My Fight with Valentino

Valentino: The Last Emperor has been shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar. But director Matt Tyrnauer writes that the star’s diva act and the film’s financial crises nearly sank it.

Midway through production of Valentino: The Last Emperor, I tracked down an old copy of Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s documentary about Marlene Dietrich. Schell pulled off a great feat in his film. Dietrich, in her 80s, had agreed to make the movie, but, at the last minute, refused to appear on camera. Schell dealt with this considerable obstacle very well, and took what, by every reckoning, should have been a disaster, and made it into a strength. Who could have imagined that hearing Marlene’s weakened voice off camera would turn out to be more powerful than seeing her full-screen, Grand Guignol? The Marlene we see flickering before us in the film is the icon as she was meant to be remembered: in archival clips, in her silvery, celluloid prime.

I turned to Marlene to study Schell’s brilliant save. It served as a novice documentarian’s template: How to Make Movies About Reluctant, Iconic, Control Freaks—Survive and Maybe Even Succeed.

Four years after our first frame was shot at the Trocadero in Paris, and after many struggles involving financing and high-maintenance talent, Valentino: The Last Emperor has become one of this year’s happy Do-It-Yourself distribution stories. (My producing partners and I put it into theaters without the help of a traditional film distributor.) However, the road was filled with travails, and, mindful of that, I have assembled some notes for a primer aimed at fellow first-time directors of films such as this one. Hereunder, some how-to pointers, should you ever find yourself in the same shoes:

How to deal with the reluctant protagonist.

I had not expected Valentino to be so reluctant or difficult a subject when I first proposed the idea of a documentary to him in early 2005. The year before, he had been a willing participant in a rather revealing Vanity Fair story I wrote about him. We stayed on good terms even though the magazine story was hardly a puff piece, and made considerable waves in Italy. I wrote not a story of fashion, but a “story of a marriage.” It was the first time Valentino and his partner of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti, had publicly spoken about their relationship, not to mention their sexuality. The major Italian newspapers ran stories about my story with headlines such as Valentino Is Gay and Valentino Makes Outing.

I showed my director’s cut to Valentino and Giancarlo for the first time in March 2008 at Mr. Young’s Preview Theater in London. “Hate” is really too light a word to describe their reaction.

This episode did not deter Valentino and Giancarlo, and, after a little convincing, they consented to the movie, and, eventually—after protracted, expensive, negotiations with lawyers—granted me final cut.

When production started, in the summer of 2006, I am sure that none of us knew what we were in for.

My leverage as the producer and director of this film was nil. There was no Harvey Weinstein to appeal to, no mysterious studio chief on which to blame things. As producer-director, everything rested on my shoulders, and my credentials were slim indeed: a film studies education from Wesleyan University to go with my 16 years as a journalist. I discovered, early on, that if I wanted to get my way I had to do it subtly and slyly. I had no option for exerting brute force.

The “star,” on more than one occasion, quit the movie, which was rather inconvenient, as tens of thousands of dollars (of my own money, at that point) were being spent on every shoot. Even in the final cut, you can twice see Valentino furiously declaring his departure from the project. For a brief time, I thought I would have to make the movie a là Marlene, without a lot of screen time with Valentino. I even spoke to animators about creating a cartoon Valentino. Mercifully, whenever he quit, Valentino re-hired himself the next morning.

The movie I was determined to make from the outset was not a fashion yarn, but one about Valentino and Giancarlo’s relationship: a love story, spanning half a century, set against the backdrop of haute couture’s twilight—the end of an art form—and the end of Valentino’s long run as the most accomplished artist-designer of Italian fashion. The hard part was going to be capturing the love story on film, principally because Valentino had no idea that was the story I was setting out to tell. If I had told him what I was doing, I am sure he would not have wanted to cooperate, so I had to develop strategies to work around that, as well as to accommodate his high prickliness. We went to great pains to treat him like the star he is, and I instructed the crew in the first year of filming to be very respectful: If Valentino didn’t want to be filmed we would, if specifically requested, turn the camera off. (We got our share of over-the-top scenes even operating in this mode.) The second year of filming, the rules changed: Everyone was on strict orders: shoot to kill. This meant do not turn the camera off under any circumstances. The cameramen had to be fearless, since it’s not easy to keep shooting when the maestro is hollering at you.

We also made sure our equipment was as small and unobtrusive as possible, better to get the scenes we needed to tell the love story, the intimate ones between Valentino and Giammetti; almost-whispered, candid conversations between the two men best showed the power of their unique bond. For these sequences, wiring the men in the morning with a hidden lavalier mic was essential. I realized this when Valentino was heard yelling “get the giraffe away from me!” We quickly realized the word from boom microphone in Italian is giraffa.

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What to do when the money goes away.

The first time sailing got rough with the financing for this movie was about six months into the production when a financier, who had committed to backing the entire project, suddenly withdrew all the funding. What I thought at the outset would be an easy path to finishing production turned out to be a path just like almost every other independent film: constantly scrounging and begging for money. I had already spent $50,000 of my own cash on our first shoots, and everyone I went to with my tale of woe, from indie film guru John Sloss to other close advisers, had a uniform response: “Welcome to the world of independent filmmaking!” With nowhere else to turn, I opened three Capital One credit-card accounts with introductory zero percent rates. Giancarlo, a very astute businessman, had a knack for sensing when the production was financially strapped. Every time we hit a fiscal rough patch he asked me, “How is the financing going for this film?” I replied, “It's fully financed by a bank called Capital One.” He accepted that at face value.

