As a first-time film director, fashion designer Tom Ford makes an auspicious debut in A Single Man. Based on a Christopher Isherwood story of the same name, the movie, set in the early 1960s, is about a portentous day in the life of a gay man, George Falconer, who is coming to terms with the death of his long-time partner.
The film stars Colin Firth, who won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of George, and double Oscar-nominee Julianne Moore as Charley, an aging beauty who is his closest friend.
Ford’s assured direction is enhanced by an eclectic group of production keys: Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau; production designer Dan Bishop, whose work can also be seen on television hit Mad Men; editor Joan Sobel; costume designer Arianne Phillips, who was nominated for an Oscar for Walk the Line in 2006; and Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski did the score.
Below the Line recently caught up with Ford at his Sunset Strip office where he talked about the making of A Single Man.
Below the Line: To what extent did your background doing fashion shoots and commercials when you were creative director at Gucci and now at your own label help you to direct A Single Man?
Ford: The thing about my fashion career that helped the most is the collaborative nature of fashion—more than most people realize.
As a fashion designer you have to have a vision; you have to have something to say. Then you have to be able to communicate that to a huge number of people to help you to realize that vision. You have to inspire all these people. You have to give them space so that they give you their very best. And you have to lead and guide them to a point that is true to your intention.
From a process standpoint it’s very similar to directing a film. I was very well prepared, I think, in terms of my ability to make quick decisions, and managing and directing a team of people, and letting them contribute. I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but I felt very comfortable with the process.
The way we build a fashion collection is somewhat similar to doing preproduction on a film. You pull images and references, and you start to think what is it going to look like—what’s the mood? What’s the spirit? And you work for six months before you actually produce the collection.
BTL: What about the more technical aspects?
Ford: I take my own pictures and even shoot my own campaigns at times. But I’ve also worked with some of the world’s great photographers—Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and my favorite Helmut Newton. I’ve learned a lot from working with those people about lighting, about framing and about telling a story through images.
I’m not saying I was totally prepared and didn’t learn anything.
I benefited from having the best crew and the best group of people around me. It was a low-budget film, and most people took the project on because they were passionate about it. It was the most wonderful working environment and the best experience of my entire life.
Also, I learned all about postproduction, which is not given enough credit. The one place where we really strained our budget was in postproduction. I had a great postproduction supervisor, Tim Pedegana. And Joan Sobel, my editor, became probably my closest collaborator on the film during the long editing process.
BTL: It’s sometimes said that editing is a second chance to write a movie.
Ford: I had always heard that, but I didn’t understand it until I got into it. We spent five months editing, doing the score and color correcting during the DI. So there was a lot to do in post. I was sometimes very cavalier about it on the set, because I was used to changing still photo images all the time in Photoshop. We would often change the color of a jacket, or smooth something out. No problem, I can do it in 15 minutes. But it’s different when you’re filming. I wanted to change a carpet at one point for one with a different color.
My line producer said to me, “You can’t change the carpet. It’s going to cost $800.” So I said, “I’ll do it in post.” Of course it’s $18,000 to do in post. I learned the next time I’ll just get a new carpet.
BTL: You were on a learning curve, given this was the first time you were directing a movie.
Ford: I was absolutely on a learning curve. But Bob Salerno, my unit production manager, found all these great people and brought them to me. And they funneled more great people to me. You meet one really nice person, chances are their friends are really nice—and chances are they share the same work ethic.
BTL: You used an up-and-coming cinematographer, Eduard Grau, who wasn’t an obvious choice. He didn’t come with a long, impressive resume. How did you find him?
Ford: Most of my first choices for DP wound up being too expensive or were doing something else.
Suddenly, we were two or three weeks from shooting, and I didn’t yet have a cinematographer. I don’t know where it came from, but Eduard’s DVD showreel appeared on my desk. I popped it in and said, “This is the guy.” So we called him.
He’s Spanish but he was in London. He came to Los Angeles. We had lunch at Musso & Frank, and I hired him on the spot. He stayed, and immediately went to work.
BTL: The film is very polished on the surface while the story is very emotional. But instead of working against each other, the contrast of the two adds depth.
Ford: Style without substance is absolutely meaningless in my book.
There’s a part of my life that is very surface-oriented, very visual. But the most important thing to me when I decided to make a movie was to figure out what my voice was. Why does anyone need to see a Tom Ford movie? What do I stand for? What kinds of films do I love?
I like things that linger, that stay with you and make you think. So the most important thing was the story and the emotion. And I tried to use the visuals to support that.
One reason it’s so lush is this is the world through the eyes of a man who is leaving the planet. So the beginning of the film is very flat and desaturated. And then the beauty of everything just starts to overpower him.
BTL: So there is a deliberate evolution in the look of the film?
Ford: As George starts to pull out of his depression and starts to see and experience the beauty of this world, our color increases. Charley is always colorful, because she is the color in his life. She’s the light in his life. She is the light in our film.
BTL: You shot most of the film on location?
Ford: We did all of it on location.
I had a wonderful production designer Dan Bishop, who also does Mad Men. I didn’t hire him because of that—Mad Men, though set in a similar period, is not the same thing. I hired him because he was extremely talented.
We shot in what was George’s house, the bedroom and the living room was the same room, Dan just rebuilt it—he did a great job putting all that together.
Because we had such a small budget, I wound up dragging a lot of pieces of artwork from my house to add to the interiors. Also, the painting over Charley’s fireplace, I painted it the night before with house paint. I wanted something like an Ellsworth Kelly painting.
I love to be hands on. It was fun to be up in the middle of the night painting a picture for Charley’s living room.
BTL: You had two composers for the music, Abel Korzeniowsky and Shigeru Umebayashi.
Ford: I went to Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi first. He had done the music for In the Mood for Love by Chinese director Wan Kar Wai. It’s got a great soundtrack.
He said he couldn’t do all of it, but he came to L.A. and then wrote three passages for A Single Man, and they were used intact. Now I needed a composer to do the overall score. We looked all over town, and I found Abel.
So there were two composers on the film, but Abel was the principal composer.
The score was recorded at Warner Bros. with a 90-piece orchestra.
We did it all in five hours, because that’s all we could afford.
BTL: Can you talk about Arianne Phillips, your highly experienced costume designer, who has done everything from films to videos for Madonna and some fashion ads. Given your own fashion background, how involved were you with Arianne in coming up with the clothing for the characters?
Ford: Of course as director I had a specific brief to know what each character was about. But I did not work on it as a designer at all. It was all Arianne. I’d known her for 15 years, and always loved her as a person and a friend and admired her as a costume designer.
BTL: Now that you have finished your first film, are you going to do another?
Ford: I sure am. But I don’t have a project right now. It’s been nonstop since the Venice Film Festival in September, then on to Toronto, London and Tokyo. Right now I need to get this film opened and move beyond all this, and think about what I want to do next.
Luckily, I have another business where I can design some clothes for six months.