Virat Nehru sits down with first-time documentarian Gracie Otto to discuss The Last Impresario, short films and approaching documentary cinema with style.
Congratulations on your first feature documentary. You’ve been making short films for quite some time. What’s the change been like to a documentary?
Well, I guess making films and documentaries is really different. But, I worked as an assistant editor on a documentary before working on The Last Impresario. And that was the way where I learnt a lot about – just things like transcribing interviews, backing up tapes. The whole kind of process of how to log and capture everything. Because it is something that is sometimes unscripted, like this one was, and it can go on for many years, in many different countries. Also, I had to learn about interviewing people. Because it’s not really my forte. Listening to what they are saying, so you can think about what the next question is to ask them. But then, after I had interviewed about 20 people, it’s like going back and working out where are the gaps. Because the first few interviews were just generally like – ‘Who is Michael? What has he done?’ – All that kind of stuff. But then, it was more targeted as to how they fitted into our story and what part of his life they actually fitted into, not just giving an overall perspective.
And, how did you meet Michael? Because it was almost a coincidence, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned, or anything like that, it just happened…
Yeah! It’s funny ‘cuz I’ve talked about how I met him, so I always have to think about it. It really was one of those nights – where it was like – being in the right place at the right time, and through a series of different chance encounters, ended up sitting next to him. You know, like we’re sitting here at a party and him giving me his number and the next day, calling him and say come here. And I thought, yeah, I’ll go to Hotel du Cap. And then, started meeting all these people with him. Of course, I was available to go to any event and party that he was going to. But he was also going to the movies every morning as well and seeing all the films!
Gosh! At what point did you decide – you know – that ‘I’m going to make a documentary about him’.
Well, after I met him in Cannes, I went back to London – and I’d only been there for one day before, like I’d never seen London, or the West End or anything. But, Greta Scacchi was a family friend of ours and I went down to her place and just kind of said in passing that I’d met this guy Michael White. And she was like ‘Oh my God! He cast me in my first short film, straight after drama school’. And she’s like, ‘you’ve read his book, right?’ And I was like, ‘No!
The whole time I was in Cannes, like, you know, I knew that he’d produced Rocky Horror, Monty Python. I’d worked that out by the end of the week. So I knew that he was like, this cool producer. But, it wasn’t until I started reading his book that – you know – Yoko Ono and all these other really interesting art movements – The Happenings – and you know, the stuff that I didn’t know about – Pina Bausch, the dancer. And reading all of that stuff in his book opened up my eyes to something – that he was not just a ‘party guy’ – how I kind of perceived him. I thought he was interesting ‘cuz he was like this older, eccentric, charismatic man. And then I realised that he was actually – that he had the credibility to back it up as a film.
Do you think that image of him as a lothario was carefully constructed? That he’s actually not like that, but likes to project himself that way?
Yeah, may be. I mean, he had – you know – he did have long relationships, but he did have many girlfriends. Because, I think – people, when they think ‘playboy’ – they think of someone being like a player. But Michael was so positive about women and their careers and their work, that I think that’s why, obviously a lot of women also as friends, were attracted to him. Yoko Ono said that people were just really producing male artists’ work at that time and Michael didn’t care if it was a man or a woman, he just thought she was good.
That’s really interesting, because the documentary does a very beautiful thing – where you’re talking about a life which is so different from a normal life – it’s so larger than life. But, at the same time, there’s a cruelty to it, because now he’s had a stroke, he’s got slurred speech. It’s almost as if in a cruel way, his lifestyle has come back to haunt him. That lifestyle is now over, and he’s had to deal with that.
Yeah. I mean it’s surprising that he doesn’t let all that – like I can’t even imagine what it would be like going out with him, if it wasn’t the way he is now. I mean, he’s still out. He was in Italy, the festival last week, out at the screenings. You know, he’s so organised. From the moment he gets up, he knows – he has routine: he goes and gets his coffee, he buys the early edition of , goes through and sees what’s on during the day. Then he’ll go and get the later version. So he knows and gets his information. All those things from the street. What’s happening, like, that day in town, what’s the hottest place to be. What I found really inspiring is that he’s still got all that drive to kind of not let any of the other restrictions get in the way of what he wants to do.
