Single Man: Visual and Aural Aesthetics

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"A Single Man," starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, is Tom Ford's co-writing and directorial debut. The film is being released December 11 by The Weinstein Company.

Pre-Production

One of Ford’s toughest challenges was a very abbreviated pre-production period. That added considerable pressure on production to find the right locations in the Los Angeles area. “We needed to find a completely deserted college that was correct for the period,” explains Ford. The company found a small school across from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

Even tougher was locating George’s house because of Ford’s cinematic requirements. “The fact that Colin’s character is British…I wanted something that was modern, yet filled with a lot of wood…warmth and wood paneling seemed right for George.”

“Also, I needed to find a house that I knew I could pull back from and get a beautiful architectural shot to show his entire world.”

Costume Design

More stress was on Ford and his costume designer, Arianne Phillips, during the short prep. “Arianne was amazing and a real support for me in many ways. She has a great eye that is not just limited to clothes. She is a brilliant costume designer and somehow managed to pull together absolutely perfect period costumes in no time and with little money,” he points out. Ford manufactured the wardrobes in Milan for both Firth and Hoult.

Cinematography

“I didn’t have a DP [Eduard Grau] until a few weeks before principal photography was set to begin. I had looked at so many reels of DP’s and could just not find anyone who was available and seemed right. One day a DVD appeared on my desk with the name Eduard Grau on it. I popped it in my computer and I knew that I had found the right guy. Eduard came over the next day from London, we had lunch at Musso and Frank’s and talked for a few hours and I hired him. I was not sorry. He has a great eye, great technical knowledge despite his young age [he is 28] and his European sensibility fit with my own. We worked very well together and I think that he is a real talent. We were also very lucky because we had a terrific and very experienced camera crew and a great gaffer, Jim Plannette,” says Ford.

The look of the film was also important to Ford as he saw this as a way to help the audience understand the characters and especially to understand what George is feeling as he moves through his day. “The use of color plays an important part in the film. In the book we are inside George’s head so we know what emotions he is feeling at any given time. I needed a way to help convey George’s mood externally to the audience. At the beginning of the day, when George is at his lowest, our color is desaturated and our light is flat as George is so depressed that life for him is literally colorless. As George begins to experience moments of beauty during the day the color on our screen amps up to reflect George’s heightened mood. This really begins to kick in when George encounters Jennifer Strunk in the bank. George, in his dark state of mind, usually thinks of this girl as an annoying and irritating child. When he encounters her in the bank he sees her finally for what she is: a lovely, fresh beautiful young girl and he has an engaging?conversation with her. By the time we get to the evening, and the beauty of life is pulling at George he is living almost entirely in technicolor.”

Fast Shoot

Ford shot the film in a brisk 21-day schedule, but was ultra-organized to deal with each day’s work. Discarding some early storyboards, Ford, instead, made detailed shot lists of each camera angle for each scene.

Obviously aware of how hard people work in the fashion industry, Ford gained new respect for film crews and the hours and effort that they put forth for weeks on end. He points out that even though “everything went very smoothly,” he still only averaged two to three hours of sleep per night during the shooting schedule.

“One of my greatest strengths as a director is that I’m used to working with a large group of people, trying to bring out their best while getting them to be as creative as they can possibly be while steering and guiding them through my vision,” notes Ford.

Editing like a Rubik's Cube

His biggest surprise as a first-time director was in the editing process. “I spent six months editing. If you had asked me at the beginning of the process how long it would take me I would have said half that time. I really didn’t understand how one can completely change the meaning of a scene or even the story in the way that one edits. I was lucky to work with Joan Sobel, a truly inspirational editor who became one of my closest collaborators.”

Ford finds editing like a “Rubik’s cube. I got inside the movie and turned it and twisted it in so many different directions that it really started to wear me out. Finally, I looked at the movie until everything seemed to be the only way it could be, the only way it was meant to be and the only way it should be.”

Soundtrack

One of Ford’s passions about films has been his love of motion picture sound tracks. He had some early ideas about what to do with the music in A SINGLE MAN.

“Usually, when we see a movie about the 1960s, it is littered with popular tunes from that period which is a little bit hokey and not at all right for a movie that is very emotional and inside someone’s head,” he says.

“So I tried to envision what kind of music would be inside George’s head. I didn’t want to be limited to classical music that would have existed in the early 1960s, but I did want it to have a certain reference to classical music and to use a real classical orchestra.”

Ford’s first call for a composer was long distance to Japan.

“I have always loved the composer Shigeru Umebayashi and Wong Kar Wai’s films, especially the theme song Ume did for IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. It’s one of my favorite pieces of movie music.”

Ford contacted Umebayashi who flew to Los Angeles from Tokyo and together, they watched the film numerous times. “He wrote three themes for the film which really captured George’s character and frame of mind.”

Being limited by both time and budget, Ford began an exhaustive search for a young composer to do the score. “I listened to everything that I could get my hands on, and I came across Abel Korzeniowski and his music really moved me. I think he is a great talent and I was lucky to find him at this stage of his career.”

Ford worked closely with Korzeniowski in capturing the proper mood for each scene, and found this aspect of the film process particularly emotional when the orchestra was recording.

“I always knew that I wanted a big, overblown real film score,” says Ford. “I wanted a lush opening theme and I wanted the music to be proper, old fashioned film score music.”

“A lot of places in A SINGLE MAN, there was no dialogue. We are just watching George do things. So the sound or lack of it was especially important. Silence, for me, has also been a very important element. Some of the most arresting moments that you can have on film can be silent. You really pay attention,” says Ford.

A Conscious Filmmaker

Ford was conscious of what kind of films move him as a moviegoer while working on the project. “A great movie haunts you,” says Ford. “It’s both entertaining and thought provoking. In that way, I hope that A SINGLE MAN makes you question things…think about things in a way that you haven’t thought about before.”

He adds, “I am hopeful that it will show the audience that the small things in life are really the big things in life.”