Make me a mogul: Can celebrities succeed behind the camera

Fashion designer Tom Ford is about to start work on his latest creation – a Hollywood movie. But can celebrities from other fields ever really succeed behind the camera?
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The Independent Culture

He conquered the fashion world in the late Nineties when he transformed the ailing Gucci brand into a byword for nostalgic glamour.

But the designer Tom Ford may be in for a harsh reality check with his latest career move. Next week, the tanned Texan and all-round smoothie is set to embark on his film directorial debut with the $10m production A Single Man. Ford, who set up his very own film company, Fade to Black, three years ago, has also co-written the screenplay, which is adapted from a 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel about a single day in a professor's life in Los Angeles after his lover has died.

Sales at Gucci may have shot up during Ford's decade at the helm, but that doesn't mean that foreign buyers will snap at the chance to acquire a "Tom Ford" movie or that financiers, desperate to get their money back, will indulge his every creative whim. He is, by reputation, an arch-perfectionist, but there is a world of difference between overseeing photo shoots with glamorous models and rushing to complete an independent movie on a straitened budget.

Fortunately for Ford, advanced word suggests that the screenplay for A Single Man has been well received and that the film will be one of the "buzz" titles at this week's American Film Market in Santa Monica, where the world's distributors head in their droves to pre-buy movies. He has Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Matthew Goode in his cast. However, a moody story about a gay, middle-aged man coping with bereavement doesn't appear as an obvious starting point for a box-office winner.

Previous history suggests that when the glamour/celebrity world collides with film-making, the results are often very messy. Audiences, once their initial curiosity has been piqued, stay away from movies they suspect may be vanity projects. Critics are often wantonly cruel. (Though not always as witty as the reviewer who wrote "Me No Leica" of an earlier Isherwood adaptation, I Am a Camera).

When musician Dave Stewart's Honest, starring several of the members of girl group All Saints, screened in Cannes, the reviews were vicious and the film's subsequent box-office performance lamentable. "It is quite funny people think that if you're talented at, say, playing the guitar, you must only play the guitar. I mean, Dennis Hopper's a great actor, but he's a great photographer," Stewart had said in defence. He had a point. Audiences are so quick to pigeonhole public figures, and when someone well-known ventures into a new field, the reaction is one of scepticism or even derision. It's as if we want and expect the artists to fail if they trespass from their chosen field – and then take great pleasure when they live down to our expectations.

For example, you can't help but notice the glee in some recent reviews of Madonna's new feature, Filth and Wisdom. "In technical terms, more professional productions than this are filmed and cut on iMovie, by 10-year-olds, a thousand times a day," was The New Yorker's withering verdict on Madonna's foray into directing.

It would be unthinkable to be this cruel about a first-time film-maker who wasn't a world-famous pop star. Just occasionally, though, the sceptics can be confounded. When Julian Schnabel, the bombastic lion of the 1980s New York arts world, tired of sticking broken plates to walls and decided to turn his hand to directing movies, we all waited for a very large crash. The expectation was that his films would be clumsy vanity projects. There was little to suggest the delicacy or emotional depth that is found in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), his award-winning adaptation of magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir about his life after a stroke that left him unable to move.

Often, big names from other fields have preferred to produce rather than direct movies. That way, they don't expose themselves to the brickbats that might come raining down on them if their movies are unsuccessful. They can use their money, power and influence to enable others to make films – then bask in the glow if these films are well received, or discreetly step back into the shadows if they are not. It's also often a way for "high-net-worth individuals" to write off money against tax, and it comes with the prospect of trips to glamorous festivals and opening-night parties.

Sometimes, outsiders are more ready to take risks. Fashion designer Agnès B has backed films by, among others, Claire Denis, Gaspar Noé and Harmony Korine. A firm admirer of Ken Loach who traces her passion for cinema to the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, she supports the kind of new auteur film-making that she enjoys as a cinemagoer.

In the UK, Trudie Styler, who executive-produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, likewise supports new talent. She has produced films from first-time directors such as actor David Thewlis (Cheeky in 2003) and Moon, the soon-to-be-released feature debut from Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie). Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan recently produced actor Nick Moran's directorial debut, Telstar, about the British pop pioneer Joe Meek. Elton John's Rocket Pictures has also backed movies from new talent, for example the forthcoming Emily-Jane Secret Mum, about a single mother who pretends she doesn't have kids in order to land a dream job.

In the US, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has produced such movies as The Kid Stays in the Picture, about Hollywood mogul Bob Evans, and with Chicago 10, an animated feature-documentary about the violence unleashed at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson. (The films have the same thematic selling points as a strong magazine article: strong personalities, sex, drugs and politics.)

It is noticeable, though, that relatively few celebrities stay in the industry for the long haul. "As I have now discovered, in the film world, it takes five years not to make a film," artist Sam Taylor-Wood joked about the struggles she and Ray Winstone faced in trying – and failing – to make Jerusalem (their feature project about artist William Blake.) Tom Ford has at least made it to the starting gate. And who knows... if this movie is a success, he might even make another one.