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Tom Ford doesn’t fancy taking direction from anyone under any circumstance, great or small. Hello, Gucci Group. So when WWD heard by accident (all CFDA Awards films are shrouded in secrecy until shown at the event) that the film celebrating the men’s wear nominees would star the designers themselves — Thom Browne and Michael Bastian along with Ford, the eventual winner — and that it would have a serious director in Douglas Keeve, we were intrigued. Since Ford’s segment had yet to be filmed, this snoop had to crash the party to see if he is capable of surrendering a modicum of control.
This story first appeared in the June 4, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Producers Nina Santisi and Nian Fish demanded strict confidentiality until after the event, with Fish trying to suss out the leak in their iron-curtained production ring. But in the end, she capitulated. The setting was an ancient, creaky West Village residential carriage house. With its endless, overstocked rustic bookshelves and the addition of a worn leather rental sofa, the space transformed easily into a therapist’s office. The ruse: to spoof the HBO series “In Treatment,” with Gabriel Byrne’s shrink acting as a foil to each nominee. The finished film cuts between Byrne’s actual therapy session scenes and the nominees, who have replaced his on-screen patients and answer his questions with deep fashion thoughts.
On the set, Ford was powdered, dressed — jacket off, vest on, white shirt unbuttoned in signature mien — and seemed, if not exactly enthusiastic, at least game. But not without a caveat or two. This is a guy who maintains that his youthful attempts at acting and modeling came up short of stardom because he was too self-conscious and even then scoffed at taking direction. Thus, he copped to initial bossiness on the set: “I walked in and told them to change the lights.” He also questioned the beverage prop: “Can’t I have a Diet Coke? Who drinks a martini in therapy?”
So, Mr. Director, was Ford difficult?
“Yes,” Keeve said after finishing the film. “But Tom didn’t write the book on prima donnas. This is fashion. And Tom’s pain-in-the-ass-ness is quite generous. He pulls you up a notch because he knows you have to fight for the quality.”
Nevertheless, Keeve suggested that Ford found himself in a “Jekyll and Hyde battle.” Except unlike Spencer Tracy, his transformation went in reverse and he got less testy as he settled into the shtick. The scene was to have two parts: the first featuring Ford ad-libbing with a segue into a near-verbatim redo of a scene from the television show, with Ford delivering the lines of Melissa George’s love-struck character.
When the stand-in shrink inquired about Ford’s most recent collection, he responded in his typical sexy deadpan: “If you follow my work at all, then you know every collection is inspired by medieval Icelandic iconography.” His longtime publicist, Lisa Sheik, and this reporter thought the quip hilarious; everyone else in the room looked puzzled.
“I’m no good at this,” Ford intoned. “Do we have a script?” Keeve persisted through several takes until Ford grew more comfortable. He talked about his approach to design: “the things I want to wear”; his obsession with perfection — even as a child, “once I found the flaw or something that was wrong [with an item], it was over”; his yen for control — “I decided early on that I like the way I look better not smiling than smiling. So I never smile for pictures.” And oh, yes — regrets? “That I didn’t seduce more of my friends’ fathers.” Then an aside to Sheik, “Lisa, come police me.”
Next up: the literal scene from “In Treatment,” which would prove one of the funniest bits at the awards ceremony. “Good, I need a script.” Ford sounded relieved, momentarily, at least. While Keeve had Browne and Bastian talk only about clothes in their “sessions,” he saved the key amusement for Ford, not telling anyone until all were on set.
Keeve first showed the Byrne-George scene on his laptop, then started reading the shrink role himself. The scene starts in neutral territory, but turns personal, calling for Ford to act out the line: “I want you to tell me that you love me.”
“It was just so out there….Tom was pretty surprised. He hesitated,” Keeve said. “I was mad for the idea and pretended it was all peachy keen. He hesitated again. I kind of freaked — he wasn’t having it. But then he said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ That’s Tom. He just steps off the cliff. Big balls.”
And an insistence on cinema verité that led to some artistic volleys. Keeve: “More vulnerable.”
Ford: “You know I’m never vulnerable.”
“Loosen up and give a little body language.”
“I’m not going to cry like [George] does. That’s not very me.”
“I want you more broken up.”
“I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of person.”
He is the kind of person who loathes looking less than perfect in any endeavor. Which meant that Tom Ford the designer and temporary actor would delve into Tom Ford the character with all the seductive panache in him, and that’s plenty. When, on the big screen on Monday night, Byrne asked what reaction he’d hoped for and Ford answered, “You’d stand up and hug me and say, ‘I love you, too. I love you, too, Tom,'” his visage went pensive, his voice all mesmerizing sensuality.
After, at the dinner at Bryant Park Grill, Ford seemed genuinely pleased when accepting congratulations on his CFDA award and his performance, and was plenty relieved that the film got ample laughs.
As for the director, he, too, was delighted, with the film and all three nominees’ performances. But, aping Byrne’s conflicted therapist, Keeve reserved a special something for Ford. “He was professing his love to me, and my line was, ‘I am not an option,'” Keeve recalled of the shoot. “But when he said he loved me I wanted to say, in the words of [Christian of] ‘Project Runway’: ‘Fierce. Let’s go, tranny.'”