In terms of his personality, because he seems to be one of those who like to talk about themselves, but not really talk about themselves. How did you get to that inner person? Because, you know, an outward image is something else, which you can construct. But with the person himself, you almost went the long way around to everybody who knew him in order to find out who he is – because he doesn’t like talking about himself at all.
Yeah, I mean it was very hard with him because he would – you know – he would get grumpy sometimes. He didn’t want to participate all the time in doing interviews. He was happy for me to fly over to London to be making a film on him. And it would always come at the most unexpected times. Like, he would tell me a lot of stuff once I’d just turned the camera off. Which, I don’t know if he did that to annoy me or – (Laughs) – And also, he’s a producer. He was like – you got to stop filming, you’ve got too much footage, you’ve interviewed too many people, when is it gonna be finished and what more can you possibly need? And I think also, you know, when someone’s gonna tell you their lifestory in an hour and a half, you wanna talk about all the good things. But there were moments – like there at the end – where he admits that he’s old, more or less he says, which were kind of rare times. It was normally after I’d been with him for four or five days and – you know – we’d had a fight about the fact that he wasn’t opening up and then he kind of – just before I was about to leave – say one thing, that I was like ‘Ah! Thank God!’
Talking of interviews – you do have a lot of interviews, over 50 interviews!
How hard was it to manage all these interviews? Did you have a plan to get something out of each interview or..?
Well, the first like 20, I was doing by myself. Just when I had first started the film. And that was just anyone who Michael would introduce me to, anyone who would want to talk about him. And then, everyone I interviewed would say – Oh, have you interviewed this person, or this person, or this person, or you should meet this person. And then, Karen Johnson, who edited the film – her and Nicole O’Donohue, ‘cuz they worked together on Griff The Invisible – we all kind of sat down and went through the film and Karen had a rough cut. And she said like, you know, I think John Cleese would be great – and he was someone that I’d asked and he’d said ‘no’ originally – and she was like, ‘But he’s in Cambridge Circus and he’s in Monty Python’. And how there were these gaps and how are we going to talk about it if we don’t have anyone. And then, Michael Billington, who is a theatre critic from The Guardian. Because at first, I thought Aww, I don’t want someone to be – not boring – but I just thought that he might…But, his was like, one of the most amazing interviews – because he knew all of Michael’s productions and he had this insane vocabulary, he just kind of, punched them out. As much as I knew them – I was so polished with all his productions in order of years and dates and who was in it – and he just knew exactly all the same things. So, meeting him was really cool. But yeah, definitely towards the end, it was more targeted to, like, where they fitted into Michael’s story.
As you’ve said, this documentary came about in editing, it’s not scripted.
Which I find fascinating – that you can have a film completely in editing – after you’ve gathered so much footage, you realise that the film’s somewhere in there. We don’t know quite where yet, but there is one.
Yeah! Well, that’s the exciting thing about documentaries. It’s that you do. Well, they say that a film’s created in an edit – and I do believe working with an amazing editor – you really need to be working with someone great. And the thing about Karen is that she is a great documentary editor. She knew all those things that I was so new to. I knew about editing, but I didn’t know how it was made with documentary. She was also really good at making me well respected as well – because there were funny – you know, there were lots of crazy people I met that said lots of crazy things that I might’ve thought were funny, but she was like, ‘No, this is your first film. Want people to respect it as well as the director’. And that was choices like – we had a scene where I didn’t interview Jack Nicholson, but I went up to his house. I had filmed Michael talking about the fact that we’d just been to Jack Nicholson’s and he wouldn’t let me take the camera, which is funny, but you know, she said, we can’t have that in because the bit where you missed Mick Jagger at the start, you’ve learnt nothing throughout the film. Like, you haven’t learnt how to get the interview, so it doesn’t actually come across in the right way. You know things like that, which I might’ve thought were funny to put in but…yeah.
You’ve talked about Karen’s impact. Lisa’s impact has also been huge, because the archival footage in the documentary is amazing! How did she get around – it’s just so rare. The footage could’ve almost been lost, it’s amazing.
She’s like, she could really work for the C.I.A.
