The Mourning After: Tom Ford on A Single Man
The following first appeared in Filmmaker‘s Winter 2010 edition. —Editor
Although fashion and film have always been closely intertwined, Tom Ford may be the first fashion designer to cross over to the role of filmmaker. To be sure, his debut feature, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, reflects his immaculate sense of style. But its story, a melancholy tale of a day in the life of a middle-aged college professor (Colin Firth) who is still mourning the unexpected death of his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode), is a far cry from the sex-saturated tableaus that Ford created for the fashion world. The novel, which at its inception reflected Isherwood’s own fear of losing his lover Don Bachardy to another man, is a very internal work, capturing through its interior dialogue the profound questions that the most banal events in one’s life inspire. To translate the book to film, Ford reworked its plot so that protagonist George Falconer now plans to commit suicide at day’s end, making his every moment charged for us by the realization that it is among the last of his life. His dalliance with an infatuated college student (Nicholas Hoult), his drunken dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore), his best friend from London, and even his painful run-ins with dolefully conventional neighbors the Strunks all resonate with the singular sense of mortality. The novel’s title, after all, underscores the inescapable individuality by which each of us must confront life and death as much as it does George’s marital status.
When Ford left the design house Gucci five years ago, he talked about wanting to make a feature film, although what and when remained open questions. In 2006, he acquired the rights to Isherwood’s A Single Man, started reading up on directing, and wrote and rewrote the script about 15 times. Ford secured financing from two large investors, and then lost it when the market tumbled. Instead of looking elsewhere, Ford financed the entire $7 million budget himself. He got an immediate “yes” when he offered Charley to Julianne Moore but was originally turned down when he approached Colin Firth for the lead. Only later, after his second choice dropped out and Ford appealed personally to Firth, did the British actor sign on. To assist him with his screen debut, Ford reached out to a team of both seasoned (costume designer Arianne Phillips and production designer Dan Bishop) and relatively new talents (d.p. Eduard Grau and composer Abel Korzeniowski).
After premiering at Venice, where Firth won a best actor award, A Single Man was acquired by the Weinstein Company in Toronto and then launched in an Oscar-qualifying run at year’s end.
CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR TOM FORD ON THE SET OF A SINGLE MAN. PHOTO BY EDUARD GRAU.
Filmmaker: You read Isherwood’s novel when you were young. When you reread it with an eye toward adapting it to a film, how had the story changed for you?
Ford: In my twenties what spoke to me in the book was the character of George. I’d really developed a crush on George. My first boyfriend, Ian Falconer, who lived with David Hockney, introduced me to Christopher Isherwood. I read everything he’d done. But in my early twenties, I didn’t grasp the spiritual side of the story, or its midlife crisis. In my forties, rereading it, it was something different. The book is written in the third person, but I didn’t originally understand the significance of that. Reading it again in my forties, I see it is about the true self or soul watching the false self, or material self, go through the day with a certain detachment. The spirit of the story is summed up in the first line: “Waking up begins with saying am and now.” It’s about learning to live in the present, learning to share your connection with the rest of the universe, and those things really spoke to me after I had left Gucci and couldn’t see my own future. I had had every material advantage that one can have, and a wonderful boyfriend I have been with for 23 years, and yet I wasn’t seeing all those things. That’s why the book resonated with me.
Filmmaker: In the documentary Chris and Don, Don Bachardy talks about the origin of the book. Did you speak to Bachardy about it?
Ford: Oh yes, I got to know Don quite well. I had met him once in the ’80s, but he didn’t remember me. Why should he—I was just a kid then. But I got to know him quite well while working on this. Anytime I had a question about something I talked to him. And he loved the movie, which made me feel very happy.
Filmmaker: Supposedly Isherwood wrote this when Bachardy was going to leave him.
Ford: Well, he did leave, according to what Don told me. He moved to New York with somebody else for eight months. So Chris [Isherwood] imagined that Don was dead and that he was single. But they got back together. I don’t know if he finished the book before they got back together or after, but Don thought of the title “A Single Man.” He said it is one of Christopher’s favorite books.
