In his illustrious career as a fashion designer, Tom Ford has established himself as an icon in the fashion world. In addition to the decades of experience he has in fashion, Tom Ford’s background is in architecture. In fact, he graduated with a degree in architecture from The New School. In his directorial debut, A Single Man (2009), he combines his interests in fashion and architecture, communicating themes on a visual level through costume and art direction.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, Ian Phillips, art director of A Single Man (2009), remarked, “I don’t think that Tom really had a hard time adjusting to being a first-time director.” In a career in fashion, Tom Ford has always been in the executive role, making decisions and executing his vision as an artist. “The camera just hasn’t been there – he’s had to deal with this through the fashion world.”
In his role as an art director, Ian Phillips oversaw and managed the art department, including the construction and property departments, graphic design, set design, set decoration and painters. In addition, he was responsible for the floor plans and building plans for the film. Tom Ford was, in his opinion, a well-prepared first-time filmmaker, suited for the director’s chair, because of his background.
The film focuses on George Falconer (Colin Firth), a college professor who copes with the loss of his partner. The fact that Tom Ford comes from a career in fashion, we see this film through the eyes of a fashion designer. The film opens with George waking up and getting dressed. George showers, shaves, takes his socks and shirt out of his drawer, polishes his shoes and puts on his tie. This mundane task is turned into a fashion presentation – emphasis is placed on his pressed shirts and clean, black shoes.
“Tom really wanted a scene where this character was preparing for his day of death,” notes Ian Phillips. In speaking of his character, Tom Ford has noted that George, on the worst day of his life, is polishing his shoes and putting on his tie. “This is a man whose inner world and outer world are connected. George feels that if he can keep his outer world together, he won’t collapse inside.” Tom Ford believes the order and precision in George’s life is a characteristic of Virgos – Tom Ford, Colin Firth, and Christopher Isherwood, the author of the novel that the film is based on, are all Virgos. This opening sequence defines George as a meticulous, precise and detail-oriented character. In a similar manner, these qualities are true of his home as well. The house mirrors George in its minimalism and modernism.
This is a film about life, rather than death. George attempts suicide in his home, but he also appreciates life over the course of the film. George avoids eye contact through much of the film, but he soon connects and responds with people, and understands the relationships in his own life. These emotional themes are expressed through the motif of eyes and the expressive use of color throughout the film. George “sees” the beauty in his world after he fails to take his own life. The beginning of the film lacks color and the color palette consists of blacks, browns and greys. The color heightens when George breaks out of his darkness, and toward the end of the film, color expresses itself and becomes much more vivid. This is emphasized in the scene where George makes a connection with a stranger, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena). George parks his car in front of a Psycho (1960) mural, as Janet Leigh’s eyes pierce him, as if demanding his gaze. The scene is made up of warm reds and oranges.
A Single Man starts and ends inside George’s house, and much of the film is set within the interior spaces. The house is a John Lautner home, the Schaffer Residence, which was designed in 1949 for the parents of an assistant. The Schaffer Residence is a small two-bedroom, two-bathroom home (1,698 square feet). The house features an open floor plan and is constructed entirely out of steel, glass, redwood and concrete. In Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner, we learn that the Schaffer Residence was “his first residential project without a horizon, a distant vista, or the sense of a dissolving sky.” The focus was placed on “the rhythms of light in the grove of live oaks, building between the trees in two vertical layers, one of redwood boards and the other of mullioned glass planes, to create the sense of an unbroken transparent screen.” The construction of its ceiling, along with the use of glass, provides a light feeling to the house, which results in a “floating environment.” The house’s relationship with its surroundings further integrates the space into an organic landscape.
There were a number of reasons the house was chosen for this film. The Schaffer Residence was iconic and modern for its time period. The glass walls allowed for filming from the outside in and vice versa. In filming from the outside in, George’s loneliness is often emphasized. This is seen in an instance at the start of the film where George sits and drinks coffee. The camera pulls back and offers a wide shot of the Schaffer Residence, emphasizing both George’s place in the house as well as the architectural wonder of the home.
The cutting back and forth between the past and present contrasts the use of space. George’s memories with his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), in their home are contrasted with his life without him in the same space. In scenes with both George and Jim, the house feels lighter because of the natural sunlight that comes in through the glass walls. In scenes when George is alone, much of the interior scenes are filmed in the evening, heightening the darkness.
The modern atmosphere of the home is without a doubt appealing for George, but the “openness” speaks to the deeper themes of invisibility in the film. George hides his sexuality throughout the film, because of the time period, and as a result, a significant part of him is hidden from the public. The theme of “invisible minorities” comes up throughout the film. In class, George lectures about fear and minorities, as he notes that if a minority is somehow invisible, the fear toward them is much greater. The architecture of the Schaffer Residence speaks to these larger themes. The house is nestled amongst trees and its glass walls blur the lines between the interior and exterior space. In this sense, the home is open and inviting to the outside world because of its glass walls, but at the same time, the home is hidden from the outside world because of its surroundings. Ian Phillips thinks of the residence as “a very masculine house” and notes that George “didn’t really let anybody else onto his sexuality.” The architecture of the house, therefore, is a visual representation of how George’s sexuality remains invisible from society during this time period.
