This article contains spoilers for Nocturnal Animals.
When a nondescript package arrives at the palatial modern fortress of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), it lands on a sleek black countertop upon which the LA gallerist asks offish husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), to examine its contents. Inside the box is the titular manuscript for "Nocturnal Animals," the debut novel from her estranged ex, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).
In Tom Ford's acclaimed second feature film, Nocturnal Animals (Focus Features), Morrow's experience reading Sheffield's story takes her down dark roads both real and imagined. Her inner world mirrors the one that surrounds her: when receiving the book shakes Morrow out of her emotional sopor, a chaotic painting by Sterling Ruby, downtown LA transplant and patron saint of art world ennui, looms in the background. In one of the film's opening shots, a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog sits companionless in the backyard of the Morrow residence, reflecting the expensive, hollow solitude of its owners.
Good filmmakers walk the tightrope between visual and verbal storytelling. Great filmmakers understand that quite a bit more can be said by using great art to speak for you. For every Boy with Apple, created specifically to evoke an Old World feeling Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, and every Catherine Kubrick painting lining the vaunted walls of Stanley's Eyes Wide Shut, there's a distraught William Turner hanging in Sam Mendes' Skyfall (The Fighting Temeraire), an apocalyptic Picasso in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (Guernica), and an ecstatic Pieter Bruegel the Elder in both Lars von Trier's Melancholia as in Tarkovsky's Solaris (Hunters in the Snow).
They're gifts for art lovers and cinephiles alike, from the work of Calder (23 Snowflakes) to Currin (Nude in Convex Mirror), Hirst (Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain), Motherwell (Untitled (Elegy)), Schnabel (Untitled), and of course, Andy Warhol (Shadow), Nocturnal Animals is full of them. In fact, the 15 or so contemporary artworks in the film—and the original works produced by Ford and the film's art department—would be more than enough for their own gallery show. Interested in learning more about the challenges inherent to finding, licensing, and actively using multimillion-dollar masterpieces for a major Hollywood motion picture, The Creators Project reached out to the film's production designer, Shane Valentino, who gave us a crash course in the art of Nocturnal Animals.
The Creators Project: Right off the bat, how important were original artworks in early production design conversations?
Shane Valentino: They were really important. In our second meeting, Tom made it very clear he wanted to have original artwork throughout the film. The only ones that needed to be “made” were the opening sequence video installation and the “REVENGE” painting.
What’s your personal experience staging/curating/handling artworks?
I received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. While I was there as a fine art filmmaker, I had the privilege of curating two shows. Those formative experiences of trying to create a theme or story through a collection of artwork, have informed my approach to production design in film making. I try not to just have the artwork used in the films I design just be set dressing. I feel they can always be another layer to help augment, illuminate, and articulate meaning.
How specific were Tom’s requests for pieces? How were the works obtained? Were there any works you couldn’t get?
Tom was specific about three pieces in the film, Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog, Alexander Calder's 23 Snowflakes, and the REVENGE painting. The other pieces highlighted in the film for various sets/locations were selected through an ongoing conversation between the two of us. I was fortunate to have a longer prep period, allowing Tom and I the time to really work through how the artwork could help articulate certain themes and tones. Some of the artwork was available through Tom’s personal collection. Others were available from various private collections. The Holt Residence in the film included Tony Smith, Julian Schnabel, Joan Mitchell, Robert Polidori, and Jack Pierson, while the Morrow Residence had Sterling Ruby, Ed Ruscha, Robert Longo, and others that were received by contacting the artists directly or through a clearance/product placement representative. The works received outside of private collections were collected in many different ways.
Some artists sent them directly to the art department—Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Larry Fink, Cindy Sherman and Asger Carlson. In the case of John Currin’s Nude in Convex Mirror, his gallery sent us a high-res digital file which we printed on canvas. After filming was complete, we shipped the reproduction back to his gallery so they could destroy it. The one work we couldn’t get was Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curve. We actually had the painting in our possession, part of Tom’s personal collection, but we were having difficulty getting permission from Ellsworth to use it in the film. We wanted to use Red Curve on the wall opposite Nude in Convex Mirror in Susan Morrow’s Office. We finally did get Ellsworth's permission but we unfortunately had already filmed the scene. Although it doesn’t make the final edit, we were able to use Richard Misrach’s Portrait of Agostino from his Pictures of Paintings series instead.
Did you have to go through any particularly non-film world avenues (art licensing, hiring outside art handlers) to make the sets come alive? How much did Tom’s personal connections come into play?
