Tom Ford: From High Fashion To Film In 'Single Man' For years, Tom Ford has been associated with fashion; he was, after all, credited with reviving the fortunes of the near-bankrupt Gucci, where he became creative director. Last year he put his creative sensibilities to work in the service of a Christopher Isherwood tale: A Single Man, which was Ford's big-screen directorial debut.
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Tom Ford: From High Fashion To Film In 'Single Man'

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Tom Ford: From High Fashion To Film In 'Single Man'

Tom Ford: From High Fashion To Film In 'Single Man'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

"A Single Man," the first feature film, directed and co-written by fashion designed Tom Ford, came out this week on DVD. On today's FRESH AIR, we'll listen back to Terry's interview with Tom Ford and, a little later, with the movie's star, Colin Firth.

"A Single Man" is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. The movie made Time magazine's list of the year's 10 best films, and Entertainment Weekly's film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote that Ford proves a born filmmaker with a rapturous eye.

Ford is the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, where he was known for his glamorous collections and also for his provocative ad campaigns. "A Single Man," is set in L.A. in 1962 and stars Colin Firth as George, a college professor in his 50s whose younger, longtime partners has just been killed in a car crash. George is so heartbroken, he's buying bullets for his gun and preparing to kill himself. But as he does so, he continues to teach and to confide in his old friend, played by Julianne Moore.

In this scene, from the beginning of "A Single Man," George is getting out of bed, dressing and preparing for the day. This is what he's thinking.

(Soundbite of movie "A Single Man")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As George) Waking up begins with saying um and now.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Jennifer, I am not going to tell you again...

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) For the past eight months, waking up has actually hurt.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FIRTH: (As George) Cold realization that I'm still here slowly sets in. I was never terribly fond of waking up. I was never one to jump out of bed and greet the day with a smile like Jim was. I used to want to punch him sometimes in the morning, he was so happy.

I always used to tell him that only fools would greet the day with a smile, that only fools could possibly escape the simple truth that now isn't simply now. It's a cold reminder, one day later than yesterday, one year later than last year and that sooner or later, it will come.

He used to laugh at me and then give me a kiss on the cheek. It takes time in the morning for me to become George, time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I've dressed and put the final air of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George, I know, fully, what part I'm supposed to play.


That's Colin Firth in the opening of "A Single Man." Tom Ford, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film.

Mr. TOM FORD (Director, "A Single Man"): Thank you.

GROSS: I think one of the things that will surprise people seeing this opening scene is that we would likely think of you, since fashion is the world that you're from, as waking up in the morning and thinking oh boy, what fabulous clothes will I wear today?

Mr. FORD: Mmm, not at all.

GROSS: ...what fun I will have presenting myself to the outer world, as opposed to the effort and pain that this character is feeling in putting himself together to be in the world and present himself to the world.

Mr. FORD: I think a lot of us do that. I think that our public face is often armor. And this character is held together. His inner world and his outer world are directly related. He's suffering inside. So what's going on inside this man is very, very different than what's going on on the outside.

And he feels that if he can just stay in control of everything on the outside and construct a certain armor that is his public persona that he will be safe inside and he'll be able to hold himself together.

And that comes literally from the book, where Christopher Isherwood talks about the fact that if someone called him early in the morning, they wouldn't know that it was, you know, that it was George. They wouldn't recognize his voice, that it took him a while to prepare to become the George that was expected of him.

And so I interpreted it slightly differently in the film, but very much, I believe, follows the story in the book.

GROSS: In your movie, "A Single Man," George, the main character, is bereft after his longtime companion dies. And at the beginning of the movie, we get the point that he's thinking of ending his life. He has a gun.

Mr. FORD: Yes.

GROSS: And he's thinking of suicide. And there's a scene where he takes his gun, he goes to his bed, fluffs a couple of pillows behind him, puts the gun in his mouth, realizes the pillows aren't arranged quite right, they're not quite comfortable, and he turns around, repositions them, still not quite right, puts the gun in his mouth again, not quite right. And we realize...

Mr. FORD: Well, the real intention of that is, you know, he doesn't want to make a mess.

GROSS: Well, I think he's also, you know, he wants to get comfortable. He wants to be in the right position, and finally, I think he's not quite ready to do the act. But I'd like you to talk about that scene and what it meant to you and how you shot it.

