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Gracie Otto – Running the Show

By James Hutton on December 20, 2018 in Other

Likes to get blotto, by Jeremy Greive

To suggest Gracie Otto is a newcomer to the world of film would be downright contemptuous. Not only is she the daughter and sister of Australian theatrical royalty, she’s an esteemed director in her own right, with numerous television commercials, short films and a critically acclaimed feature-length documentary to her name. She’s also a long time supporter of Flickerfest, a little local film festival that has, over the years, not only supported her, but many others of her ilk. She has once again signed on to be a Flickerfest ambassador in 2019 and her latest short film, Desert Dash, is part of the festival’s official selection. The Beast caught up with Gracie during the month…

How are you this morning, Gracie?

Oh, you know, not bad. Sitting here in Bronte, the sun is out. It’s finally getting to summer. The weather has been shit for six months.

Where are you living now?

I live in Petersham. I was living in LA the last few years. Here you have wind; there’s no such thing as wind in LA. If it says it’s 22 degrees, it’s 22 degrees.

Were you living on the beach?

No, I was in West Hollywood. It’s got that dry desert heat. When I got back here I was struggling. In LA it’s cold for two weeks and you’re like, “Ugh.” Here, usually you think, “Oh, it’s cold in August,” but I was like, “It’s been cold since April and it’s now November.”

Where are you originally from?

I’m from Petersham in Sydney. I grew up there. I’m making a documentary on my dad so I’ve gone back to live at the family house.

Are you going to move to the beach?

Oh, I’m ready to leave any day now. No, it’s been good.

You’re one of Australia’s best known and most respected young directors, with over 10 years of successful film making to your credit and you’re only 31 years old… 31?

Yeah, I am.

You were born four years after Michael Jackson released Thriller; how did you get so much done in so little time?

I don’t know if I’ve got that much done. I was just looking at my dad’s CV the other day. My editor was like, “Look at his CV,” and I was like, “How did he get that much done?” I’ve always just been interested in different things. I played soccer when I was growing up and lots of sport, and then I got into wanting to do acting and then I was kind of like, “No, I want to be a director.” Then I wanted to edit. Then I did stand-up comedy. Now I kind of like to do everything, which I think you can.

You did stand-up comedy?

Yeah, in LA for about two years, but I haven’t done it here so I can’t really say I’m a comedian. I think I got to 30 and I just really wanted to (try doing it). All of a sudden you get to 30 and you think, “Oh, what do I want to do with my life?” Or, “What have I been doing?” Or, especially as a girl, “Oh, should I be having babies?” I just thought I really wanted to do comedy and I’d never done it. People would always say, “You’re funny,” and I thought, “Let’s just give it a go.” It was a really good self-reflection.

That was to an American audience?

Yeah. I think my comedy resonated more there because it was about being an Australian in America. Whereas here I’d be like, “Americans are dickheads,” and everyone is like, “We know,” right? Generally speaking.

You made your feature-length directing debut with the 2013 documentary The Last Impresario, which is about prolific British theatre impresario and film producer Michael White. Can you walk us through the process of making that film? How long did it take?

That took a good four years. I met Michael White in 2010 and he was 75. He died when he was 80. He died about a year and a half after the film came out. In a way I knew he wasn’t going to last that long but it was an amazing time to meet someone at the end of their life like that. I mean, he changed my life. He introduced me to everyone and was such an inspirational person. He taught me how to live a good life – it’s not always work; you have to have fun as well.

Yeah. I met him and he was quite ill, but he still knew how to have a good time. He was still reading local papers every day, like the Evening Standard or whatever, seeing what was happening. He would be the kind of person in the Eastern Suburbs who’d read The Beast and be like, “Oh, I’ll go out and see that tonight.” He was someone who, despite all the stuff in his life that wasn’t going well – his age, his health and everything like that – he still was so happy to be alive. That’s why he was inspirational. We would go out in London, for example, and it would be snowing, it’d be freezing cold, and after five nights out I would just be like, “No way, I’m staying in,” and he would be like, “Let’s go to this theatre thing,” or, “Let’s go somewhere else.” He just really lived life. I think when you meet someone who just really appreciates life and lives it to the fullest, it’s a very amazing kind of thing.

