By LAURA M. HOLSON
IT is a wonder that Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent who turned louche sexuality into high fashion in the 1990s, didn’t try his hand at directing a movie sooner.
On a recent Wednesday, Mr. Ford walked across a courtyard at the Beverly Hills Hotel to meet a guest for lunch. His stride was deliberate, arms slightly bent to frame his rigid torso. As he approached the table, he removed his tea-colored sunglasses. He smelled like vanilla bean. Slipping into his seat, Mr. Ford tipped his chin to his left shoulder — a conscious gesture to highlight his best side, he later volunteered. He purred hello.
Played for visual impact, it was a moment much like a scene in his directorial debut, “A Single Man,” where the main character, George Falconer, meticulously arranges a suit and tie to wear to a funeral.
Mr. Ford’s most riveting creation — more than the velvet hip-huggers he introduced in 1994 or the Opium perfume ad from 2001 featuring a writhing, naked Sophie Dahl — is his public persona. So much so, Mr. Ford said that friends have recently told him they are surprised to find that someone so seemingly calculated could make such a soulful film.
Mr. Ford isn’t one to show hurt feelings. “I think of myself as a product,” he said as he adjusted the placement of his fork and knife. But clearly such slights sting.
“I had one friend whom I’ve known for 15 years who said, ‘I’ve always thought of you as a beautiful black lacquered box with a platinum handle from the 1920s, but I never knew there was anything inside the box,’ ” Mr. Ford said. “I was, like, ‘You’ve been my friend, and you did not know there was anything more than the surface?’ ”
“A Single Man,” which opens in limited release Dec. 11, has won plaudits from critics, particularly for Colin Firth’s sensitive portrayal of George, a 1960s gay professor who contemplates suicide after his longtime partner dies in an accident.
Such accolades are something of a triumph for Mr. Ford, who was forced to finance the nearly $7 million project with his own money, after leaving Gucci in 2004 and announcing that he would become an auteur. It was a transition some in fashion thought made perfect sense given his meticulous attention to surface — and others thought was doomed, for the same reason. Until the Weinstein Company picked up “A Single Man” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it had no distributor.
But that kind of love goes only so far in Hollywood. For Mr. Ford to have a bona fide hit, the movie must appeal to as wide an audience as possible, much the same way “Brokeback Mountain” did in 2005. (That movie earned $83 million at the domestic box office.) If “A Single Man” manages to garner a few Oscar nominations, too, the attention could propel Mr. Ford back into the familiar role of cultural arbiter. When asked about it, he is too cautious to make a prediction. But it is a role he has sorely missed since leaving Gucci.
In the 1990s, Mr. Ford was arguably the most influential fashion designer of his generation, re-imagining 1970s chic with unsubtle sex appeal. Under his guidance, the houses of Gucci and, later, Yves Saint Laurent flourished, with Mr. Ford overseeing every creative aspect — fashion, advertising, even store design — and making the labels a can’t-live-without. But after a rancorous spat with his bosses, he left Gucci and joined the ranks of the once powerful, now unemployed.
Announcing that his next act would be filmmaking, he began spending more time in Los Angeles, where he has a home with his longtime partner, Richard Buckley.
“He was like, ‘O.K., movies!’ ” said Lisa Eisner, a publisher who has known Mr. Ford for two decades.
Now 48, Mr. Ford conceded that he wasn’t prepared for the transition. His lawyer told him to take some time before jumping into another high-profile project. But Mr. Ford balked. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to lose my mind,’ ” he said. “I no longer had a voice in contemporary culture.”
Like many executives facing a career crisis, Mr. Ford grappled with his self-identity. He said he struggled with depression and found spiritual meaning in the writings of Eckhart Tolle. Moviemaking, too, proved humbling. “I thought, Who needs a ‘Tom Ford’ movie?” Mr. Ford said. At Gucci, he was a superstar designing 16 collections a year. But in Hollywood, he was just another first-time filmmaker, albeit with well-connected friends.
As Ms. Eisner put it: “You are king of the world and then you are not. For him it was a lot of downtime and he does not have downtime.”
In 2006, Mr. Ford bought the rights to “A Single Man,” the 1964 novel written by Christopher Isherwood, along with a script by David Scearce, which Mr. Ford decided to rewrite. To prepare, he read books, including “On Directing Film” by David Mamet. He showed an early draft to a studio executive, who told him to hire a professional. He tried collaborating with a screenwriter, but they disagreed. In all, Mr. Ford said he revised the script 15 times in less than two years.