Mr. FORD: Sure. Well, first of all, the idea of suicide is something that I invented because it's not part of the book. You know, the book is a beautiful, beautiful interior monologue, and there really is no plot to speak of in the book.

It ambles along, and our interest is held because George's thoughts are so interesting. His insight holds us and his humor, an often dark humor. And when I set out to make this into a film, you know, when you decide you want to make a film, you start listening to everything that anyone has to say about filmmaking and reading everything, and there's a maxim about film being a visual medium, and so you need to make, in a sense, a silent movie and layer on dialogue.

So I had to create scenes that - well, I had to create a plot, and I felt that what better way to show the meaning of life and to show someone trying to move forward and live in the present than to think that this is your last day on the planet.

So George decides to kill himself. He decides that he does not want to live any longer. And because of this, of course, he starts to see the world in a very, very different way, and the beauty of the world starts to pull on him.

But the particular scene that you're talking about, George's character -this is somebody who is hyper-organized and, as I was saying, his inner world is directly related to his outer world, and he likes control.

So this is someone who is not going to leave the world until everything is taken care of, you know, his suit is laid out that he wants to be buried in, his bills are paid, everything's organized. And he also is thinking about where am I going to kill myself, how am I going to do it?

I love my housekeeper. I don't want to make a mess. Should I do this on the bed? No, it's going to get -the sheets are going to get all covered in blood. The wall's going to be covered in blood. Maybe I should try it in the shower. So I go to the shower. No, that's not going to work because after I shoot myself, I'm going to fall, there's going to be blood all over everything.

So, you know, I'll get out - and I don't know how much we want to give away, but he starts rehearsing and practicing, trying to figure out the most practical way to kill himself.

It's meant that he is not going to kill - I mean, and you know, maybe it didn't translate in the film, but he's just simply practicing at that point because he's really planning on going to dinner with his best friend after he's practiced and figured out what he's going to do later on in the evening, really in a sense to say goodbye to her.

GROSS: Let's talk about the look that you wanted for your film. It's set in 1962. Talk about how you wanted to dress Colin Firth's character and Julianne Moore's.

Mr. FORD: Well, I wanted to dress Colin Firth's character in a way that would be appropriate to who he was as a personality. So I thought, okay, this is a guy who is not dependent on his salary as a teacher. This is a guy who comes from a fairly wealthy background.

In England, he went to, you know, private schools - or public schools they're called in England - and he's teaching at a public college because he feels this is the right thing to do.

So this guy probably has his clothes made, you know, when he's home in London, and he probably gets them from Saville Row, from the same tailor that his father went to. He is a professor, so what's he wearing? He's going to be wearing brown tweed. He's not going to be wearing gray. He's not going to be wearing, you know, navy blue wool serge. He's a professor.

So I also tried to calculate when would he have had these suits made? You know, the English are quite - even still to this day - I think thrifty with their clothing, at least the old-school English. And so I thought okay, when did he have this suit made?

I calculated he probably had it made, maybe, let's say, 1957, blah, blah, blah. In fact, I ever sewed a label inside Colin's suit, as one would get at a Saville Row tailor with his name and the date that the suit was made.

And so I really gave a lot of thought to who this guy is. This is a guy who, as I said, really holds himself together by his outer appearance. It holds - inside he's this deeply romantic, and at this particular moment, you know, terribly, terribly sorrowful, man, but on the surface, you wouldn't know that.

Julianne Moore's character is a woman who has lived her life as a beautiful woman in our culture. And you know, we objectify women, and of course I, as a fashion designer, could - you could say that I've been a part of that, but our entire culture treats beautiful women a certain way.

A beautiful woman in our culture, and I would like to say, you know, this was different in 1962, but it still exists today - I know a lot of these women - treats different in a different way, meaning that if you're a beautiful woman, you're incredibly powerful within our culture.

The world operates differently for you. Then, at a moment in time, and it has nothing to do with you, it's like the carpet is just ripped out from under you, and the way that you've operated in the world no longer works. So Julianne's character is struggling.

GROSS: Because you're older.

Mr. FORD: Well, yes, and it's terrible. And you know, a woman who has lived her life that way can often find herself in a moment where she cannot see her future. Now, she will have a future, but she's got to alter the way she moves through the world.

