WRITERS ON WRITING: The Adaptation Process of A Single Man

Tom Ford, writer and director of A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals, discusses his journey from fashion designer to filmmaker and the adaptation process.


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Colin Firth as George and Julianne Moore as Charlotte in A Single Man (PHOTOS: EDUARD GRAU COURTESY: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY)

I first read the novel A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood in 1981. I was 20 years old and living in West Hollywood, working as an actor making television commercials.

The book struck me: To be honest, it was actually the character of “George,” the hero, that struck me, and it was love at first read. George is so complete and so well-drawn that I found myself forgetting that he was a fictional creation, and I fantasized that I might run into him somewhere.

A friend of mine was living with artist David Hockney at the time, and so I spent many days and evenings at David’s house. I met quite a few well-known people through David and shortly after I had first read A Single Man, David introduced me to Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. I don’t think I made much of an impression, and we did not become friends, but I became obsessed with Christopher’s work and quickly read everything that he had written.

Eventually, I left Los Angeles and moved back to New York, where I studied design, and then moved to Paris where life pointed me in a different direction, and I became a fashion designer. In early 2004, I left my then-current job as creative director of Gucci Group and decided to finally fulfill what had been in many ways a lifelong desire to become a filmmaker.

When I became serious about making my first film, I had to find my voice. What I mean by that is I had to discover exactly what it was that I wanted to say. I knew what I stood for as a fashion designer, but not as a filmmaker. Why should anyone want or need to see a Tom Ford film?

Firth

I had optioned a couple of books and read every script that was floating around town. My agents at CAA were great at keeping me supplied with a seemingly endless stream of scripts to read. I must have read a few hundred in the summer of 2004, but nothing spoke to me. I was having difficulty finding the right project.

One day, while driving down Sunset Boulevard to my office, I realized that I was daydreaming about a character that had long since moved to the back of my mind: the character of George. It occurred to me that, in many ways, he had always been with me, and I quickly picked up a paperback copy of A Single Man and re-read it. The book spoke to me in an entirely different and even deeper way than it had 25 years earlier. Reading the story from mid-life, I found a tale of spirituality: the story of a man desperately attempting to live in the present. This struggle I could relate to, and as someone who has always lived his life guided by intuition, I knew instantly that this story would become my first film.


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I called my agent at CAA to find out who had the rights to the novel, and, oddly, another CAA agent was representing both the book and a screenplay adaptation by a Canadian writer named David Scearce. Don Bachardy, Chris’ companion of 41 years, held the rights. I went out to Santa Monica to meet with Don and to explain my passion for the story. I convinced him to let me have the book and at the same time also acquired the rights to the adapted screenplay.

Don’t Ramble

The moment I set out to structure a film from the slender novel, I began to encounter problems in creating a visual story that captured the beauty of the prose that carries the novel along. The book A Single Man is written in the third person and unfolds without a plot, yet is held together by the insightful and often humorous observations of George. It is, for the most part, an inner monologue with very little outer action. I had heard many times that, as film is a visual medium, one should create what is essentially a silent film and then layer on the dialogue only when the action cannot speak for itself. This was going to prove a challenge with a book in which very little actually happens.

Writer-director Tom Ford on the set

David Scearce, who wrote the first adapted screenplay of A Single Man, had done a beautiful job of developing the story and creating a moving script. His story followed the book in many ways but, like all great writers, he had emphasized the elements of the story that spoke to him and had created characters and situations that developed his story clearly and with great sensitivity.

The book takes place in one day of a man’s life with no definitive resolution at the end of the day. Not a problem for a novel, but a big problem for a film. I kept asking myself why this day? Why are we observing this particular day of this man’s life? What will hold the audience’s interest as we amble along? I read and re-read both the book and David’s adaptation, looking for a clue that would help hold the audience’s attention. I struggled and began to wonder if perhaps I had chosen a story that would be impossible to turn into the film that I wanted it to be.

Make it Your Own

I invited Don Bachardy to dinner one night at a small, quiet restaurant in Santa Monica. I had come to a standstill in my development of the project. Sketching things out cinematically, I had been trying to remain faithful to the novel, and it was not working. I had a complete block and had no idea how to proceed. I was purposely avoiding discussion of the project with Don, as I didn’t want him to know that I was having such a hard time, when, all of a sudden, he said to me, “Make it your own.” I am not sure exactly what prompted Don to say this, but it set me free and inspired me.


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Be Bold

I had never written a screenplay before. I had always felt confident writing and enjoyed the process. I had written a few magazine articles and the introduction to a few books, and had also written a few film treatments, but had never tackled an entire screenplay. I installed Final Draft® on my computer and set out to work.

I had a very clear understanding of the elements and themes of the book that spoke to me, and these were the points that I needed to drive home to the audience. It became immediately evident that I would need to make bold moves and to stray fairly dramatically from the book if I were to succeed in making the film that I wanted to make. I needed to construct a plot.

