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‘Nocturnal Animals’ Costume Designer Arianne Phillips Talks Tom Ford, That Controversial Opening Sequence and More

Amy Adams looking impossibly chic as Susan Morrow.

Amy Adams looking impossibly chic as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals; Image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

If you live for fashion, this holiday movie season there is one title at the top of your list: Nocturnal Animals, the second directorial effort from Tom Ford, maker of sophisticated, glamorous clothing and breathtaking, emotionally distressing films.

Some would think that the two coincide, that Ford, so committed to a certain trademark style in his first career, would micromanage the costuming in his second. Not so. According to Ford’s go-to costume designer Arianne Phillips, who saw him through production of both 2009’s haunting love story A Single Man and his latest psychological thriller (set for national release December 9), Ford is a costume designer’s dream. He comes equipped with visual references, fluent in a very evolved aesthetic vernacular and ready to collaborate, not micromanage.

“I think the thing that’s so great about Tom is his generosity. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve even done one film with Tom, let alone two. From day one of A Single Man, he told me, ‘I want you to do your job.’ He doesn’t have time in the day to be the costume designer. He’s too busy worrying about what kind of lighting we’re going to have.”

In the case of Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, the director’s worries were compounded by his need to craft — and interweave — three cinematic worlds. There’s the hollow, glossy Los Angeles art world inhabited by the main character Susan Morrow, a successful gallerist on the brink of a midlife crisis, who’s made, in Ford’s words, the fatal mistake of undervaluing “the personal connections in life that sustain us” — namely her relationship with her estranged first husband Edward Sheffield. Then there’s the fictional realm of Sheffield’s violent new novel entitled Nocturnal Animals and dedicated (dourly) to Morrow. The novel-cum-film-within-a-film is set in eerie western Texas, where cell phone service is shoddy to nonexistent and gangs of sadists joyride in the night. Finally, there’s the all-too-distant past, where we see Morrow meet, fall in love with and ultimately betray poor Sheffield.

This being a Ford film, in all three worlds, meticulous attention is paid to aesthetics and, in turn, wardrobe. Costumes help set the tone for each distinct storyline while simultaneously melding them together via consistent color play (pay attention to the reds and the greens, folks).

After watching the movie ourselves, drooling over Morrow’s closet and taking stock of all of our past breakups, we talked to Phillips about working with Ford and how to make it in the fashion industry. Below, we boil down our chat with Phillips, who cites Ford as her favorite director to work with (and coming from someone who’s got a score of costume director credits and two Oscar nods under her belt, that’s saying a lot), to six key reveals.

1. Phillips’ favorite sequence to outfit was, funnily enough, the one that featured the least amount of clothing.

Susan with her/Tom's art installation.

Susan Morrow with her/Tom Ford’s art installation; Image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

We’re referring, of course, to the controversy-stirring opening sequence of the film, one which writer Jen McDonnell called fat shaming and The New York Times reader Bree Neumann referred to as “that weird opening sequence with the obese Burlesque dancers…” Ford told Vulture that the art piece, a product of his own imagination, was initially meant as a commentary on the current state of America, which he described as “gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired.” During the shoot, however, the designer “fell in love with these women.” Said Ford to Vulture, “I found them so beautiful, so joyful, and so happy to be there. They were so uninhibited, and I realized that actually, they were a microcosm of what the whole film was saying. They had let go of what our culture had said they’re supposed to be, and because of that, they were so totally free.”

Phillips echoed Ford’s sentiments. “I think my favorite costumes are the opening art piece that we made. That was so much fun,” she began. “Getting to work with those women — their freedom — was really inspiring. It was an extraordinary day on set and I loved costuming it. Obviously, they’re not wearing much of anything, but there was a lot of accessorizing involved.”

Phillips continued, “We shot that sequence in pre-production (before we started filming) and it was just a really free-form day. Tom had an outline of what he wanted — we prepped it, prepared it, did fittings on those women — but Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and the way Tom chose to slow it down…it just ended up being stunning. We were kind of making something that was almost satirical, but then ended up becoming very beautiful and poignant, an exceptional cinematic experience in its own right.”

2. Ford (the director, not the fashion designer) has something in common with Madonna (the director, not the performer).

Tom Ford (in an en-pointe Canadian tux) directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon.

Tom Ford (in an on-point Canadian tux) directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon; Image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

Since 1997, Phillips has worked with Madonna on everything from CD covers to music videos to tour costumes (it was she that outfitted Madge’s acclaimed “Rebel Heart” world tour). “They get a lot of mileage out of Madonna, my agents,” Phillips once told a group of NYU students in a talk on music and fashion. “She’s eclipsed my career.” Ah, the humility. In fact, Phillips’ second Oscar nom came from her work on Madonna’s otherwise forgettable W.E.

“I think the thing that sets Tom apart from most directors — and when I worked with Madonna for W.E. it was the same for her — is that one of his ways to access the characters is through their looks and presentation,” Phillips told us. “I think he and Madonna are more invested in that than most directors, which is great for me. You get other directors who just aren’t interested — they leave it up to you or they have minimal interaction. Tom, on the other hand, is in every fitting, which is very unusual, if not hardly ever done. It comes in handy because we often have to expedite creative decisions based on practical things, like logistics. Lucky for me, I had that access to Tom. He already had a sense about who these characters were from adapting the script and living with this story.”