Is it difficult to make a decent living in film these days?

Yeah. It’s hard to make a decent living in anything these days. For me, you kind of have to do what you’re passionate about. I’m trying to get more into attaching on TV, be- cause I feel like that’s where it’s at. I’ve been doing a lot of TV commercials this year, especially for Bonds. That’s been great because you get to work with really amazing creatives. It’s a shorter thing, and it’s a good way to test out ideas and work with amazing people. When I do a short film, basically everyone works for free on it and it’s like a labour of love. There are the two different styles. It’s like learning your craft somewhere and then putting it into what you love.

Do you need to have a commercial project on the go in order to be able to do the passion projects?

Yeah, yeah, you do.

Do you think the government should be funding arts or do you think that artists should be funding themselves?

They’ve definitely cut a lot of the arts money. I think Screen Australia obviously has great initiatives and there are a lot of things being put in place like ‘Free the Bid’, which I’m a part of. It’s basically where these women started this thing so that when you pitch on ads, they go to the companies and say, “Well, if there are three people pitching an ad, why can’t at least one of them be a female?” All these companies have signed on saying, “We promise you we’ll have at least one female.” It’s just a website that has every female creative on it, around the world now. It’s just to say, “Hey, if you didn’t know there were female directors, here they are and here’s the website to go to.”

Is the process of funding a feature film punishing? How does it work?

I haven’t done a feature, I’ve only done a documentary. I think films can take 10 years to get up, and I’m really impatient and I’ve had to learn in the last 10 years that had I stuck to just pursuing something it might have actually happened. I got impatient and moved into documentaries. I always say that making a feature film is like climbing a mountain. You kind of climb up and you’re like, “Oh, what about the money to make it?” Whereas making a documentary is like jumping out of a plane. It’s like, “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got the subject, we’re filming. It’s hap- pening.” Then you’re like, “How are we going to finish this? We have no money.” Then it picks up momentum because people are like, “What? You’re shooting that? It’s really happening?” You’re like, “Yeah, I’m just getting through it.”

You’ve directed five short films?

Yeah, and I’ve done heaps of ads and fashion films.

All of your short films have been screened at big international film festivals; do you prefer making shorter films?

I hadn’t made a short film for 10 years until I made Desert Dash this year, because I’ve been doing a lot of fashion films with SIDE-NOTE and Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, which was good, because I was working with celebrities and working with very limited time. Being on set they’re like, “You’ve got 20 minutes to shoot a three-minute film,” and you’re like, “Okay, cool.” So there are different skill sets you learn. With TVCs you have a lot more money. With a short film you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got none of that. I’ve got to just scramble.”

So I hadn’t made a short film for 10 years, but this one was interesting because I wrote and directed and edited and produced and acted in it. I hadn’t acted in 10 years either. It was pretty stressful.

Was your surname and your lineage – being the daughter of Barry Otto and sister of Miranda Otto – a help in getting your foot in the door early in your career? Did you milk it?

No. Obviously if I say no, people will be like, “Yeah, right,” or whatever. I grew up in an industry where our best family friends were all directors and actors, but obviously then being in America I was just a complete nobody. I think it’s always a double-edged sword, in a way, because you’re like, “Oh, I’ll never live up to what they did.” There are a lot of people who feel like that, whereas I kind of see my family as though we’re all very individual – we’re not in competition with each other.

I’ll be on TV sets now and I’ll have people who are 60 who are working and they’ll be like, “I worked with your dad 30 years ago on this film,” or whatever. I always try to get lots of people from different ages when I’m choosing my crew, because I love working with them all. I just worked with Russell Boyd, who shot Master and Commander, and he’s 80. He’s a cinematographer and I just wanted to know about all of the little things he had, little wooden clipboards and all those kind of things.

