January 14, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
From fashion to filmmaking

Early promos for the new film “A Single Man,” even its trailer, don’t mention the fashion industry day job of its director. “A film by Tom Ford.” We’re not used to seeing his name in trailers. Oh, THAT Tom Ford.

By now, of course, word is out and the international film community is abuzz that the legendary designer, he of the perpetually half-unbuttoned dress shirt, has practically conquered a new artistic medium in one fell swoop. “A Single Man,” which opened in Washington on Christmas at Landmark E Street Cinema and goes into wide release today, has earned strong reviews and fared well at the Venice International Film Festival in September where it was nominated for the festival’s top prize (the Golden Lion) and star Colin Firth won best actor. The film is up in three categories at Sunday’s Golden Globes.

Some gay movie fans are saying they were pleasantly surprised.

“I really enjoyed it,” says Rodney Shanks, a gay Seattle resident who makes it a point to see all the gay-themed films he can. “I’d been hearing a lot of buzz about Colin Firth, but I still wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I kind of thought, what does this fashion guy know about directing a movie. But it was beautifully done. The attention to detail, you really got the whole feel of the period. I was very, very impressed.”

So how long had Ford, famous for his own eponymous fashion house after rescuing Gucci from near oblivion in the ’90s, been harboring moviemaking dreams? About 12 years, an affable and down-to-earth Ford says during a half-hour interview from his office in Milan, Italy.

“I was very satisfied with my life as a fashion designer, but I started feeling there were things I wanted to say that I couldn’t say through clothes. I started realizing I’d really like to have a career as a filmmaker. I was in my mid-40s. I was kind of thinking, ‘OK, it’s now or never,’ so I started a film production company.”

Ford has been a lifelong film buff, though he stops shy of calling himself a cineaste. He remembers his early years in New York in the ‘70s when the “young homosexual thing was to be very up on old Hollywood movies.”

He became well versed in European film while living in Paris, a city Ford says is “obsessed with film.” Ultimately, though, the medium’s permanency is what appealed to him. Though film preservationists might argue, Ford says the medium has lasting impact that the more fleeting fashion world lacks.

“If you design a beautiful dress, the first time you see it, it’s very powerful. You might look at it six months later and feel something, but not the same thing. Six months later you feel something less. Then maybe two years later you sell it on eBay. Thirty years later it’s in a museum and you might say, ‘Well, the cut was interesting,’ but you don’t feel that same emotion. When you watch a film, it could be something from the ’30s where every single person who was involved in that production is gone, yet you’re immediately sucked back in, living that moment with them. It’s sealed in a bubble forever and ever. Even 500 years from now, whatever the medium is, we’ll be able to experience those emotions. It’s incredibly powerful and seductive and appealing if you’re creative.”

Though the film is about grief — it’s based on late gay author Christopher Isherwood’s book and tells of a gay Brit (Firth) mourning the death of his partner in Los Angeles in 1962 — Ford says it’s not a downer. He calls it a “celebration of life.” Firth’s character, George Falconer, considers suicide after the accident that claims his partner but is eventually seduced by everyday beauty — texture, eyes, flowers — he’s taken for granted. This beauty, Ford says, leads to epiphany.

And it’s not a gay movie, says Ford, who’s openly gay and has been with his partner, Richard Buckley for 23 years. That the lead character is gay wasn’t essential to the story, though Ford concedes there are byproducts of that he found appealing. And he admits the book probably resonated with him more because its characters were gay. Ford discovered the book in his early 20s while living in Los Angeles, where he still has a home, dividing his time between there, London and Milan.

“I became very attracted to the character of George,” Ford says. “He was so real and so beautifully realized, I felt I could bump into him walking down the street.”

The film’s gay themes have caused a few stirs. The world, of course, is far more gay friendly than it was in the early ‘60s, but Ford conceded begrudgingly to a same-sex kiss being cut from the trailer to appease U.S. gatekeepers. Leaving it in would have constituted “adult sexual content” and prevented it from being shown before other films.
It’s familiar territory for Ford. He’s had male nudity censored from his fragrance ads in the U.S. He dreams of a day when such considerations are moot.

“That’s why I’ve said this isn’t a gay film, it’s not a straight film. It just happens to be a same-sex couple. I would love it if we could get to that point in the culture. It’s just about, ‘Oh, you live with someone. Oh, it’s a man or oh, it’s a woman. Oh, it’s love.’ But America is weird about these things. In ads, you can run a woman topless in Europe, no problem. In America you can but only if you remove her nipples. How strange is that? … But America is a country founded by Puritans. That’s still present.”

So if Ford is so comfortable with nudity, why was he clothed on the memorable Vanity Fair cover in 2006 while actresses Kiera Knightly and Scarlett Johansson were nude? Ford says he wasn’t planning to be in the shoot at all. He was guest editing that year’s Hollywood issue and was on the set with lesbian photographer Annie Leibovitz. The plan, which Ford corroborates without naming names, was for actress Rachel McAdams to appear with Knightly and Johansson but she got cold feet so the shot was re-imagined with Ford. He says he would have been fine with taking his clothes off.

“I’ve been nude in W, in Out. I’ve been nude in a few things,” he says. “I would have been fine with it but that’s just not the direction it went.”

Ford says learning the mechanics of film direction — he also co-wrote and co-produced the picture — wasn’t terribly hard. His years of directing photo shoots and even doing his own photography helped. He found his way quickly and says much of it was intuitive.

Reviews and profiles have praised the film’s visual aesthetic. The Washington Post praised its “precise period detail, handsome actors and gorgeous outfits that capture the early 1960s in all their sartorial beauty …”

Did his design background help?

“I think the thing that for me is related with any creative endeavor is you have to have a vision, a point of view,” Ford says. “If you’re an architect, you need to visualize it because you can’t build it yourself. You have to convey your vision to a team. The same with fashion … and the same with filmmaking. Architects have skills not needed as a fashion designer. You’re thinking spacially and in 3-D. For fashion designers and cosmetic fashion, it’s all about draping and where you’re going to hide the seam.”

More films will come, he says. He’s giving a couple of ideas time to gestate while he goes back to design. He hopes to rotate the two fields in the coming years and says the months of downtime while movies are in development and in post-production will give him time to focus his energies on fashion.

Ford says he’d have been fine with casting a gay actor in the lead but would never discriminate in casting decisions. He just felt Firth was right for the part.

Ford and Firth were shooting the pivotal scene where George realizes his partner is dead in November 2008 when Obama was elected but California’s Proposition 8 passed, overturning same-sex marriage rights there. Though Ford and Buckley haven’t wed, he has followed the issue closely.

“It really needs to be a federal law,” he says. “This might not go over well with all homosexuals and I would love it with gay marriage, but first of all it’s about the rights. I’m worried this word marriage, people aren’t quite ready to get their heads around it.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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