Trailer: The Last Impresario
A documentary portrait of theatre producer Michael White, the most famous person you've never heard of.PT1M46S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-39iyy 620 349 June 4, 2014
Gracie Otto is dropping famous Hollywood names into our conversation like wedding confetti when a lone diner, squeezed into the table next to us, leans over and asks for her autograph.
Otto looks at her blankly: ''Oh, but I'm not Miranda.''
Light hand: Gracie Otto has just finished her first movie as a director. Photo: Steven Siewert
''I don't know that anyone has ever asked me for my autograph,'' Otto confesses when she is assured there is no mix-up.
Being the lesser-known of Barry's Otto's two fair-haired daughters, a glamour girl who has drifted between modelling, acting and film editing, Otto has never stopped long enough to make her name in any one profession.
Otto remembers once being interviewed at a red carpet fashion event. She was flattered by the attention, and it was a good 10 minutes before the interviewer gushed: ''I just loved you in The Great Gatsby.''
The Last Impresario: Michael White and Kate Moss. Photo: Michael White Collection
''I was so embarrassed because I thought he was talking about my films, and I was grateful for all the compliments he was giving. I said, 'You will see Elizabeth Debicki, when she comes, she is way taller than me'. Funny. I'm not recognised in the street or anything.''
All that may change as Otto makes her directorial debut with the documentary The Last Impresario, which is to screen at the Sydney Film Festival in the Documentary competition later this month.
''It's about my old mate Michael,'' Otto tells her admirer, inviting her to the festival screening. The film made its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October, drawing positive comparisons with the 2002 docu-memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, about the fabled Hollywood producer Robert Evans.
When Otto hears her autograph hunter is a costume designer, she adds her email address to the bottom of the autograph, her real one, not the bogus one she gives to pests.
It turns out the costume designer is the sister-in-law of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the powerful British theatrical producer who contributed $25,000 to the making of Otto's biopic about fellow impresario Michael White, a man who is, the film trailer suggests, the most famous person you've never heard of.
White produced the nude revue Oh Calcutta! during the censorious 1960s, the smash hit play Sleuth, and brought the musicals Annie, Andrew Lloyd Webber's first musical version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and A Chorus Line to London's West End. He was responsible for the original production of The Rocky Horror Show, which he helped make into a film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He also produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail and started the popular TV show The Comic Strip Presents, which gave the likes of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders their television breaks.
By the time Otto met him, however, he was broke, a frail showman refusing to act his age, in search of the next party although a stroke had impaired his speech and left him walking with the assistance of a cane.
They first met in Cannes two days before Otto's 23rd birthday in 2010. The septuagenarian chided Otto for wearing heels on the deck of a super yacht. He did, however, take her number and the next day invited her to Charles Finch's exclusive black tie dinner party at the Hotel Du Cap. Under-dressed and overwhelmed, she found herself seated at the same table as Mick Jagger, his late girlfriend L'Wren Scott, Dennis Hopper and Barnaby Thompson, the head of Ealing Studios.
On the way back from Cannes after that first meeting, Otto met up with White in London. He took her out to dinner at The Ritz Hotel. The artist Lucien Freud was dining at the next table. On her last night, White invited her to his apartment where she glimpsed a shy and retiring side to his public flamboyance. ''He lived in this tiny flat by himself, in Notting Hill, up an elevator, which is the complete opposite of the very lavish parties and dinners he attended and the famous people he mixed [with]. I had assumed he was this mega-loaded guy. And that's why I was so intrigued.''
On a second visit to London, via the Rome Film Festival, she flippantly raised the idea of a documentary as White drove her across town in his old Mercedes Benz to gatecrash the after-premiere party for the cast of The Kings Speech.
"I said to Michael in the car, 'I want to make a film of you'. He said no, and laughed. He thought it was really funny.
''At the party I remember Harvey Weinstein coming up in the clear glass elevator and coming straight over to Michael. Then Harvey came over to me and was like, 'How long have you been making this documentary on Michael White?' Michael had obviously pitched him the film. Harvey was asking who had I interviewed, asking all these questions, and I'm saying, 'It's very early days'."