Ian Phillips notes that the filmmakers were in touch with the gentleman who was remodeling the residence back to its original condition at the time of pre-production. The filmmakers came across John Lautner’s original floor plans; although some of the space wasn’t built as the plans specified, the plans nonetheless provided the filmmakers with a good representation of the house. “It’s very important for myself to visualize what is happening in the set so during pre-production the floor plan is constantly in flux, until you get exactly what you need out of the set.” In addition, still photographs taking during pre-production helped Tom Ford visualize the various camera angles and have a sense of the space and architecture in which he would create an environment for his character.
Ian Phillips notes that after examining the floor plans, the filmmakers “altered the space, not in terms of architecture, but in terms of space for our needs.” George’s bedroom wasn’t filmed in one of the bedrooms in the Schaffer Residence, but was recreated and built in the living room of the house. George’s office was recreated in an adjoining part of the living room, which was at the time in use as TV room. George’s bathroom was constructed in one of the bedrooms in the house.
This film provides us with an understanding of how space can be altered in an actual location to benefit the needs of a production. In the case of this film, multiple rooms were recreated in different parts of the house instead of shooting in the actual spaces in an effort to provide the filmmakers with enough space to film the scenes.
The diagram we have presented focuses on three instances in the film that deal with these “altered” spaces. Interiors had exclusive access to the production files of the film and we worked with the original floor plan from the production. In our floor plan, we included the “recreated” spaces in the original locations throughout the house.
In detail one, we recreated the bathroom in the front bedroom. The existing bathrooms in the house were small in size; therefore, one of the bedrooms was converted into a bathroom in an effort to provide the filmmakers with extra room. The scene begins with the camera tracking alongside the wall as we land on George, who is sitting on the toilet, reading a book. This shot is made possible because the bathroom was recreated in the bedroom. This provided the filmmakers with enough room to track their camera from the side of the wall into the bathroom.
Ian Phillips notes, “We took the front bedroom, which had this great view of looking across the street at the neighbor, and in order for Colin Firth to be able to see the neighbor, we put some film on the glass to make it a little more private, like it was a restroom.” In this recreated space, the filmmakers created a direct eyeline for George to see outside the window to his neighbor’s across the street. This scene also emphasizes George’s disconnect from the rest of the world as well as his loneliness. George looks outside his window and watches the Strunk family. The camera pulls back from the outside until we see a portion of his face covered from the outside wall panels. This image is contrasted with the image of the Strunks. Their family is outdoors, playing as a group, and cheerful, whereas George is indoors and alone. The wood panels make him appear jailed in his own home.
In detail two, we recreated George’s study room in the den, near the fireplace. In this scene, George places his belongings on his desk, just before he attempts suicide. The careful orchestration of this scene once again reminds the viewer of Tom Ford’s sensibilities as a fashion designer; instead of George writing a suicide note, we see him writing instructions on the proper method of how his tie should be tied (a Windsor knot) for his funeral. This emphasizes George’s (and Tom Ford’s) interest in fashion.
In detail three, we recreated George’s bedroom in the living room, and focused on the moment when he lies down on his bed and puts the gun in his mouth. Ian Phillips discusses the reasons for constructing George’s bedroom rather than filming in an existing bedroom. “The changes were made to solve a twofold problem. The space that was available in the bedrooms was too small to be able to accommodate a camera and crew. The rooms were so small that the camera would not really be able to get back far enough from the actor to incorporate the surroundings and architecture of the room, which is precisely why we chose the house in the first place.”
In terms of the construction of this scene, the production put up a birch plywood wall and allowed for a separation of the living room and the fireplace. In the still from the film, this partition is seen behind George. The birch plywood material was chosen because of its common use during the time the Schaffer Residence was built as well the contrast with the redwood surface throughout the house.
In regards to the scenes filmed in the living room, the filmmakers first filmed all of George’s bedroom scenes, then removed the wall partition and filmed the rest of the film inside the house. In terms of screen direction, it’s interesting to note that when George walks from his bedroom into another location, it’s directed as if he is leaving the existing bedroom in the house. In other words, when George walks down the glass hallway at the start of the film, he is walking from the existing bedroom in the house rather than his recreated bedroom in the living room. “The viewer automatically assumes that’s where the bedroom was,” notes Ian Phillips, suggesting that the recreated space was intended to feel as if it’s the actual bedroom in the house.
A Single Man also makes effective use of various other locations. Charlotte’s house, for instance, required minor modification, including the construction of a front porch. The production design of the interior of her house is a reflection of her eccentric character. The college campus used for filming is the Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. The filmmakers searched for a lecture hall that fit the time period; while most colleges had updated their lecture halls and buildings, this college in particular had been left untouched, for the most part. There was some modification and adjustments done in the interior spaces, such as painting and the removal of modern accoutrements, such as replacing whiteboards with blackboards, as a way of making the space more appropriate for the period.
Interiors visited the Schaffer Residence and Ambassador College in September 2013. The Schaffer Residence was sold in 2012 and Ambassador College is now defunct. The Fine Arts Building, which houses the lecture hall used in the film, has since been demolished. Ian Phillips notes that this film was the ideal project for him as an art director, because he was provided with the rare opportunity of working in an architectural gem such as the Schaffer Residence. It’s also a film that provided him with exciting artistic and creative challenges. “I love to work on period films because there’s so much more research involved in creating the era that helps tell the story, and that, in particular, was great about A Single Man.” In doing so, he was a part of a creative team that had Tom Ford as its leader in a transitional role from fashion designer to filmmaker.
Interview with Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips has worked as an art director on Twilight (2008) and Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012) and a production designer on Parks & Recreation, for which he received a nomination from the Art Directors Guild. Ian Phillips is the art director of A Single Man (2009).