It’s important to work with up-and-coming people as well as really established people, because that’s the thing in any industry; people get to a certain age and everyone forgets because there are a lot of new people making films now. We’ve got all these amazing people who made the most classic Australian movies who are sitting there going, “Yeah, I’d love to do an ad,” and you’re like, “Really?”

Did your old man actually ever direct?

No, he just acted.

Did anyone else in your family direct?

No, they were all actors. Actually, Darcey, my niece – Miranda’s daughter – acted in Desert Dash, my short film at Flickerfest.

Can you share your thoughts on the current state of the Australian screen industry?

Oh, I’ve got lots of thoughts. But, in brief, I think things are obviously improving for marginalised people – females, everything like that. It is moving forward but still needs more. My mum, she used to work at the women’s and arts festivals back in the ’80s and she was like, “There hasn’t been much progress. We were doing the same stuff that you guys are doing now to try to get women a voice,” or whatever. I do think we’re also really lucky with the government support we have with Screen Australia and places like that, because you don’t get that in other countries. I learnt that in America.

According to the Australian Writers’ Guild, the number of Aussie films and TV shows on Netflix dropped seven per cent in the last year; do you think we need quotas for Netflix and other mediums to guarantee a certain amount of local content on our screens?

Yeah, I think so, definitely. It’s interesting coming back from America because America is so far ahead with all the apps and having Apple TV and things like that. My friend and I were paying for all these different subscriptions – Netflix, Prime, Hulu – then, coming back to Sydney I was like, “Oh my God! We have to watch something at 7pm because it’s on at 7pm?” You’re so used to being like, “I want to watch this whenever I want.”

I only got Apple TV the other day because I would go to my friend’s house and realise that I couldn’t get SBS on Demand, or ABC iView. Now, because I want to work more in TV, I’m starting to watch more Australian shows – because there wasn’t really that choice in America – and I’m like, “Wow, we make really good stuff and our stories are really interesting.” You do need to go out and be like, “If Breath is opening, we’re going to go and see that movie on the opening weekend because it will help. We can see the big blockbuster one the following week,” or whatever.

I think Graeme Mason, the head of Screen Australia, was on ABC yesterday talking about it – how, with independent films and all that, people would rather watch that on an on-demand thing at home and spend their money on the bigger films when they go out.

Did you enjoy Breath?

Yeah, I loved Breath. I’m actually going to see my friend Jamie who produced it. His office is just down the road here.

When you’re in America, do you see much Australian content on the box?

I think you have to go searching for it more. You have to get a VPN, log in, pretend you’re in Australia and download. It’s the same if you live in France. I used to live in France and you’d watch a lot more French things, obviously. I do feel like now there are a lot more opportunities because there is so much stuff being made here now. There is a shift happening from film to TV, which has already happened in the States.

Is it actually that important to have local content? Some people couldn’t care less, right?

I think it definitely is because we have to have culture. We already have an amazing culture that goes largely unrecognised with our Indigenous community. My friend was talking about that the other day, which is so true. She’s like, “Why don’t they sing an Indigenous song when we sing the national anthem?” Of course we all should.

How important are the ABC and SBS?

Incredibly important, because otherwise we’ll have Trump News.

What are your top five Aussie films of all time?

I loved Picnic at Hanging Rock. Russell Boyd shot that. Wake in Fright is an Australian film – I know it was an English director – but that’s definitely one of my favourite films. I think the film Dad did, Strictly Ballroom, was a great one. Obviously, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Those kind of movies – so representative.

What about Two Hands?

I love that film, yeah.

Do you ever get star-struck working with famous people or are you immune to that?

I get excited meeting people that I really respect. I know famous people who, when they meet famous people, go nuts. You’re like, “What? Really? You?” I had Warren Beatty come to my stand-up show. That was a highlight because I’ve always really liked him. There’s a guy, Gustavo Santaolalla, who’s Argentinian, a composer, who was at Cannes six years ago and I had dinner with him. He would have been someone that I was like, “Oh my god, I loved meeting him.” No one knew who he was at Cannes, you know what I mean? But that was a highlight for me.

You were a talented sportswoman back in the day. You represented Australia and NSW in indoor soccer and represented NSW in softball; are you still playing much sport?