We did have to go through outside vendors for the handling of certain artwork—Mark Bradford, Aaron Curry, Alexander Calder, John McLauglin, and Robert Motherwell. Some of the pieces' values are so significant, we needed to hire outside shippers and installers whose primary function was to handle and manage the artwork from transport to installation. Tom’s personal connections with some of the artists was key. I remember on at least two occasions he reached out to artists to get permission of use—Damien Hirst for St. Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, and Jeff Koons for Balloon Dog. They were both very reluctant when we were using our usual route to get to the artists—gallery reps or licensing collective(s). I think Tom's personal phonecall to explain their works' significances to the film helped secure permission of use. He can be quite persuasive and charming. Those are examples of small, challenging moments, but mostly just the mere mention of Tom’s name would help open doors and provide access to places and people not often inclined to respond to a film’s requests. It was a real advantage!
What do you think the contemporary artworks do for the movie? Can you give any particular examples of works and their personal relationships to the film, to the characters, or to the sets?
We were really trying to show how Susan’s world, the art surrounding her as well as her educational experience—art historian—was informing the look and feel for the West Texas storyline. We started asking what objects or ideas surrounding her would inform her imaginary world. It was not an accident that the house Tony walks up to from the highway after his family was taken from him looks like a John Divola photo, or the standoff between Ray and Tony at the end looks like a Richrd Misrach photo. As we oscillate between the “real” and “imagined” worlds of West Texas, the artwork in Susan’s world takes on greater meaning. When Susan pauses in front of Damien Hirst's sculpture, St. Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, the piece reveals how one’s vulnerability allows one to behold beauty. It feels like it is exposing her previous avoidance of love and its grim consequence.
Do you have a favorite artwork in the film?
My favorite artwork in the film is Richard Misrach’s "Desert Fires #153" photograph in Susan Morrow’s house foyer. It was an early reference on my mood board for Nocturnal Animals' West Texas storyline. Tom immediately responded to the photo, not only because it was a part of his personal collection, but because it captured some of the ideas we were trying to articulate—desperation, confusion, and fear. The photo has a man pointing a rifle at another man who is smiling to the camera. Normally it could be interpreted as a playful moment between two men, the threat of annihilation diffused by a simple smile, but by placing the action or “capturing” the moment within an environment consumed by smoke and fire, the playfulness evaporates and the imminent danger is highlighted. The photo does an incredible job of capturing this tension, a tension almost duplicated in the highway scene between Tony’s family and Ray’s gang.
To the degree that one ‘interacts’ with an artwork by looking at it, spending time, etc., how much did the actors get to interact with the artworks?
The actor who interacted the most with the artwork was Amy Adams. The irony of the St. Sebastian, Exquisite Pain moment in the film, is that the sculpture was a CGI. It exists at the Goss-Michael Foundation’s permanent collection in Dallas. We had to send a VFX supervisor to map the sculpture in Dallas—photograph it from multiple angles—and then we “placed" it in the scene in post-production. Amy was interacting with a bluescreen mockup during the filming of the scene.
How has working with art expanded your production design capabilities? Any interest in curating shows now?
I have always tried to incorporate art into my production design practice. You can see it in the film Beginners as well as in The Normal Heart. I will continue to try and “curate” art into the films I do in the future. A real passion of mine! I would love the opportunity to curate traditional gallery shows. I think it is important to continue the conversation of certain themes highlighted in films and find its application in other “significant” places and spaces. Let’s do one!
Below, a complete list of Nocturnal Animals artworks by location / set:
Video Projection and Sculptures on plinths - Designed and created by Nocturnal Animals Art Department and Tom Ford
Poolside - Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000 (Sculpture)
Entry - Richard Misrach, "Desert Fire #153 (Man with Rifle)," 1984 (Photograph)
Dining Area - Sterling Ruby, Title Unknown
Living Room - Robert Motherwell, Untitled (Elegy), 1950-1956 (Painting) / Aaron Curry, Untitled, 2011 (Sculpture) / Andy Warhol, Shadow, 1980 (Painting)
Bedroom - Mark Bradford, Untitled, 2015 (Painting) / Alexander Calder, 23 Snowflakes, 1956 (Sculpture)
Morrow Office - John Currin, Nude in Convex Mirror, 2015 (Painting)
Driveway - Tony Smith, Title Unknown, Date Unknown (Sculpture)
Entry - Joan Mitchell, Looking for a Needle, 1958 (Painting) / Julian Schnabel, Untitled, 2008 (Painting)
Living Room - Robert Polidori, Death of Marat, 1985 (Photograph) / Robert Polidori, Salle de Bain Marle Antoinette, 2006 (Photograph)
Dining Room - Jack Pierson, Torse de’Atlete Marble, 2010 (Photograph)
Los Angeles Museum:
Lobby - Damien Hirst, Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, 2007 (Sculpture)
Walkway - "Revenge" Painting, Designed and created by Nocturnal Animals Art Department and Tom Ford