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A singular man

Tom Ford shows why he fashioned himself a filmmaker

With “A Single Man,’’ designer Tom Ford made film his creative outlet. With “A Single Man,’’ designer Tom Ford made film his creative outlet. (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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NEW YORK - Tom Ford is the kind of guy some people love to hate.

The celebrated fashion designer is supremely confident, exceedingly prolific, obscenely wealthy, impossibly handsome, and as serene as a summer breeze. At first glance, he seems as remote as the moody, gorgeous glamazons that stalk the runways and grace the pages of glossy magazines - the same ones that worship Ford as one of fashion’s leading visionaries. To top it off, the man had the audacity to transform himself into a bona fide film director, one whose debut feature, “A Single Man,’’ which opens Friday, has been generating a whole lot of steam heat as awards season shifts into high gear.

Perched in a plush chair in a Manhattan hotel suite on a recent afternoon, Ford is meticulously dressed in a dashing navy suit of his own creation, white button-down shirt, navy tie, and white pocket square. His hair is perfectly coiffed, he sports de rigueur stubble, his posture is impeccable, and he admits to posing from the same angle in every picture to flatter his better side.

Behind this unapproachable, high-gloss facade, however, is a man of considerable substance, smarts, and inspired artistic instincts, who’s crafted a surprisingly soulful film. Speaking in the briskly honeyed tones that belie his Texas/New Mexico roots, Ford is charming and thoughtful, with a hint of playfulness and mischief beneath his sly grin.

While he admits that “maybe I don’t let my armor down enough of the time,’’ he proves refreshingly candid and self-reflective in discuss ing his labor of love, “A Single Man,’’ a project he directed, co-wrote, co-produced, and financed himself, reportedly to the tune of nearly $7 million, Indeed, he talks with disarming honesty about suffering from depression and grappling with a severe midlife crisis following his contentious, high-profile 2004 split from Gucci, where he had reigned as creative director for a decade.

“I’ve always been a very spiritual person, in a broader and more philosophical way,’’ says Ford. “But I have to say I neglected that side of my life for a certain period of time.’’

Despite’s Ford’s pedigree as an iconic designer, more than a few eyebrows were dubiously raised when he announced that he was relocating to Los Angeles in 2004 to pursue a parallel career as a filmmaker. The phrase “vanity project’’ was uttered more than once. This is, after all, the same man who has long ruffled feathers with provocative, sexually-charged ad campaigns and once posed bare-chested on the cover of Vanity Fair nuzzling a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson.

“Clearly a lot of people didn’t take me seriously,’’ says Ford. “But I took myself seriously, and I took this film seriously. . . . As much as I love fashion, it wasn’t enough of a creative outlet for me. I have to say, this film was the most personal, least calculated thing I’ve ever done. It’s a completely different type of expression.

Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, “A Single Man’’ centers on a gay, 52-year-old literature professor, George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British expat living in Los Angeles in the early ’60s who’s sleepwalking through life after the death of his longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode). The film unfolds over the course of a single day in which George, lost in isolation and grief, awakes that morning having decided to take his own life (a plot point that marks a significant departure from the book).

Ford first encountered the Isherwood novel when he was a brash 20-year-old. But after he read it again in his 40s while mulling potential film projects, the story spoke to him from a whole new place.

“It’s very much about a man who can’t see his future,’’ he says. “And that’s exactly what I was going through at that time in my life: The loss of self-identity. Not being able to figure out what was coming next, doubting my ability to connect with people, not understanding how lucky I was to have all the things I had in my life. Not appreciating my boyfriend [fashion journalist Richard Buckley] enough, not appreciating my dogs enough, not appreciating all the great things that I have.’’

As George’s day progresses, he fastidiously prepares for his death - arranging the suit for his funeral, cleaning out his office, planning a final dinner with his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozy London socialite, and even rehearsing how he’s going to commit the act. But along the way, life - in all its vibrant, effervescent glory - begins to pulsate again for George.

“In our culture, we all live in the future. We live thinking that this isn’t our real life,’’ says Ford. “As soon as we get that new house, that new job, that new girlfriend or boyfriend, or those new shoes, everything is going to be fine. But it isn’t. Because it’s a kind of thing that can never be fulfilled. It’s very hard to do, but I try to remind myself every day to really be present and enjoy life.’’

Firth, who won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and is one of the most-talked-about contenders in the upcoming Oscar sweepstakes, insists he felt confident about Ford’s vision from the beginning, despite Ford’s lack of filmmaking experience.

“Tom’s not an ordinary man. There’s nothing pedestrian about him,’’ he says. “And it didn’t seem to me that a fashion designer with a vanity project who just wants to flaunt his autumn collection would choose an Isherwood story about a suicidal gay professor. I thought, there’s got to be something a little more personal there.’’

In fact, George’s planned suicide in the film is based on an actual suicide that happened in Ford’s own family, although Ford is reluctant to elaborate.

“I don’t want to talk about it because the people involved are still alive and had kids that were young,’’ he says. “But I remember it very vividly. It was exactly like what George is planning: Someone laid everything out for the funeral, all of it, and had zipped themselves in a sleeping bag so they wouldn’t make a mess.’’

Despite his talent and affinity for design and his natural eye for luxury taste, Ford still views his work in fashion as a commercial art, not his own art.

“Fashion is very fleeting. You design something beautiful, and the first time anyone sees it, it’s so powerful. You’re awestruck. But it never feels the way it made you feel that first time,’’ he says. “As a filmmaker, you design the whole world - whether they live or die, what they do, what they say. You create an alternate universe that is forever sealed in a bubble.’’

In “A Single Man,’’ life inside that bubble is sumptuously photographed and meticulously composed. After all, this is a Tom Ford film.

“We live in a material world,’’ he says, drawing his hand softly over a pillow on a nearby couch. “I mean, velvet has a great feeling. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying that. But you have to keep it in perspective. It’s much more fulfilling to have a wonderful, intimate conversation with somebody where you just feel connected, or where you get to feel one of those moments that maybe you only have a few times in your life.

“I think you’re going to take that away with you when you leave this world more than your experiences with velvet or the crocodile shoes you bought when you were 40.’’

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