No, definitely not.

Why definitely not?

I don’t know. I go to the gym and stuff. I got into yoga. I get into running at the gym. I think, for me, there’s only so much time in life and it’s really good to try new things. Obviously it’s good to be fit and really enjoy it, but I think in school it was such a competitive thing and I kind of got to the top of the level I wanted to get to and I was like, “Cool, now I really want to explore film.” It’s the same as last year, being like, “Yeah, I really want to try stand-up comedy and do that.” Sometimes I think, “F**k, I’d really love to compose music.”

Do you play an instrument?

I used to play music at school. I played bass clarinet. I used to love the idea of composing. I feel like we all should have to go back to school at 30 and it should all be paid for, to just do whatever you want to.

I didn’t do history past year 10. I know my history is limited. It’s so far behind what an average person should know about the world and the wars.

I don’t know anything about wars…

I couldn’t tell you who was in the war. That’s bad. But, I could tell you amazing directors from China, or whatever. And that’s why I find documentary really interesting because you get to really explore.

Do you have an opinion on current moves towards pay parity in sports?

Yeah, I mean, that’s obviously hard. The great thing is, when I played sport you didn’t see it on TV – women’s sport, I mean. At the InStyle Awards recently I met the woman who runs one of the big male AFL teams. She was the person that said, “If you don’t make female AFL a reality, I’m going to cut all my funding.” And they did (make it a reality). That’s why you see women on posters in Melbourne for the AFL. That’s so cool. We didn’t have those people to know about before.

You spent a year living in Paris; how was that?

Yeah, I was 18 and I’d just finished school. I studied French at school and I wanted out of this country, and I wanted to learn the language. There was a girl from my school who didn’t put much effort into French. She went to France for four months and got like 100 in HSC French, just from hanging out at bars there. I was also really interested in French cinema at the time.

Do you spend much time in the Eastern Suburbs?

Not as much time as I’d like to. I’d always wanted to live in the Eastern Suburbs. My sister’s got a place in Double Bay. Her husband Pete’s got a place in Coogee. I have lots of friends who live in the Eastern Suburbs.

What do you love about this area?

My friend from Russia, who is a model, is coming here in December. I was like, “You have to stay in Bondi.” Do you know what I mean? And, she’s like, “Oh, really?” I was like, “You’ll never go home. You’re going to meet an Australian. They’re going to be like, ‘Holy shit!'” She lives in LA and Bondi is just like LA in that way. But, she also has a very funny sense of humour, which Americans sometimes don’t have. That’s why I enjoy coming back to Australia and working with Australians – the laughs we have. In America, you say something and someone’s like, “Oh, that’s funny.” You’re like, “Why didn’t you laugh? You just said that was funny.”

Do you have any favourite local haunts around here?

I used to hit up a little bar in Tamarama that was a little pizza place a few years ago. I used to like going to Speedo’s in North Bondi and get- ting the coconut smoothie thing they do and getting that last bit of tan, back when I used to tan. I definitely spend a lot more time here in the summer.

What shits you about the Eastern Suburbs?

Would you say it’s not as multicultural as other areas?

Maybe not the permanent population. If you go out to Lakemba or Auburn it’s obviously a lot more diverse…

What I used to hate about the Eastern Suburbs was that so many of the people from this area have never ventured out of it. I played soccer and softball, so I was going to Narrabeen every day, Lakemba, heaps of different places. I really knew the city very well and I fell in love with it. The schools around here were so sheltered. But I don’t ever go out very far now either, other than Petersham. I always go east.

It’s hard enough getting someone from Bondi to go for a surf at Maroubra, let alone getting them to go to Auburn for dinner! Who’s the biggest legend you’ve ever worked with?

I’ve interviewed a lot of really interesting people. I’ve worked with them because they’re in my documentary, but it wasn’t like, “Hey, we’re working together.”

I thought Yoko Ono was pretty entertaining. I interviewed her for my documentary. Jack Nicholson is probably the most entertaining person I’ve met, but he’s not in my film. He was the one who told me I should do comedy, so that’s why I did it. I was like, “F*ck, if he thinks I should do it, I might give it a go.”

