With The Last Impresario opening in cinemas across Australia this week, director, Gracie Otto took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to have a chat to Movie Critical about the film. Otto, 27, comes from one of the most well known Australian entertainment families which includes father, Barry and half-sister, Miranda. However, she has made a name for herself with her incredible documentary about English producer, Michael White. The film has screened at both the BFI London Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival to positive reviews, and with the opening on the film in Australia on Thursday, Otto is currently travelling around the country participating in a set of Q&A's about the film.
Firstly, congratulations on the success of The Last Impresario! You must be absolutely thrilled with the way people have responded to it!
Yeah! So far the response has been quite positive. I mean, it's always exciting to have your work seen by others and it's now about finding the right audience and about people finding out who Michael is. As we say, he is the most famous person you have never heard of and I think that's true and I think it's great that people are starting to find out about him and learn what an incredible human being he is and career he has had.
So let's go back in time to that party at the Cannes Film Festival four years ago when you first met Michael. He must have been completely in his element in that environment. What was going through your head the first time you met him?
Well, I guess in all honesty when I first met him I didn't think anything of it. You know, I didn't think in four years time there will be a film about him! I had just noticed him at a party I had been at and later I had ended up at his table with a person I had just met who was a friend of a friend of his, it was just one of those things. So I just met him there and I still have the little drink coaster which he wrote his number down on. Well first he gave me his address and I was like, I'd never been to London before except for one day and I had this address which had a weird postcode on it and I was like "Why are you giving me this? Am I going to send you a letter?" and he said "Oh I will give you my mobile!", and I said "You've got a phone?!"
He just said "You've got to come and visit me!" and I was like "Yeah, sure!", as you are after you have had five or so drinks! And then the next day I was walking down to a meeting and he called me and I was like "Oh my god! Michael White! That old guy!" How funny that he was actually calling me! I mean, he doesn't talk that much, so I was saying 'Hey! Michael White!" and he said to come to the hotel that night and he barely gave me any details. So I was deciding whether I really wanted to go, but I put a dress on and I remember the first people I saw were Mick Jagger and Loretta Scott, she was so tall and had this beautiful elegant dress on and I thought "Oh my God, I am wearing this little cocktail dress!" I didn't know they were going to this dinner I was going to. Then Michael saw me and was telling me to come through, as all these people with clipboards were saying 'Who are you?" It was about a week before Dennis Hopper died so they were honouring him there.
After such an informal greeting to him, was it actually a shock to find out how popular and famous he really was?
I guess it didn't come until I was making the film. After the week I had spent going to every party and meeting every person with him, I realised that he was obviously quite well respected among celebrities and I knew that he produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Monty Python and The Holy Grail. You can say the name to most people and they will know at least one of those productions. Then it wasn't until I went to Sussex. I went to visit him in London because I had never been to London. I went down to visit my family friend, Greta Scacchi and I just told him that I had met this guy named Michael White and she said "He started my career! You have read his book, right?" and I said "No..he has a book?" So she gave me his autobiography and I started reading it. I don't read that many books, but I love autobiographies and I love old Hollywood and the Bette Davis and Ava Gardner era. The fact that he was helping put on these shows and Marilyn Monroe would go and see them. The book got up to the time The Rocky Horror Picture Show finished in 1984, so then I was like "Then what happened?"
I felt like I had learnt so much about him by reading this book because he doesn't really talk that much anymore. They are actually re-releasing it later this year, it's called "Empty Seats" and it is a really fascinating memoir. So I really felt like I needed to fill in the gap between 1984 and 2010. I was working on a documentary as Assistant Editor and I went to London a few months later and went to this party with Michael that Harvey Weinstein was at. I asked Michael that night if I could make a film about him and he had said no. It was an idea I had been thinking about, but even then I knew he was good but I didn't know he was a documentary worthy subject because I didn't know how much potential it had to be a film. It was really when all these celebrities would come up and give a story about meeting him that I realised how prolific and revolutionary what he was doing is and was.
When you asked him if you could make a film about him and he said no, did you really feel as though you had to earn his trust so that he would agree to this?
Well the way he does stuff is a bit like the way I do stuff. I knew that he liked having me around and when I was around we would go out to dinner and meet people, so it was kind of an excuse to be overseas and I was funding it myself at the time. I had a camera and I was staying with friends and staying at cheap places. It was only when my producer, Nicole O'Donohue came on board that she asked if I had a contract with me and then said "What do you mean you don't have a contract?!"
So then we drew up a contract and then it felt more like we were making a film. That was when I went and interviewed 65 people in total.
As you said in the film, Michael doesn't really like talking about the negatives in his life, yet it is the other people you interview who fill everyone in on the more negative things that have happened in his life. How did he feel about someone else saying these things about him?
I actually think he was interested to find out what people thought of him. He knew I was interviewing all these people but he wasn't there for any of the interviews with me besides Kate Moss' one. I asked him once about drugs and he made a valid point and said "If drugs were legal, there wouldn't be all these issues". He has interesting ways of thinking about things. I think mainly he didn't like seeing himself with the walking sticks. The health side of it has been something which has been hard for him to deal with on a personal level, and then to see himself walking was confronting and something he really didn't like.
Michael does come across as an extremely charismatic man, and this is proved by how many people adore him. Was it easy to get people such as Kate Moss, Yoko Ono and John Cleese to want to take part in the film?
