." (Although, she did source some vintage for Susan's '90s flashbacks.)
Also nowhere to be found in Susan's closet? A Tom Ford designer label, which even surprised Phillips at first. "I kind of went into it going, 'Oh great, we can use Tom Ford!'" she said. "But Tom was very clear that he didn't want to take the audience out of the film by branding his film. It's not an advertisement for him to sell his clothes. So we made a very conscious choice not to use Tom Ford."
Although, Phillips's costumes do sort of boast a provenance in Tom Ford, the fashion brand. "[Ford] did make his atelier available to me," she added. "We did build some of [Adams's] costumes at his atelier, which was a benefit not any director's ever had [and] that we've ever had before. But they weren't branded pieces that were any part of any collection." Phillips does, however, credit Ford's prolific fashion design experience for a set of transferrable skills that help make both of them better storytellers.
"He has the vernacular for clothing," Phillips said. "So he can talk about subtleties, silhouette and about texture that maybe other directors don't have the language for. Also, the experience is different because costumes are not fashion. Costumes actually have little to do with clothes. They're more about creating the character and moving the story along. So while the clothes are the tool, the motivation is different on the narrative side."
But there was an overlap of sorts: in the story-within-a-story, Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps Tony after the brutal road-rage incident.
"Tom is from Texas, and [Bobby's costumes are] based on these classic Western yoke jackets and Western boot-cut slacks that exist, but exist in a very polyester world these days," Phillips said about her custom pieces for the character. "We wanted them to be made for Michael — and in better quality." The Western-inspired shirts, corduroy jackets and a substantial cowboy hat really do reinforce the character's brusque and masculine renegade cowboy persona.
"I think [Shannon's] physical inhabitation of that character, Bobby Andes, is so riveting to watch," she added. "He just brings those costumes alive and I'm very proud of that synergy between his characterization and his costumes. I think it's very fleshed out. It was a really beautiful. He is super brilliant that way."
And a final note: Despite working on the movie since pre-production, Phillips had the same visceral reaction that I did after watching the finished beautiful, but emotionally and physically brutal film. "Even though I knew what the movie was about, after I saw it the first time, I was like, 'I need a drink,'" she said. "And I don't even drink."