Q&A: Gracie Otto on Michael White’s Star Status as ‘The Last Impresario’

Michael White helped influence the cultural scene of the 1970s with everything from theater, film, dance, fashion, and beauty—but you’ve probably never heard of him. In this personal documentary, Gracie Otto celebrates the living legend that produced over 200 shows and movies, nurtured countless careers, and brought productions such as Oh! Calcutta!, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Monty Python’s The Holy Grail to the world. With interviews from over 50 of his closest (celebrity) friends, The Last Impresario is a worthy tribute to a man who had it all, lost everything, and is still the life of the party.


What drew you to this particular story? How did you come to learn about Michael White?

Gracie Otto: I met Michael completely by chance at the opening night party of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The room was full of celebrities, but Michael was the center of attention well into the early hours of the morning. He asked for my phone number—and that was the beginning of my amazing journey of discovery of his incredible life history.


What an undertaking! This film is full of delightful cameos, from some of the leading names in entertainment and fashion. How did you go about constructing the Rolodex (20th-century reference!) necessary to create such an intimate portrait?

Gracie Otto: I love the Rolodex reference—I always say Michael was Facebook before Facebook! He had the best little black book in the world—I have seen them, pages and pages of famous names. I started with a list of names from Michael that included John Cleese, Lorne Michaels, Anna Wintour, Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono, which was terrifying. But with each interview I started to unravel his story, and was introduced to more people. I could have kept filming for years, and even in the editing process we had to cut so much of his story. There is enough footage for a 20-part series, like a history of British culture as seen through his life story.

Do you think such “impresarios” exist in today’s entertainment climate? Or was Michael White the product of a bygone era?

Gracie Otto: Michael was one of the greatest old-fashioned producer impresarios, one who raised all the money for his productions from his list of “angels” or individual investors. He was a gambler on talent—he took a personal risk on new ventures in theatre, dance and film. There are still impresarios like Cameron Mackintosh, but they are working in a completely different corporate environment with shows that cost many millions of dollars.


We’re pretty confident HIFF audiences will *love* Michael White. What resonance does his story have with today’s audiences? What would you like them to take away from your film?

Gracie Otto: People love this film and are inspired not only by Michael’s incredible career, but by his resilience, determination, love of life and eternal optimism! For older audiences it is like a trip down memory lane—the Sixties, happenings, Oh! Calcutta! and the breaking down of censorship, the excesses of the 70s and the Rocky Horror Show and the revelation of all the great comic actors who came out of The Comic Strip. My generation loves him because he inspires us to get the most out of every opportunity and have a good time doing it!


As a first-time feature filmmaker (though you’ve directed many shorts), do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Gracie Otto: I think it is important to work hard and believe in yourself. I had no funding for a long time, so would just go back to Australia and do a few jobs, and then spend the money I earned on airfare to pick up a few more interviews and follow Michael on his travels! It was a gamble for me too, but I learnt to be brave through being around Michael.

We are looking forward to having you in attendance at HIFF 2014. What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

Gracie Otto: I am hoping to meet up with a few of the people I interviewed for the filmlike Lorne Michaels and Naomi Wattsto thank them for the time they gave to tell their Chalky stories to a relatively naïve young filmmaker a couple of years ago. I hope they, and audiences, will be excited by the finished film.

The Last Impresario will have its US Premiere in the World Cinema section at HIFF 2014. Find tickets. Follow The Last Impresario on Facebook and Twitter.

Gracie-OttoGracie Otto is an accomplished Australian filmmaker. She graduated from Sydney Film School in 2006 and has substantial credits as a director, writer, editor and actress. The Last Impresario is Otto’s debut feature and premiered at the London Film Festival. Her five short films, Seamstress, La Meme Nuit, Tango Trois, Broken Beat, Kill Blondes, have won awards and screened internationally. She starred in and edited Three Blind Mice, which won the Fipresci Prize at the 2008 London Film Festival. Gracie has two feature dramas in development: Rue De Tournon and Girls In Hotels.