Q & A with producer-director Matt Tyrnauer

Matt Tyrnauer

Producer-director Matt Tyrnauer

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to producer-director Matt Tyrnauer about Valentino: The Last Emperor” from Acolyte Films, one of 15 documentaries on the Oscar short list for consideration in the best feature documentary category.

Valentino: The Last Emperor” takes us inside the singular world of one of Italy’s most famous designers, Valentino Garavani. The film documents the colorful and dramatic closing act of Valentino celebrated career, tells the story of his extraordinary life, and explores the larger themes affecting the fashion business today. In production from June 2005 to July 2007, the filmmakers shot over 250 hours of footage with exclusive, unprecedented access to Valentino and his entourage.

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the film was produced by Matt Tyrnauer and Matt Kapp and executive produced by Carter Burden III. It was co-produced by Frederic Tcheng, who also co-edited it, and it was co-executive produced by Adam Leff. Valentino was edited by Bob Eisenhardt and photographed by Tom Hurwitz with sound by Peter Miller and music by Nino Rota.

The Story in brief (spoiler alert): The scope of Valentino wealth and the elaborateness of his global lifestyle put him on a level with emperors, kings, and queens in a world of villas, chateaux, yachts, fine art, and porcelain treasures.

Tyrnauer’s film looks at a majestic life from the inside, but the movie is not a simple story of shallow glamour. It’s the saga of a family — though not a traditional one — and a meditation on the creative process. It’s also the story of a soon-to-be-forgotten lifestyle at the twilight of haute couture.

It is also, in the words of Valentino longtime business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, “not a story of money or fashion; it is a story of love.”

To know Valentino is also to know Giancarlo Giammetti, widely considered to be one of the most brilliant businessmen of his generation in Italy, and certainly one of the great business icons in the history of fashion. He and Valentino began as boyfriends in the early 1960s, and ended up as life business partners who, with great ambition and talent, have built a billion-dollar fashion business from the ground up.

Anchoring the film’s narrative is the arc of Valentino last two years at the helm of the fashion house he created. Still at the top of his game after 45 years, the designer began with only a dream. A little boy from a middle-class family growing up in a small town outside of Milan, early on Valentino recognized his calling — to dress the stars he saw in the Hollywood movies his sister brought him to see at the local cinema. His talent for fashion presented itself at an early age as did his iron will. As a schoolboy, he demanded that his mother take him to the local weavers so he could get his sweaters custom-made to his own designs.

At 17 he set out for Paris and worked as an apprentice alongside other ambitious would-be couturiers, including Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Living in a garret apartment in Paris, he drew elaborate fantasy dresses — Lana Turner was his greatest inspiration — and then one day decided to strike out on his own. He was instantly recognized as a prodigy in the field of high fashion by certain ladies at the top of society. After a time in Paris, he took his talent to Rome (then a fashion capital equal to Paris) and began a journey unlike any other in the world of design. There were hundreds of names in high fashion in Rome at the time, but, as the film points out, today there is only Valentino.

While following the creative process, and seeing Valentino bring a full couture collection to the Paris runway, Tyrnauer captures with his cameras the extraordinary relationship of Valentino and Giammetti. With access to the private world of these two main characters, we see how they love each other deeply, but can also fight with equal passion — in three languages: Italian, French and English.

Not only have the two men altered the world of fashion, they’ve also redefined the idea of family, building an elaborate court of many loyal friends and workers, who help them run their global operation, carefully plotting which Oscar-nominated actress will wear which Valentino dress for the red carpet. The film explores the inner workings of this amazing nomadic family, which moves around together from the places where Valentino and Giammetti maintain homes: Rome, Paris, London, Gstaad, Tuscany and New York. In summer, they sail the Mediterranean aboard Valentino 152-foot yacht, the TM Blue One.

The film opens backstage in February 2007 at Valentino spring pret-a-porter show, when media speculation about Valentino retirement, his possible successors, and the future leadership of the company is reaching a crescendo. Rumors are swirling and emotions running high among his longtime staff whose futures are just as uncertain as Valentino.

