Who’s Michael White, you ask? According to Gracie Otto – actress, model and now film maker – he’s the most famous person you’ve never met. After a chance encounter at the Cannes Film Festival one year, a 23-year-old Gracie got to know 74-year-old Michael and thought the story of his life was so interesting that she could make a documentary about it. And after getting a nudge from no less than Harvey Weinstein, that’s exactly what she did.
“I happened to be sitting next to him at a party and we started talking. Then he just took me under his wing. There were all famous people coming up to say hello so I obviously knew he was important but didn’t actually know who he was. I went to google him as soon as I got home but the internet in France is really crap, so I knew he was a producer but I didn’t know who he was.
He invited me on Paul Allen’s yacht and I was like, ‘who’s Paul Allen?’ and he said, ‘Microsoft’, and then took me on this enormous, seven storey boat with yellow submarines and the last Andy Warhol painting. And then he was like ‘we’ve got the Chanel party tonight, and amFAR which is the big charity ball, the Vanity Fair party.’ He had this whole schedule planned for me.”
Andy Warhol © Michael White Collection
White is a theatre producer, responsible for over 300 productions including the Monty Python series and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His little known specialty, however, appears to be spotting talent in a crowd, like Gracie Otto, for example. As Anna Wintour says in the film, “Michael was the first one to speak to me about Kate Moss.”
Michael White and Kate Moss © Michael White Collection
White suggested Otto visit him in London. She was living in Paris at the time with a friend, having co-written a screenplay about two girls living in Paris.
“And I thought, why not? So then he did the same thing with me in London, took me out to parties and interesting places, going to the West End, and having grown up in the theatre I thought it was all really interesting. Then there was the film festival in Rome and I thought I’d go because I’d read his book, Empty Seats, and it was such an insight into his life. It was, you know, stories about the Marilyn Monroe era. He was a young boy putting on plays and people like her and James Dean would come and see them, so it was really interesting. We were out to dinner one night and I told him I wanted to make a documentary on him and he said ‘that’s a really silly idea’.”
The words come tumbling from Gracie in a rush because I can only imagine that’s exactly what this time must have felt like, an unbelievably fast set of coincidences and fabulous circumstance to a young girl starting out in film who happens to meet one of the biggest creatives in the biz.
Michael White © Michael White Collection
“My friend, [publicist] Jess Carrera, was looking after Geoffrey Rush for The King’s Speech and Michael was driving all over town looking for the party. I didn’t realize he had FOMO, I thought he was doing it for me and I was like, ‘I don’t have a ticket and I’m fine to just go home,’ but he insisted. We got there and he pushed his way in and they were like ‘oh Mr White, come on in,’ And then Harvey Weinstein arrived and -”
At this point I had to stop her. Harvey Weinstein arrived? She’s just casually thrown the most famous studio head in Hollywood into the conversation as though this was all in a day’s work.
“Oh well I’d met him before just quickly at Cannes in the foyer at the hotel, but he didn’t remember,” Gracie says. “He was in a glass elevator, if you can imagine a glass elevator in the middle of a party, shooting up to the top level where we were. He got out and headed straight over to Michael and they were chatting. And then he came over [to me] and said ‘Tell me more about this film you’re making about Michael’.
So that’s how Gracie knew she had the green light for the project, which, after that point, took on a life of its own.
Michael White and Susan Sarandon © Michael White Collection
“I always use the analogy of swimming from Bondi to Bronte and that if you’re halfway there you kind of think, oh I might as well just keep on going. That’s how it felt. People knew about it so there was more pressure to make it good. I think when Nicole O’Donohue came on board as a producer I thought ‘right, I have a producer now’ so that made it more real.”
And did Michael White – or Harvey Weinstein – help with the funding?
“We crowd-sourced off IndieGogo and raised $45,000, then got a few big cash donations, one from Cameron Mackintosh, a theatre producer in the UK. We raised $70,000 all up which allowed us to get to post, but not for all the archive material we used.”
Karl Lagerfeld and Manolo Blahnik © Michael White Collection
Otto did over 70 interviews for the film, including people like Yoko Ono, John Cleese, Naomi Watts, Kate Moss, Lorne Michaels, Greta Scacchi, Barry Humphries, Bill Oddie and Rachel Ward. She was a one-woman film crew who travelled all over the world, taking small jobs to pay for her trips, shooting everything herself. Once the funding came through, she was able to get an editor on board and finish the movie.
Margaret Thatcher and Naomi Watts © Michael White Collection
On Yoko Ono
“It all kind of fell into place. Nicole found Yoko Ono’s office through IDMB and rang them. A guy answered saying “Yoko Ono’s office” we couldn’t believe it. She organized the interview immediately, and once we started to get a few people on board it got easier.
On Anna Wintour
“We’d set something up with Anna Wintour which I thought was amazing, but then Hurricane Sandy happened and it was delayed. They said Anna could maybe do it after Thanksgiving but we’d run out of money and I couldn’t afford to sit around and wait. So I hopped on a train to go and interview John Cleese in Monaco when I got the email saying Anna could do it on Monday in New York. So of course after interviewing John I had to get back on an eight hour train to Paris and leave my bags in my friend’s pub, fly to New York and interview Anna.
She was really cool, she turned up early. I didn’t know anyone in New York and had hired lighting guys from a camera shop to come and help. They got stuck in traffic so were there half an hour late. But I had told them to come an hour before the interview so it ended up being okay. I think it was more the people in her office who seemed more nervous about everything. I’d heard she didn’t like small talk so I was setting up things for a minute and she was just staring at me and said ‘who have you interviewed?’ and I said ‘look you’re my 64th’, and she just laughed, so that broke the ice. She was really nice.”
Anna Wintour and John Galliano © Michael White Collection
On Kate Moss
“Michael got that interview for me. He’d given me her number and said ‘don’t call her afterwards and want to go out with her or try and be friends’ and I was like, ‘as if Michael!’ as though I was going to try and party with her. I’d gotten in touch with her assistant and they said she’d probably do the interview, but when you’re buying a ticket to fly across the world and interview someone, probably is a bit risky.
I set up other interviews to do while I was there, and then my friend who works at Bulgari got me the penthouse suite to do the interview in. I was like, oh my God she’s probably not even going to turn up and they’re going to charge me for the room! Because they’d let me have it on the basis that Kate Moss was to the hotel. But then she turned up and was just like, ‘I’m going to do my makeup’ and was so cool.”
Johnny Depp and Kate Moss © Michael White Collection
On her best interview:
“I think the one that surprised me the most was Michael Billington who was the theatre critic at The Guardian. I thought it was going to be quite bureaucratic and everyone else had been so colourful. He knew everything about Michael’s career and it all just rolled off the tongue, using words I still don’t even understand some of the vocab he used, he was just so intelligent.”
While Gracie hasn’t got any projects in the pipeline as yet, she’ll begin shopping around her script about two girls living in France, once her work for The Last Impresario is done. Her proudest moment? White recently got awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Olivier Awards and Gracie likes to think it was due to the film keeping his name alive.
“Michael is an observer, he’s very intelligent and rather eccentric as well I guess. We always had a really good friendship, I think he really liked having a wingman around to go to parties with. He’s still going strong. I got a voicemail message from him this morning saying he was at a party in Italy and apparently a girl chased him down the road wanting to smoke a joint with him! He was calling to say thank you.”
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