Tom Ford, the director, writer and producer of Nocturnal Animals, turned up at a Bafta screening last night with stars Michael Shannon, Amy Adams and Aaron Johnson-Taylor to talk about his sophomore film, a noirish thriller in which style and content are seamlessly interwoven.
Wearing one of his couture suits—Ford’s been a successful clothing designer for 30 years—he announced that the not-so-secret trick of successful moviemaking was to be surrounded by an exceptional crew. Also, Ford said, “Work with people you want to have dinner with.”
Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey fits the bill on both counts. In a wide-ranging interview that was supposed to last for 15 minutes and wandered to nearly an hour, the brilliant and affable Irish moviemaker spoke with passion and precision about the art and technique of cinematography.
You can see McGarvey’s work in a variety of films by first-rate directors, including The Hours (2002), World Trade Center (2006), Nowhere Boy (2009), Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and this year’s The Accountant. Because he uses his art in the service of the director and the story it’s difficult to recognize a “Seamus McGarvey” film unless it’s in the quality of the work.
Based on a book Ford read in 2011 entitled Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals nonetheless has major changes by the director, including changing its locations from London to Los Angeles to West Texas, where Ford was raised.
Adams plays a rich but unfulfilled gallery owner who, one day, unexpectedly, receives a manuscript by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the mail. She last saw him nearly 20 years earlier, when he was a struggling writer. She lost faith in him and left him for a wealthier, more ambitious man (Armie Hammer), but the marriage has now gone sour and Susan has regrets and feelings of guilt.
Dedicated to Susan, Edward’s book is exceptionally graphic and violent. Although the story is not aligned to their story, it’s clear her ex-husband is communicating his feelings and emotions through a work of fiction. What those emotions are, or what they mean, is open to audiences to decide, Ford said at the Bafta event.
Nocturnal Animals is not based solely on the images shot by Seamus McGarvey, but he’s delved into the emotional underpinings of these images to give them equal weight and support. Here is MovieMaker’s interview with the acclaimed cinematographer.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The visuals and the story are seamlessly connected in Nocturnal Animals. To begin discussing that process, what camera did you use?
Seamus McGarvey (SM): We shot on film—which is a rarity these days—on 35mm film, using Panavision’s Panaflex XL. It’s been a workhorse for many films that I’ve shot in the past, and we used Panavision’s Primo lenses. We then used hand-held and Steadicam for action.
MM: Why film?
SM: Tom and I both really felt that the film needed to be shot on celluloid. There’s been a push recently for films to be shot digitally across the board, but it’s really lovely to be in a position of choice at the moment as a cinematographer. And we certainly felt that the chemical nature of film, the way that the unexpected happens. You know, it isn’t as true to the real as perhaps digital is before it’s interfered with in the grading. Particularly the film within the film—in Susan’s mind, her reading of the book, which conjures the images that are terrifying, psychological, meandering and kaleidoscopic—that really benefitted from film’s classic nature. And the grain of film, the very structure of it, had to have a sense of… I suppose permeability, so that really attracted us.
There are different looks for the three phases of the film: There’s Susan’s world, and its wan, pale wreckage and symmetry, kind of creaking and fracturing at the edges. And then these nostalgic flashbacks that were more filtered and softer and kinetic and had a certain photographic levity, to reflect that sort of innocence and hope and optimism. And then the film within the film, which we cranked up grain and color, the West Texas scenario. We wanted vivid colors by day and deep, inky, almost lithographic blacks by night, to create a screen-printed allure to the film within her head, an uber-enhanced version of the novel itself on the page. As the psychological intrigue mounted, that story would be backed up by these more emblematic images.
MM: Talk about the choice of the color red thematically and visually, which keeps turning up at key moments in the story. When Susan is reading Edward’s book and tells him her mind is wandering, she’s sitting on a red couch. Later, a red couch is the scene of a tragic tableau.
SM: I do love red and we wanted that part of the film to have a more lurid perspective, I suppose, and the red is a theme within the film. There are through lines between the stories that connect the stories, the couch; there are lots of elements like that that recur, either as graphic elements, as color elements or as just thematic ones and that linked the stories, because effectively everything is conjured from her head, Susan’s head. It’s really as though she’s puppeteering the entire film. At least that is the effect that I think that Tom was trying to create. It’s a constant wheel of notions that is coming from a woman reading this manuscript on her bed. A full circuit of imagery emanates from the center of that wheel.
MM: Then of course Susan’s hair is bright red and the other three major female leads are also redheads. Going back farther to A Single Man, Julianne Moore’s hair is red. What’s Tom Ford’s obsession about redheads?
SM: I’m not sure what his obsession is, beyond, I suppose, the streamlining of the generations of the families. Essentially this is coming from Susan’s imagination, and Susan in the film is a redhead. But these are kind of reflected parts of herself in every scenario, so it’s like her world is exploding, and shards of it exist in each section of the film, and one of those shards happens to be redheaded. I hope people pick up on that because it is very evident. There is the Susan character, the character that Isla Fisher plays, and her daughter, and then there’s Susan’s daughter in real life as well. All redheads. I don’t know. We sort of touched on it but Tom, he’s a great storyteller and collaborator and he’s very, very communicative in terms of describing what he wants to see. But I think because he made several large leaps away from the original material, there are aspects of the film he keeps close to his chest, whether they’re personal or that they’re loaded in other ways.
MM: The eye-popping opening of the film, where obese naked women are dancing, is getting a lot of attention. It’s also been called out for fat shaming. Would you talk about that scene?
SM: That was our first day of the shoot, so we came out of the trap, if you like, with our crew arriving on the first day, going, “What sort of movie is this?”[Laughs] Tom is very good at grabbing people’s attention, but within that I suppose you quickly realize that the piece that we shot was actually the art piece that was up on the walls around it. Immediately it’s a very arresting image.
Tom had cast those women and loved them. He got on so well with them. It was one of the happiest days of the shoot, probably because it was the first day. But they were amazing. I’m shooting them in slow motion in that gallery and they are absolutely confident and joyful. It was amazing to watch.
MM: At first you don’t know what to make of this, because these women are really huge and it feels kind of cruel and of course they can’t be healthy at that size. But then they look like they are having so much fun.
SM: And Tom was very keen to reinforce that aspect, that there could be that immediate jump to that conclusion [of making fun of them]. But it was decisively not the case, certainly in terms of how Tom approached it or treated the women and also edited them. I think he sees those as kind of exalting and glorious and fun and positive, actually. But at the same time there are strands of that perhaps Fellinisque touches of excess and abandon, maybe just a slight tinge of Americana with a hint of jaundice. There’s something in that, that it’s definitely not a celebration. There’s a very dark seam running through that. Tom is very adept and adroit at mining that undercurrent of darkness and the psychological through line, which I think that sets up in the opening frames kind of an unsettling undercurrent that persists the whole film.