Table for Three
By PHILIP GALANES
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tom Ford was on the job as Ben Mankiewicz took a last look at himself before the photographer got to work. “Hair looks good; stubble looks good,” Mr. Ford said. “But you need to button your jacket on camera. Every time I watch you on TCM, your jacket is undone.”
“I don’t like buttoning it,” replied Mr. Mankiewicz, 49, a host on the Turner Classic Movies network. “It feels so formal.”
“It slims the silhouette,” Mr. Ford said. And coming from the fashion designer, 55, who reinvented Gucci and presided over its explosive growth for a decade, working simultaneously as the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent for six of those years, it sounded like the final word on the subject. Mr. Ford started the Tom Ford label in 2006, and has won every fashion accolade there is to win.
“When Tom Ford tells you to button your jacket,” Mr. Mankiewicz said, “you button your jacket.” Recent viewings of TCM suggest he took the advice to heart.
But it was film, not fashion, that brought the pair together recently. Mr. Ford’s new film, “Nocturnal Animals,” which he wrote and directed, opened Friday. Adapted from a novel by Austin Wright, the film stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal in a complex film-within-a-film: a gritty psychological thriller tucked inside an urbane contemplation of upper-class life. It follows Mr. Ford’s critically acclaimed debut, “A Single Man,” in 2009.
And who better to join him in a discussion of movies than Mr. Mankiewicz, a film enthusiast and presenter of classic films on TCM since 2003. Before arriving at the network, he worked as a television news reporter. He also carries a sterling film lineage as a grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who, with Orson Welles, wrote “Citizen Kane,” among other classics, and the great-nephew of another Oscar winner, Joseph Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed “All About Eve” and “Letter to Three Wives.”
Over a leisurely lunch at the Tower Bar in the Sunset Tower Hotel here (a hamburger and green salad for Mr. Ford, and a Cobb salad for Mr. Mankiewicz), the pair discussed their hyphenated careers, the roads that led them to film, and their short list of favorites.
Philip Galanes: Did you think for an extra five seconds about what you’d wear today?
Ben Mankiewicz: Five seconds? Try five hours. I have five pairs of glasses with me.
PG: Every interview with Tom starts with an aria about how nervous the writer is about his outfit.
Tom Ford: Which is weird, because I’m only thinking of meeting Ben. TCM runs in my house, on every television, all day long. But I get it: When you turn yourself into a product, as I have, there’s the “billboard you” and the “real you,” and when people meet you, they get nervous because they think they’re meeting the billboard. And the longer it goes on, the real you starts to divorce itself from the billboard. This must happen to you.
BM: Probably the closest is when I’m interviewing a star or director that everyone admires. I want to be the best version of myself to bring out the best in them.
PG: But a billboard is just a two-dimensional surface.
TF: A lot of people who work hard on the surface of things — like I do and the characters in my films — are doing it because what’s inside isn’t so pretty. The surface is armor for me. You build a box because maybe you don’t feel so great about what’s inside. But you think, “If I can make it look perfect, if my hair is right and my suit is buttoned, it will all be O.K.”
PG: Let’s get straight to what you have in common.
TF: Love of film. He’s an expert.
PG: I’m not going to ask your favorite film of all time.
TF: Good. That’s too hard. We all have favorites from different periods and different genres. But one of my favorites is “Dinner at Eight” [a 1933 film co-written by Mr. Mankiewicz’s grandfather].
BM: Oh, that is not where I thought you were going.
TF: Why not? It’s so modern. It’s hysterical; it’s sad; it’s tragic. We know that Lionel Barrymore’s character is going to die from a heart condition. And the daughter has been having an affair with an older movie star, who killed himself. She’s just found out, and now she’s grabbing onto her fiancé’s arm. So, you’ve got adultery and Jean Harlow and Billie Burke, who’s a genius. And in the end, they all go in to dinner. It’s an amazing slice of life that doesn’t get tied up in a nice little bow. And they laugh!
PG: Ben, you look so nervous.
BM: Well, I want to give a good answer. What have I seen recently. …
TF: So, yours is going to be contemporary?
BM: No, I meant, what have I seen again recently. Oh, I know! “Umberto D.” [an Italian film directed by Vittorio De Sica from 1952].
PG: Final answer?
BM: I auditioned to host that show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” I auditioned to host every show on TV. No, I read that Tom loves that film, and I thought, “Let me watch it again.” I remember liking it, but it floored me this time.
PG: How so?