So Julianne's character is at that moment in time, and she's still clinging to what she knows, to what's gotten her to where she is. She's thinking if she has the most beautiful house and the latest car and the most perfect eye makeup, and she's up on top of everything, and she's playing Serge Gainsbourg way before anyone else is because she spends the summers in the south of France and so she's listening to this music, she's brought it back.

Her clothes, for example her dress, and we're in 1962, is really more 1963 or four. It's very graphic. It's really pop art before pop art or when pop art was just starting to happen.

And I rationalized this by thinking, all right, she lives in Los Angeles. Who is she going to know in L.A. at that period of time? Rudi Gernreich was living in Los Angeles, and he was about to explode on the scene with these very graphic clothes. And I thought okay, maybe she's his muse, or maybe she's spending a lot of time with him, and she's ahead of the curve.

But everything in her house, everything about her, is in support of her character. It is a layer of veneer, but it is something that's there to support her character. When we see her making up her face, we see her unmade eye on one side of the screen - she's looking in a magnifying mirror, and we have a shot looking at that - and then we see, you know, a fully drawn eye on the other side. And it's her art, and it's her artifice, and it's who she really is on one side, and it's the face she puts on to the outer world on the other side of our screen.

And that's the same with George. They're both putting on layers, veneers, armor to get through their day, as I think many of us do.

BIANCULLI: Tom Ford, speaking to Terry Gross last December. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with fashion designer and now movie writer-director Tom Ford. His first film, "A Single Man," has just been released on DVD. Previously, Ford was creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent and now has his own Tom Ford fashion label.

GROSS: How did you realize you were interested in fashion, in working in the fashion world?

Mr. FORD: Well, I think it took me a while to feel comfortable admitting to myself that I cared about fashion. You know, I think as a...

GROSS: Why - why was it hard?

Mr. FORD: Well, as a tiny kid, when I look back at pictures of myself, I was so into fashion. I mean, I can remember being seven or eight years old and looking at a brand new pair of shoes that I had just - my mother just brought for me, they were on my feet. And I can actually remember thinking that the toe shape was off by just a little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: ...kind of like a millimeter in today's - you know, now that I think in millimeters, at the time, whatever. It's just off a little bit and it really disturbed me. So - and I have nieces and nephews who are, some not at all into fashion and some, they just come out and my niece's first word was shoe. And, you know, so I think you're born this way.

You're either born in a very visual way and that's what's important to you or if you're born, if you're a musician, an aural way and that's what's important to you. Or - you know, so I think a lot of this has to do it with our personalities. And I fought it for a while maybe, or maybe I didn't fight it, maybe I just wasn't thinking about it.

I studied architecture at Parson's, and I finally realized that while I loved architecture, and it was very useful to me as a tool to learn how to think, that it was little too serious for me at that moment in time and that fashion - I was better suited for fashion.

I also liked the speed of fashion. You know, fashion and film-making, to me, were two very, very different things in terms of satisfying a certain kind of creative need. And I hope to be able to make films and produce fashion for the rest of my life.

But they're very, very different. Fashion is very quick. It's very disposable. It's immediately - it tells you exactly where we are in our culture, especially women's fashion.

If we're having a glitzy over-the-top moment, fashion is very glitzy and over-the-top, you know, over-the-top. If we're having a moment where things are, you know, we're in a recession, fashion becomes quiet.

So, in terms of popular culture, fashion and especially women's fashion is incredibly interesting, aside from satisfying just a particular need to create and arrange things in a way that one sees as beautiful.

And so, in a certain way, it's fulfilling. In another way, it's very fleeting because it doesn't last very long. You know, a beautiful moment in fashion goes away very quickly.

GROSS: Of all the things that you've designed, do you have any favorites that you really hope will endure because you think they were wonderful?

Mr. FORD: I do. I have to say, I think my last few collections for Gucci and for Yves Saint Laurent in 2003-2004, in terms of complexity and construction, were some of the most interesting things I ever designed because I had learned at that point how to make more complex clothes, both cerebrally as well as technically.

And I had worked with a great atelier in Italy for Gucci and in Paris for Saint Laurent. So, I had learned a lot. However, the collections that I feel influenced popular culture the most were early on, in 1995, 1996.