Matt Tyrnauer was born in Los Angeles and studied film at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. For 16 years he’s been an editor and writer for Vanity Fair magazine, where he is Special Correspondent. His feature articles for Vanity Fair include profiles of Martha Stewart, Valentino Garavani, Siegfried and Roy, Tommy Hilfiger, Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry, Robert Evans, Greg Kinnear and Bret Easton Ellis.

Although Valentino is Tyrnauer’s first film, filmmaking and film studies have long been part of his life. His childhood and early education were steeped in movies. His father was a successful TV writer and producer, responsible for scripting some of the best-known programs on TV, such as “Colombo”, “The Virginian” and “Murder, She Wrote”, which his father produced.

Tyrnauer attended Crossroads School in Los Angeles, where the academic program was among the first in the nation to include serious film studies at the secondary school level. As a result, he was exposed to movies by Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Rossellini, Bresson and many others at an early age. At Wesleyan University, he apprenticed under film professor Joseph W. Reed, a pioneer in American film scholarship. Tyrnauer aided Reed in his research on John Ford, Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz and Robert Aldrich. Tyrnauer’s honors thesis was an in depth analysis of the films of Robert Aldrich, his favorite director.

Tyrnauer’s journalism career began at Spy magazine. Graydon Carter, who co-founded Spy, hired Tyrnauer to write for him when Carter was editor of the New York Observer. In 1992 Tyrnauer edited the special edition of the New York Observer for the Democratic Convention in New York City. Later in 1992 Tyrnauer followed Carter to Vanity Fair, where he’s worked ever since as Editor-at-Large and author of major feature stories.

I enjoyed an early look at Valentino and was happy to be able to focus with Matt Tyrnauer on the making of the movie, which opened in the U.S. last March and played very well theatrically for over six months, grossing nearly $2 million. The film is now in DVD release.

Matt Tyrnauer with Valentino

Producer-director Matt Tyrnauer with Valentino

Q: Let me begin by asking how you got Valentino to agree to let you do this movie about him?
A: I met him when I was writing about him. I’m Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair and it was in that context that I met him. I’ve been thinking for a long time that some of the Vanity Fair pieces I do lend themselves to the cinema and he struck me immediately as a very cinematic figure. He’s larger than life. To say that he lives large is an understatement. No one lives like this. This is someone who lives very much in the past in terms of the kind of level of access and what you might call global living. It’s on a level of heads of state, really.

This also lines up with his art. The art that he practices of haute couture is something that is really a dead or dying art. It’s an extraordinary art, but it’s something that has passed its youthful prime. But, nonetheless, the world is extraordinarily compelling, rare and almost unseen because it’s such a kind of secret privileged world. So having approached that with novice eyes as a journalist there were all these signals and bells going off in my head (that said) “movie, movie, movie!” He’s a great character.

And then to round it out, he and Giancarlo Giammetti are a great story. It’s a story of a marriage. It’s a love story. It’s a story of an almost forgotten past in Italy, which is a country that I’m enormously attracted to. So I asked them to consider doing a movie with me and they thought about it.
Q: When was this?
A: This would have been in ’05. I flew to Rome to have a special meeting with them to make an official proposal and explain the project. I met very formally with both of them separately and they agreed on that trip. I put my own seed money in at that point and began filming immediately because I knew them enough to know how fickle they are. They change their minds a lot. I said I’d better start this right now because I just don’t know how firm the ground I’m standing on is. I put my own money in to begin and we went and did a couple shoots in Europe. I hired a great cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, who’s a cinema verite master, and a great sound engineer, Peter Miller.

We started shooting verite. It went quite well. We started to get material that I thought was very promising. And based on that I went out and started to try to raise the money to shoot the film. It’s all private equity that I raised with some partners who signed on as producers. Like all of these indie movies, it’s a tough road. Even in the best of times the money doesn’t exactly rain down on you. There are always these stories about four or five years ago when money was relatively easy to come by, but even then it was never a piece of cake to get someone to sign on the dotted line. We had a lot of choices. We were working with sales agents and filmmakers’ representatives. We had people who wanted to participate and put money in and then they changed their mind and I’d be left, basically, high and dry with a partially shot film. So as a way of financing I did the classic Hail Mary thing and opened up three credit card accounts with Capital One at zero interest introductory rates and started to finance the film with the credit cards.

