Nocturnal Animals Costume Designer Arianne Phillips on working with Tom Ford

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2016

“He has a very refined and skilled way of communicating aesthetics, more than any director I worked with.”

A Single Man was the first film through which we slipped into celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford’s cinematic vision and his luxurious-feeling, scrupulously specific visual world. Now seven years later, he’s behind the camera again with Nocturnal Animals, an ambitious film that intriguingly blends various genres like noir, thriller and even western. As it was the case with A Single Man, Ford’s meticulous touch can be seen in every frame of Nocturnal Animals, which is photographed, lit and costumed to perfection. And despite the bizarre (but perhaps understandable) misconception, the precise costumes his carefully conceived characters put on aren’t necessarily product placements from Tom Ford’s own brand. They are works of his repeat collaborator Arianne Phillips, the renowned, prolific and two-time-Academy-Award-nominated costume designer of W.E. and Walk the Line.

Much like Tom Ford’s, Phillips’ creative work stretches across a number of disciplines. Outside of her film work, she is well known as Madonna’s stylist and has dressed numerous of her concert tours in the past years. In the music world, Phillips also collaborated with the likes of Courtney Love and Lenny Kravitz. Recently joining me on the phone to talk about her vision on Nocturnal Animals, the specifics of her collaboration with Tom Ford as well as her career at large, Phillips says she purposefully pursued multiple creative avenues in her professional life. “My first proper film was The Crow in 1993, but I started out in fashion and in music,” notes Phillips. “I come from a generation when music video was in its heyday. There are usually two kinds of music videos: a performance music video and narrative video. The first time I worked on a narrative music video, it was really exciting to me to be able to create costumes. Not just like the performance videos, when you’re dressing someone to look hot, sexy and cool.”

Phillips says using clothing to help tell a story resonated with her very early in her career. Even though people tried to discourage her from keeping with two different disciplines, she disregarded the warnings, worked hard and forged her own path. “I was living in New York and I moved to LA, because I felt like I could have more control and figure out who I was creatively,” recalls Phillips. “Now, I think it’s much more acceptable to have a cross over career and to do more than one thing. I have a tendency to work with a lot of artists who are multi faceted like Madonna, who is an actress, a singer, producer, director and she works in all kinds of genres. Just like Tom, who’s a fashion designer and movie director. I feel like creativity is creativity and there are different disciplines that you learn when you are working in different genres. That’s only made me grow as an artist.”

Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” has a risky, story-within-story structure. The backbone of the narrative is set in contemporary Los Angeles and is led by Amy Adams, who plays the rich, successful gallerist Susan. Her head-to-toe chic and sophisticated outfits, her severe make-up and bold accessories are both a statement and a distraction from her visceral turbulence. Stuck in an unhappy marriage with Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and a life that doesn’t fulfill the desires of her soul, Susan one day receives a package from her ex Tony (Jake Gyllenhall) containing the novel he’s recently published, titled “Nocturnal Animals.” So she starts reading this tense crime/revenge story set in a fictional Texan town, and steps into the world of the book’s characters. She also gives us a glimpse of her old self through flashbacks. All these storylines amount to three distinct narratives within the film.

Below is an edited version of my conversation with Arianne Phillips, her work in bringing all three worlds to life and the specifics of her collaborative process with Tom Ford.

Tomris Laffly: This is your second collaboration with Tom Ford. How did you initially come on board his films?

Arianne Phillips: I met Tom essentially in the late 90s. We stayed in touch over the years from a social level. When it came time for him to direct A Single Man, he invited me to lunch, asked me if I would consider working with him. I was over the moon excited and I said “Of course!” So we worked together on A Single Man 8 years ago now.

How do you collaborate together in creating costumes? Given he is a renowned fashion designer, how does that change things for you, if at all?

The role of costume design is to illustrate the character. So costumes have a very different role than in fashion. One of the brilliant things about Tom Ford is that he is such a fantastically prepared director. I would attribute that to his day job, being a creative director. My job as a costume designer is to expedite his directorial vision. Tom has a very refined and skilled way of communicating aesthetics ‐ he does it on a daily basis. He’s created an incredible brand that we recognize and identify globally. All those skills already set him far apart from any other director I’ve worked with. Most directors ironically are not great communicators (let alone aesthetics communicators) ‐ it’s very hard to talk about aesthetics specifics unless you have the vernacular.

We use a lot of visual research to help communicate a tone, feeling or vibe, which really helps us to create our own language. Tom has this ability that is already on such a high level in comparison to other directors I’ve worked with. For me, it’s an incredible place to be creatively, because I have the ability to access this aesthetic world that has the vernacular. Tom adapted both A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals from novels. By the time it comes to pre-production and prepping the film, he already has a very strong idea about who these characters are, so when we are having our initial meetings, he’s able to impart his direction specifically.

What was your approach towards creating the look of Susan (Amy Adams) in Nocturnal Animals?

Susan is an incredibly successful gallerist. From the outside, everything in her life is perfect. You see that reflected in the clothes she wears and how she wants the world to see her. Not a hair is out of place. Everything she wears is completely chic and pristine. She uses her presentational quality almost as a veneer to mask this inner turmoil. She wants you to think she’s perfect, which is reflected in her costumes, her hair and makeup, in the way she lives, her house, the car she drives; yet we go on this internal journey with her and find out through flashbacks that she’s a woman emotionally out of touch with what fulfills her.

