Filmmaker Christina Voros' latest documentary, "The Director," delves head first into the world of high-end fashion, going behind the scenes of Gucci. Thanks to her friendship with James Franco, Voros gained unprecedented access to the Italian heritage brand, providing insight into the secretive design process and showing audiences an intimate portrait of Gucci's media-shy creative director, Frida Giannini.
We caught up with Voros just after the film's Tribeca Film Festival premiere.
Why did you choose to make a documentary about Gucci?
The project came to me through James [Franco]. He and I had been working together for a number of years and, actually, he had been working with Gucci for the same period of time, looking back. And he had been at an event in Rome with Frida [Giannini]. Gucci and Frida helped restore a print of "La Dolce Vita," and he was at that event. He was coming to Paris to direct the first feature that I shot for him called "The Broken Tower," and he showed up on set and was like, “I think we should do a movie on Frida.”
And we had just recently done a documentary on the making of "Saturday Night Live" that explored the creative process of that endeavor and I think, having experienced the fashion world from the inside as being a face for the brand, James was interested in the creative process of that industry and I came from a documentary background. I had been shooting for him for a couple of years. My first documentary film was on my Hungarian great-aunts who were dressmakers and had a couture shop on Seventh Avenue in New York when I was a kid. So it just seemed like something that was right up my alley and he sort of handed the idea off to me and let me run with it.
You and James went to the same film school, but how did you two start working together?
We were actually not in classes at the same time. I had gone to NYU a couple of years before him. We had a mutual professor who’s a director who had been my mentor and then he was James’ first directing teacher when James first went to NYU. James had gone to him looking for a recommendation for a cinematographer and he had suggested me and we met through that email handshake.
As a filmmaker, was it an adjustment to work with a huge brand and an extensive PR team? Were there any parameters set before you started?
They were actually shockingly open. It's a culture of organization and hierarchy, and decisions go through so many stages before they are put into play. The hardest part was getting across the fact that I just kind of wanted to be there and film all day. When you live in a very efficient world, you’re like, “Okay we are doing this from 1-2pm and that from 3-4pm and that from 4-5pm.” They were kind of like, “Well does this get boring? Haven’t you seen enough fittings?” So I think in the beginning, our team was a bit of a curiosity to them because what we were doing with the camera was so different from what they thought people did with cameras most of the time. I think it was hard to get across the fact that the things that seem maybe the most mundane and boring to them, to an outsider, were actually really interesting. You know?
I find watching Frida making decisions so interesting because she’s just so intuitive and knows what she wants immediately. So watching her make those choices and express those choices to her team is alone fascinating to me. But I think for her, as someone who has sort of shied away from attention and shied away from being in front of a camera instead of behind it, it was a strange thing trying to understand what it was I was trying to capture. It wasn’t just the glamour and it wasn’t just the polishes, you know, the final show. It was what nobody had seen in the past which most interested me.
What was the most surprising aspect about the world of high fashion for you?
To be honest, it sounds very simple, but I really didn’t realize how much work went into it. I mean, every time I see a fashion billboard now, I’m trying to figure out how many months and months and tens of thousands of dollars went into that one image into being at Times Square and how do they pick which clothes will go in that photograph and what’s the mood and where do we set it? Who should be in the clothes? And how big should it be? And where should we put it? I mean, it’s a crazy intimate series of decisions that go into that final thing that you see when you open up Vogue, and I don’t think I ever really thought of that before. I hadn’t thought about the model who's in that crazy makeup, in that dress, in those ridiculous shoes. You know, it’s all different people whose lives have intertwined to make that thing happen. I don’t think it’s something most of us really think about when we pick up a dress in a hanger in the store.
In the course of 18 months of filming "The Director," you went through a handful of cycles in the fashion world. Were there any major meltdowns or lost tempers that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
We had a ton of material, so there’s a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor. But it’s funny, leading up to the shows, one of the things that really surprised me is that it’s so much calmer than you would anticipate. They do this so many times a year and they do it so well and so [the shows] are, in some ways, the least chaotic part of the process because there’s a rhythm to it, you know? It’s something that everyone has done plenty of times. There aren’t as many surprises as you would think. It’s really the moment, the creative process before the designs are completely sorted out, where things tend to be a bit more volatile. But no, the stuff that we left on the cutting room floor wasn’t because we didn’t want to show something. It was just because there wasn’t enough space in the movie for everything we did want to show.
It seemed like Frida and her team worked together pretty cohesively.
Most of her team that’s closest to her, she’s been with for over a decade. So there’s a lot of really subtle communication that goes on and a lot of intuitive understanding of what she likes and doesn’t like and how to push her a certain way and what’s going to work and what’s not going to work and when to ask again and when to back off. There’s a lot of unspoken information moving around that room.
After being privy to the very intimate world of fashion design and working so closely with Frida, do you now feel like you could justify the price tag on a $5,000 Gucci handbag?
It makes it easier to understand when you realize how many people are involved, how many months are involved, how many stages of review are involved, from the small artisan in a leather shop in Florence to the person actually crafting the handle to the 75 iterations of bags that didn’t pass the final OK. I didn’t understand how much discernment is involved and what actually makes it to that runway. In the case of Gucci, it really made its name on a certain level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, and that is something that Frida feels a lot of pressure to uphold. It’s part of the DNA of the company, that you’re getting something that is also incredibly well-made as opposed to it just being that there’s a double "G" logo on it.
That being said, I’ve had the same black and red plaid Jansport backpack for five years and just upgraded to something a little nicer that I found for my laptop. I think in the places I end up shooting films, I would be terrified to have a bag that pretty lying around. But it certainly does make more sense to me,
because what you’re buying is not just a bag; it’s sort of this emblem of something bigger than just the item itself.
I think at one point, what was interesting about the trip to Asia for me was that you really get a sense of that a little bit more. When you place the brand in a different context, the discussions are about buying a handbag as a way of sort of identifying yourself and aligning yourself with a certain idea of lifestyle. They’re selling not just bags, they’re selling a way of life that people want to associate with. Whether or not you agree that’s an art form or whether that’s petty, that’s up for debate. I think that fashion is much like cinema. It's a blend of an art form that has been commodified, so it’s both an art and a business.
"The Director," from director Christina Voros and producer James Franco, debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
Speaking of pricey handbags...