Filmmaker Nick Hooker on His Vital Portrait of Gianni Agnelli

By Ashley Morton

HBO: What was your goal going into the film?

Nick Hooker: Gianni was a huge political power, not just in Italy but also in representing Italy on the world stage. We had this challenge to somehow zoom in in a very intimate way, in terms of his family and way he lived his life, and then to zoom out and see him operate on a bigger stage.

HBO: The film feels like a story about Italy as well. Were you conscious of needing to balance those topics?

Nick Hooker: The way I looked at it, Gianni had these circles of power. The primary one was the family, and the family owning Fiat. And from there it goes Turin, Piedmont, Italy, Europe, Western Europe ? particularly Western Europe during the Cold War. And then the super-circle is America and the Western alliances. Gianni played these spheres like scales on a piano. He operated within them, I think, with one goal in mind: to preserve the Agnelli family?s control of Fiat.

In the opening of the film there?s a famous quote from The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that says, ?If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.? I think that embodies Gianni?s world view. The things that needed to stay the same were first, control of Fiat; and second, that he inhabit this bubble of an unbelievably highly refined aesthetic of excellence and beauty. That was non-negotiable. Everything else was flexible and could be discussed as long as those fundamental things were preserved. And, to a greater or lesser degree, he managed to succeed, but at what cost?

HBO: The film features an impressive collection of interviewees including Henry Kissinger, Valentino, Lee Radziwill ?. Were people eager to talk about him and tell their stories?

Nick Hooker: There were a few hold-outs, but for the most part everyone was. They?re a very amusing bunch. Because he had those different circles, his life was very compartmentalized. And that?s the way he liked it; he was very disturbed whenever his compartments were breached. So the only way I could get a really rounded portrait of him was to talk to all these different people.

What was interesting is they all were jealous of each other?s relationship with him. Some of them would go, ?Well who else are you talking to? Oh, don?t talk to them. They really didn?t know Gianni the way I know Gianni.? They were all quite catty and quite gossipy, and certain they had the true relationship with him. I was surprised how open and forthright most of them were.

HBO: How does that affect the material you get?

Nick Hooker: I was very clear before we started: We can?t make this film without talking about cocaine, or girls, or greedy behavior, or his son?s suicide. I wanted to do a portrait that was vivid and alive. There will be scars on that incredible face, but they?ll set off the whole character and be very exquisitely placed.

HBO: Were you at all concerned with how people might interpret his relationship with women?

Nick Hooker: I?ll be totally honest, I was worried about that because the climate we?re in is so sensitive, and for good reason. So it?s such a delicate subject. But I asked every woman we interviewed, and they all unanimously said Gianni was the absolute opposite of a predator. They said he was irresistibly charming, exquisitely mannered, and wonderful company.

But he is from a more chauvinistic era. There?s no doubt about that. I don?t think it would ever have crossed his mind that Fiat could?ve been run by a woman. He?s from the same sort of generation as JFK and Bill Paley ? when very powerful women exerted it behind the scenes as powerful wives.

HBO: So many of the interviews were shot wide, showing off these incredible and extravagant backgrounds. Why was this a choice you made?

Nick Hooker: I just knew with many of these people we would be in their homes, and that a lot of these homes would almost certainly be grand and beautiful. And in some cases they were beautiful but in a kind of faded way. I wanted to give them a visual context that evoked the world that Gianni inhabited. The framing is an aesthetic preference ? I prefer a sense of scale and space. It felt a bit grander and more cinematic.

HBO: What struck you most when making the film?

Nick Hooker: I think there was a kind of authenticity back then, whereas now everything feels a little staged or manufactured. Gianni was allergic to that kind of stuff. He loved secret trysts and storylines. He could really have an adventure; who knew what would happen?

When Gianni died, this life-force just left everyone who knew him. Life went from color to black and white. I think talking about him, his friends could feel their heart rate coming up. When he was around the energy changed, it was like electricity. And when he was gone, something vital, and kind of essential, like primal, went with him.