By Martin A. Grove
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Making the shortlist for the best documentary feature Oscar is icing on the cake for "Valentino: The Last Emperor."
The self-financed, self-distributed film about fashion designer Valentino Garavani and his longtime business and life partner Giancarlo Giammetti already is a big winner for first-time producer-director Matt Tyrnauer, who calls it a DIY project -- and has the credit card bills to prove it.
"Valentino," which opened in March and is available on DVD, played theatrically for more than six months, grossing nearly $2 million domestically from 32 prints.
Tyrnauer, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, met the one-name icon in 2005 while writing about him. He knew immediately there was a movie there.
"He's larger than life; to say he lives large is an understatement," he says. "No one lives like this. It's on a level of heads of state, really."
Moreover, Tyrnauer saw cinematic potential in Valentino and Giammetti's 50-year love story.
After meeting with them in Rome in 2005, they agreed to cooperate for the movie. "I put my own seed money in at that point and began filming immediately because I knew them enough to know how fickle they are," Tyrnauer says. "They change their minds a lot."
Indeed, the greatest challenge in production, he acknowledges, was working with Valentino. "He's a control freak," the filmmaker says. "He likes drama, so he's not averse to having a tantrum here and there. He doesn't like to be interrupted, he doesn't like to have to wait, and he doesn't like things that aren't aesthetically correct."
With that in mind, Tyrnauer chose to shoot with a small HD camera that allowed him to move quickly and get fly-on-the-wall coverage.
After hiring cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and sound engineer Peter Miller, Tyrnauer began filming in Europe. He brought in producer Matt Kapp and executive producers Carter Burden III and Adam Leff to help raise financing.
"We had people who wanted to put money in, and then they changed their mind, and I'd be left, basically, high and dry with a partially shot film," Tyrnauer says. In the end, "I did the classic Hail Mary thing and opened up three credit card accounts with Capital One at zero-interest introductory rates.
Not only did that pay the bills, but when Giammetti asked whether the film was financed, Tyrnauer was able to reply truthfully, "Yes, we're fully financed by a bank."
The cards came in handy when Tyrnauer ran out of money as he was about to fly his team to Paris to shoot Valentino getting a Legion of Honor award.
"This was when the dollar was at its worst against the euro," he says. "We're talking about sending five or six people overseas and putting them up in Paris, which is expensive under any circumstances."
When they arrived, they almost didn't get the key shot during the ceremony because so many cameras were lined up in front of the stage obscuring Valentino, who broke down in tears upon receiving the award. Tyrnauer, thinking quickly, said to Hurwitz, "Find Giancarlo and shoot him." (With 20-some cameras already shooting Valentino, Tyrnauer realized he could buy someone else's tape.)
As Hurwitz filmed Giammetti, he heard Valentino getting emotional. "So Tom did something really extraordinary and intuitive," Tyrnauer says. "He did a swish pan from Giancarlo over to Valentino and caught him just as he was breaking down.
More than 250 hours of footage was shot for the 91-minute movie and its DVD, which includes several hours of bonus features. Tyrnauer puts his budget at $1.2 million, noting that "hundreds of thousands of my own money" was at risk.
He and his partners took on additional risk by releasing "Valentino" through Acolyte Films, a company they formed because they were unhappy with offers they received from distributors at festivals last year.
They got a lucky break, however, when Ivan Reitman saw and enjoyed "Valentino" in Toronto and asked for a print.
One of Reitman's neighbors in Montecito, Calif., just south of Santa Barbara, is Oprah Winfrey. "He showed the film one day and invited Oprah, and she really took to it," Tyrnauer says. When Winfrey ran into Valentino, Giammetti and Tyrnauer at a subsequent event, she raved about the film, eventually devoting half an episode of her "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to "Valentino" the week it opened.
"It doesn't get better than that," Tyrnauer says. "We really were so fortunate. I'm so thankful to Ivan Reitman, a man I had not met before or since. He did us a great turn."
Putting Winfrey's help in perspective, he adds: "The thing is, she wasn't pitched. She found it on her own and had an experience that a lot of people who saw it subsequently have shared with her. She responded to this fundamental love story in the movie, and I think that's the main thing people really take away from the film."