“Waking up begins with saying am and now.” This is the first line of the book and the first line of what became my screenplay. This line was my clue, and I chose to emphasize the importance of and struggle with living life in the present and understanding that the small things in life are actually the big things in life. George is suffering from the isolation that is ultimately part of the human condition. He is moving through the day, mired in depression and living in the past, suffering from the loss of the great love of his life. He is questioning the point of life itself and cannot see his future. Ultimately, through his journey on this particular day, he has an epiphany and suddenly a great understanding of the meaning of life. He reaches a kind of peace. This is my version of the story and the message that I took from the novel.

In order to make this message clear, I mapped out my plot and pulled from the book the elements needed to support the plot. I broke the story into three acts, and I tried to move in a completely linear fashion from the opening line to the closing one. Anything else became superfluous and I discarded it. I then filled in scenes and created and altered characters to emphasize my key themes and to carry us through the day. I had decided on an ending that is hinted at in the book, but not definitive. David Scearce had also settled on this ending in his screenplay. I used as much of the novel as I could, as well as elements of David’s screenplay, to construct what would become the version of A Single Man that would appear on the screen.

Use Image to Inform a Story

One night over dinner with a friend who is a well-known screenwriter, I complimented her on a particular moment in one of her screenplays and commented that it was so precise and so visually clear. She confided in me that she worked from photographs when she wrote. Having built many fashion collections the same way, this insight was a revelation for me. I went through stacks and stacks of old magazines from the mid-1940s (when our story begins) to 1962 (when our story ends). I created files for each of the characters: their house, their clothes, their past, their favorite art, music, books, and, in general, any images that reminded me of the characters. Who were these people, what did they look like, what kind of car did they drive? Where and how did they live? I then wrote while looking at these images and some of these visual references actually worked their way into the screenplay in almost their exact form.

Ford and Moore

Write What You Know

How many times have we all heard “Write what you know”? But, like many maxims, it rings true. As the character of George was autobiographical on the part of Mr. Isherwood, and as I related to this character and his plight, I decided to graft my own autobiography onto that of George. As a first-time screenwriter and filmmaker, I thought it seemed wise to follow the old adage of writing about what you know. Scenes from my life and childhood became exaggerated versions of themselves in order to emphasize the parts of the story that spoke to me. The intended suicide, which forms the centerpiece of the plot, is a replica of a suicide that was actually carried out by someone in my family. Characters took on traits of friends and family members from my own life. Elements of my childhood and even romantic relationships from my past found their ways into the plot. The story became an enormously personal one for me.


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Develop Your Style

I broke what many consider to be a hard and fast rule for screenwriting: “Don’t be too descriptive.” I don’t agree with this rule. In my case, I was going to be directing the film, so the descriptions helped me, and I even went so far as to write many scenes in a shot-by-shot fashion. Most screenplays that I have ever read that have spoken to me almost always have a fairly high level of descriptive writing in them. This description gives a story its character and makes it stand out. The voice of the writer is clear and thus the characters are clearly drawn. Think about it: Books and short stories are extremely descriptive, and this is what draws us to them, makes them memorable, and makes the characters seem real. This being said, it is still important to edit, cut and trim. Make your story tight, concise and direct, but don’t forget to also let your writing style remain clear. It is what will help set your story apart.

Seek Critics

Periodically, over the year and a half that it took me to get the screenplay to a place where it felt right, I let a few friends that I trusted read it. Early in the process, a good friend who is a well-known studio executive read the screenplay, and his words of advice were that perhaps I should “hire a professional writer.” I did not heed his advice—in fact, it made me more determined than ever—and I kept writing. I would write a few hours every day in the evenings, on weekends and holidays, and I loved every minute of it. Sometimes when I would hit a wall, I put the screenplay aside and just let it sit for a few weeks. Other friends were more encouraging and a few had comments that were invaluable. My partner of 23 years kept falling asleep when he would read the screenplay (although, to be fair, this also happened to him when he read the book), but finally I succeeded in keeping him awake and ultimately in actually getting him to cry. The story somehow eventually just found itself. It became what it wanted to be. It just settled into a place where it felt right.

I was extremely passionate about writing the screenplay for A Single Man, and I put an enormous amount of love into the project. I have learned over the years that you can’t fool people. It is important to be genuine and honest in writing and in all things. I have always believed that if you put a great deal of energy and passion into what you do, that in the end, the beholder of your creation will feel this passion—and that, for me, is the ultimate form of communication.

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2010

TOM FORD was born in Texas in 1961. Best known for his work as a fashion designer, Ford revived Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent through influential collections and provocative advertising campaigns that turned the Gucci Group into one of the largest and most profitable luxury fashion conglomerates in the world. Ford founded his film production company, Fade to Black, as well as his eponymous fashion company in 2005.

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