by Gregg Shapiro
A Single Man, the film version of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, 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-length motion picture presentations.
Set in the early 1960s, stunningly recreated with a careful and reverent eye, A Single Man takes place in a single day. College professor George (Colin Firth, who has never been sexier), distraught over the sudden death of his longtime companion, Jim (the always charming Matthew Goode), is planning to go out with a bang. Literally. He has a gun and he is getting his affairs in order, which includes an intimate, yet distant, evening with best gal pal Charlotte (a stunning Julianne Moore), before getting on with the task at hand. But life has other plans for him, including the unexpected interest of student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who is more than a little hot for teacher.
Diplomatic, with a great sense of humor, Ford was very enthusiastic about talking with me about his first film. We spoke in early December 2009.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by asking you to please say something about what it was about Christopher Isherwood’s book A Single Man 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 that he really seems real. And, of course, he was real, because he was really Christopher Isherwood writing, as many of Christopher’s books or stories have an autobiographical character, and this was very definitely an autobiography of Chris, in a way. Shortly thereafter, I had a friend who was living with David Hockey at that time, and I used to spend a lot of time at David’s. David and Christopher were great friends and I met Christopher Isherwood a couple of times. I don’t think I made a great impression. We didn’t become great friends. But I was impressed and I began to read everything that he had ever written.
Fast forward to five years ago when I became serious about really making a movie. I was going through a bit of what could be called a midlife crisis after having left Gucci and one career and actually thinking, at that time, that I wouldn’t be going back to fashion. I was having a very hard time seeing my future. I knew I wanted to make movies, and I thought, “Well, this is the perfect time.” So I opened a production office in Los Angeles, and I started reading every script that was circulating. I optioned a couple of books and started to develop them as projects, but nothing was really speaking to me. One day, driving to my office, I realized that I was thinking of this character George. This book has stayed with me for 25 years, [and I was thinking] 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. Christopher Isherwood was a very spiritual guy. He spent the second half of his life studying Vedanta here in Los Angeles at the Vedanta Center and was constantly trying to live in the present. And the book [A Single Man] is very, very spiritual. The first line of the book is, “Waking up begins with saying am and now.” And that’s also the first line of the film. 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, in a sense, and also very timely for the moment we were living through.
I’m glad that you mentioned timing. Your film is being released a couple of years after Guido Santi & Tina Mascara’s doc Chris & Don, about Isherwood and Don Bachardy.
I love that documentary!
Me, too! Do you think this constitutes an Isherwood revival?
Well, I would certainly hope so! 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. 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. I think a lot of young people don’t know his work. 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.
Right, because 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.
Sure, I’ve been with my partner for 17 years, so, yes, it’s very much like that.
Thank you. You talked a little bit 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 loved film for so long. I’ve been obsessed with film for so long. I would say that it was really 15 years ago that I decided that this was something that I definitely wanted to do. I told Harvey Weinstein that one night when we were standing in London at a restaurant after the opening of a play. I said, “I really want to make films,” 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 [through The Weinstein Company] for America. He’s very passionate about the film and he’s a very passionate person. He was always very supportive.
Who are some of the directors whose work you admire or would consider to be influences on you as a filmmaker?
Hitchcock, number one, probably. The usual suspects—Kubrick, Antonioni. One of my favorite films is called Umberto D by Vittorio De Sica. It’s about a man and his dog. It’s almost a silent film, even though it’s not a silent film. There are long moments where you become very intimate with this man and what’s going on. It’s a very emotional film. There are moments like that in my film. Really just watching George; we need to become very attached to him by becoming very intimate with him.
And it’s so beautiful to look at. I’ve described it as looking through a vintage fashion magazine.
Oh, I wish you didn’t say that.
More like a book of photographs. The shots are so beautifully framed.
Thank you! I suppose I should take that as a compliment; I know it’s meant as one. I guess it’s just that, 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 [laughs]. Again, this is a man who thinks this is his last day, so he starts the movie in a very surreal, overly lush, over-colored way. Then the world starts to pull on him.
