Ex-Gucci designer Tom Ford, 48, has David Geffen to thank not only for his old office complex on Sunset, but for advising him to invest in himself. That he did, with his remarkably assured $7-million film debut, A Single Man. It’s not surprising that the film has style to spare. But it also boasts the strongest performance of Colin Firth’s career. His role as a 1962 college professor grieving the loss of his lover of 16 years won him best actor at Venice and has pushed the British veteran into the Oscar race for the first time. The hottest acquisition title on the fall festival circuit, A Single Man was scooped up by The Weinstein Co., which opens the film December 11.
1. Have you always been a movie obsessive?
Tom Ford: Oh yes. I have been since I was a kid. Let’s start with The Wizard of Oz, which I saw when I was three years old. As a young gay man growing up, I watched every movie that you’d see on The Late Show. Then living in New York in the late seventies and early eighties, there was a certain culture to knowing every old Hollywood film. And that just continued to expand when I was in architecture school. I remember being blown away by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for the first time. And I’ve been film obsessed ever since.
2. What difficulties did you have adapting the Christopher Isherwood novel, which you changed in some key ways?
TF: Yes. When I bought the rights to the book, I loved the character of George, I loved really the point of the book, which is really about living in the present. When I tried to turn that into a film, it didn’t work, because nothing happened externally, it was all an inner monologue, a beautiful piece of prose. But nothing happened for us to be able to understand what George was feeling unless I was using a voiceover. So I had to create devices that would explain to the audience what he was going through and what he was feeling and thinking. George’s relationship with Charley [Julianne Moore] is very different; she’s a very different character. Jim [Matthew Goode] does die in a car crash, and they had been together 16 years. But you know the little girl across the street, the scene in the bank, the hustler, the two men with the dogs, the suicide, all of that comes from my life. There was a beautiful screenplay by David Scearce, and I’d never written a screenplay before.
3. Had you been a writer at all?
TF: When I was young, I won all the Southwest Creative Writing Awards at my little school in Santa Fe, New Mexico! But no, I’ve written a few magazine articles, but you know, only because I’m a fashion designer and people would say “Write a magazine article for me,” I didn’t get the job on my merit as a writer, but I loved it. I’m actually a loner and an introvert. Life is a performance. I am very much George, which is why I think I related to the character and grafted a large part of my own autobiography onto that character. Writing was very gratifying because when it’s in your mind and you’re sitting in your bed with your computer…it’s perfect. I got to the point where I couldn’t wait to get home and spend two hours working on a scene every night. And I loved it. You can’t fake anything. If you’re honest and true and you love something, and you put that energy into it, people can usually feel it on the other side. And I went so far out on a limb with this that I had moments that I thought, ‘Oh my God, this could be a total disaster.’ But I had the inner feeling that this would really prove that if you put an enormous amount of love into something, it might be bad–you can like it or not like it– but you’ll feel a certain passion.
4. Were you way out on a limb financially?
TF: I was, and I financed it myself. Not everybody has the capability to do that.
5. That is such a rare thing, as you know. People who can, don’t. Did people say to you, ‘Don’t do it’?
TF: You know, everybody said don’t do it, except a very very good friend of mine, David Geffen. I had two people in independent financing who were going to put up the money, and it was September, time to start pre-production. And my money evaporated because they felt it was too risky. So everything had come together, I had this great cast, I had it all together and I just had this feeling, ‘if I don’t make this now I’m never going to get to make it,’ and I had to do it. David said, ‘finance it yourself, you know what, it’s an investment in yourself. You invest in other things, you’re the surest bet you’ve got. If you believe in it and you believe in yourself, invest in yourself.’ So I gave him a thank you in the credits for that.
6. You wrote Charley for Julianne Moore, who was the first major cast to sign on. But you had someone else lined up in the Firth role?
TF: I ran into Colin at the Mamma Mia! premiere and was standing there chatting with him and just kept looking at him and could not believe it. He didn’t know that I wanted him, because his agent said he’s not available. So we moved later, he was wrapping Dorian Gray, our other actor took a job that paid more money, which I understand. Colin was the right guy. What I loved about him and the reason I thought he was right is that he’s often a little bit flat, on the surface, but he’s not flat. There’s an inner life to Colin coming through his eyes you just feel, there’s just so much more there.
7. How did you get that astonishing long close-up of him grieving, sitting in the chair?
TF: I said to him, ‘There’s a wonderful piece of film of Bill Clinton sitting being interviewed about Monica Lewinsky, did you see his face? We’re just going to hold the camera on you, and its going to be about your face.’ And we got to a point where I think he kept waiting. We did three thousand feet of that, I just couldn’t say cut! Because I get to a moment where I’d think Colin was thinking, ‘is he going to say cut?’ So he’d just go deeper and more and more into it, and the whole crew was just holding their breath. I couldn’t say cut, because just when you were about to, he’d start doing something else. So that was Colin. That was me holding the camera on Colin.
8. And you made the decision not to go digital?
TF: We shot on film, Kodak, on an old, old stock with a heavy grain and there was barely enough of it to do the film. They don’t make it anymore. I knew I wanted a grain, I thought, ‘do I really want a vintage look?’ I don’t like all this high-def, especially for this movie.
9. So the film is very design heavy. You create these tableaus, like the impossibly gigantic poster for Psycho, which would have already opened?