Phillips continued, “Collaboration is a key part of the filmmaking process. My job as a costume designer is to expedite his concept, which he usually put out there in the first fitting. The characters really happened in the fittings. There’s this kind of openness and this flexibility to the input of the actor that is very different from, for instance, a fitting Tom would’ve done with a model for a show. Depending on the actor, you can end up making changes. When you’re fitting a model for a show, they don’t have an opinion. I think that early on in A Single Man part of the excitement for Tom was this fluid dialog we had concerning how the actors manifested the costumes. It’s kind of a triptych between the actor, Tom and myself. By the time we’re done with a fitting, we know who that character is.”

3. It was Ford’s idea to put Jena Malone in that Comme des Garçons contraption.

Jena Malone as Susan's Comme-loving co-worker

Jena Malone as Susan Morrow’s Comme-loving co-worker; Image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

“Tom was like, ‘Let’s just put her in the most ridiculous piece.’ We all know these women in Hollywood and in the art world who wear the most avant-garde fashion. It’s a very beautiful design, but it kinda takes someone from the art world to pull off a runway piece from Comme des Garçons,” said Phillips.

Of course, the piece was meant to do more than elicit a chuckle. “There are a lot of almost cameos in our film and we really need to know who these characters are in a quick way and costumes can really help get you there. Take, for instance, Andrea Riseborough’s character Alessia — she’s wearing all this fabulous jewelry and this vintage caftan, which hopefully tell the audience who she is very quickly.”

4. Every outfit in Nocturnal Animals invites you to be a detective.

“We created layers with the costumes. On the exterior, the costumes may seem kind of quiet,” Phillips explained. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s remarkably handsome yet utterly repulsive Ray Marcus “wears jeans, a tee and a kind of vintage shirt. But then he has these scary, kelly green cowboy boots and wears a woman’s pinky ring” — a creepy reminder of his horrifying hobbies.

“They’re just small, subtle clues. Sometimes the audience picks them up. Maybe not the first time they see the movie. Hopefully, the costumes [which, given the director’s name, many of us are primed to notice] don’t take you out of the emotional context of the cinematic journey. But in the film, there are these small little signifiers that help you, consciously or unconsciously, register who that character is on the screen.”

5. Nobody wears Tom Ford.

Susan, Edward's nightmare novel and a pair of Céline reading glasses.

Susan Morrow, Edward Sheffield’s nightmare novel and a pair of Celine reading glasses; Image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

“We made a very conscious decision not to use Tom Ford,” said Phillips. Ford was adamant the film not be one long, drawn-out ad, despite the fact that Morrow — a chic, powerful, card-carrying, Koons-owning member of the one-percent — “would definitely wear Tom Ford.” Not one Tom Ford piece appears in the film, although much of the clothing was crafted using the designer’s atelier and with the help of Tom Ford design consultant David Bamber. Yes, those enviable black-rimmed reading glasses are Celine. Yes, Laura Linney’s character does wear custom Chanel. But, for the most part, the film is label-free. At the end of the day, it’s less about the drool-worthy clothes and more about creating a narrative.

When it comes to Morrow, her outsize jewelry, kohl eyeliner and impeccably fitted dresses read like armor. “That steely exterior, that very presentational, outwardly chic, powerful style is her masking her inner turmoil — the pain, suffering, regret and isolation that she feels.” At home or pre-philandering husband, Morrow’s look is decidedly lighter, more natural. “That juxtaposition in her character that’s written in the script was an opportunity costume-wise to help tell that part of the story.”

6. Want to be one of the most in-demand costume designers in Hollywood? Follow Phillips’ mantra: “Every experience is a good experience.”

Our costume designer @ariannephillips has arrived! #NocturnalAnimals @lestudiophoto

A photo posted by @nocturnalanimals on

Phillips, a San Francisco State University dropout, didn’t come by her career at all traditionally. After an untimely car accident and an insurance-payout-sponsored summer spent backpacking through Europe and falling in love with London’s fashion and music scene, a 20-something Phillips settled in New York and, through force of will and a little boost from Lenny Kravitz, inserted herself in the fashion world.

“One of my favorite things is meeting students and young people because I came to this career very untraditionally and I still kind of curate an untraditional career, moving between film, fashion and the music work that I do. I think the most important thing is to embrace new experiences — to be flexible, to be fearless and to really pursue. It was a journey for me to figure out what my creative identity was and what I wanted to do. Over the years, people have often told me I had to focus on one thing, that I couldn’t be a costume designer and a stylist, that I needed to choose just one.”

“Yet somehow I’ve managed to keep going through this kind of uncharted territory and it’s ended up working out for me because I really stayed true to what I felt connected to. I didn’t really do anything for the money (which was definitely hard at times). I still try to take jobs based on the value of the experience. A lot of people that I started out with in this business don’t do this anymore because it’s really easy to burn out.”

“As a costume designer, I’m kind of like a detective. You go on these journeys where you study certain things. You get a movie that’s set in the 50s and then you study what that’s all about and you get to visit these different worlds, much like actors do. In a way, my dabbling is totally selfish. It’s allowed me to keep things fresh. All in all, I keep stimulated by being open to new opportunities, constantly learning new things and challenging myself. So, that’s the same advice I would give anyone else: Every experience is a good experience.”