And I think that those were the collections that I'll be remembered for because at that particular moment in time, fashion was in one place. It was very subdued, very sedated, and in a sense, I brought back sensuality and sexuality to clothes. And the things I did at that time were simpler in construction but maybe more powerful in content.

GROSS: Just describe some of the clothes in that collection.

Mr. FORD: Oh, the first collection I did that really, you know, brought me a lot of attention and brought Gucci a lot of attention and a lot of business were hiphuggers in velvet, satin shirts, simple coats, but what was new about them at that time was that they were very, very sensual.

They were very colorful, as well. There was an enormous amount of color. And they were a throwback to a period in the 1970s when fashion was more touchable. Today, you know, fashion is not - our beauty standard today is harder. It's beautiful but it's off-putting. It's like, don't touch me, I'm hard.

It's so interesting how female form, less male form, mirrors where we are culturally, aesthetically, as well as - for example, right now everything is pumped up.

Cars look like someone took an air pump and pumped them up. They look engorged. Lips pumped up, breasts pumped up, everything is pumped up. And it's also kind of off-putting.

It's sexual but in such a hard way that it's, for me, not sexual at all, whereas the 1970s, breasts were smaller. People were not wearing bras. Farrah Fawcett's sexuality and sensuality was a very touchable sexuality. She was kissable. She was friendly.

And that was what I brought back in the '90s with some of my early collections for Gucci that we hadn't seen in a while. And I think that right now we're in a very hard moment and off-putting. I mean, look at shoes today, women's shoes. They couldn't possibly get any higher and meaner and sharper. But then again, you go and watch most films today, they're violent, and we're living in a world that is, at the moment, quite hard.

GROSS: I love when you say breasts were smaller in the '70s. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: They were.

GROSS: But...

Mr. FORD: I don't understand all these breasts right now, and they don't look like breasts. They look like someone's taken a grapefruit half and inserted it under your skin. I mean it's - it doesn't even bear any resemblance to what a natural breast looks like. But we're starting to think that this is what women should like.

And young girls are looking at these breasts and thinking, oh, I need to go have my breasts done because they've lost touch with what a real breast actually looks like. I find it fascinating. I find it disturbing. I mean, you could consider it more fascinating because we're becoming post-human.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: We are actually - we are. We are actually starting to manipulate our bodies, because we can, into a shape. We are becoming our own art. But what happens for me is that it desexualizes everything. You know, you start to look more and more polished, more and more lacquered and you look like a beautiful car. Does anyone want to sleep with you? Does anyone want to touch you? Does anyone want to kiss you? Maybe not because you're too scary.

But you're beautiful, you're glossy, you're shiny, but you're not human. Very interesting. And I say that in a very detached way, I'm not making a judgment about it. I'm just saying it's fascinating culturally.

GROSS: Just one more thing, I wonder what you'd say to people, men and women, but I think particularly women, who shop in, you know, in just regular stores, you know, and buy stuff off the rack and find like nothing fits, nothing is flattering, nothing is made for their body, that things are made for these perfect sizes that they're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And because sometimes like you shop for clothes and you just have to grit your teeth because there's nothing for you.

Mr. FORD: Well, and this may sound very spoiled, but I think that something that people in general forget to do - and it's true, not everyone has the financial means to do this - whatever clothes you buy if you really want them to fit well, you need to have them altered or tailored.

And whether you're doing that yourself, whether you're taking it to your drycleaner that has a tailor, you need to alter and tailor everything, whether it's expensive, whether it's, you know, whether it's inexpensive. If you want it to really fit your body, even the best clothes have to be tailored.

GROSS: I think that's good advice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: It's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORD: You know, you watch television and you see these actors and they've got a t-shirt on and, wow, it's like, that looks amazing. Well, it's been tailored. You know, somebody took it in a little bit here, pulled it in over the arms so that their biceps showed. It's a t-shirt but, you know, get a sewing machine and run a few simple stitches, even I can alter my own t-shirt, not that I do, but I could.

GROSS: Well, Tom Ford, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FORD: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Tom Ford, speaking to Terry Gross last December. His first feature film, "A Single Man," starring Colin Firth, has just been released on DVD. We'll hear from Colin Firth in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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