The frightening period of credit-card debt happened on the eve of one of the most important shoots: a trip with the full crew to Paris to film Valentino being inducted into the Legion of Honor. At first I thought we were going miss it, since I was uncomfortable using the credit cards to fly a crew of six to Paris. But without taking that considerable risk we never would have gotten what may be the most memorable sequence in the film. In a speech, accepting his chevalier’s cross, Valentino, for the first time, thanks Giancarlo publicly for 50 years of devotion and constant companionship. Then, in mid-sentence, he bursts into tears. This is the scene that most dramatically shows the extraordinary bond between Valentino and Giancarlo. Many viewers have told me that they start to weep along with Valentino during the scene. Moral of the tale: When you think you may miss something huge, do the Hollywood Shuffle to get the scene.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Valentino Through the Ages

What to do when you have never made a documentary before and need to know how.

Have the good sense to hire experts. I surrounded myself with the talent of cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and editor Bob Eisenhardt, who are A-list in the documentary world. I was making a cinema verité movie, and these are two of the greats in that form, both products of the Maysles Brothers ( Grey Gardens) shop. If there was a documentary that inspired me the most going in to this project, it was Grey Gardens—a movie that lets its two main characters tell their story in their own words. This is what I aimed to achieve in my movie. In addition, Al Maysles has said he always considered Grey Gardens, underneath it all, a love story.

What to do if things in your subject’s world start to shift dramatically.

Keep filming, of course, no matter what the cost. I am frequently asked whether I knew at the outset of production that Valentino was going to retire. I did not. I am also asked whether I knew all along that Giancarlo was planning what he calls in the film “the largest, most important event in the history of fashion”—a massive exhibition and celebration to mark Valentino’s 45th anniversary in the business. I hadn’t a clue. Originally, I planned to film for nine months. When these events began to loom it became clear we would be going for at least another year—obviously a very costly proposition, especially with the dollar/euro exchange rate hovering near 2:1. On top of this, we received, on May 16, 2007, a gift from the documentary gods: a private-equity firm called Permira bought a majority stake in Valentino’s company. This surprise storyline created a considerable amount of third act tension, as the fate of Valentino at the creative helm of his company was suddenly uncertain. What’s more, it started to become clear that Matteo Marzotto, the tyro whose family company owned the Valentino brand, was implying that he wanted Valentino to think hard about retirement. The corporate buyout angle and Matteo's emergence as the “heavy” in the film—the businessman who cares about the bottom line and doesn’t give a damn about Valentino’s art—put into even starker relief fin de siecle overtones at the film’s end. We also never could have anticipated how symbolic the excess of the €40 million bacchanalia in Rome would seem after the global financial collapse arrived 15 months later. It makes 2007 in the film look like 1928.

What to do when your iconic subject hates the movie you made.

I showed my director’s cut to Valentino and Giancarlo for the first time in March 2008 at Mr. Young’s Preview Theater in London. "Hate" is really too light a word to describe their reaction. This was not the movie they were expecting, and when I asked them, after a second screening the following day, to make a list of the scenes they found objectionable, they cited virtually every scene in the movie. Overall, they found it too personal and not glamorous enough. Perhaps their least favorite part was the Matteo Marzotto/corporate buyout storyline. They couldn't process why this young man’s storyline needed to be included. Never mind the implications: Matteo represents the moneyed interests that are driving the art and soul out of fashion. He’s clearly the black hat in the film. I think perhaps Valentino—the happy control freak—felt he seemed to be portrayed as too much of a pawn in another rich man’s game. Giancarlo offered to move to New York and re-edit the movie by my side. I did not budge. So, finally, we had a six-month stalemate. They were threatening to turn their backs on the project, which to me was far preferable to changing the movie. Because of my contract for final cut, they could not stop it from being released. Nothing really broke in our standoff until we got into the Venice Film Festival, and Valentino and Giancarlo decided to show up.

Valentino was stoic and civil, but he and I were barely speaking as we reached the red carpet. The film played in the historic sala grande on the Lido, which is an 1,100-seat theater—a very formal screening with a full house. As the end credits rolled, the entire audience got up on its feet and turned to the balcony to give Valentino a long standing ovation. While acknowledging this and waving to the crowd, his eyes flooded with tears. He reached out to embrace me. Later, at the official press conference, Valentino said the following: “There are many scenes in this movie I would have done very well to avoid if I had known what the movie was going to be. But I cannot complain, as you see me as I am, and I have to accept that.”

What to do when you don’t get that seven-figure offer.

Bring your movie to the masses yourself. That is what we did, preserving all of our rights, and producing our own ad and marketing campaign, as well as possessing an extensive viral strategy. We also had a big assist from Valentino’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah saw the movie by chance in director Ivan Reitman’s screening room—they are neighbors, and Reitman had asked me to send him a print after he saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. With all of this in place, we were able to achieve $21,762 and $31,106 for our first two opening weekends, and bring the movie to over 200 U.S. theaters, making $1,755,134 domestically. Valentino: The Last Emperor, I hasten to add, is available on DVD at major stores, and online.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Matt Tyrnauer is the director and producer of Valentino The Last Emperor. He is a Special Correspondent at Vanity Fair magazine, where he has worked since 1992. His articles include profiles of Martha Stewart (the 2005 post-prison cover story), Frank Gehry, Robert Evans, Philippe Stark, and architect John Woolf. Tyrnauer studied film at Wesleyan University. Follow us on Twitter.