On a few occasions reviewers of "Valentino: The Last Emperor" have identified me as a “dedicated follower of fashion.” I never thought I would have that epithet linked to my name. Before I started this project, I didn’t know the first thing about the subject, or really care about it all that much.
What attracted me to Valentino as documentary subject was, in fact, something altogether different.
In 2004 I was dispatched to Rome to write a magazine story about the greatest of the Italian artist-designers. I have to admit that the piece was not one I was particularly excited about: All of the press I had read about Valentino pointed to a routine assignment about a very talented and successful gentleman, but not much new appeared to be on the radar.
When I got to Italy, my opinion changed very quickly.
My first day of reporting, I met not only Valentino, but also Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s partner of 50 years, and the man who has long labored in the shadows of the man the Italians call maestro. Giammetti, it became clear, was the endlessly devoted master planner behind Valentino’s storied career. He is not only the accomplished businessman, but the fierce protector of his lifelong partner’s talent.
My first day observing the action at the Valentino headquarters, a Renaissance palazzo near Rome’s Spanish Steps, I knew that I had found a great untold story. As famous as Valentino has been for 50 years, the real and very remarkable tale of his personal and professional partnership with Giammetti had never been explored. The whole time I was reporting the magazine story, I was, in effect, seeing a movie in my head.
As soon as the article was put to bed, I asked Valentino and Giammetti if they would be willing to participate as the subjects of a documentary. After some deliberation, they agreed, and we began preparing for production in the summer of 2005, with the seed money coming from my own bank account.
I very much knew what story I wanted to tell. "Valentino," the doc, as I envisioned it — even at that early date — was a movie about a partnership, the end of an era and, ultimately, a love story.
The trickiest part of the production was going to be figuring out how to capture these two men and their complex relationship on camera. As we began draw up war plans, I set several strategies. The first was to hire Tom Hurwitz, one of the great cinema verite DPs. I felt this was especially important as a first-time director. I was determined to make a verite film, and did not want to take any chances with the photography.
Cinema verite has its distinct challenges. There is no scripted narration, so a strong guiding hand on the camera, as well as a cameraman who understands story, were an absolute necessity. I also made sure we had the most compact and unobtrusive equipment possible, so as not to distract the frequently impatient Valenitno, and to allow for almost instant setups.
The camera we used was the Sony Z1U, which was then largely untested. It ended up serving us very well.
The final strategy was to know when to come and — more important — when to go.
We were constantly engaged in a minuet with Valentino and Giammetti. I pushed for access, but I felt we were in this for the long haul, and thus I did not want to outstay our welcome in the first months. Furthermore, the film was shot with a New York-based crew, so it was no small endeavor to get everyone to Rome for the big shoots. We had to schedule our shoot days very carefully. Money was always tight. Or nonexistent. I personally funded the first months of shooting, and we had constant financial droughts.
After a few weeks of early rushes, I quickly realized that the best material was to be gotten when Valentino and Giammetti were busy, so we timed most of our shoots for the periods before fashion shows, when the protagonists were likely to be distracted enough to forget the camera was there.
Every few weeks I would show up with the crew to film the process of creating a collection of highly intricate haute couture dresses. While we were at it, unknown to Valentino, we were also focusing on capturing the relationship.
Valentino, curiously, never asked me many questions about what movie I was making, though I am quite sure he was expecting a more straightforward film about fashion and not one so deeply personal.
Valentino and Giammetti are true collaborators. I would go so far as to say they are part of the same person, so if the camera could be discreetly in the room while they were hard at work, then we naturally got the footage of the relationship in action.
The strength of the material we were capturing was in the dialogue between the two men. (It sometimes seemed as if Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, from on high, were putting the words in the mens’ mouths.) For this reason, lavaliere mics were vital to the production. The boom was far more distracting to Valentino than the camera, so getting him wired at the start of shooting was one of the main chores. If he would not wear his mic, we started to tape the wireless mics around the rooms, hoping we would pick up something. Usually that worked.
The day of perhaps our biggest production disaster actually ended up yielding what may be our best sequence. We had traveled with the full crew to Paris to shoot Valentino’s induction into the French Legion of Honor. (This shoot coincided with a dry spell for funding, so I ended up paying for the entire thing with three Capital One credit cards acquired for the occasion. When Giammetti asked me who was paying for the movie, I told him, “A bank called Capital One,” and he did not flinch.)
