Matt Tyrnauer, Valentino: The Last Emperor
Having demonstrated significant talent as a print journalist, Matt Tyrnauer has shifted his focus and brought his great observational skills to bear on the big screen. Born in the late 1960s in Los Angeles, Tyrnauer grew up with entertainment all around him. His father was a TV writer on shows like The Virginian, Columbo and Murder, She Wrote (which he also produced), Tyrnauer was a regular visitor to LA’s favorite rep houses such as the Nuart and the New Beverley, and he was even taught film while still at the progressive Crossroads high school. At Wesleyan University, Tyrnauer studied film but on graduation opted to become a journalist rather than return to his hometown to pursue Hollywood dreams. Moving to New York, Tyrnauer wrote for Spy magazine and the New York Observer, both under editor Graydon Carter, and Carter brought him to work as a special correspondent at Vanity Fair when he took over the reigns at the magazine in 1992. Over his 17 year tenure at the publication, Tyrnauer has become well known for his profile features on figures as diverse as Martha Stewart, Bret Easton Ellis and Siegfried and Roy.
In 2004, Tyrnauer profiled another larger-than-life character for Vanity Fair, the Italian fashion designer Valentino, and developed a strong rapport with him and his partner of nearly 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti. Having long harbored ideas of returning to film, Tyrnauer got Valentino’s permission to make a documentary about him, and the result of two years of shooting and another in post production is Valentino: The Last Emperor. With the world of fashion as its backdrop rather than its subject, Tyrnauer’s film focuses on the remarkable relationship between Valentino, the flamboyant fashion titan, and his partner in life and in business, the enigmatic, long-suffering Giammetti, the man who made Valentino a legendary figure but has remained always in the shadows. The film also spans a pivotal point in Valentino’s career when his company has been bought out and faces an uncertain future, and rumors of Valentino’s own retirement begin circulating. Shot with restraint and simple style, Valentino: The Last Emperor uses a cinema vérité approach to capture a portrait of two remarkable figures and gives insight into their extravagant, extraordinary lives without ever being tacky or sensational. Though Tyrnauer continues to work as a journalist, he will hopefully also put his cinematic talents to further use.
Filmmaker spoke to Tyrnauer about the transition from print to celluloid, the surreal world of Valentino, and his battles for editorial control.
Filmmaker: How did you originally conceive this film?
Tyrnauer: It came out of a feature on Valentino I did for Vanity Fair. Valentino’s so visual, the world is so colorful, the money spent on living is so extreme, and I wanted to make a movie for a long time because I have a degree in film but I’ve been doing journalism for my whole career. Also I really liked him a lot, and we survived the print experience. He didn’t want a “divorce” after that. The minute [the article] came out and it was clear that the relationship of interviewer and subject was going to survive, I asked him to do it. They thought about it a little bit, but he said yes quite readily and then we began immediately because I know if you wait people can change their minds. So even before we had all the funding in place, we started with a small Sony Z1.
Filmmaker: And did the film begin as something like the cinematic equivalent of one of your Vanity Fair profiles?
Tyrnauer: In the end, it turned out to be finding a way to tell the story with a different medium, that’s for sure. Interestingly, I always look to the Maysles brothers as an influence for writing because I like direct cinema and I like the subject to tell their story in their own words, so for me Grey Gardens is the urtext for that. Valentino’s everyday is something unreal: he lives in a castle some days of the week, he lives in a villa outside of Rome on some others, there’s the six pugs that go on the private plane, there’s the room in London that has five Picassos, and you just don’t see that in everyday life. He is such an incredible character, and that doesn’t come across so well in print because Valentino’s told his story for years and he’s come up with a narrative that is the Valentino story – but it’s not necessarily the real story. That’s excusable when you’re a public figure – it’s a survival technique – but the real story and the real Valentino is much, much more interesting, and it only really comes across in cinema vérité. What needed to happen was that we shoot vérité and he and Giancarlo Giammetti, who’s the other principal character in the movie and partner of 50 years, needed to forget that the camera was there, ala Grey Gardens, and kind of befriend the camera.