Yeah well, John Cleese I thought may be a bit hard but I e-mailed his website one night in Paris when I was killing time. I was meant to be interviewing Anna Wintour, but that was when Hurricane Sandy hit and I was kinda stuck in Paris waiting to hear back from Vogue. And then Yoko Ono was one of the first people on board. After two days of working with my producer we just looked up contact details and we thought we would have to send letters and do it all the right way. For most people I just said to them "Michael gave me your number..", or they were told that I was going to call, but for Yoko Ono her publicist just picked up the phone and within 24 hours I was going to New York to meet her. The same with Kate Moss, she was really easy going and she doesn't really do many interviews so I felt really privileged that she took the time to talk to me. She gave Michael the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Laurence Olivier Awards in London as he was in a wheelchair.
So these people all really wanted to talk about him. This must have made your job a lot easier!
There was still a lot of hard work as it wasn't easy doing 65 interviews. It's actually quite insane, especially as I'm not from any cities and I'm from Australia! I did do about six interviews here though which was easy as I just got in my car and bought a mate along! Some of the ones that killed me were getting to Kate Moss' Bulgari Hotel on the tube with camera equipment and all these things you can't get insurance on. Things like that were just always a bit tedious and carrying a lot of equipment. Once I was carrying two suitcases and a handbag and hand luggage and a computer when I was in Paris on the Eurostar and no one would even help me off the train! I do love the French though!
The Last Impresario is such a fun film, but I'm sure it was hard work as though like you just said! Was it fun to explore Michael's crazy life?
Yeah, definitely. There was a moment in the film which I didn't include in the film when he took me out to dinner in London and took me past one of his old haunts and said "The end of an era". I looked at the house and I could just see Linda Hobbs and all these interesting people just having a great dinner party. I would just love to go back to that time for just one night!
So is that the point in Michael's life that you would most like to go back in time to experience with him?
Definitely! I think after just meeting all the Australian's who were in London at that time, it would have been such a great time to be there. I know my mum was planning on going to London then but she ended up meeting my dad and staying here.
One of the most memorable parts of the film is when you are going through Michael's medical appointment book and Michael then reveals to you how close he came to death at one point in time, which completely shocks you. Were there any times during filming when you really worried about his health?
Yeah, I mean he is incredible and I worry every time I see him if it is for the last time, I always kind of get a bit upset. Yet recently just after the film came out, he was in hospital for about a month. It was really bad and I thought that was definitely the end and all of his family friends were going to see him nearly everyday at hospital. I had to come back to Sydney, which I was really sad about. He saw the film and he was really happy about it, and then he got the Lifetime Achievement Award and he was out in a wheelchair and at rehab! Then he went to Italy last week because we were playing the movie there. We wanted to bring him out to Australia, but it was just too far for him to go. So I organised him to go to Italy instead and he had a great time there. He was happy as it was 35 degrees and he wanted to know were the party was. The film is coming out in the UK in September. So this is probably the longest I haven't seen him. I normally see him every few months and last time he was in hospital so I didn't really get to hang out with him. He still see's the humour in it all.
You two have obviously became really good friends then?
Yeah, I think so!
And how does he feel about the movie? Is he happy with it?
He is really happy with it. He says he is, but I mean he changes his mind about things from time to time. Mainly the walking sticks shocked him and stuff like that, but obviously he would love to have had the whole film just about the early days. I keep telling him that I met him as he is now and I found him interesting, and other people are going to find that fascinating about you.
That's really sweet! I'm sure he appreciates that!
I think he does! I'm sending him all the reviews and things like that, but I have to send originals of all the press clippings and that. I've got a few with me and I have to go and put them in the post today, because he doesn't have e-mail. I try to explain to him that it is going really well, and everyone knows who you are now! It's funny!
What has been your highlight in the journey with this film so far?
I mean, the funnest day was one that didn't actually make the cut of the film. It was going to Jack Nicholson's house and that was one of the first people I had met. Then we went out to dinner at Chateau Marmont in LA, and he just told my best friend who is an editor about Easy Rider and what fun they had making that film. It was just like a cool thing that will never happen again! He was just such an awesome dude who made you feel like you were just sitting down for dinner with one of your mates talking about Easy Rider. It was just so cool for me because I am such a film buff and love all that kind of stuff. The Chateau Marmont night wasn't in the film and he didn't do an interview, but that was probably my highlight. Also when we went out to dinner at Matteo's in LA, which is quite an expensive and good restaurant and Michael got a tap on his shoulder and he turned around and it was Elton John. That was also really cool.
Who would you say has been the greatest influences on your career so far?
I think definitely...well, in Australia Gillian Armstrong. I've known her since I was a baby and I think we really became close when I was in the movie, Three Blind Mice and she was on the jury at Sydney Film Festival. Then overseas, Sofia Coppola definitely and then David Lynch is someone I really admire. In terms of influences, Gillian Armstrong because she has always been kind of pro me directing. The other day I told her I went to an audition and didn't get it and she said "You don't want to be an actress! You want to direct!" I wouldn't mind doing both! Sofia Coppola's movies I love because they are all about relationships.
Anyone who follows you on Twitter will notice that you have the Alfred Hitchcock quote, "Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints", as your description. Are you a Hitchcock fan?
Yeah., I have watched all of his movies and I just love that quote. I think it is such a great quote.
So which Hitchcock blonde are you then?
Oh! I don't know! Um...we'll go with Kim Novak! She's pretty awesome.
A big thankyou to Gracie Otto for her time and we wish her all the best of luck with her continuing The Last Impresario journey!