BM: Dogs matter to me, to start with. I didn’t have that thing that everyone says is going to happen when you have a child; it didn’t change how I felt about my dog. I love my daughter more than anything; she always wins. But my dog suffered no loss of stature. In the film, this man has lost everything. He’s been rejected by everyone. His former friends can’t wait to get away from him — like an odor. But that dog sticks with him. Just the way he holds the dog when he finds it at the shelter and again at the end. …
TF: You’re going to make me cry just describing it.
BM: It’s this fleeting moment. He’s going to be depressed again the next day. But for that moment, he didn’t kill himself, and the dog is the reason why. There’s joy in his life.
PG: Which movie have you seen more times than any other?
TF: For me, that’s easy. “The Women” [George Cukor’s ensemble comedy from 1939]. I mean, come on.
BM: The remake? [They laugh.]
TF: No, in fact, I warned one of the stars that she should not remake it. I mean the real one. The lines come so quick. Every time I watch, I hear a new one. Pow, pow, pow. The writing is amazing.
BM: You know who loves “The Women”? Anna Kendrick. It’s always nice to find a talented young movie star who cares about film history.
TF: It’s shocking how many young stars don’t. I was sitting at a table with some — in their 20s and early 30s — and a woman scratched her head, and a piece of hair extension fell out. I said, “That’s so ‘Mr. Skeffington.’” Blank look. So, I said, “It’s a Bette Davis movie.” She said, “Bette Davis?” And this is a really famous actress, who often plays bitches.
BM: No way!
PG: We need names!
[We order; the reporter asks for a glass of wine.]
TF: Wow, a drinker in the middle of the day. That doesn’t pass in L.A. It’s how I learned I was an alcoholic. I don’t drink anymore. But when I first moved here, I did martinis at lunch, which is normal in England. But people looked at me, like: You have a drinking problem. And it turned out I did. I’m sure you don’t.
PG: Let me know if you see any signs.
TF: Can I ask a question? Why are you showing more contemporary films on TCM?
BM: We’re not. I swear to God.
TF: It seems like I turn on now, and it’s color from the ’70s. I’m thinking, “Oh, no.”
BM: We’ve always shown films from the ’70s. The ratio is the same, I promise.
PG: But Tom raises an interesting point. I love television, but TCM is the only channel I worry about.
TF: Me, too. And PBS.
BM: Unquestionably true. There’s no bigger sports fan in America than I am, but I don’t care about ESPN. Same with HBO and AMC and Netflix. I love what they do, but I don’t worry about them.
PG: They aren’t so fragile. TCM connects me to movies I watched with my mom and dad.
TF: To our childhood and our dreams.
BM: But it’s more than that. It’s not just seeing a movie you watched with your mom, it’s instinctively knowing that this is the kind of movie my grandfather watched. This is the kind of film that made my dad happy. It forms a bond with the past.
PG: Let’s talk about your pasts. You both love film.
TF: I lived in film. It was more real to me than reality. I grew up in Texas and Santa Fe, and the sophisticated world that I didn’t have in my day-to-day life, it was in film. That’s one reason I love Los Angeles. Because even if they were only acting, people actually said those lines on film sets here.
PG: But you didn’t come here after school.
TF: No, I wanted to go to Studio 54 and live this glamorous life. So, I moved to New York and acted in television commercials for about three years.
BM: Which commercials?
TF: I’m not going to tell you. And you won’t find them. There was already a SAG actor named Tom Ford, so I made an alteration to my name.
BM: But you made some money?
TF: Enough to live on for three or four years, then I decided I didn’t like it and went into fashion.
PG: And you became a journalist like your dad, instead of going into the movies like your grandfather?
BM: Film came much later, in college. It was largely irrelevant to me growing up. We lived in Washington, D.C. My dad [the journalist Frank Mankiewicz] was Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary and George McGovern’s campaign manager. My dad was the biggest influence in my life by a factor of a thousand. So I became a TV journalist. But I hated it. The third time you knock on a mother’s door and ask how she feels that her teenage daughter was killed, you think, “How am I making anything better?” But I liked being on TV, still do. So, I auditioned for the job at TCM.
PG: Was the Mankiewicz name a big advantage?
BM: Sure. But let’s not kid ourselves. My name is not Ben Spielberg.
TF: Are you kidding? It’s like being a Goldwyn.
BM: Maybe it helped when I got to the final three. But once I got the job, I had to do an enormous amount of catch-up work, watching and watching and watching films to try to get smart about them.
PG: But the mind-blowing pivot: from fashion designer to film director.