Giancarlo Giammetti is a very good businessman. He almost has ESP. He’s very intuitive. Very smart. He would always ask me at exactly the right time from his perspective about the financing for the film — “Are you sure that the film is financed?” My reply to him during the last days of credit card financing was, “Yes, we’re fully financed by a bank.” And he’d say, “What’s the bank?” And I’d say, “It’s called the Bank of Capital One.” Being an Italian, he wasn’t totally familiar with zero interest credit cards in the United States.
Q: He wasn’t getting their letters soliciting new accounts?
A: Exactly. Everyone else was, but in Italy, I guess, they weren’t doing it. We financed it that way for several months. There was, actually, a very dramatic point. I think a lot of filmmakers will probably tell you that they ran out of money at exactly the most poetically horrible time. We ran dry right at the time when we were about to fly overseas to shoot Valentino getting his Legion of Honor, which I thought might be a good scene for us and I really was looking forward to getting that. And we were broke. So I put it on the credit card and we flew the whole troupe over. This was when the dollar was at its worst against the Euro. We’re talking about sending five or six people overseas and putting them up in Paris, which is expensive under any circumstances. So there we were. That turned out to be one of the really vital scenes in the film — when Valentino gets this award and he breaks down in tears. Tom Hurwitz shot the scene really, really well.

When we got there we had what I thought was my worst day on the set and that was getting to the Palais Royale, where the award was being given. We had not been able to get into the ceremonial room because it was secured so we were with Valentino backstage with the camera. This was always our privilege to be with him. I had negotiated exclusive rights to always be on him with the camera and all other cameras had to be away when we were at public events. So we walked into the room with him and we found that there weren’t camera risers in the room. Instead, all the cameras were aligned along the front of the stage — completely obscuring the shot!

Tom Hurwitz, who had the camera, was very distraught. He said, “We’ve flown all this way for this scene” and he started kind of having a mini-meltdown as he should have because there was no point to the trip without this shot. I didn’t know what to say to him other than, “Find Giancarlo and shoot him.” Because, at least, we know there are 20 cameras on Valentino, we can buy someone else’s tape. So he found Giancarlo and then shot him. We thought this was really a disaster and that we were not on the ball. It’s one of those moments where you think, “Okay, this is a disaster and we’ll make do.” So he’s shooting Giancarlo and he heard Valentino start to have this very emotional moment, but he couldn’t see him. So Tom did something really extraordinary and intuitive. He did a swish pan from Giancarlo over to Valentino and caught him just as he was breaking down. And the rest of the scene is shot between Valentino and Giancarlo, but with swish pans. So he would go back and forth between the two characters and in the process of building that sequence shot he really captured something extraordinary.

It was like a real time moment between these two where Valentino is for the first time really acknowledging Giancarlo in public and breaking down and Giancarlo is almost on the verge of tears. This is communicated through these very dramatic, very cinema verite handheld swish pans between the two men. It really, I think, is one of if not the key sequence of the film because through the form of the shooting you kind of get the idea of the relationship. Also, it’s a great masterful piece of verite shooting because if you run the scene from start to finish you don’t need to edit it. There was virtually no editing in that sequence.
Q: So you didn’t wind up having to buy any other footage?
A: No. It was like a pitcher pitching a perfect game. That was one of those moments when if you think everything’s just falling down around you, think again, maybe it’s okay.
Q: I understand you shot over 250 hours of footage for the film. The movie’s running time is only 96 minutes so there’s quite a bit left over — although there are some wonderful extended bonus features on the DVD. But, still, you must have enough left over for several other movies.
A: I like to say we have about five movies. We edited five movies because the rough cut was one of those absurd seven hours long rough cuts. The first cut really was like a seven hour movie that you could watch front to back. I don’t know who would want to do that, but you could do it. We did it many times as we were trying to make decisions about what to cut. We decided very firmly to lose a lot of the great scenes that did not directly have to do with the relationship between Valentino and Giammetti because that really became quite quickly the focus of the film.

I think that’s really the effectiveness of the film. It’s a love story. It’s a story between two men who happen to be a couple of the richest guys in Italy, one of them one of the most famous fashion designers of his time or any time, perhaps. You actually come away at the end admiring him not because he’s a rich guy or because he’s a successful guy or because he’s exceedingly fancy, but you admire him because he’s got this amazing relationship. I think the movie works on that level.