Filmmaker: What is it about the book that conveys spirituality to you?
Ford: Chris spent the second side of his life developing the spiritual side of his nature. Not to get too astrological, but he was a Virgo—his birthday was August 26—and I’m a Virgo. My birthday is August 27. And Colin is a Virgo. For the character in the book, his inner world is very much related to his outer world, which is developed even further in the film. This man holds himself together by holding his outer world together and that is what contains him.
Filmmaker: Isherwood was very involved in Vedanta, which was a very important movement at the time.
Ford: Yes. Today The Power of Now seems to have taken its place. For me, it’s the I Ching, which is the grandfather of all in terms of spirituality. I grew up a Presbyterian and went to Catholic school, but Western religion never really struck me. I have always had a kind of inner voice and a feeling of connection with things. Maybe it’s from growing up in New Mexico with all that space—you have a definite sense of the Earth and your place in it. I had neglected that part of self. I reread the Tao Te Ching, which I had read earlier in my life, and I started to concentrate on flipping that switch in the brain that makes the difference between happiness and unhappiness. It really is a state of mind. The film really is about looking at the small things in life and realizing that they are the big things in life.
Filmmaker: When you acquired the book I understand there was already a script in place.
Ford: Yes, there was a beautiful script by a guy named David Scearce. And it was attached to the book, so when I bought the book, I acquired the script as well. It was quite literally the book as a screenplay. I didn’t intend to write the screenplay when I started working on this project, but when I started laying it out as a film, I realized that that book and that screenplay were not going to make the film that I wanted to make. Nothing happens in the book. There is no planned suicide in the script that David wrote. There are no external things happening to let the audience know what is happening in George’s mind.
JULIANNE MOORE IN A SINGLE MAN. PHOTO BY EDUARD GRAU.
Filmmaker: Was the Cuban Missile Crisis in the book?
Ford: Oh yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis is definitely in the book, but a lot of things changed. The character of Charley is not at all the way she is in the book. When I got to work on it, I took the book and the screenplay and put them aside. And then I wrote out the new plot lines, wrote out new scenes, and completely restructured a new screenplay from scratch. The original book and David’s screenplay served as reference and source for the story. And while I diverged quite a bit, I kept the intention.
Filmmaker: How did you change the character of Charley?
Ford: Some of the things that I did were things that Christopher had thought of doing. I wrote Charley in a more glamorous way with a past history with George. I asked Don about that, and he said, “It’s really funny that you did that. The original Charley was based on Iris Tree. She was really glamorous, very much like the character that you have written, but Christopher didn’t want her to know that she was the basis for that character so he had dramatically changed her in the book.”
Filmmaker: When you rewrote it, did you bring in things that are personal to you?
Ford: A lot of it. The suicide comes from a suicide that happened in my family.
Filmmaker: What were the cinematic or literary influences that came into play? Obviously there’s a sense of Virginia Woolf in that sense of a life lived in a day.
Ford: There absolutely is. In fashion design, I catalog things, and they go into my mind in a sort of file cabinet, and when they come out again, I never realize where exactly they came from. And hopefully they come out with a certain personal stamp. It was much the same way with the film. Loving film, and having watched film voraciously for my entire life, I think I have a very good file cabinet, filled with images, shots, angles, storytelling techniques: Fritz Lang, Hitchcock (probably my favorite director), Kubrick, Antonioni. One of my favorite movies is Umberto D. by Vittorio De Sica in which there are long silences in which you just watch. But there wasn’t a point where I said, “Okay, I’m going to reference this [shot or director].” I am sure there though, that there are some that I am not at all completely aware of.
Filmmaker: Douglas Sirk comes to mind a lot.
Ford: People keep saying that, but I have to say, I don’t like that reference. I like Douglas Sirk and I like those films. There is a certain campy quality to them, with the color and the artificiality, so I can see that connection, but it wasn’t my intention. Hitchcock is also completely artificial.
Filmmaker: Your use of music is very Hitchcockian.
Ford: That was my intention, a sort of overblown, Bernard Herrmann-esqe score.