Filmmaker: How small was your crew? Presumably you didn’t want to be too obvious so that people would be as unaffected as possible.
Tyrnauer: We tried different sizes. For the first shoot, we had sort of a five or six person crew with the sound man with the boom and a P.A. and a producer on the set. I knew we’d had to shoot with a tight posse eventually, but I wanted to show up with a real crew and make an impression and show that this was a real movie. First we had a full complement, and then the tight posse was [producer and sometime D.P.] Frederic Tcheng and me, and we would try to wire them for sound. The boom is so intrusive, and the Italians have a great word for the boom – it’s called the giraffe – so, the giraffe became the enemy. [Sound recordist] Peter Miller has a technique where he threads a very small microphone up through the shirt and into the knot of the tie, so it doesn’t clip on and it’s totally invisible. They would frequently forget that they were wearing a microphone, which was the key to everything.
Filmmaker: You filmed over the course of two years, but I presume that was in short bursts. Were those filming periods at your suggestion or Valentino’s invitation?
Tyrnauer: It was very give and take. I think one of the really important things to know is when to disappear, and never outstay your welcome, so we were really careful about that. But, on the other hand, we were commuting from New York to Rome frequently, and Paris, sometimes London and sometimes Gstaad, and sometimes a boat in the Mediterranean, so you really just can’t drop in. Frequently, I would set it up with Giancarlo, and we would arrive in Rome having budgeted a shoot. We would be shown into his enormous office and he would greet us with a very formal, “So, what brings you to Rome?” Meanwhile, I had established that we were coming and that we would shoot certain days, but they would affect that very Italian nonchalance. I would always allow one or two days of padding at the beginning because we would have to almost start all over again with the relationship. It was like, “Why don’t we have lunch and discuss what’s going on?” Sometimes it got more dire and it was like, “Let’s discuss if we’re going to do the movie or not.”
Filmmaker: Valentino says on camera at one point that he’s not going to do the film anymore.
Tyrnauer: He quits the movie on camera in the first act, but that’s just them. Nothing’s ever permanent, no plan is ever written in stone, minds are changed frequently, so this was part of the enormous frustration of doing the film, because we did this kabuki theater every time. And I got used to it, I would just realize that, with the 72-hour grace period I’d given myself, that by the 73rd hour we would be back to where we were a few weeks before. So we shot it in for a 10-day period once a month for two years.
Filmmaker: When you started, were you conscious how much this was going to be a portrait not just of Valentino but also of Giancarlo?
Tyrnauer: The reason I wanted to make the movie was because it was about them. When I went to meet Valentino originally, I didn’t really know that I would be meeting two people. That’s what’s interesting is the dynamic between these two people, the relationship that’s frequently called “like a marriage.” It’s more than a marriage, it’s bond that defies belief. It’s 50 years, it’s clearly for eternity, and I’ve never seen two people so close and interconnected. That relationship was for me everything, so the goal was to capture the relationship and allow and the life to be a backdrop. You never know whether you’re going to be able to do that. When we started to get dailies, we saw that there were these moments, like the sand dune fight, which for me is the core of the film. That’s the relationship to a T, that’s what they’re like, and you can’t even believe it. You couldn’t script it, it’s too incredible.
Filmmaker: Giancarlo has a very controlling influence over Valentino’s affairs, so what was your relationship like with Giancarlo during filming?
Tyrnauer: Valentino lives in a state if isolation and he’s protected by Giancarlo, and there was a sort of Pirandello effect here because Giancarlo was trying to direct the movie always over my shoulder. Because that’s what he does – his job is to direct the story around Valentino. That was his profession for half a century, so this sort of became a new challenge for him, and I had a contract specifying final cut. It took a year to negotiate, we did it while we were shooting so there were always threats of quitting during the film to gain leverage, but eventually we signed. But that didn’t stop Giancarlo from trying to direct and produce, so there’s this crossing in and out of the storyteller and subject dimensions. And I didn’t discourage him from doing that, because that’s him.