Having gone around the country and done a lot of Q&A’s at movie theaters in places that aren’t even big sophisticated cities, universally that’s how the movie is received. It’s viewed as a love story and people are affected by it on that level. I’m really glad for that, actually. It’s been successful in the most sophisticated urban areas and it’s also been successful in cities like Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina and Bible Belt towns that are not places you’d think a love story between two guys would necessarily be received with open arms.
Q: How did you shoot this?
A: We shot this HDV. It was tape though. It wasn’t digital. In this case, it was a very conscious decision. I didn’t think I could have a big camera. I knew I had to have a small camera because Valentino is difficult. The greatest challenge in filming the whole thing was the difficulty of the main character. He’s a control freak. He likes drama so he’s not adverse to having a tantrum here and there. He doesn’t like to be interrupted. He doesn’t like to have to wait. And he doesn’t like things that aren’t aesthetically correct, if you will. So to have a big crew with big cables and a big camera staring him in the face all the time I thought would be a disaster, especially since we were trying to shoot fly-on-the-wall verite.

I wanted the smallest camera that would give me the best quality. We got the Sony Z1U, which was relatively new to the market when we started. We were extremely pleased with it. It’s a very small discreet camera, but it gives you a great image and we wanted to shoot the movie in hi-def. If we had shot the movie the year before we wouldn’t been able to use that camera and I think it made a huge difference. So I think this was an instance where technology actually had an enormous effect.
Q: Your movie was distributed through Acolyte Films, a company I don’t know.
A: The reason you don’t know them is that it’s a company that my partners and I started. The partners in Acolyte are myself, Carter Burden III and Adam Leff, who are the two executive producers on the film. The movie is self distributed by Acolyte. We decided to bring it into the market under our own banner and not sell it to a distributor. It was a difficult decision to make because we did have offers for the film, but they weren’t sky high. The movie went to market on the eve of the Great Recession in August 2008 and the global economy fell apart just weeks later.

The independent film business was already in the throes of a crisis at that time. So we thought we had a shot at theatrical success and becoming a movie that caught on so we decided how to market. We brought on partners who were experienced and put together a good PR campaign and used advisers to help us enter the indie distribution market. I stayed with the movie every second. You know, it becomes your baby. The tradeoff is you have to work very hard, but you have total control more or less. And we’re glad we did because it hit and we were in the top five highest grossing docs of the year. We had only 32 film prints in circulation and given the number of prints that we had we did extremely well. For the first few weeks we were continually shocked at how well we were doing. Our advertising budget was absolutely minimal. We had some ads, but not a lot because we couldn’t afford them on our budget.

We caught on by word of mouth and actually one of the most moving parts of this whole experience was how word of mouth really carried this film. It was inspiring to go to theaters in New York where we ran literally uninterrupted for six months. At one point we were on three screens in Manhattan alone and you’d just see full houses. We played at Film Forum, where we opened, and we were their highest grossing premiere in years. And then we were simultaneously playing at Lincoln Plaza and Cinema One, Two and Three and Film Forum. It was wonderful. We ran for months at all of those places. And then we moved from Film Forum to the Angelika, where we ran for three months. So we had a more than six months run in great houses in New York. It’s hard to think of another movie that has that. And it was all word of mouth.