TF: This will sound crazy, but they’re not so dissimilar. The most important thing, in both, is that you have a message, something you really need to say. Then you surround yourself with great teams and create a process for saying it. Remember: I’ve been a fashion designer for 30 years. I’ve worked with amazing photographers: Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon. I’ve done television commercials. I already had a sense of framing and telling stories. And I’m vain. I know where I need key light and a little fill. If you love film, and you’re obsessive about it, you start to learn: “Oh, look how she said that!” “Look how he walked in.”
BM: I don’t know a lot about fashion, but you must be using different muscles as a filmmaker. Movies are so collaborative. And there’s no way, as a first-time director, that you’re ordering Colin Firth and Julianne Moore around.
TF: “Ordering” is the wrong word. You cast great actors, and then you give them space. They’re dying to give you amazing performances. You can guide and steer. But you’re not a dictator. You can only be a dictator in the editing room and, to some extent, when you’re writing. It’s all perfect when it’s in your head. But I’ve only made two movies; I’m not trying to act like I know everything. And I still love fashion.
PG: So, you’re sitting at dinner one night and say, “I’m going to make a film”?
TF: No, no, no. I’d been a successful fashion designer for a long time, and I started to feel not completely satisfied. Fashion is very quick. The first time you see a woman in a beautiful dress — the first dress of its kind — it’s like: Wow! See her later, and it’s a pretty dress. Whatever. Later, in a museum, you can appreciate the dress: amazing, so ahead of its time. But it doesn’t blow you away. But if you watch a great movie from the ’30s, you start crying. They’re all dead: the writer, the director. Even the dogs are dead. Film is forever and ever and ever.
PG: Your first film, “A Single Man,” was tremendously moving — especially for me, a kid whose father killed himself. What drew you to that story: a grieving, suicidal man, dragged back to life by the beauty of the world?
TF: I suppose I was going through a midlife crisis, an alcohol crisis, at that moment. I had left Gucci, and I didn’t quite know who I was or what I was going to do. I was a little bit lost. It seemed like exactly the right story to make.
BM: And you accomplished something rare. Ninety-eight percent of the films that rely heavily on voice-over narration are just failures of exposition. But that wasn’t the case with “A Single Man.” I liked it a lot.
TF: You made me think of the first line of the book [by Christopher Isherwood, on which the film is based], which Colin [Firth] says in voice-over, “Waking up is saying ‘am’ and ‘now.’”
PG: And “now” brings us to “Nocturnal Animals,” your new film, which couldn’t be less like “A Single Man,” at first blush. A psychological thriller set inside the story of a crumbling marriage. But the stories keep circling back on each other. What films does it remind you of?
BM: “No Country for Old Men,” to some extent, because of the open, Texas, violent nature of it — which is just about my favorite film of this century. But I can’t think of another movie where the parallel story didn’t really happen, yet you completely forget that as you’re watching it.
PG: Such an original structure. And yet the Amy Adams story, her crumbling marriage, isn’t so different, emotionally, from the world of your first film.
TF: True, this is a woman at a crossroads in her life. A woman who doesn’t know what her future is.
BM: There’s tremendous precision in it, too. To me, that’s why you might recognize this film as made by the same guy who made “A Single Man.”
TF: It’s very autobiographical — well, both of them are. I took what Christopher Isherwood did and grafted my personality onto it. Then Colin grafted his, and oddly, all three stack up. And Amy Adams’s character, in the new film, is not dissimilar. She’s trying to structure her life and hold everything inside. Trying to be what she thinks she should be. She’s a victim of our culture: There are still a lot of people, believe it or not, who think that women are supposed to be pretty and raise children — and that’s it.
PG: But the Jake Gyllenhaal story-inside-the-story takes it to another level.
TF: I like that device. It’s a moral allegory, and I love what he’s saying to her: “Look what you did to me. Look how you made me feel. You thought I was weak, but look at what I did. I stuck it out and wrote the great book.”
PG: That sounds like the real appeal.
TF: We live in this throwaway culture that I, literally, helped create. I make a stream of products that are designed to become obsolete. If your marriage isn’t going well, throw it away. If someone isn’t doing well at work, fire them. We’re not taught that you can have a miserable morning and a wonderful evening; we’re not taught that that’s normal. Well, this woman throws away her soulmate, and now she’s unhappy.
BM: I couldn’t stop thinking about those people. That’s how you know a movie got you. I pulled over to get some coffee on the way home, and as I sat there, I kept thinking about them and that piece of art that says, “Revenge.” They stayed with me for a long, long time.