Texas-bred couturier Tom Ford ventures into filmmaking with ‘A Single Man’
A Single Man, the film version of the Christopher Isherwood novel, marks Tom Ford’s directorial debut. The fashion designer turned filmmaker joins the ranks of directors such as Julian Schnabel and Sofia Coppola who broke new ground, personally and professionally, with their feature films.
Set on one day in 1962, it follows college professor George (Colin Firth), distraught over the sudden death of his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode), who is planning to kill himself after getting his affairs in order.
The Texas-bred Ford spoke with Dallas Voice earlier this month about working with Firth and Julianne Moore, and why he doesn’t consider it a "gay movie."
Dallas Voice: What it was about Christopher Isherwood’s book that made you want to make it into a film? Tom Ford: I first read this book when I was about 20 years old and I was living in West Hollywood in the early ’80s and I was an actor. What spoke to me about the book then was the character of George, which is so beautifully written by Mr. Isherwood.
Then five years ago I became serious about making a movie. I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis after having left Gucci and actually thinking at that time that I wouldn’t go back to fashion. I knew I wanted to make movies and I thought, "Well, this is the perfect time." I optioned a couple of books and started to develop them as projects, but nothing was really speaking to me. One day I realized that I was thinking of this character George. This book has stayed with me for 25 years — I [thought I] should pick it up and read it again.
What was it like to read it again? Reading it from midlife was an entirely different thing for me. It spoke to me in a completely different way. George is a character who cannot see his future. He is struggling to live in the present. Isherwood was a very spiritual guy and the book is very, very spiritual. I just had an intuition and a feeling that this book really spoke to me. And that the themes of the book were universal and timeless.
Did you see the documentary Chris & Don, about Isherwood and Don Bachardy? I love that documentary [but] I was already working on my project when that film was finished. And, of course, I watched it many times and know Don Bachardy and spent time with Don working on this film. It touched me in many ways, just because of the personal connection to Don.
Do you think this constitutes an Isherwood revival? I hope so! I would love to see an Isherwood revival. To me, he was a great writer. He predicted, in the book, the dumbing down of culture. Also, his depictions of gay life were so matter-of-fact, so straightforward, that they were revolutionary at the time. In today’s world, because we’ve come a long way and we’ve had a lot of people put themselves on the front lines to get us where we are today, we have the benefit of living in a world where these things are not particularly shocking.
He was writing in a pre-Stonewall era. Absolutely. The way he depicts the relationship is very much the way … I’ve lived with the same guy [Richard Buckley] for 23 years and it’s very much my relationship. It’s about love; it’s about two people who are together. I still have friends to this day who occasionally say to me something about my "lifestyle." And I’m like, "What lifestyle?" The scene where George and Jim are lying on the sofa with the dogs is a scene right out of my life. That’s my "lifestyle."
You talked about your career change. Was there always something in the back of your mind that made you believe that someday you would become a filmmaker? It has been there for a long time. I’ve been obsessed with film for so long. I would say that it was 15 years ago that I decided that this was something that I definitely wanted to do. I told Harvey Weinstein that one night and he encouraged me. He didn’t laugh at me, he didn’t giggle. He said, "You should. You would be a great filmmaker." Which is one of the reasons that I’m happy that Harvey has the distribution. He’s very passionate about the film and he’s a very passionate person. He was always very supportive.
There was a controversy regarding the Weinstein Company "de-gaying" the trailer of A Single Man. What is your response to that? I don’t think the movie’s been de-gayed. We live in a society that’s pretty weird. For example, you can have full-frontal male nudity on HBO, yet in cinema, you can’t have naked male buttocks. You can’t have men kissing each other without it being considered adult content. So in order to cut a trailer that can go into broad distribution in theaters and online in order to attract people to the film, certain things had to be edited out. But it wasn’t an attempt to remove the gayness of the movie.
And then I think a quote that I said was blown up in The Advocate, where I said I didn’t think of myself as gay. What I meant by that was, of course I’m gay. I’ve always been openly gay. Everything about my life has been openly gay. I’m perfectly proud of the fact that I’m gay. [But] I don’t define myself by my sexuality. For me, this is not a gay movie, this is not a straight movie — this is a movie about love. For me, I would love to see our culture come to a moment where love is love. Love between two men, two women, a man and a woman — they’re all on the same plateau and they are love. That’s what I meant by that.
And it’s so beautiful to look at, like looking through a vintage fashion magazine. I suppose I should take that as a compliment; I know it’s meant as one. For me, style without substance is nothing. So the substance in the story was the most important thing. Of course, there is a layer of style. If I were a director working in a different era, I would have had to be at MGM. I don’t think I’d probably know how to make anything but enhanced reality, because that’s what comes naturally to me.
Was Colin Firth always your first choice for George? He was. I wasn’t going to be able to get him and so I moved on to another actor because Colin was going to be working. I was at the Mamma Mia! premiere chatting with Colin. I had another actor attached who had been attached for about six months. I was looking Colin up and down and I was so upset. It was so clear to me that he had to be George.
Then the actor that had been attached had to pull out. All of a sudden, our schedule moved forward and Colin was available. I immediately FedEx’d him the script. We went to dinner, I showed him all the imagery I had and talked him through what I thought the film was about. We had a handshake deal at the end of the meal. A month later we started shooting.
Playing Charlotte is Julianne Moore, a longtime favorite of gay filmmaker Todd Haynes. I like to think she’s a longtime favorite of everybody. I wrote that part, which is very different than the character in the book, hoping that she would respond to it. She was the very first actor to say yes. The fact that she attached herself was a real help in lending credibility to the project.
The book A Single Man is dedicated to Gore Vidal, gay author of another landmark book in gay lit, The City and the Pillar. Would you consider that book or Vidal for a film project? I love Gore Vidal. I’ve only met Mr. Vidal once. I sat next to him at something and he was really mean and nasty. I thought, "Well, okay, I’m obviously not going to be friends with Gore Vidal!" That’s all right. That’s life.
Do you have an idea of what your next project will be? I don’t know. I need some space. I’ve written an original screenplay, which I may or may not make. We finished this in August. I’m going to need some distance. I would like to hope that I’m only going to make films that I really love and that really mean something to me. And that I will resist the temptation to make studio films. I need a little space to figure out what I want to say and do next as a filmmaker. But I absolutely intend to make more films. If I’m lucky I will make one every two or three years for the rest of my life.
QUEER CLIP: ‘UP IN THE AIR’
Jason Reitman had the luxury with his last feature, Juno, of emerging with a sleeper hit. It almost always happens, though, that the next film comes with high expectations. (We don’t allow two sleepers from young filmmakers. Not consecutively at least.) So the cascade of praise (and award nominations) showered on Up in the Air either confirms Reitman’s genius or manifests a complete lack of creativity on the part of critics.
A little from column A, a little from
Reitman is a master craftsman who has sidled into mainstream filmmaking effortlessly, though he drags some indie edge along with him. Up in the Air is a conventional, basically familiar story about a loner (George Clooney, every inch the glamorous movie star but endlessly approachable) who travels constantly for work, but slowly begins to crave connections with other people. But the style — unfussy, with sharp editing, low-key cinematography, authentic performances and a slightly-outside-the-box ending — is gloriously real. It can be a back-handed compliment to call something "a Hollywood film with heart." Here, there’s no back-hand intended; Reitman has crafted a thinking entertainment with surprising currency. It glides along without turbulence for two hours on its way to a smooth landing. You’re happy to be along for the ride.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2009.