Are you interested in politics? Are you passionate about any particular issues?

Would it be bad if I said no? I feel like my family’s very ‘Labor’ – very left-wing, very political. I’d say I probably need to be a bit more vocal in my opinions. The younger generation, even when The Project started or whatever, it was really good because they really told you the news in a way that I understood. I definitely got more into it when I was in America because it was just so f**ked up. It was just interesting to see even the strongest Democrats I knew still thinking America was everything. I’d be like, “Where’s your favourite place to go on holiday in the world?” They’d be like, “Hawaii.” And you’re like, “But you’re the left of the left over there and you still think this country’s number one?”

Were you interested in American politics?

Oh, it’s so complicated to understand. I feel like I probably don’t voice my opinion enough be- cause I know what I believe in but if someone starts challenging me or having a fight, being like, “I’m vot- ing for this person,” or whatever, I don’t feel like I have the knowledge to back it up, even though I know why I’m a Labor supporter and why I care about other people over money. Sometimes, when someone wants to argue, it’s really hard to keep arguing.

Arguing with a rusted-on right or left-winger is a complete waste of time because you’re never going to change their mind. How do you feel about offshore detention?

That it’s the worst thing ever. Would anyone say, “Oh, what a f**king great idea?” It has to be horrible for humanity and we should be ashamed to be Australian.

Do you think we should have an open door policy, just let anyone come in?

Yeah, I do.

Anyone at all?


You’re the only person that actually admits that…

Really? That’s the Eastern Suburbs. I’m not from the Eastern Suburbs.

What about the economic migrants who just come here for a better standard of living? What if they started coming in the tens of thousands?

I’d be fine.

You’d be sweet with it?

It doesn’t matter where you come from and where you were born. If you’re leaving a country because you would rather risk your life to go somewhere else, your life is f**ked and that’s not your fault that you live there.

What about people coming here whose lives aren’t f**ked and they just want to come here anyway?

Yeah, but why not? We can go wherever we want as well.

What about the impact on the environment?

Like what? What are they going to do? We’ve got so much room here. When you think about how big our country is, there’s so much room for everyone.

You’re an ambassador for Flickerfest, is that right?

Yes I am. Once again Flickerfest will be kicking off the summer movie season under the stars at Bondi Pavilion from January 11 to 20, screening the best short films from Australia and the world. After that it tours to over 50 venues nationally from January to May. It’s grown so much!

Are you an ambassador every year?

No, but Flickerfest is really important to me. I had my first short film in this festival. My best friend and I made a trailer in 2009 and I was in it. It was a Jean-Luc Godard French one and I had a wig on. One of my best friends, Sam, who worked at the festival with Bronwyn and sadly died last year, did that with me.

Are you directing the Flickerfest trailer this year?

No, I’m not directing the trailer this year. I think it’s just a sad time for Flickerfest because Sam was working on the festival launch when she passed away last year. Actually, my short film Desert Dash is kind of based on my last conversation with her. Now we have an award at the festival called the Sammy Rebillet Award, named in her honour.

Bronwyn Kidd, the festival director, has done so well to keep Flickerfest running for so long; what is it that sets this short film festival apart from the rest?

She’s obviously so passionate about short films and has been for many years. She’s all about community. It’s also the leading Academy Accredited short film festival in Australia.

For me, I find everyone in the industry who works overseas or comes back, even if it’s Joel or Nash Edgerton or whoever, we all started making short films for Flickerfest and everyone comes back to support it because Bron- wyn was so supportive when we were starting out. It’s just grown and grown. She’s very proud of the fact that she loves short films. I think lots of people do short films to try to do features, but she just loves short films.

What’s the format for this year’s festival? How many films are there and from how many countries?

I don’t know how many countries, but they’ve had over 2,600 entries! It’s a record number this year.

Have you ever heard of a short film called Benny Unseen Hero?

Yeah, but what is it about again?

It’s about this guy that does amazing things but no one ever sees them…

Did you make it?

