Setting the stage, part 1

Gracie Otto on Michael White and The Last Impresario.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Last Impresario director Gracie Otto on Michael White:
The Last Impresario director Gracie Otto on Michael White: "And everyone loved him. It was amazing." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Gracie Otto, in town for her DOC NYC screening of The Last Impresario, spoke about connecting with Naomi Watts and Yoko Ono, Robert Fox's Anna Wintour persuader, searching for John Cleese, editing with Karen Johnson and Susan Hill's suggestion of Greta Scacchi (White Mischief). She went on to dialing Lorne Michaels in, meeting Kate Moss, talking to Jack Nicholson off camera, watching John Waters' Polyester on a bus, a Gillian Armstrong idea and starting with Mick Jagger, all for the one-of-a-kind London artistic power player Michael White.

In Otto's captivatingly energetic debut feature, we see Rachel Ward, Barry Humphries, Wallace Shawn, Julian Sands, André Gregory, Richard O'Brien, Bill Oddie, Meryl Tankard, Nell Campbell, Jim Sharman, Robert Shaye, Nigel Planer, Miranda Darling, Michael Billington, Joshua White, Michael Morris, Jean Pigozzi, Lyndall Hobbs, among others, sing their praises for White.

Kate Moss:
Kate Moss: "She would like to do an interview, maybe, …"

The Last Impresario, with White's private photo albums and letters to accompany the impressive array of keenly focused interviews and archival clips serves up baskets full of treasure. Name a movie star or other public figure in swinging London and he probably took pictures of them at a party he hosted - from Prince Charles to Roman Polanski, from Nicole Kidman to Jack Nicholson, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Margaret Thatcher.

Anne-Katrin Titze: First of all, how is Michael?

Gracie Otto: Michael was in the hospital for the London premiere [in September]. I think he is coming to America in January. It was really upsetting because we had the premiere at his local cinema in London, which is around the corner from where he lives in Notting Hill and he got sick four days before in the hospital and the doctor wouldn't let him out. When the reviews came out he had them all pulled out on the hospital bed. He's very organised.

AKT: That does come across in the film.

GO: You forget that he's a producer. He's used to waking up in the morning and picking out the reviews, as a producer would.

Naomi Watts:
Naomi Watts: "And she was like, 'yeah, come tomorrow.' And then Yoko Ono, the next day said 'come to New York.' Once we had those two names it was just easier."

AKT: He won't be able to come for the New York screening, will he?

GO: No. And it's hard because he can't talk that well. When we talk long distance, he would call me and say something like 'Graydon Carter' and then hang up. Which means he wants me to interview Graydon Carter or invite him to the screening.

AKT: Did he get you in touch with all the people you interviewed for the film? People like Anna Wintour?

GO: She was actually through [producer] Robert Fox. I'd interview someone and they would say 'did you talk to this person?'

AKT: So it worked like a chain?

GO: Yeah. At first I did his family and friends and then a year into it, I thought I'd make a short film because I hadn't got any celebrities. And then I e-mailed Naomi Watts's assistant because I heard she was in Sydney. And she was like, 'yeah, come tomorrow.' And then Yoko Ono, the next day said 'come to New York.' Once we had those two names it was just easier.

AKT: Those two names opened the doors.

Mick Jagger with Jade Jagger:
Mick Jagger with Jade Jagger: "I put the camera down because I had met Mick the night before…"

GO: Yeah, it was a name dropping thing to kind of get everyone else and then you just keep adding to it.

AKT: And, of course, there's Michael's personality and attitude. The adjective used most often is 'warm'.

André Gregory calls his friend "complex, funny, and very, very warm."

GO: And everyone loved him. It was amazing. And someone like Robert Fox e-mailed Anna Wintour and blind copied me to an e-mail. She wrote back straight away and said she was so glad someone was doing this. Someone like Lorne Michaels who invited me to Saturday Night Live the other night, Michael gave me his number but without the first three digits. I thought it was either 917 or 213, I tried like every American connection. I did then and finally got in touch with him. It was always working with people's schedules.

Kate Moss said that she would like to do an interview, maybe, on like the 16th of November one year and I went over on the basis that hopefully she would turn up.

AKT: Could you do some of the interviews in clusters? At the Cannes Film Festival, for example, where you had them in the same place?

GO: Yeah, I ended up going by myself to London and do twelve interviews in four days. And then I got an e-mail from Anna Wintour saying that she could do it before Thanksgiving. So I thought I'd go to New York. I used to live in Paris and I went to Paris to hang out for four days.