So the clothes really have to set up this character of how she wants the world to perceive her. When we see her in a private world at home, the clothes and the colors are softer. Everything is a bit more personal ’cause it’s intimate. And then of course in flashbacks, we see a hopeful, younger woman that is set more in the 90s. Her clothes reflect that. You see her in a leather jacket that would have been popular at the time. There are the different textures to her character. There is also a physical aspect to costumes that I take seriously that can help an actor access the world. You know the experience of when you put on a pair of cowboy boots or a pair of high heels? It informs how you walk and how you feel about yourself. The costumes can do that for an actor as well.

This movie is really about regret, how relationships are the most important thing, how we need to hold on to them and treasure them. Because no matter what your success is and your wealth, if you don’t value the relationships, then you’re left ultimately unfulfilled and that’s the take away about Susan’s character.

I sense this misconception in people that Tom Ford puts his own label on actors. But obviously that is not correct.

Most of the costumes for Amy Adams were made for her. Tom was very clear at the beginning of film that he didn’t want us to use clothes from his collection. We made a couple of dresses in his atelier but they weren’t from his collection. And, the glasses she wears when she’s at home reading ‐ those are Marni. They’re not even Tom Ford.

Susan wears lots of neutrals [and not a lot of loud colors]. But then in the final scene, she makes a big splash with a green dress.

In the contemporary world where Susan’s character lives, art is really the star. So we wanted to keep a lot of her clothes neutral: no print, not too much texture. Just very clean, simple and chic. We had a very intense and beautiful cobalt blue dress that she wore to the dinner party scene, but you don’t really see it the way that the scene is photographed. But the green dress really came from Tom. He loves that color green and I do as well, especially on a red head. The fabric we made that dress with was dyed specifically that color. It actually took us a couple of tries to get it right. It was straight from Tom’s direction and was the most cinematic color, appropriate for that scene and the way it was going to be photographed.

In a number of scenes, certain side characters’ costumes pop. There is a party scene where Michael Sheen is in a fun purple blazer. Later on, we see Jena Malone wearing a white shirt with this amazing/crazy body harness on top.

Tom and I had a lot of fun talking about Jena Malone’s character. It was vintage COMME des GARÇONS and Gareth Pugh. The idea is “art to wear” basically. These women exist. I don’t know if it’s comic relief, but given the context, it definitely makes you giggle and smile. And Michael Sheen’s, as well as Andrea Riseborough’s characters ‐ they were really fun and over the top, just in that grand, classic style of entertaining. There is a theatrical quality to it for sure.

This is a multi-part movie, with a story within story. There are various looks in each. How did you approach those distinct styles and shuffle between them?

It’s really about the story. The way that this film is constructed is, you have the contemporary Los Angeles world, which is very specific. And then you have this fictitious West Texas world with nocturnal animals that has its own visual clues, its own direction and palette. We also have the flashbacks of the 90s. It’s a very ambitious film that Tom chose to make and I think he crafted masterly between those 3 worlds. We had certain aesthetics specifics for all 3. It’s just a wonderful opportunity to have this juxtaposition of direction.

Talking about the 90s flashbacks, there is a very key scene with Laura Linney, who plays Susan’s mother. You just take one look at her clothes and gather a long list of assumptions about her.

She is represented as a specific kind of textbook matron that Tom was very clear about. He grew up in Texas and is very clear about what she would look like. One of the first things we talked about is her wearing a Chanel suit and this incredible hairstyle and jewelry. You said it perfectly: you have one look at her and you know exactly what she’s about. It tells you volumes about who she is. That’s just one scene in the movie, but it’s so memorable and specific.

It’s to the credit of Tom and how he’s able to impart the specific directions. So we talk about women of that milieu and that time, what they would wear. She has the Judith Leiber bag that she’s wearing with the Chanel suit. It’s very important that we learn in that scene where her mother says to her “you will become me,” because that is exactly what happens to Susan, even though as a young person that was the last thing she ever wanted to do. That veneer that her mother has created, the signatures of status and wealth, we see Susan become that woman in present day, masking her inner emotional turmoil, her unhappy marriage and the sadness and regret she has.

You recently added one more creative pillar to your diverse resume with the costume design of the Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I loved.

Working in theater is a very different experience, and incredibly gratifying. I’m actually working on a new musical that is going to debut on Broadway next summer, and I’m also working on an opera: a co-production of The Met and English National Opera. That’s going to debut in London in November 2017. But I’m always looking to challenge myself. If I’m a state of fear, then I usually create my best work. The moment I become complacent, I might as well just quit and do something else; become a basket weaver.

Can you tell me the titles of the musical and the opera at this point?

The opera is based on the novel Marnie (Winston Graham) that Hitchcock famously made into a film. It’s a new commission by an incredible composer named Nico Muhly. The musical, I’m not allowed to say what the title is. It’s a new work that will debut next summer ‐ the same director and production designer that I worked with on Hedwig: Michael Mayer and Julian Crouch, and the lighting designer Kevin Adams. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about it after February.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.