For The Last Impresario, Otto interviewed 70 of White's friends and family in London, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney. She spoke to Yoko Ono, John Cleese, Anna Wintour and Kate Moss. Many of the Australians she interviewed – Greta Scacchi, Barry Humphries, Rachel Ward and Naomi Watts – are friends of the Otto family as well as White loyalists. Once she got Watts and Ono on board, everyone else followed. She spent a day with Jack Nicholson ''among his Picassos'' but he refused an on-camera interview.
The Last Impresario is a fond tribute to a man who shaped the course of British pop culture rather than a warts-and-all exposé. If there has been any criticism of the film, it is because it steps lightly around White's excesses. Otto says that drugs are only a small part of White's life; she wasn't about to tear his reputation apart when there was so much else to discuss.
For his part, White enjoyed the renewed attention but never wanted to speak about the negative aspects, including the business deal in which he lost the rights to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
White was born in Scotland in 1936 and was farmed out by his rich, inattentive parents to boarding schools in Switzerland and the Sorbonne in Paris. When Otto questioned him about his isolated childhood, he was stricken by acute asthma, a psychosomatic condition he developed at school; she surmises it is partly a defence mechanism.
His one vanity request was that she censor a scene in which he hobbles on two canes. She reluctantly agreed.
''I don't think he was ever someone who sought fame and recognition but I also think, once your career is over and you are in the later stage of your life, it feels nice to be recognised,'' says Otto.
In the glory days, White dated Naomi Watts and director Lyndall Hobbs and there is something of both women, loose limbed and straw blonde, in Otto as she chats in black skivvy and sneakers. To Otto, White is old world, charming and civil. For her, he opened a door to an intoxicating world of celebrities and industry movers and shakers.
White is six years older than Otto's father Barry Otto, a legend of the Australian stage, and the men are similar to a point. ''My dad is a bit naive, he's a bit 1800s, and he loves me, he's my biggest fan but he's not a dad dad. I mean that in the nicest of ways. He's never said, 'What you are doing is wrong, you are in trouble for doing this'. He wouldn't know half the stuff I get up to whereas my mum [arts educator Susan Hill] is very switched on to my every move.''
Though Otto came from an eminent theatre family, it was not inevitable that she follow her half-sister Miranda into the film industry.
A tomboy who played indoor soccer for Australia and softball for NSW schoolgirl teams, she originally wanted to be an elite sportswoman. (Her brother Eddie is a cricket coach at the Sydney Cricket Ground and a primary school teacher.)
''By chance, a teacher at Burwood Girls introduced a screen production elective and I became interested in that side of filmmaking – directing and editing – when I guess most people thought I would want to be an actor.''
Otto got her first start behind the camera as a film editor in Matthew Newton's independent feature Three Blind Mice, filmed over 14 nights when she and Newton were dating. The film brought her to Cannes for the first time when she was 21.
Living at home with her parents in a rambling Victorian home in inner-city Sydney in between saving for her next overseas trip, she says she'd like to do more acting but has ''never really nailed an audition yet''.
"I never get it unless [the part's] given to me. I haven't worked it out. Perhaps I try too hard. I need to be more relaxed about it.''
For the first two years of working on the documentary, before producer Nicole O'Donohue came on board, Otto was a one-woman film crew, earning quick money to interview White wherever he was in the world. Of the project's $450,000 budget, Otto estimates she has contributed $110,000 of her own money, and raised $48,000 for editing through crowdfunding, a process she found akin to begging, hated doing and vows never to repeat.
''The people who helped us with our campaign thought all Michael's friends would give us the money. But, really, people who have money usually don't give money away, that's why they are rich,'' says Otto. ''That's what I learnt.''
The night before our conversation Otto called White to complain he had forgotten her 27th birthday. She joked with him that she was now officially too old to be his friend. ''When I first met him, he didn't have any friends over the age of 25.''
White will not be in Sydney for the screening of The Last Impresario. ''It's a bit of risk, 24 hours on a plane, and he's not been well,'' says Otto. Faced with a choice of Sydney in winter and Italy in summer, White has opted to attend a biopic festival in Bologna which is dedicating a day to his films. ''Michael always knows where's the best place to be every time of the year.''
The Last Impresario screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 11 and is on general release from June 26.
Gracie Otto will attend a screening and Q&A session at the Palace Norton St, Leichhardt, on June 18.