The Last Emperor Director Matt Tyrnauer Talks Pugs, Love, And Valentino
“I’m calling it the greatest pug movie of all time,” jokes Matt Tyrnauer of his documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor (click above for a clip), which covers two crucial years in the lives of Valentino Garavani and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti. By now most of the fashion fluent have seen the comical canine clip that’s made its rounds on the Web over the past year, but in fact, the film, which premieres today at Film Forum, goes beyond the surface of Val’s over-the-top glamour. Evolving from a feature that Tyrnauer, a Vanity Fair special correspondent, wrote for the magazine in 2004, Valentino is a warts-and-all portrait that digs deep into one of the industry’s greatest partnerships—at times to the subjects’ discomfort. “Valentino’s press is miles wide but only very shallow in depth,” explains Tyrnauer. “He had never talked about his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti in great depth and he had never given a kind of insiderly look at how he did it. And this is someone that started with nothing and built a global fashion empire.”
Shooting from 2005 to 2007, Tyrnauer captured the glory of Valentino’s 45th anniversary, the bittersweetness of his decision to retire, and the end of the alta moda era with the sale of VFG to private equity firm Permira. But in the end it’s the duo’s unique relationship that takes center stage. “It’s an amazing, dynamic, and sometimes hysterically funny partnership,” Tyrnauer observes. “They’re a great double act.” Here, Tyrnauer talks to Style.com about the details behind documenting la dolce vita.
Being wired for sound for two years seems like a nightmare for people who are accustomed to supreme comforts. Did Valentino and his team know what they were in for?
I don’t think anyone really had a full picture of what it would be like to be pursued by the camera, and, even more annoyingly, sometimes microphones for two years. So there are lots of tense moments, which I put in the movie, because that’s who [Valentino] is. He’s someone who lives in a kind of bubble world of unbelievable luxury; everything is taken care of for him, and mostly by Giancarlo Giammetti, who is this incredibly loyal friend and protector, and at one time, a partner in the romantic sense for half a century.
Your Vanity Fair feature started to get into that. Was it true that no one had talked about their sexuality in print before your story?
I think in print it had never been talked about. Actually, I’m sure of it. It’s just a different era we’re talking about here. The fifties, when Valentino started, and the sixties were a very different time, and Italy is a very different country. It’s 99 percent Catholic and the relationship was not talked about openly. My Vanity Fair story was the first time they both spoke about being boyfriends.
There’s a moment in your story when Giancarlo says, “Are you going to write a story about a couple of faggots?” which was kind of shocking to read. Was it an angle that you pursued or that they
Yeah, then he says something like, “Good, I think you should.” I think that they were ready to talk about it and that that was a wonderful thing for them.
Your production notes say that you “practically had to move in.” What exactly did that entail, especially moving from villa to private plane to chateau?
We would kind of commute to Rome from New York and go over for a few days. Italians, especially these Italians, are incredibly spontaneous and love weddings. So the next thing you know, events were evolving and planes were being ordered and you’d be flying to Gstaad because there had been a great snowfall. We would sheepishly ask to be invited and we’d end up on the airplane. For that memorable shot of Valentino’s five pugs all in a row on his private plane, I was sitting next to him in the front of the plane and I saw that shot so I grabbed the camera. And that’s how we shot the movie.
The final count was 270 hours of footage that’s now a 90-minute film. If you had your druthers, how long would it be?
I wanted a 90-minute film. We made it to 96. Ninety minutes is what a movie should be. We had a seven-hour rough cut that was our assembly. You’d have to be a real fanatic to want to sit through seven hours.
It seems like a successful documentarian has to put politeness aside and work through a subject’s frustrations. Did these situations come up? I saw one in the trailer.