TF: I imagined it was just a lingering old poster from 1960. George hasn’t looked at anyone in the eye for so long and on the last day of his life he starts really looking at people and connecting to them because the eyes are really the way we are able to connect with other spirits and souls on this planet. And he’s also talking about fear, and I came across a photograph of a television image of that image, and I thought, ‘I have to use Janet Leigh’s eyes.’ And so I imagined that whole scene, we designed that set and I blew them up like that so they were just looming. I set out to make a film that looked right to me. You have to be true to yourself because that’s what’s ultimately going to give whatever you’re creating a point of view, make your thing look different from someone else’s thing. I knew what I was as a fashion designer, but when I decided ‘OK, I’m going to finally make a movie, I had to think, well why? What does anyone need to see my movie for? Why would anyone care? What is a Tom Ford movie? What do I stand for? What do I mean, what do I believe in, what is the story that I want to tell? And, what type of film?’ And so, it was very intuitive. And of course, loving film, I have a large file cabinet full of visual imagery, shots, moments, things that stand out from lots of different films. I didn’t set out to replicate any one of those, it wasn’t that. You have this repertoire, certain influences in things come out and you can probably see what directors I love and have been inspired by.
10. It must be the Italians?
TF: Oh, absolutely. Oh, Antonioni, absolutely, Vittorio de Sica, Umberto D. is one of my favorites. There are huge moments when nothing happens, you just have to watch; nobody says a word.
11. You also showed confidence in picking unproven talent like cinematographer Eduard Grau, who is 28 years old.
TF:Again, it was just a feeling. He’s fabulous. I’d looked at everyone’s DVDs and couldn’t find anyone that’d struck me. And I’m not even sure who placed his DVD on my desk because I’ve talked to every agent in town and everyone was looking. We were just a few weeks away from shooting, already in pre-production, and I didn’t have a DP. And his DVD ended up on my desk, I popped it in and I just thought, ‘This is it.’ There’s something about a Spanish sensibility, very lush, that I wanted, and it struck me. Maybe its because I grew up in New Mexico. He jumped on a plane, came over from London, we had lunch, and I hired him. Our biggest struggle was that he’s an Aries. And Aries loves to argue. Oh god, it was just arguing. But that’s ok. I would work with him again in a second. I looked and looked and looked and looked and looked and looked. There were great DPs who I knew who I wanted, who wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t enough money, or who were on other projects. We had a very low budget because we had a 2-2 waiver, the maximum you can spend on a 2-2 waiver is $7.2 million and we came in well below that. The union gives you a break and had we kicked even slightly above that the price would have jumped way up, and so you know we had a bar.
12. But you spent more on Arianne Phillips’ costumes, Dan Bishop’s production design and the color palette shifts with the character’s moods?
TF: We didn’t spend a lot on costumes. We made a few things, but a lot of things were vintage. Production design: I painted all the paintings in Charley’s house myself; I dragged in my furniture, bits and pieces of art, you know, that was a blank room. We hung drapes and made a curved sofa and threw down some shag carpet from Carpet Warehouse and, you know, some mirrors, which I put hairspray on so we wouldn’t have reflections. The mood shift I came up with when I was writing; it was another device to help the audience understand what George was feeling at that stage of his cancer. When I’m depressed, I don’t see color, everything is very flat. And maybe it’s because I’m a designer, but when I am in a state of excitement, everything is so sharp and colorful and amazing, and I can look at blue and I see the yellow in it and the green in it, and the green-blues, the yellow-blues, so. I wanted to help the audience understand what George was feeling and it was another device, as was the music.
13. The composers were not established Hollywood players either?
TF: Music is very emotional. I love Shigeru Umebayashi’s music from In The Mood For Love, the Wong Kar Wai film. I contacted him in Tokyo and sent him a rough cut screener of where I was at that stage. I have a little office in Tokyo, so I had him come to the office and watch the film. He was working on other things but he said he could do a few pieces, and he watched the film for two days over and over and went away and came back with three amazing pieces. Then I was looking for a composer, listening, listening, and I came across Abel Korzeniowsky and realized the difference. Ume is great at creating a free-standing piece of music, Abel is great at scoring, watching action and emotion, and writing to emphasize and heighten. We recorded it at Warner Bros with a ninety-piece orchestra, and it was like one of those things, I cried. Just cried. I cried when I wrote it, I cried when we were shooting it, I just cried and cried and cried. It was so much fun.
14. Now when you first debuted the film, was that Venice?
TF: It was at a CAA screening. I didn’t let anyone see it while I was editing. It took a long time, six months by the time I finished the music and everything. I had a pretty decent rough cut after four months. But I took a lot longer doing it than I thought I was going to. I really didn’t understand. I had heard ‘a film is made in the cutting room,’ and you have to have great material when you go in. But I didn’t understand that you can actually change what happens in the stories as you cut the scene or move things around, and it was fascinating. I had periods where I just thought, ‘this is a disaster,’ and then I would figure something out and I would become reenergized and I would think, ‘no, its not a disaster, I figured that out! It works!’ And then I’d find something else wrong, and then it finally just settled, in a way that I felt like, that’s what it wanted to be. [At CAA] I felt so sick. I felt just ill. I really, I’m not someone who ever throws up, but I was close. And then the reaction was very positive. But this was still a room of agents, friends, so Venice was really the first showing to an actual audience. I was on autopilot. I wish I could freeze the moments after Colin won the [best actor] award standing in front of the boat, the wind blowing his hair, so relaxed and happy.
15. What made you make your distribution deal in Toronto with Harvey Weinstein?
TF: I’ve known Weinstein a long time. He’s one of most supportive people, he’s passionate about what he does. He loves film. When he’s passionate, he’s very passionate.
16. What’s next?
TF: Well, I’ve written something else from scratch, but I can’t say whether or not it’s what I’m going to do next or not, I need some distance. My head is spinning.