Interview with Designer/Director Tom Ford
February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Born in Austin in 1961, raised in Santa Fe, Tom Ford left the west for New York City at age 17 and the rest is, as they say, history. A denizen of the waning heydays of New York’s Studio 54, Tom Ford talked his way into his first fashion job with relative ease – despite the fact he had a degree in Architecture and absolutely no experience designing clothes. From club kid to Parsons Institute grad, Ford also had a brief but hugely successful career as a commercial actor, starring in several national advertising campaigns, which paid his way through college. Ford moved to Paris soon after to work in the press office for Chloe – a job in the lower ranks of the fashion world which left him with a new obsession – designing clothes. Ford would go on to resurrect both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent with a combination of great designs and a series of well-executed creative campaigns, most featuring nudity and sexuality – fashion ads where the fashion was absent and only bare skin remained. As a result, Ford (who notoriously posed for a Vanity Fair cover flanked by a stark naked Keira Knightly and Scarlett Johansson), is known as an edgy, sensual designer – savvy about manipulating the media to his advantage. None of these skills, however, seem to have come into play in his second career in cinema. As a film director, Ford is subtle, classy and understated. His take on the Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man, is a gracious and elegant debut, the work of a man who knows what he wants and how to get it…gently.
Q: What made you choose this story and this era (the early 1960s) to explore in your first film?
A: It’s set in the early Sixties, although I think it was really the Fifties until Kennedy was assassinated, at least on the surface of things. I love this era of clothes and cars and design, architecture– and it felt contemporary when I first read the story – although I do think we’ve come a long way since then. I also think that Christopher Isherwood was way ahead of his time. One of the things I always loved about his writing is the matter of fact way he treated homosexuality. Most of his stories and novels were autobiographical and so there is usually a gay character, but not necessarily as the center of the story. And the gay character is always treated as a human being. The relationship between George and Jim in this story, I felt it was very important to depict that in a very matter of fact way. They are simply two people who are in love with each other. I didn’t want this to be a gay story; I wanted it to be a human story. And really, the more that we realize that love between two people – is love between two people, the better off we’ll all be.
Q: Were there things about the story that connected with you personally?
A: I think anyone with a long-term partner, and I’ve been with my partner for 23 years, anyone with a long-term lover, if that lover dies you could easily see yourself in a situation where you couldn’t see your future and you would be living entirely in the past. It’s about that loss. But the film isn’t about death, it’s about life. It’s about living in the moment and appreciating the small things in your life that sometimes just go by without you observing and understanding your connection and understanding of the universe and understanding that relationships with other people are what really matter. The beauty at the world starts to pull at the character of George, in his loss he’s finally connecting, he’s finally looking at people and he’s responding to them in a different way. For me this film is about life instead of death, although loss is at the center of it.
Q: So there was a connection with this character for you.
A: George is a character that keeps himself together by keeping his outer world in order. This is a man who exists and gets through the day by this order. On the worse day of his life, he’s polishing his shoes; he’s putting on his tie. He’s being held together by the surface and the order of things. It might seem silly to point this out, but Christopher Isherwood was a Virgo, and for Virgo’s – it’s all about precision and order and I am a Virgo as well. This is a man whose inner world and outer world are connected and he feels if he can keep his outer world together than he won’t collapse inside. George has a veneer but just inside is a romantic guy who is suffering so much and it’s all just below this perfect surface.
Q: Tell us about choosing your actors. Sometimes its difficult for a first time director to attract talent like Julianne Moore and Colin Firth. What made they want to join in?
A: Well, I gave them a lot of leeway. I don’t want to talk about fashion, because making the film was a very different experience for me, in terms of why I did it and why I hope to keep doing it and what sort of expression it was, but there are certain similarities. Fashion is much more collaborative than one might think. You have to have an idea and vision and you have to communicate that vision to a team of people and you have to create an environment that allows those people to give the best that they can give. I was lucky enough to have great actors and I tried to create an environment where they could perform. And to make them feel comfortable, to make them do the best they could, an environment that would make them want to give the best performance they could give. And as far as finding the actors, I don’t want to make it sound easy, but well, it wasn’t hard. I sent them the screenplay and I sent them the part that I knew they might respond to and they did. I had sent Julianne the script in the hope that she would respond to it and she did. Colin and I have the same agent and he basically said that Colin’s schedule was impossible. So I had another cast another actor in the role. But then I saw Colin at the premiere of Mama Mia and I was just thinking, – ‘God he was made to play this role!’ A few weeks later the other actor dropped out and I sent Colin an email right away and he finally said yes. I’d like to think that the actors responded to the script.
Q: You acted as well when you were younger.
A: When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be an actor. I actually studied acting when I was at NYU and I made a lot of television commercials, that’s actually how I put myself through NYU and through college. I quickly discovered that I didn’t really want to be an actor, because I didn’t feel secure enough at that time. I remember I did Prell commercial when I was 19 and a bitchy hairdresser said, ‘Oh, you have thin hair, its all going to fall out.’ And I remember becoming so paranoid about my appearance after that. It was traumatic and I was so obsessive from then on and I was not a good actor at all, in part because I was totally self-obsessed. I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen.
Q: In what ways do you see the style and aesthetic of this film differing from the style you created in your fashion career?
A: My career in fashion has been very much about sexuality and sex and I think a lot of people think that’s all I can do and what I am all about. This for me is a story about love, about romance. Therefore it doesn’t have that kind of nudity you might expect from me. It didn’t come from the story. What came was a sensuality that I tried to express with color and tone and set pieces. That’s what I used to help us understand what George is feeling. At the beginning of the film, George is not seeing things, he’s numb, and the colors are dulled. As he begins to see the world more clearly, really look at it – that’s when things begin to warm in the film, color-wise. It takes on sensuality cinematically. Everything heightens and the beauty of things starts to pull on him.
Q: Why filmmaking? What compelled you to begin this second career?
A: I wanted to make film and had thought about doing a film for a long time, I think its important for myself and anyone else who wants to create a film, or art, is make sure that they have something to say, that they want to share something important, express something important. And I felt that the book really spoke to me, it’s a beautiful story that felt personal to me, that touched me and that I felt I had the skills to translate the narrative to the screen and to share in some way. Film is an incredible way to express yourself and your vision, as is fashion, but you have to make sure and be confident and honest and true to yourself and say something that means something, because that is really the point of any art, right?