Michael White:
Michael White: "Michael invited me after Cannes to London. And when I was there, my mom said, 'you should see Greta Scacchi'…"

And I found John Cleese's website, because he was with my dad's friend in a play. I e-mailed and sent a photo of Michael and [me]. And he was like 'hey, come to Monte Carlo'. I went to Monte Carlo the next day, on a Friday and interviewed him. He was great. Lovely. That afternoon they said Anna can do Monday in her office. You had to pretend you were in their city.

AKT: I like that your film has three beginnings for a man with nine lives. How did you come up with the idea to start three times?

GO: Well, my editor Karen Johnson, whom I met through my producer Nicole O'Donohue, they had worked together. Nicole got Karen on board. Karen is very anti-celebrity. She has chickens, she lives with her family in the country. We are such opposite personalities but we really clicked. We had a lot of conversations on what was important to my producer and editor. I thought some things were funny, like when some guy was making a sleazy comment.

Because it didn't show him in a good light, I thought that would be funny in the film, whereas they were like, 'you're a girl. This is a serious film, I want you to come across as a serious filmmaker.' You know, someone's flirting with someone, there's a lot of that stuff cut out, which I thought was kind of funny stuff, but apparently wasn't. There was a discussion if it was going to be in the movie.

One of our good family friends, Gillian Armstrong, the Australian director, said 'well, that's the movie. Your relationship with Michael. You guys met at a party and he's like 78 and you're like 22.' How I discovered him was always an important part of the story. Karen put that scene with Mick Jagger at the start.

Anna Wintour:
Anna Wintour: "She wrote back straight away and said she was so glad someone was doing this."

AKT: That is a funny moment. It's great because it contains so much at once.

GO: I put the camera down because I had met Mick the night before and had put the camera down. And then Michael scolds me because I don't film him. We wanted to start it in Cannes and end it in Cannes. There's a scene in the end that I always loved. You see his car and it's really smashed up. When you see him there at the beginning at the Hôtel du Cap, you'd think he's this wealthy gentleman who goes to great parties with amazing people. And at the end you see that he doesn't give a shit about that. He is in that shitty car that doesn't have a rear [side] view mirror.

AKT: Did you pick the clip from The Holy Grail? "Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberry?"

In The Last Impresario, John Waters speaks about the fun he had at the 1980 premiere of his Michael White produced film Polyester and the Odorama card at Cannes and John Cleese has some Monty Python And The Holy Grail rainy day memories.

GO: Yeah, because it also says "You English pigdogs." When we first played the scene at the London Film Festival, I swear, in the audience no one laughed. That was always a line at the test screenings in Australia where everyone would laugh. I hadn't actually seen Monty Python. I had seen one of the Monty Python films years ago. I watched Polyester on this bus to Baltimore to interview John Waters. A lot of it was last minute.

AKT: Making this film was really an education for you.

GO: Michael White University. My mom, Sue Hill, was a really big help on the film. My father Barry [Otto] is an actor and I grew up in that theatre world. When I first met Michael in 2010, before you had internet on the phone, I asked my mom to google him. And she said that he was a legitimate producer who did Rocky Horror [Picture Show] and Monty Python [And The Holy Grail].

The Last Impresario
The Last Impresario

AKT: That's a good beginning for this project - you having your mother google what turned out to be the subject of your film.

GO: Michael invited me after Cannes to London. And when I was there, my mom said, 'you should see Greta Scacchi, a really good family friend of mine'. Now her daughter and I are like best friends. So I caught the train down to her place in Sussex and I said 'oh I met this guy who is like old and cool.' And she [Scacchi] said 'you don't know who he is? He started my career! I was in my first short film as Hot Girl Number Two.' Then I read his autobiography called The Last Impresario. We rereleased the book. It's out on Kindle right now.

AKT: You don't mention the autobiography in the film at all.

GO: No. He wrote that up until 1984 so it finished near the Rocky Horror heyday. I read it and the book started when he was 24 and I had just turned 23, I think. I learned so much what an actual great producer he was.

AKT: The title of the film he made with Greta Scacchi is White Mischief. The title gets a new meaning after seeing yours. It's a great film. I interviewed John Hurt a few months ago about Snowpiercer.

GO: Snowpiercer, I really loved it. I hate going to a movie not knowing what movie I'm seeing. If I'm going to a David Lynch film I like to know that I have to be ready for it. With Snowpiercer, I hadn't even watched the trailer. Now I want to see it again.

In part 2, Jack Nicholson opens up off camera to Gracie, Kate Moss presents an Olivier Award, Greta Scacchi’s daughter Leila abets in arranging a revealing meeting with Lou Adler and Michael White's style shines through.

DOC NYC Film Festival screening: Centerstage - 7:00 PM, Thu. Nov. 20, 2014 - SVA Theatre; Scheduled to appear: Director Gracie Otto, producer Nicole O'Donohue with Naomi Watts expected.

The Last Impresario opens in the US on December 5.

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