Valentino: The Last Emperor was on every list of 2009’s best documentary films. Few independent films – particularly docs – are as successful at the box office and with critics. Fewer still become Oscar contenders. We sat down with Valentino producer Matt Kapp to get his thoughts on making a documentary in the new media world. Matt’s other documentary credits include producing The Education Of Gore Vidal for the Emmy Award-winning PBS series American Masters.
1. You and Director Matt Tyrnauer produced Valentino: The Last Emperor, a self-financed and self-distributed film which is on the Oscar short list for best documentary. What’s your biggest takeaway from that experience?
MK: There are far too many biggest takeaways to mention here. Here’s one: “The Countess brings her own Vodka,” a line the Countess’s footman delivers to an under-butler at Valentino’s French chateau, Wideville, during the party scene. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. I can’t think of any living screenwriter who could have come up with some of the lines we recorded while shooting this movie. As Al Mayles once said to me, “Real life is far more interesting than anything that could be written for the stage or screen,” a.k.a. truth is truly stranger than fiction. We made a lot of Gosford Park upstairs/downstairs comparisons while shooting at Wideville. Except that upstairs at Gosford Park, as one of our production interns pointed out, they talked about history and politics, but upstairs at Wideville they were talking about poodles and handbags. There were so many surreal moments. The ghost of Fellini was omnipresent.
2. When you discuss the production process and the actual nuts-and-bolts of making a documentary film today, what seems to surprise people the most?
MK: I don’t like to discuss nuts and bolts. I’m shop-talk intolerant. I suppose one of the things that surprises people the most is how we got the access we did. It didn’t come cheap or easy. Our first couple of shoots were short and surgical, but we weren’t getting what we needed, so we decided we’d go over and literally move in for a month. They were unaware of our intentions. The team of male models we hired and brought with us, whose only regularly scheduled task was to mic up Valentino and Giancarlo every morning, provided the necessary lubricant. Within a week or so, they forgot we were even there. And we eventually became an extension of the family. Access is everything in documentary and you have to be prepared to sell your soul, if not your body, to get and keep it.
3. How does your experience producing Valentino compare with other projects, and what does it tell you about where things are headed in media?
MK: The last film I produced was for PBS and we had to work within a general format, with some leeway. But there was comfort in knowing the production’s bills would be paid on time and the movie was guaranteed a release. With the Valentino movie we had total creative freedom with the only goal being to make a good and marketable movie. But what we didn’t know while in production is that we’d also actually have to distribute and market the movie ourselves, which is something none of us wanted or were prepared to do. Necessity being the mother of invention, I think we executed some very good marketing ideas, such as the Most Fashionable Pug contest. I think our biggest strength was with respect to our PR campaign, which was well-run and prodigious, obviously helped by the fact that our subject is world-famous. Self-distribution is liberating and enslaving at the same time. It was trial by fire, and extremely stressful, but somehow we managed to land on our feet. I think independent filmmakers are headed into a world where the making of the thing is only the half of it, for better and worse. But if you can stomach it, there will be plenty of opportunities to have fun and be creative in the marketing of your movie.
4. One of our theories at the Production Directorate is that the production processes for feature films and television have basically been interchangeable until recently. The entire media world is in the midst of revolutionary, once-in-a-hundred-years change, making it hard to see a clear path through the chaos. We think that as the dust settles, the demarcation line will not be between platforms (i.e. between film and television) but between production methods (e.g. between traditional scripted shoots with large crews and digital projects using documentary style and smaller crews of combined shooter/producer/editors). What do you think?
MK: I think that no matter what side of any demarcation line you’re on, if you have a story to tell and you can tell it well, with hard work, ingenuity and a teaspoon of luck you can find an audience. Look, making and marketing a movie like Avatar does take hundreds of millions of dollars, but the audience gets a big-time mind-blowing 3-D experience from it. Sci-fi and period pieces cost piles of money to make, but there will always be an audience for movies that transport you into a completely different world. As to your interchangeability theory, TV and Hollywood have thoroughly cross-pollinated one another by now. All those Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston movies are really just TV shows masquerading as movies. Meanwhile TV shows like The Sopranos, Medium, or Lost, they’re all much more cinematic in script, look, and sensibility, than most of the so-called movies you can catch at your local multiplex.
5. What was Valentino: The Last Emperor shot and edited with?
MK: Shot on the adorable little Sony Z-1 HDV camera by the highly talented take-no-prisoners veteran lenser Tom Hurwitz. Edited on Final Cut Pro by the gifted and highly lovable puzzle wizard Bob Eisenhardt.
6. In any interview about new media, it is obligatory to discuss the music industry’s disastrous experience and what other industries have learned from it. Like a lot of other people, we think record companies completely misunderstood Napster — their customers wanted digital, a la carte music, and Napster was the only way to obtain it back then. Being free was a nice bonus, but that’s not what motivated customers. This explains the huge success of iTunes, and iTunes seems to be doing something similar for films now. What do you think?
MK: I think Napster’s users were intellectual-property petty thieves and the courts’ decision to shut Napster down was the only fair one. Would you steal a candy bar from the corner bodega just because you could send an invisible friend to steal it for you? From someone who has created and tried to sell his own music, or for anyone creating any kind of content, it’s frustrating and highly demoralizing to think your hard work, even if successful, can’t pay the bills because everybody wanted to enjoy it but nobody wanted to pay for it. The record companies’ calamity was their own fault though. MP3s have been around since the mid-90s. There should have been ten iTunes-like services up and running by the end of the 90s. The movie biz is a little better prepared, thanks in part to the cautionary tale of the music biz. Quality content will always be in demand, it’s up to content creators and their distribution partners to figure out how to set up the turnstile.
7. Earlier in December, Reuters ran a story with the headline, “Valentino Documentary Kept Afloat By Credit Cards.” Is that true?
MK: Ah, the wonders of zero-interest credit lines pre-Crash. There used to be a little trick, which doesn’t work any more, alas. When credit was flush and 0% introductory offers for balance transfers were arriving in the mail practically daily, you could simply bounce debt around from one introductory offer to the next and pay zero interest on your debt for years on end, which amounted to free financing. A customer rep once confessed to me that the industry word for us credit-bouncers was “derogatory.” They couldn’t legally call us “delinquent” because we paid our minimums on time and thus our wiliness wasn’t reflected on our credit reports. Anyways, those days are over. Yes, for a time our director was indeed supplementing the budget with the unwitting partner Capital One, which allowed us to keep shooting key events in Valentino’s life.
8. That same article says the film was self-distributed. What does that mean, and what advice would you give to aspiring and other independent filmmakers?
MK: Good docs can take years to produce and you need to be extremely patient and resourceful. Documentary production is a test of endurance. You’re running a marathon, not the 100 yard dash, and there’s no pot of gold at the end of the runway, unless you’re Michael Moore. So why do it then? To get high, kids. There’s nothing like the rush you get after a great day of documentary shooting, when you realize your camera has actually caught something truly stranger than fiction. Like, “Holy, shit, what just happened, did we actually get all that?” And then going into the edit room and stringing all the beads together. The process is addictive. If you aren’t addicted to it, I’m not sure it’s worth all the trouble.
9. When you put your (stylish Valentino-designed) imagination cap on, how do you think producing a documentary will be different in five years?
MK: I could never afford anything Valentino-designed.
10. We asked the questions the Production Directorate really wants to know. Is there anything you wanted to share which we didn’t ask about?
MK: I dig your web site.
The Production Directorate Blog Commissar thanks Matt for taking the time to share his insights. Check out mattkapp.com for more about Matt and his work.