"No matter how much you love something, there are those moments where you think, 'shit, maybe I'm just way out on a limb and other people aren't going to feel this way'," Tom Ford said regarding his film "A Single Man." "But then after the screening in Venice, we had a standing ovation for ten minutes. And it was amazing. It was very emotional, and it was just like a great release of 'yes, it spoke to other people.'"
In the wake of significant praise in Venice - taking both its Queer Lion award and a best actor prize for Colin Firth - "A Single Man" made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Expectations were suddenly high in the shadow of Venice, but the largely public audience seemed to embrace the film quite passionately, as did Harvey Weinstein - who had the U.S. rights signed and sealed by the morning after it screened.
The Weinsteins are releasing the film this Friday, December 11th, suggestively in an attempt to get "A Single Man" some love from awards season. It'll be interesting to see how the Weinsteins handle the film in this regard, because "The Reader" this is not. Ford's achievement, while an artful, crowning one, is far from commercial. And this is something Ford himself seemed to have no trouble admitting when indieWIRE sat down with him at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel during the festival, and moments after he had approved a press release announcing his deal with Harvey and Co.
"Fashion is something I love but it is a commercial creative endeavor for me," he said. "This was the first thing I've ever done that was really just pure expression. Where I wasn't necessarily thinking about how I was gonna sell it or who was gonna see it. And maybe that's dumb. I do want people to see it because if they don't see it you don't communicate. But, for me it was something I just had to make. It was incredibly personal to me."
"A Single Man" was adapted by Ford and David Scearce from Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel of the same name, regarded as one of the first and finest novels of the early gay liberation movement. A meditation on love and death and isolation, it follows a single day in the life of George (Firth), a middle-aged gay Englishman working as a college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. His longtime lover, Jim (played by Matthew Goode in a series of flashbacks) has recently died in a car accident, and as a result George is the midst of self-destruction.
For Ford, the film is a long time coming. Known to the world as one of America's most prominent fashion designers, he decided over a decade ago that he wanted to eventually take on cinema as a "parallel career." When he left his post as Gucci's creative director five years ago, he decided it was the perfect time. But finding the perfect project was a whole other issue.
"I know what I want to say in fashion," Ford said, "and I have said it over the years but I had to really stop and think: Why does anybody want to see a Tom Ford movie? Who needs another movie? What do I have to say? So finding something that had a message that I felt was important was really the most imperative thing. I read a lot of scripts. I had optioned a couple books I was working on adapting. And still nothing felt quite right. Until one day I was driving to my office and I realized I was thinking about this character George in 'A Single Man' - which I had read in my early twenties when I was living in Los Angeles."
Ford decided to re-discover the novel and found that from the perspective of a man in his mid-forties, it spoke to him in an entirely different way.
"For someone who has been fortunate enough to have all the material things that the world can offer," he said, "and had really neglected the spiritual side of my life - this book spoke to me. In a very spirtual way. And I saw that it was actually a book written by the false self - from a kind of great distance - about the true self. It's written in the third person. It's really a book about learning to live in the present. Our culture is always living in the future... And that's not really what it's all about. As a fashion designer too, you also really live in the future. I mean, I design eighteen months in the future. Today doesn't even exist. So before you know it, all your todays are gone and your life is over. And I'm constantly trying to live in the present and to drink things in and freeze them. And that's what the movie is about. It's about understanding the simple, small things in your life. And I think it's the perfect time for us to all remember that, and to strive for that. So it seemed like the right story to tell."
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Ford optioned the novel from Don Bachardy, the deceased Isherwood's longtime lover. Barchardy was somewhat hesitant given that "A Single Man" was Isherwood's favorite book, and something very personal to himself as well (the character of Jim is largely based on him). And even though Ford chose to take significant (and necessary) creative liberties with the original work, Barchardy is quite pleased with the final product.
"The book is an inner-monologue that's beautifully written prose but actually nothing happens," Ford explained. "There is no plot. So I had to create a plot. I had to create the suicide. In order to give George a reason, and for us as viewers to understand that he was now looking at the world in a different way. So I had to give some external indications of what was going on inside George's head. But Don was really was really happy with it, which meant a lot to me."
Ford owes a portion of that happiness to Colin Firth, who as George is in essentially every scene of the film and gives arguably the performance of his career tapping deeply into the character's quiet sorrow.
"Colin was my absolute first choice," Ford said. "He was tied up doing another film and then we were delayed a little bit and all of a sudden he became available. The moment I heard he was available, I called him and Fed Exed him the script. I jumped on a plane to London the next day. I had dinner with him and I convinced him - we had a handshake deal. I came back, we went into pre-production two weeks later. And the whole thing, like a lot of things in life that are meant to be, just came together.
Financing was something that was slightly more problematic. Ford was working with a couple of people on the financing, but the financial crisis happened and that evaporated. But Ford had a privleged alternative.
"I felt that everything had come together and that I had to make this movie, so I financed it myself. And not everybody has that luxury. I did. And I thought, you know what, I'm going to invest in myself. I'm going to do it. I think some people thought it was a vanity project. You know, 'he's paying for it himself.' But we sold it last night, and I made back my money."
While the film has everything even his naysayers may have expected - it's stunningly shot, the production and costume design are both meticulous and gorgeous - it's also profoundly affecting. Ford found a way to take his more obvious talents and use them to bring forth a depth in the film's narrative and its characters.
"For me," he said, "the set design, the production design... has to relate to the character. Now, of course, it's beautiful. I'm someone who is never probably going to make a movie about the ugly world. Just like Hitchcock didn't - and I'm not comparing myself to Hitchcock - but he's a great director for me. Because cinema for me is also a bit of a dream. An enhanced reality, maybe. But not an enhanced reality for no reason. You know, there's a reason to every decision."
Ford also - like Isherwood's novel (and his entire literary career, really) - decided to take on the film's gay material without making it all about being gay.
"Isherwood's books are not about struggling to deal with your homosexuality," he said, "which a lot of us do, of course. We live in a time when other people have struggled a great deal so we don't have to struggle. Things are more accepted. You know, I've always thought of myself as just a human. I forget that I'm gay and I don't see this as a gay story. It's just a story about love and isolation and trying to figure out what life's all about. What's on screen, is the life I live. Those are my dogs. That's the relationship I have with my boyfriend. The suicide was a suicide that happened in my family. At certain points in my life I've had intense depressions. That's my life. It's completely integrated."
As for Ford's newfound life as a filmmaker, he's confident there's much more to come. In the meantime, though, he wants to savor his "Man."
"I need to live through this first," he said. "I just finished editing two weeks ago. George hasn't left me. I don't want to just make movies that mean nothing. I need to get a little bit of distance and figure out what I want to say next. And some of that will come from having said this, and I'd like to make a movie every two or three years. But for now... it's funny. I've never at all been afraid of death. I don't have children. I get on planes... little planes. I just don't care. I travel, travel, travel. When I was working on this film, it just killed me to think I might die before I finished it. This is the thing I've done in my life that I'm the most proud of."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. "A Single Man" opens in theaters Friday.