The serious story — suicide, death, tragic romance — was a departure from the Tom Ford of Gucci who liked to provoke. (In one of his more controversial Gucci ads, a woman tugs at her panties to reveal a patch of hair shaped like a “G.”)
“When he first showed me the script I was shocked,” said Arianne Phillips, the movie’s costume designer. “If this was the movie Tom Ford ‘the director’ wanted to make, I did not know Tom Ford ‘the person.’ ”
Ms. Eisner added, “When people think of Tom they think he has sex a million times a day.”
The subject matter, too, made it difficult for Mr. Ford to get a studio to finance his film. His friends told him to create a short film to show what he could do. Mr. Ford said he had a verbal agreement with two investors last year but the deal fell through after the stock market tumbled.
His agents, he said, told him not to pay for film production himself. But Mr. Ford made a lot of money at Gucci and decided to do so anyway. Besides, it afforded something he covets most: complete creative control.
In one scene, the contents of George’s medicine drawer are laid out in a grid much like Mr. Ford’s drawer at home. “I styled all that,” he said. “Every bit of it is me.”
In another scene, Charley, George’s close friend and a former lover, played by Julianne Moore, puts on her makeup before dinner, one eye bare, the other elaborately painted. “It was artistry and artifice in one moment,” Ms. Moore said. “He was careful about what he wanted to communicate.”
But there are darker parallels, too. When George prepares to commit suicide, he crawls into a sleeping bag, gun in hand, so he won’t sully the white bedspread. Mr. Ford said that a relative of his died that way, even laying out the clothes for his funeral as George does in the film.
Of course directing actors is different from posing models in advertisements or on the runway; actors talk and, often, talk back. What may surprise viewers most about the film is the richly human performances Mr. Ford has elicited — or, at least, enabled. With a brief 21-day shoot, the director and actors mostly discussed the characters ahead of time, or, if Mr. Ford wanted something specific, it was spelled out in the script. “I never stepped in to tell them how to give a line,” he said.
He gave Ms. Moore and Mr. Firth their freedom.
“At one point I started humming and moving my shoulders,” Ms. Moore said of the scene where Charley applies her makeup. “It wasn’t in the script, but it felt right. I would not have been able to do that if Tom was standing over me, telling me what to do.”
That said, she added, “Tom is completely and utterly in control at all times.”
On Sept. 14, the Isabel Bader Theater at the Toronto film festival was packed with studio executives, directors, talent agents and curious onlookers who wanted to see what took Mr. Ford five years to produce. The film had been warmly received days earlier at the Venice Film Festival, where Mr. Firth won best actor. And though it was also applauded in Toronto, only one buyer emerged: The Weinstein Company, which paid $2 million for distribution rights in the United States and Germany, according to people apprised of the bid.
The problem, said an executive at a rival studio that decided not to make an offer, wasn’t Mr. Ford’s filmmaking. The movie is tricky to market. Even now, the Weinstein Company has been criticized for cutting Mr. Ford’s original trailer, taking out a kiss between George and his partner. Mr. Ford said he agreed to changes in the trailer only so it could be shown to a wider audience.
Mr. Ford has spent so much of his life crafting his public persona, it leads one to wonder if this movie is another attempt at rebranding Tom Ford, the product. He insisted, “It was the least calculated thing I’ve ever done.”
AS if on cue, Jason Reitman, the Academy Award-nominated director of “Juno,” approached Mr. Ford’s table at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He had seen the film in Toronto and wanted to say how much he loved it.
Mr. Ford brightened at the unexpected visitor. Earlier, he had been discussing how different viewers — gay men, straight women — reacted to a poignant moment where Charley professes her love for George and threatens their friendship. “Were you moved emotionally, even though you are straight?” Mr. Ford asked Mr. Reitman of the scene. Mr. Reitman looked confused. He wondered aloud if Mr. Ford was hitting on him.
“No, I wasn’t coming on to you,” Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Reitman did not recall the scene. When Mr. Ford’s guest began explaining its particular resonance with some viewers, Mr. Reitman scolded her: movies “are not meant to be told that way,” he said.
He continued the lecture as Mr. Ford watched, wide-eyed and nervously laughing. Mr. Ford’s interview was being derailed.
“You should go away now,” he told Mr. Reitman, whose latest film is “Up in the Air.” He extended his hand to say goodbye. “It was great to see you.”
Mr. Reitman, though, kept talking.
“You are going to really kill me, aren’t you?” Mr. Ford told him.
After Mr. Reitman left, Mr. Ford turned to his guest and said, “I just asked, ‘What did you think?’ ”
Next time, better to keep to the script.