On the day of the event, we had a problem: There was no early access permitted to Palais Royal, the location of the ceremony. We just had to pray there would be camera risers in the back and a position for us. When I followed Valentino into the ceremonial hall along with Tom Hurwitz and the camera, there were no risers, and absolutely no good shot for Tom. Scores of cameras, all directly in front of the stage, blocked the view entirely. Tom started to curse the heavens. Stifling panic, I suggested he find Giammetti and shoot him. “We’ll buy the footage of these 25 other cameras that are blocking you,” I said.
In the finished film, you see Tom moving in on Giammetti, at the back of the room. Valentino is on the podium, accepting his award. He then starts to choke up just as he is about to thank Giammetti for his 50 years of loyal companionship. Tom, being a true master, responds. He has to lift the camera over his head and do a swish pan and find Valentino without a viewfinder. He settles on Valentino, and he gets the shot: the protagonist in tears, overcome with emotion and barely able get his words out. Then Tom begins to swish-pan back and forth: Giammetti… Valentino … Giammetti…
In the end we had a sequence shot executed under great duress. Department of glorious saves, thanks to Hurwitz.
During the two years of our shoot, the lives of Valentino and Giammetti began to undergo dramatic changes. When we started production, I had no clue that Valentino was heading for retirement, and there were no signs of the tensions that began to arise in the Valentino company as Matteo Marzotto, the young president of the fashion house, whose family owned the controlling stake in Valentino S.p.A., presided over the sale of the company and began hinting that Valentino should think about stepping down.
These major plot points arose in the final months of shooting, and gave us more layers for the final act of the movie. At the same time, Giammetti was planning and executing a massive full-scale museum show and grand event in Rome to commemorate Valentino’s career. “The largest and most important event in the history of fashion,” as he put it. Certainly it was the most significant event in the history of Valentino and Giammetti.
The will-he-or-won’t he plotline about the retirement, the corporate takeover and the major Felliniesque celebration began to give a fin de siecle weight to the proceedings.
We had already begun to cut the movie when these new storylines presented themselves. New twists and turns in the corporate takeover story arose daily, and we were getting some heated dialogue out of Matteo Marzotto, Giammetti and Valentino as things came to a head.
Matteo says Giammetti “is like an old lion trying to roar, but there is no voice.” Valentino declares, “Can you imagine [Marzotto] telling me you have not to do this, you have not to do that? I would hit him!”
My co-producer, Fred Tcheng, and I, in Rome, would run dailies for our edit room in New York over Skype so they could see the new footage on the day we had shot it, rather than wait for tapes to be sent via DHL.
On the receiving end of the rushes was Bob Eisenhardt, one of the top verite editors in the business. (He and Hurwitz both got their start working for the legendary Maysles brothers.) There is no surer hand in the cutting room than Bob, and he brought to the project a commitment to making as pure a verite movie as possible.
In the early tests of the rough cut, I thought we were on to something, but you never really know until you see the movie with an audience. It was not until Venice — when I heard laughter (in the right places) during the screening, and, at the end, saw tears in people’s eyes as they were leaving the theater — that I thought we might have succeeded in our mission.
Last spring, when the film began to take off in theaters and become a word-of-mouth hit (my partners and I distributed it ourselves), I was cheered by the number of people who told me they were moved to tears at several points in the film.
The commercial and critical success of the film helped me enormously in convincing Valentino and Giammetti to hang in there, and not to walk away from the movie, which they did not like at first. At all.
I had final cut on the film, and their first viewings of the completed movie were not happy occasions. After some months of pressure from them to literally start over in the edit room, lose the love story and the presence of anyone or any theme they deemed to be unflattering, I resolved to move ahead with my director’s cut and release the movie that I had made.
The standing ovation we received at Venice, and another at the Toronto Film Festival, made Valentino like the film a lot more.
They at first gave no indication they were going to attend these festivals, but, at the last minute, decided to show. The public embrace of the movie sealed the deal.
At a recent screening at the Museum of Modern Art, Valentino and Giammettiboth admitted during the Q&A that though they may not agree with every scene to this day, they can better see the point of the film now that they have had the feedback of friends and strangers alike.
I found profound lessons to take away from Valentino’s story: certainly the tale of partnership and love. It sometimes takes two to get to where you want to go in life. And there is a tale of hard work and realizing your dreams, which Valentino did from a very early age. Finally, there is the struggle of the artist who may have lived to see the time for the relevance of his art pass him by: Nothing lasts forever.
This final note, I think, is symbolized by the last, elegiac shot of a large balloon emblazoned with Valentino’s name, floating away over the Coliseum and the Arch of Titus in the heart of — what was — ancient Rome.