The Last Impresario director Gracie Otto with producer Michael White at the Hôtel du Cap during the Cannes Film Festival.
Jack Nicholson opens up off camera to Gracie and she thinks about Easy Rider, Kate Moss presents an Olivier Award, Greta Scacchi’s daughter Leila George abets in arranging a revealing meeting with Lou Adler, and Michael White's style shines through. The good advice Michael gave Gracie when meeting again Quentin Tarantino's producer Lawrence Bender rings true for anyone who finds themselves in her place.
Gracie Otto's The Last Impresario starts out by recounting how she met White at the opening night party of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. He gave her his number to come to dinner and she decided to make a film about the man everybody famous was flocking to and most people had never heard of.
Gracie Otto in chilly New York: "Michael is an inspiring person. It's so true what his family says - he never complains." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: The first beginning to your film is about the two of you meeting. The second introduces this amazing array of people who worked with Michael or are his friends. And the third one is about his childhood. You give us the timeline but the audience has to put two and two together. When he was a seven-year-old boy who was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, the year was 1943, in the middle of the war. It was not only his health that presented a danger to him.
Gracie Otto: Yeah. I think he went to a German speaking school and then because his asthma was really bad, no, actually it was a French speaking school and then he needed to go higher up the mountain to a German speaking school. It's kind of crazy to be in two kinds of schools like that and having to learn the languages.
AKT: And also, he is from a Jewish family. You show a shot of the German school ID in the film. There is this seven-year-old Jewish boy sent all alone, suffering from asthma, from England so much closer to Germany in 1943. You didn't want to go any further into that?
GO: It was hard because, you know, he is old. He has had such a long life and he had such an incredible life. There were so many productions that we didn't have time to put in. His sister's [Leonie Van Ness] interview was always a powerful one. She didn't want to be filmed, she just wanted to do audio. There was a day when Michael was talking about how great his parents were and his childhood. And then I went to see her and she had this guilt. She's older than him and still feels guilty about stuff from childhood. She still feels bad and they still don't talk - it's a generational thing.
AKT: I liked the placement of the interview with his sister much later in the film and not added to the part when you discuss his childhood.
Gracie Otto with Jean Pigozzi in Cannes.
GO: That was the editor [Karen Johnson].
AKT: Michael says at one point in your movie, 'I don't like the tone of those questions.' He wants things to be positive.
GO: He thought things like his health would be boring. It was such a small part of his life. Although it is a really big part of his life now. A friend told me about seeing him the other day, like walking around in London. I was like "was he driving?"
AKT: That's the big question - is he driving?
GO: In February he found out that he was getting the Olivier Award for his lifetime achievement.
AKT: You added some footage of that at the end.
Kate Moss at the Royal Opera House in London on April 13, 2014 presented Michael White the Olivier Special Award for outstanding achievement.
Kate Moss with Johnny Depp - Moss with Nigel Planer presented Michael White the Olivier Special Award for outstanding achievement in 2014.
GO: Yes. So I thought, no way he was going to die. He was up there with his wheelchair. He hates the wheelchair. When Kate Moss gave him the award, he was so weak, he had black bruising on his arms and you see him shaking, because it's so heavy [the award]. After that he got better and went to Italy.
AKT: Someone says about Michael that he was "riding the Zeitgeist". Is that something you want to do too? Is that even something one can aspire to? Or is it always a byproduct?
GO: Michael is an inspiring person. It's so true what his family says - he never complains. I've been complaining all morning because it's so cold [and a super rainy New York morning].
AKT: His comments on age are interesting. He says people are lying when they say there's something good about it. The eternal Peter Pan.
GO: The only other person who said that to me was Jack Nicholson. I went to his house one day with Michael and he said ‘you wanna know what’s good about getting old?’ I was like ‘what?’ He was like: ‘Nothing.’
AKT: Why did Jack Nicholson not want to be in the film?
Michael White with Jack Nicholson: "It was one of those moments when you thought about Easy Rider."
GO: One day, Michael would pick me up on a Sunday morning. I don’t think I even had a shower. He was outside my place and said we are going somewhere and as we were driving up to Mulholland, I thought we might be going to see Jack Nicholson. I asked Michael where we’re going and he said ‘you can’t bring the camera.’ So Michael said to leave it in the car and then Jack is there in a Rocky Horror T-shirt. And I was like ‘I hate you, Michael.’
They were talking about life and age. And I was kind of observing, sitting on a leopard skin couch with like three Picassos behind me. It was crazy. It was one of those moments when you thought about Easy Rider and he is such a nice cool person. I asked him about being in the film but I had interviewed only one person. It was bad timing.
AKT: At times I had the feeling you really had to charm people into saying what they are saying. With Lou Adler you were very good at making him reveal so much.
GO: Well, he was the 65th interview. He was the last with the exception of Anna Wintour. I was in LA to see a friend who was having a baby. I was staying with Leila, Greta Scacchi’s daughter, at the Bel Air Hotel and we were in gym clothes going to the gym and Lou Adler walked into the hotel on a Friday night. And I had been trying to track him down and said ‘Lou’. And he looked at Leila and [me] and was like ‘Hi’. I said I e-mailed him and he never wrote back. So he said ‘do you want to come to my house in Malibu tomorrow?’
Nicole Kidman - Michael White's photos often reveal an expression we haven't seen before.
What I wanted to show was Michael as a business man. He [Adler] also had lots of really lovely things to say about Michael. I guess, I’m a really bad listener and interviewer. It’s something I had to learn, to not talk when you are interviewing someone. I found people were not intimidated by me because they thought I didn’t know what I was doing.
AKT: It got them to let their guard down. Michael says to you when you ask him about friendships that you have ‘an Australian way of looking at things.’
GO: Everyone laughs at that line! I don’t know, are they laughing at me or with me?
AKT: How did you feel about it? You put it in the movie. He seems amused by you.
GO: Yeah, he would be. The two things he taught me, I think are really good lessons. He taught me to never wear high heels on a boat. The other thing was, I met Lawrence Bender, Tarantino’s producer, maybe ten times. One night in LA , Michael and I were walking into this restaurant for dinner and Lawrence Bender came in and was like ‘Michael, hey”. And [to me] he was like ‘Lawrence’ and I said ‘Yeah, we met before in Cannes.’ Michael threw his walking stick up in the air – ‘Never say to a guy who says they don’t remember you that you’ve met before.’ That was good advice.
John Cleese with Nigel Havers: "And I found John Cleese's website, because he was with my dad's friend in a play."
AKT: One last comment about Michael’s great style from the pink cashmere sweater to the beautiful sunglasses.
GO: Yeah, when we were driving to Jack’s he had a great crushed velvet jacket on. He was also a great skier and a great cook. And also at packing. I think six of the girls said that he was great at packing. He has great style and is still cool in his wheelchair with his sand shoes.
In part 1, we 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). Dialing Lorne Michaels in, meeting Kate Moss, 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.
The Last Impresario opens in the US on December 5.