No, but it’s the best short film ever made. What advice would you give to aspiring youngsters trying to get a start as a director?

Well, I think now you can really do stuff with the amount of technology that’s out there that isn’t too expensive. I think if you want to do a short film, keep it simple, one location. I think people sometimes try to do these ambitious short films in ten locations. Everyone these days owns cameras, whether they’re cinema cameras or what- ever. I shot my documentary on a Canon 5D back in the day and it still went to cinemas. I think there are opportunities.

You shot your doco on a Canon 5D?

Yeah, in 2010. A Canon 5D Mk II. It was about $2,000 at the time. I went and shot 65 interviews around the world with two of those cameras. Now, because I work with Canon, I’ve got a C200, so I’m shooting my dad’s documentary on that.

I did a lot of work with Canon, because they bought some of the copies of my film to put with the 5D and it was all about starting something. These days you can just get a camera and start shooting stuff, whether it’s a documentary or whatever. That’s why things like Tropfest really encourage the community to get out there and do stuff. I think it’s just about getting a group of friends together and having fun. Desert Dash, even though I was probably pretty stressed, I had a great time when I look back on it. It was a really small crew and everyone just worked so hard on it and really cared.

How long did that take you to put together?

We shot in July, because I was on a commercial until two days before it. We shot for four days I think, but it was a 12-hour drive to Lightning Ridge so it was definitely an adventure, but it was fun. I had been out to the outback a few times before. I was not at all interested in Australian cinema when I was younger, because I always wanted to travel and explore the world, but then I started watching all the old classics and I was like, “F**k, it’s such an amazing landscape we have here.” I just wanted to shoot something out there.

So you shot it, edited it…

I didn’t shoot it; I directed it, wrote it, edited it.

What are you working on now?

You mentioned a doco about your dad; is that what you’re working on? Yeah, I’m working on that at the moment. I just did three commercials for Bonds, too. One comes out – the Christmas one – this week. And I’ve just been trying to get Desert Dash into some festivals.

Do you have any tattoos?

No. This is big for me to have pink hair. I don’t have my ears pierced either. I’d like to get a tattoo. I don’t know what I’d get though.

You’ve got to be careful. If I had a tattoo for every year since I was 16, I’d have the shittest tattoos in the whole world…

Yeah, I’d have to think. When Sam passed away I had thought about something, but I don’t know if I’m ready for it.

Who would you say are your role models?

God, I don’t know. I like people who are interested in their body of work but it’s not like they do the same thing for their whole life. I’m trying to think of an example of someone who might have acted but then got into doing magazines, or whatever – women like that who have had amazing careers. Lot’s of different people are role models…

Was there no one who took you under the wing and showed you the ropes?

I feel like Michael White did that.

You’ve already spent a bit of time working over in the US; do you plan on going back over there?

Yeah, I’ve got my visa there. I feel like in the States, I probably went negative about it because I didn’t work as much, and it’s been really good to be back here and I’ve been busy all year working. In LA, I didn’t like having no money to travel and waiting for the phone to ring, even as a director. I think when I’m in Australia I always want to leave, even though I love it. At the moment, I just finished two jobs and I don’t have a ticket out of here, so I’m going a bit mad.

Sydney is a socially confused city these days…

Yeah, but I feel like it comes good around now. Do you know what I mean? When you feel like they just turned the heat up a bit.

Now’s the time to be here, for sure…

That’s why I’m like, “I’ve made it all this way.” I flew to LA and Toronto a month ago, but other than that I’ve been here for six months straight, which is the longest I’ve ever been anywhere for the last five to 10 years. Desert Dash is actually playing in LA, New York, and Chicago in a few weeks. I was like, “F**k, maybe I should go before Flickerfest.” Then I was like, “No, it’s too cold.”

Is the Russian model a real person? Why don’t you move to Bondi with her?

Yeah, she’ll come to Flickerfest. I’ll invite her.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Gracie Otto?

Oh, stay alive. I mean that in all honesty. I just want to have a good time and not get too sentimental. Have fun – that’s the main thing.