Filmmaker: That certainly comes across…
Ford: I think I’ll say… thank you?
Filmmaker: Yes, I loved the score.
Ford: I had such great luck with a Russian composer called Abel Korzeniowski. I started off contacting Shigeru Umebayashi, who did In the Mood for Love, but he was not free to do the entire film. So he wrote a few small pieces. He sat in my office in L.A. and watched the movie for three days, and went back and wrote some very beautiful pieces of music.
Filmmaker: How then did you integrate the two scores from the two composers?
Ford: I had a very specific sound that I wanted. I wanted the principal instrument to be the violin, because the violin is the most human of all instruments. It can be sad and sound like it’s crying. I think that the two scores mesh beautifully, and I don’t think that you can tell where one ends and the other begins. Abel’s great strength is his ability to score. Shigeru produces beautiful freestanding pieces, but Abel scores — he writes music to reinforce the moment.
Filmmaker: You clearly were engaged in all stages of production. As a first-time director, what did you find the most challenging, and what was the most enjoyable?
Ford: Every single moment was fulfilling. At the start, I would sit in my bed writing a scene, and nothing would go wrong because it would all be in my mind. I loved writing it. I loved preproduction. I loved production. I loved shooting. I loved editing but it was the biggest surprise for me. I had no idea how tedious it could be, and how you can take the same scene and twist it into 10 different directions depending on how you cut it. That tortured me in a way, but I also loved it.
Filmmaker: The film has a precise visual vocabulary. How did that come about?
Ford: While I was writing it, I could visualize every single scene perfectly. Now, I am not trying to tell you that I had the whole film in my head like Mr. Hitchcock—which we now know was false since many of his storyboards were sketched after the fact. But while I was writing I knew that I wanted the color to intensify at certain moments. I had a friend who was dying of cancer and I remember so vividly him telling me that during a snow storm the snow had never looked that way to him before. Everything was so intense. As a fashion designer, I often found myself living in B&W environments. I’d made them B&W because I couldn’t face color after having worked with it all day. I guess that’s what I am getting at—when I’m depressed I don’t see color. Everything is flat. Then when I am not depressed, in a happy state, everything is very intense. Color is very intense. When George decides that this is going to be the last day of his life, then for the first time in a long time, he is really looking at things. Which is why we have so many eyes in the film. He hasn’t looked into anyone’s eyes in so long. All at once he is connecting with everyone through their eyes.
Filmmaker: You seemed to have paid a lot of attention to the architecture in the film, especially George’s house.
Ford: I knew that I wanted him to have a modern house. He says what he likes about America is that this is a country in which you can create your future. So I feel that he would have wanted a piece of modern architecture. But since he came from England, grew up in darkness with wood-paneled rooms with a fire and scotch, I felt that he wouldn’t have wanted a cold, glass-and-steel modern house. Selecting his house was tricky; I wanted something dark and covered in wood, but also modern. The house I found was an early [John] Lautner house in Glendale. It’s the first house that Lautner did after he left [Frank Lloyd] Wright in 1948. And it is a great house. We shot everything in the same room. It is not nearly as big as it looks. The rooms are miniscule so we just redesigned the rooms in different incarnations and moved the walls and shot everything in the same room.
Filmmaker: And what kind of notes did you give to your production designer about the furniture?
Ford: Well most of it came from my house. We were on a budget. Some of the paintings were things that Julianne Moore and I did.
Filmmaker: I noticed you used several of Don Bachardy’s drawings.
Ford: I did. I believe in luck. I used a lot of things that I hoped would bring me good luck. All of his family pictures, which there are not too many, were my family. I used Don’s drawings where I could. And I used other personal items, many to help the actors understand who their characters were but also to help me to develop the characters. For example, Arianne Phillips designed the costumes—and she did a beautiful job—but George’s suits I manufactured in my factory in Italy. And in the inside of his suits I came up with the name of a tailor that I imagined that George would have gone to when he went back to England to have his clothes made. So there is a date and a name sewn in the pocket of the jacket. I don’t know if Colin ever looked at it.