Back to IndieWire

Humanizing an Icon: “Valentino: The Last Emperor” Director Matt Tyrnauer

Humanizing an Icon: "Valentino: The Last Emperor" Director Matt Tyrnauer

Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fashion, featuring access never-before allowed in the high temples of Haute Couture. The legendary Valentino is the star of the film, along with his longtime business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. The film follows them for the final two years of their careers, and show the struggles the two men face as they confront the final act of a nearly 50-year career at the top of the world’s most glamorous and competitive game. The struggle of art against commerce is at the center of the film. In the end, however, the story proves to be not one about money or expensive clothes, but about love. “Valentino: The Last Emperor” opens in New York on March 18, 2009. [Synopsis courtesy of film’s official website].

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I grew up in Los Angeles with a father who was a successful T.V. writer (Columbo, The Virginian, Ironside, Murder, She Wrote). We had a 16mm and Super 8 projection room with prints of the great silents: Lauren and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin. I was exposed to all of this from birth, and then came the Z Channel, and high school, where I met a remarkable teacher named Jim Hosney, who taught film courses at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. I credit Jim will making me a real cineaste. He showed Godard to 9th graders, and he made us take it seriously. Then college, Wesleyan, where I met the great Joe Reed, the founder of the film program there, and a leading John Ford and Howard Hawks scholar. I was one of those film majors who would go to New York and see 5 movies at Film Forum, the Thalia and Cinema Village in a weekend. I was equally attracted to journalism, and I have written for Vanity Fair for almost 17 years, but telling a story is fundamental to both fields, so I felt a strong desire to merge written and visual story-telling.

Please discuss how the idea for this film came about.

I have been looking for a willing subject for a film for years. When I met Valentino, having been sent to interview him for a Vanity Fair feature, I saw a character who was a strong candidate for the big screen. He’s an icon, and a creative genius, and a larger-than-life figure who lives a kind of bubble life–he exists in a special world, where perfect living is the name of the game and he does it very well indeed. When in Rome, I also was surprised to find TWO people: Valentino and his partner in business (at, at one time, in life) Giancarlo Giammetti. They have a relationship unlike any I have ever seen before. It’s unique. People frequently say, Valentino and Giancarlo, it’s like a marriage. Well, I’d say it’s MORE than a marriage. It’s a supernatural bond that has lasted for 50 years. They are part of the same person, really. So close, and so inter-dependent, I wanted to try to capture that friendship on film. That is what the movie is really about: Fashion is the backdrop. It’s a kind of relationship movie, a love story, if you will.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

Anyone who makes a direct cinema move is indebted to the Maysles brothers. I admire their movies very much, and, especially “Grey Gardens.” I have a wonderful, brilliant friend and editor at Vanity Fair, Wayne Lawson, who has for years helped me make stories clear and clean, and who believes in letting the story tell itself. Letting people talk is a great way to get a story across, and then taking away the excess to pare it down. Wayne once mentioned that he thought that “Grey Gardens” was the model for this kind of story telling, and I agree with him. The Maysles let Big and Little Edie tell their story in the most elegant way. Graydon Carter, another amazing mentor, used to tell me “just let them talk” before going to report a story. Great advice.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The stars of this movie are major figures and Valentino commands star treatment, and deserves it. He’s an icon. As can be seen in the movie things did not always go smoothly on the set, and I included some of the cyclone-force tantrums on screen. It makes Valentino more human. He is a hand full, and there was no reason to hide this, because it’s part of the process and it’s part of who he is. He is a very nice man, and a genius at his art. But he is also a perfectionist and he has the disposition of a – as he would say – the toro, the bull, his star sign. So, you get these heated moments. He and Giancarlo also fight, like all great partners. We have some prime examples of that as well on film. So, they were a challenge to work with and it took a lot of time and work to get to where we wanted to go.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

Private equity. We were very lucky to have great financiers.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

I love all genres, except possibly for the cancer movie (“Dark Victory” is an exception.)

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

A lot of the great indie labels have had to shut down this year, so there has been a shift. But the technology is getting smaller, lighter and better by the month, so the world of indie film will continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Creative people armed with low cost cameras and editing software will define the future.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Don’t let anybody tell you, No. If you have a project you believe in, go forward, and don’t stop, no matter what. There are 1001 reasons not to make any movie, and you will hear them. Ignore, if you have the passion.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

Any movie that gets made is a miracle, so I would have to say being a part of a small miracle is something that gives me pleasure.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox