The Amazing Odyssey of Directing Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino: The Last Emperor, a movie I directed about the design icon, Valentino, and his partner of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti, came to theaters in the United States this spring. Currently, the movie is expanding its run to many cities across the country, and has become the highest grossing documentary of the year. Theatrical distribution, let alone audience acceptance for a documentary is rare, so this has been a pleasant month of traveling the nation, and doing press and events around the movie in cities from New England to California. Valentino and Giammetti, the stars of the show, joined me for several of these premieres and events, most notably in New York City, where they attracted a celebrity juggernaut, headed up by Gwyneth and Madonna. In L.A., Gwyneth and Anne Hathaway were among the many who did turns on the red carpet.

Valentino and Giammetti have basked in well-deserved accolades. They are, it turns out, great movie stars, and they can rightfully share in the good reviews the film has gotten. However, even as late as the eve of the film's festival premiere in Venice, it looked like Valentino and Giancarlo would not be participating in the release of Valentino: The Last Emperor. It may come as a surprise to many that, after seeing the final cut of the movie, the stars were very unhappy with the picture, and they were not shy about expressing their unhappiness to me. They are control freaks, after all (it's fashion, remember), and they were not prepared to see themselves portrayed without a lot of airbrushing. I had final cut on the film, and I was prepared to release the movie without their participation. That was the plan, if I could not get them to come around. We had many meetings where I discussed their displeasure with them. These meetings all ended in stalemate. At one session I believe that Giancarlo listed every sequence in the film as objectionable in some way.

Frustrating as it was to be at loggerheads with Valentino and Giancarlo, I was sympathetic to their situation. It's not easy to see your life vivisected on the big screen. Just looking at yourselves 30 feet high is traumatic enough. (For more anecdotes and details see Nick Dawson's interview.) I told the press at many film festivals that I thought Valentino and Giancarlo were very brave to undertake the project, and I was expecting some rejection upon showing them the final product. (There have been a few cases of documentaries that have been held up by their subjects: the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones, the Robert Frank's movie about Bob Dylan, Cocksucker Blues, and a film about Yves Saint Laurent.) Even in the most pressured moments, I was always able to find some sympathy for Valentino and Giancarlo. They were not the authors of this film, and they had no control. This was a very unusual position for them to be in, and one they could hardly grasp. For 50 years they had lorded over a fashion empire where they had absolute authority. Now, their lives and careers were being depicted in a way that was, I believe, honest, but not in the exact form or order they would have chosen. The film is uncensored, and they have led very censored lives in the press.

Last fall, after the movie and its stars received a very big standing ovation at the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (and an even bigger one in Toronto) the dam began to break. I witnessed the subjects of the movie starting to get some perspective on the situation. As Valentino told the press at Venice: "There are many things in this movie I did not like, but I have to accept it, as you see me as I am."

After the good reviews and great box office, the stars have embraced the film, and they have done their publicity tour. (I continue on mine.) One moment on the tour with Valentino and Giancarlo stood out in an unexpected way. We started the TV campaign with an appearance on Oprah. It was terrific honor for the film to be singled out and given this kind of national attention. Oprah had seen the movie on her own, and taken a liking to it. It was the most valuable endorsement possible in any media.

Our last stop on the TV tour, however, turned out to be the most cathartic and in depth: Charlie Rose.

Rose invited the three of us to sit together for an interview. None of us gave it much thought beforehand, nor have we discussed it since. However, in retrospect, it was a very important moment. It was Charlie Rose's roundtable where Valentino, Giancarlo and I were finally able to discuss, in depth, the experience of making the movie, and how that experience had transformed all of us.

The two-year shoot for the movie had been challenging in ways too numerous to list. The greatest difficulty of all for me during filming was dealing with two stars who were not used to being on anyone's schedule but their own. The movie may have seemed to Valentino and Giancarlo like new and fun experience at the outset, but after months of being wired for sound and interrupted at work (and play), tensions sometimes ran high. I think that one of the journalist or filmmaker's greatest skills is to know when to leave -- always before the welcome wears out. We came and went for two years, never outstaying our welcome. I was interested to discover an Italian trait I had not known about: terror of seeming overly eager. I would arrive in Rome with a crew of eight and 20 metal equipment cases. My first stop was always Giancarlo's office to say hello. He would receive me like this: "So, my darling, what brings you to Rome?"

Charlie Rose is headquarted in the new Bloomberg building in Manhattan. The interior of Bloomberg media is by far the nicest office space I have ever been in. It looks like a movie-set version of a media empire. Before starting the broadcast, Rose kept us in conversation on the set around the table. It was difficult to tell if the cameras were rolling, as he just kept talking, and throwing questions at Valentino. I believe he did this on purpose to warm up the conversation for the broadcast. When the cameras were on, Rose went in for a brilliant kill, right off the bat: He asked Valentino and Giancarlo if it was in Capri in 1960 "where you fell in love." They were astonished. No one had ever asked them such a guileless question before, much less with five TV cameras rolling. Valentino, panicked, blurted out something like, "this is a very big word." Giancarlo began to tell about the origins of their relationship. I was able to chime in as well: "Let's be clear, it's a love story," I said. The stars of the film did not object. The love story has been much discussed in reviews, mentioned by Oprah on the air, and recognized by audiences. It is the movie I made. But it had never been put to the stars of the film directly, and they had never been asked to comment on it, with the director present. The interview got better and better from there, as Rose led a conversation that was, in a way, group therapy with the esteemed broadcast journalist as the shrink. Rose asked Valentino about his over-the-top lifestyle. Valentino tried to deny it. Rose showed images of his castle and his private plane. Valentino had to concede, with a laugh, that he lives better than anyone on Earth. Rose showed a sequence where it seems as if Valentino is not going to acknowledge Giancarlo in an acceptance speech after receiving the Legion of Honor in Paris. Giancarlo admitted on national TV that he was worried that Valentino would forget to thank him. All of the back-and-forth was good television with well-chosen clips, but to the interviewees, it was more of a catharsis than a slick public TV show could ever seem to be. The hour on Charlie Rose put an end to months of silence between the three of us about the outcome of the project that has transformed us. The movie has put an end to Valentino's staid image, and has made him an all-too-human Last Emperor of fashion; Giancarlo Giammetti has become a much more widely recognized public figure, the man behind Valentino who deserves much credit for Valentino's success. I got the rare opportunity, thanks to Charlie, to have a very cheerful and very public encounter with two men who defined my life for the past three years. Together in the blackness of the TV studio, we were finally able to discover that, at the end of a difficult journey, everything was all right. All previous tribulations have been, mercifully, forgotten. Grazie tanto, Charlie Rose.