She really could! We got into London Film Festival without anything being cleared, and she literally was like, we’re gonna do this one at a time. And I’d go there at night time and sit with her. And she’d call people, and she just knew – because with everyone, we had to get a good deal. Because it was so expensive, all the footage. You know, tracking down people, call libraries, write these beautiful long emails. Lots of people responded really well because of Michael. There was one instance where we were like, we need to find these photos of Yoko Ono in this production that Michael produced, which weren’t anywhere! And then…one of the archival places found in a box all the originals and got so excited – the guys that worked there started scanning them and said, ‘Here they are! Here they are! We found them’. So, it was such a long process because – especially once got into London (Film Festival), we’d chosen what the archive was. It’s a bit random how much they cost.
Let’s touch on crowd funding. You did a successful crowd funding campaign. In terms of crowd funding, which has been a hit and miss affair, what do you think is important in terms of creating a successful crowd funding campaign?
Nicole and I did the campaign and I think we did well. Cameron Mackintosh had donated $25000 on the day it finished. So, we did end up making $75,000 off it. For me, I found it a bit – not soul destroying – but having to go and ask people for money, you can’t do that. And you realise all your friends who’ve got no money have put in money and then all the people who you kind of think have a lot of money wouldn’t. You know, they’re not really the ones who are supportive. But the great thing, I think about it, is that it’s really important for social issue documentaries, you know, to build an audience like that. Whereas, we had a lot of celebrities, so it was kind of like – why don’t have money for this film? Look who you’ve got! But the great thing I learnt from the whole experience is that you can talk about a film as it is happening – we’re making this, we’re doing this and update people on it. It’s the whole new social media engagement. Whereas before, people had to wait till the film had come out to promote it. And you still need to that like we’re doing that now – we want to talk and get the message out there. But it created a fan base. Like, we already had 2000 followers on Twitter and 800 likes on Facebook or whatever. But it just means that now that the film’s coming out, we can go back to those people because they’ve seen the journey. So, we can say, ‘Hey, we’ve finished the film!’
So, the product almost becomes not just the film itself, but all the activity leading up to it – and all the behind the scenes work that you have to do, which is really interesting. In terms of the final product, did you have an image of Michael in your mind that you wanted to project – because you had formed an attachment with him – or did it come about through the interviews?
I think it came about through the interviews. I did a whole series of interviews with him. My producer, Nicole O’Donohue, she watched the whole thing – she was there throughout the whole process of the editing. But, you know, within the last week, Karen had put the whole thing together and she just said, ‘Nah, he can’t talk for the first half an hour’. Because if he talks in the film – you know, he was so slow when he talked and it was so boring. So I thought, how do we get all of those productions that he’s done, because that’s the essence of him – having a career to be able to go and party and take photos of girls. You know, all that kind of stuff needs to be backed up. And she was like, ‘Nah, it has to be told through all the other people, otherwise it’s not going to work’. And once we cut him out of the first half an hour – great!
That’s a great decision. The person doesn’t feature extensively in first half an hour or so of the film, that’s just amazing!
Yeah. He comes back in after 22 minutes or so, after Anna Wintour and says, you know, my personality is this. You meet him at the start, you see him and he does one funny thing and then it’s just everyone else talking about him and getting all that. We didn’t want it to be like a historical documentary. We had to kind of get all that quickly, but that’s like, some of his most respected stuff, when you learn about it. May be not the most famous things, but yeah.
That segue really well to my second last question – about this documentary experimenting with style and form. It’s not an info-dump, it’s a narrative, yet there is a lot of information that is provided, although in an entertaining manner. So, it forms an interesting narrative, as opposed to information overload. We are gonna show you a story.
Yeah. I think some (documentaries) can be quite cinematic. I love The Sugarman documentary (Searching for Sugar Man). Bill Cunningham, we are working with the same distributor in the UK – his was another story that was a bit similar to Michael’s. No one knew who he was but he was just like this incredible man. I think it’s a great way for people to learn about people and what they’ve been doing, and not just like, as you were saying, be info dumps kind of stuff.
Where to from here?
It’s getting released 26th of June. I’m going tomorrow, down to Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane to do Q and A’s. One in each city. And then, it’s coming out later in September in the UK.
Great – thank you.
Cool. Thank you!
The Last Impresario hits cinemas on the 26th of June. It premiered at Sydney Film Festival.