Wait until you see the movie. It’s one explosion after the other. Valentino is very impatient. He’s a Taurus. He loves the drama. There are divo moments and there are tantrums, and a lot of them are directed at the camera. Certainly when we were shooting what became the third act, which is the 45th anniversary, there was a lot of drama around the corporate takeover which happened when Permira came in and bought the company; the big question loomed: Would Valentino stay or would he go? That was no time for politeness. We really rode roughshod over a lot of people, but we had, at that point, spent a year and a half cultivating relationships, not just with Valentino and Giancarlo—there’s a
whole family around them. It’s a family of loyal longtime employees who are marvelous people. The corporate headquarters contains people who have worked there for almost half a century.
There’s a quote in your feature from Joan Juliet Buck where she describes being drawn into their super-luxe world as a kind of “narcotic.” Did you feel the same pull being around them?
I was like the frightened would-be addict, pulling myself away. I think that it’s very important for the observer—the documentarian or the journalist—to have some perspective and to make sure that you don’t dive in and stay in the pool. I love that quote from Joan Buck. She knows what she’s talking about. She was there in Rome at the birth of all of this when she worked for Women’s Wear there. Gianni Agnelli characterized their lifestyle as “the grandest in all of Europe.” They know how to live. They’ve raised it to an art form and it’s amazing to see on camera. It will never happen again, which is I think one of the kind of extraordinarily lucky things about shooting this movie when we shot it. Valentino is the last emperor of couture. He was the last person who was at the top of his own house. He lasted longer than anyone else.
When did Valentino and Giancarlo sign away approval on a final cut?
Well, I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t have final cut. You know, they’re seasoned negotiators. I have to admit they tried a few angles on having it a different way, but very early on we signed the contract that gave me final cut.
Have they made their peace with being seen, warts and all?
It was not easy. I showed them a director’s cut in London at the beginning of the summer of last year. To tell you the truth, they kind of freaked out. We had some healthy discussions and multiple screenings over the course of several months. And they have come to accept it. The real turning point was the Venice Film Festival, when we screened it with a red carpet at the Sala Grande, which was 1,500 people. At the end, the crowd stood and gave Valentino a standing ovation. He was seated in the balcony above them, stood to acknowledge them, and then burst into tears. From that point on, he and Giancarlo have accepted it and are very proud of it. To have had a gauzy portrait would have really been a waste of everyone’s time.
You call Valentino and Giancarlo’s relationship a “new human partnership” and say it seems like no other; is there a closest comparison you’d make?
Well, in fashion everyone always compares them to Saint Laurent and Bergé, and they somewhat bristle at that. The other side bristles at that as well. I think the comparison is more made between Giancarlo Giammetti and Pierre Bergé because they were the businessmen behind the artistic geniuses. And there is a comparison to be made there because they were both trailblazers at bringing fashion global. They both did extremely well and they were both extremely protective of their partners. And both relationships lasted in their own way for half a century. It’s a very neat comparison to make, but I think that the Valentino and Giancarlo relationship is in many ways more extraordinary.
A lot of people who knew both couples have said that to me. I say this never having met Pierre Bergé or Yves Saint Laurent, but the bond and the…
Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. The interdependence between the two men—in Valentino and Giancarlo’s case—is almost paranormal. It’s something to behold.
Did Valentino’s cinematic presence ever drop? Did you ever get a sense of there being another layer to peel back?
No. That’s who he is. Oddly enough, he’s a very simple person, and I mean that as a compliment. He cares about one thing, and that’s beauty and aesthetics. He’s almost exclusively interested in the surface of things to a degree that’s brilliant, and shutting out the rest of the world and the things that aren’t nice or aren’t pretty. Giancarlo has allowed him to do that by shielding him from the real world. He has succeeded at a level that no one else has ever succeeded [at], and that was part of the trick.
I hear he’s going on Martha Stewart next week. That should be some pretty terrific television.
We actually shot Martha in the movie. She went to visit him at this castle and that will be, I’m sure, a DVD extra. It’s Martha Stewart and Valentino walking around Valentino’s castle. I mean that’s a mini-movie right there.