Filmmaker: You said that you unambiguously had final cut on the film. but I presume that still meant that Valentino and Giancarlo tried everything they could to affect the movie. How difficult was it to negotiate the final stages of post production?
Tyrnauer: It was a waltz, a continuous waltz. To say they used every means of influence and badgering and protests would be an understatement. By turns it was a charm offensive and then it would be walking off the set, which you see on film. After nine months of editing, I had a director’s cut and I brought it to London to show them and, quite frankly, they “freaked up.” That’s their way of saying “freak out.” [laughs]. It’s not the movie they would have made themselves, it’s not the movie they were expecting – I’m not sure what they were expecting really. To see yourself 20 feet high for 90 minutes is traumatizing no matter who you are, and if you’re world class control freaks like they are, I was fully expecting it to be a real trauma for them. And it was. They really were very knocked sideways by the film. Giancarlo and I had a meeting in London with the editor, Bob Eisenhardt, and Frederic Tcheng, and it was a classic contest of wills. He had literally made a note about virtually every scene containing something that was objectionable. We dug in our heels and we didn’t change it, and they had no right to change it. It was an unusual, unprecedented situation for them, certainly, because their lives are all about being able to exert control and final edit. In the end, we maintained a kind of tense détente as we went into the Venice Film Festival. Even on the red carpet at Venice, there was a certain chill in the air, but then it played at the Salle Grande to a full house and at the end Valentino, seated in the balcony, rose to accept a standing ovation – and burst into tears. From that point on, when they saw that the portrait was something that the public could embrace with enormous amounts of awe and affection and a certain measure of shock, they were very embracing. And they’ve embraced it ever since.
Filmmaker: You studied film at university, but then went into journalism. Was there a particular reason for that?
Tyrnauer: I think I’m probably happiest watching movies, and I’m one of those kids that went to the New Beverly and the NuArt in Los Angeles, and I would been there with my friends every night of the week if we could have been. I had a high school teacher that taught film as a program and he forced ninth graders to watch Godard and Alain Resnais and Antonioni. It was very Dead Poets Society. It was our lives, so I was very film obsessed. I grew up in a TV household: my father was a TV writer of very enduring success, so he did Columbo and Murder, She Wrote and the great TV mysteries of that era. But I was equally interested in journalism, so when it came time to decide, coming from L.A., I think I thought it would be more interesting to live in New York. Most of my friends either returned to Los Angeles or moved there to write screenplays, and there was something about that that didn’t appeal to me, maybe just because I grew up in a house where there was the clacking of the typewriter all the time, and there’s the sense that you don’t want to do what your father does. Then I got a job writing at Vanity Fair when I was 23. It’s hard to picture a better place to write than at that magazine. But always in the back of my head, there was always a movie. I loved the documentaries of the Maylses and Frederick Wiseman and all the great masters of that genre, and then my dayjob was non-fiction storytelling, so it seemed to be a logical step. Timing is everything: I met Valentino and we hit it off, and I felt like it was time to do something. And then what I sensed but didn’t fully appreciate was that the experience of telling a story in a different medium is one of the most gratifying things you can possibly do. You learn so much from doing that, it’s so mind-expanding to figure out ways to get the point across with different tools, and it’s just the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made?
Tyrnauer: To go to Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles. When I started to go there, it was the hippie alternative school for maybe didn’t quite have the grades to go to Harvard School, but it was the smartest decision I ever made.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Tyrnauer: I would say it would be the 18th Century in Italy, and I would do a project on the Vatican.
Filmmaker: Finally, what matters more to you, that a film is successful, or that you’re happy with the finished product?
Tyrnauer: The latter, to be happy. I guess this contradicts my answer in a certain way, but I wasn’t totally happy until we started playing it for audiences, and then I wasn’t fully happy until we played at Venice to a huge audience and it got a standing ovation and then we did two days of press and we were deluged with interviews. It was so beyond any dream or expectation of a response, but it wasn’t the press that mattered, it was the audience response. That, for me, was success, and I could have stopped there, to be honest with you.