Tom Ford and Colin Firth still can't agree on whether Ford told Firth he was too fat to star in Ford's first film, A Single Man.
"He tended to ask me, 'you know, if you wanted a trainer, to come to your house every day, holidays too...' that means 'You're fat,'" Firth explained at a recent press day in New York. "So whether Tom literally said or it he euphemistically said it, it's the same."
A slimmed down Firth plays British college professor George Falconer who spends a day in 1962 Los Angeles figuring out if and why life is worth living. George learns early on in the movie that his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode) has died in a car accident. Unable to imagine a future without Jim, George makes detailed arrangements to end his own life--from emptying his safety deposit box to laying out the cuff links in which he wishes to be buried.
The news of Jim's death arrives over a phone call from someone Ford all but admitted was voiced by Jon Hamm in a winking nod to his 1960s alter ego, Don Draper.
"I was sitting next to this person at a dinner party," Ford said. "I know him and I said, 'I'm shooting something tomorrow and your voice is perfect--would you come in and do it?' And his agent ripped me apart like you can't imagine. He can't be credited, whatever, so I don't know who that was on the phone."
Whoever was on the other end of the call informed George he was not invited to the "family only" funeral. The scene was shot at a somewhat unseemly time: the same day Proposition 8 passed in California, nearly half a century after the cinematic injustice. More happily, it was also the day Obama was elected president, which made it a little harder for Firth to summon hysterical tears.
"I remember the sound guy played McCain's concession speech," Firth said. "I have to say, I wasn't that devastated. So it gave me a little more of a journey to get there."
The movie is an ambitious directorial debut for Ford, who reimagined the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent fashion houses in the 1990s. He didn't want to make a film that looked like a two-hour perfume commercial, which isn't to say the end result isn't self-consciously arty and lovingly shot.
"I read every screenplay in town and because I'm a fashion designer, people sent me very superficial, slick, beautiful but not a lot of substance things and nothing was speaking to me," he said.
In 2006 he finally found the right project and bought the rights Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man. He started splicing in vignettes from his own life with longtime partner Richard Buckley. One flashback scene of quotidian bliss shows George and Jim lying on the sofa reading books (Metamorphosis and Breakfast at Tiffany's, respectively) and arguing over who will get up to change the record and who will walk the dogs.
"That's me and my boyfriend," said Ford. "I have to pay him to walk the dog. I have to pay him 20 bucks, and I had to go back and make it five because we're in 1962."
He also borrowed from his own life for a youthful anecdote George shares with a student--shaving off an eyebrow during a mescaline trip--and the suicide George plans comes from Ford's family, not the book. "It was exactly that suicide," Ford said, though he declined to identify the family member. "Everything planned, laid everything out, suit, cuff links, zipped himself in a sleeping bag so he wouldn't make a mess."
For all of Ford's carnally provocative fashion campaigns (he once created a campaign that showcased his fragrance in between the shiny legs of naked women), A Single Man is decidedly chaste, which may make it more inclusive. Take away the sexual mechanics, and people can see they are about as important to George and Jim as they are to any couple who's been together for decades: not very.
"It could be a relationship between anybody of any sexual orientation," said Firth. "It's just love, familiarity."
The sexual preferences of the characters in A Single Man are not exotic or problematic or even constant. George has a lot of issues, but his sexual identity is not one of them (though it may well be a marketing issue for the Weinstein Company, which de-gayed the movie poster and trailer). He repeatedly discovers during what he intends to be his last day on earth that what really matters are the moments of real human connection: with his old friend and ex-lover Charley (a dazzling Julianne Moore), a handsome Spanish stranger and a bi-curious young student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from his About a Boy days).
Ford is optimistic audiences will embrace his Hollywood love story, even though some of his friends still get stuck on the gay in his personal romance.
"To this day, occasionally I'll have a friend who will say something about my 'lifestyle,'" he said. "My lifestyle? I live with somebody I love. We've been together 23 years. We make dinner, we have arguments, he has to walk the dog, we go on vacation. It was important to depict that. Love is love."
A Single Man opens December 11 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and will expand to more theaters Christmas Day.
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