And naturally darkens as the day goes on. Playing George in A Single Man is not the first time that Colin Firth is portraying a gay character. He did so most recently in Mamma Mia! Was he always your first choice for George?
He was my first choice. 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. About a month later, the actor that had been attached had to pull out because he had to take a movie where he was going to make some money, which I totally understood. All of a sudden, our schedule had moved forward and Colin was wrapping Dorian Gray quicker than anticipated and he was available. I immediately got his e-mail from a friend, e-mailed him, FedExed him the script. He read it within 24 hours, e-mailed me back that he loved it and had some questions. I jumped on a plane to London, where I live part of the time. He came over for drinks, [and] we went to dinner. I showed him all the visual imagery that I had of the film and talked him through what I thought the film was about. I made him comfortable, I think, working with me as a first-time director and we had a handshake deal at the end of the meal. A month later we started shooting. We shot in 21 days.
Playing Charlotte is Julianne Moore, a longtime favorite of gay filmmaker Todd Haynes’…
[Laughs] …who is truly remarkable, too. I like to think she’s a longtime favorite of everybody’s. I love her! I love her as a person and as a friend. I love her as an actress. 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 immediately was a real help in lending credibility to the project.
Matthew Goode will also be familiar to gay audiences from GLBT-theme films such as Brideshead Revisited and Imagine Me and You. How did you know he was right for Jim?
I just felt it. Every time I saw Matthew on screen in anything, I loved him as an actor. What George loved about Jim is Jim’s—and I don’t use the word simple in a derogatory way—simple quality. He’s straightforward, he’s honest. He’s very, very American, in all the good things that America stands for; very moral, very up front, very straightforward, very determined, very sure of himself. That’s what attracts George to America and that’s what attracted George to Jim. I thought Matthew would be the perfect actor to play that. Matthew also has a lot of sensitivity. In the bar scene where he meets Colin for the first time, the look in his eyes conveys so much love instantly in such a short amount of time.
It’s getting to that time of year when people are assembling “best of” lists, and there is lots of buzz about the Oscars and other awards. Are you gearing up for what’s to come?
I’m very proud of the movie. For me, it was a great accomplishment. I’m very happy with it, and it has so far received really terrific response from most people that have seen it. That’s made me enormously happy. I don’t like to count my chickens [laughs] before my eggs hatch. I’m going to just be very happy with where we are.
Earlier you were singing the praises of Harvey Weinstein, but there was a recent controversy regarding Weinstein Company’s decision to “de-gay” the previews of A Single Man in terms of its marketing in some places. What was your response to that?
I don’t think the movie’s been de-gayed. I have to say that 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 intentional 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. I’ve lived with the same man … everything about my life has been openly gay. [Laughs] I’m perfectly proud of the fact that I’m gay. 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. It’s universal. 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.
What about the criticism that it’s just Colin and Julianne in the poster?
That’s marketing 101. You take the two biggest stars of the film who give a great performance and you have to feature them in the poster [laughs]. You need to get an audience to see the film. People who love Julianne need to see her, so they can say, “Oh, Julianne Moore! I want to go see that.”
The book A Single Man is dedicated to Gore Vidal, gay author of another landmark book in gay lit The City and the Pillar. Is that a book or is Vidal an author that you would consider for a future film project?
I love Gore Vidal. I’ve only met Mr. Vidal once. I sat next to him at something and he was so mean [laughs].
[Laughs] He was really mean and nasty. I thought, “Well, okay, I’m obviously not going to be friends with Gore Vidal.” [Laughs]
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 [A Single Man] in August. We had Venice [Film Festival] in September, then we had the London Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, and we open ([in theaters] soon. 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 [laughs] 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, I hope, for the rest of my life.
A Single Man opens Friday, January 15, at Landmark’s River Oaks Theatre, 2009 West Gray, 713/866-8881.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.
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