New York is ground zero for this film. It’s got every audience that this film needs to be a success. It has the fashion crowd. It has the indie film crowd. It has the gay audience. We really became kind of a date movie at a certain point, too, because I think a lot of women of all age groups were dragging their boyfriends and their husbands to see the movie. The husbands ended up liking it as much as their wives, which I think was the one of the greatest compliments we received along the way.
Q: You obviously risked a lot of your own money to make the film. Can you say how much?
A: Out of my own pocket? Well, the budget was $1.2 million. I don’t know whether I’m comfortable saying exactly how much of my own went into it. I mean (it was) hundreds of thousands of my own money.
Q: So this isn’t something that just anyone can do, but it’s something that clearly worked for you in this case.
A: It’s an enormous risk. I had a feeling about this project that I thought it would work. It was a very hard project to explain to people because it depends on a particular story that you really have to see to believe and until you see the whole movie you can’t really get the story. A lot of films, I think, are like that. You can’t just completely buy into them on a high concept pitch. But I knew that there were a lot of advantages to this story. It’s just an amazing unique story that I had exclusive access to so that was really what I based my intuition on. I had started it and I wanted to see it through. I was very passionate about it and I did really believe in the project. What else is there, really? Sometimes you just have to take these leaps in life and hope that they come out the way you want them to. In this case, with a lot of luck and a considerable amount of hard work we definitely made it across the finish line.
Q: Now in self-distributing it did you have more of your own money at risk?
A: Yeah. That’s part of the hundreds of thousands, but the executive producers of the film put up the money for the distribution.
Q: Would you self-distribute again?
A: Absolutely. I would. I mean, this is really artisanal filmmaking at this level. It’s a real indie film, it’s not an indie studio film. It’s a project that I created. And while it’s very frightening to self-distribute because basically everything’s on your shoulders and you need to be on it all the time, the upside is that you have an enormous amount of control. In fact, you have in a certain way total control. The rewards if you succeed are, in large part, yours. So this is a big argument for doing it. The indie film world is in a state of reorganization now. No one knows what the future’s going to be. Until then, I think it’s a really good option for filmmakers who want to exercise control and give their projects the attention that they think they deserve.
Q: Is the DVD self-released, as well?
A: The DVD is done with a straight distribution deal with a partner called Phase 4. The rights were not sold to Phase 4, but we created a distribution deal with that company. Again, you have to work harder to execute, but the rewards can be much greater.
Q: So basically you did not follow the conventional model of getting a film made somehow by getting friends and family to donate towards its production and then running it at a festival and getting somebody to buy it at three in the morning in a bidding war. You really created a new business model for doing this.
A: Well, we’re not the first to do it but it’s a brave new world and I think we’re definitely at the vanguard of the current wave of DIY — Do It Yourself — which is what everyone’s calling it. I’ve been to a lot of doc and indie panels over the past few months with filmmakers who compare notes about their experiences. They’ve been extremely helpful. I think that we broke some new ground doing this. Certainly, we met with success, which has been gratifying. People should know about the good things that happened and the bad things so filmmakers can understand how to better control their distribution process.

We did play a lot of festivals. We opened in Venice and Toronto in ’08. That’s where we brought the film to the traditional market and we didn’t like what the market was responding. So that really was the deciding factor (in self-distributing). They weren’t at the level that we thought the film deserved and that we thought we deserved for having put a lot of our capital at risk. We thought the market will reward us if we went into it unescorted.

But it’s a real interesting quasi-science trying to tap into the market. We had a great break. Ivan Reitman saw the movie at Toronto. He came up to me after our screening and said, “Hey, I really loved the film. Would you send me a print?” I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.” So we sent him a print. It turns out one of his neighbors in California is Oprah Winfrey.
Q: Yes, in Montecito near Santa Barbara.
A: Exactly. He showed the film one day and invited Oprah and she really took to it. Then at a subsequent event Valentino and I and Giancarlo and I ran into Oprah Winfrey and she was raving about the film — first to them and then they kind of pulled me over. It was at that encounter where she said, “Maybe, I’d like to tell the world about this film because I really think it’s an amazing love story.” And we all said in tandem, “By all means. Please do.” And she did. She gave us half of one of her shows. This was the week we came out in March of this year. Perfect timing. It doesn’t go better than that. We really were so fortunate. I’m so thankful to Ivan Reitman, a man I had not met before or since. He did us a great turn.

Oprah really did a wonderful show and that was, I think, the key to our success. Very few people get that opportunity. But the thing is, she wasn’t pitched. She found it on her own and she had an experience that a lot of people who saw it subsequently have shared with her because she responded to this fundamental love story in the movie and I think that’s the main thing people really take away from the film. And that was certainly my intention because what intrigued me about Valentino and Giancarlo was their relationship at first in life and then in business.

They really changed the shape of global fashion. They were big trailblazers in that field, a very difficult field, and stayed together. They kept the act together. They’re part of the same person really. I’ve never seen two people so close as they are to each other and this is very moving to people because it’s universal. What we really all want is common memory and to share a life with another human being and they have that. In the end, I think you don’t admire him for being rich and famous. You admire him for something that is utterly simple and universal and that is a great love affair, if you will, a great story with another person.