Gracie Otto

From Sydney Film School to Hollywood

by Nicole Newton-Plater

Australian educated filmmakers are highly regarded the world over and no more so than in the centre of global filmmaking, Hollywood. We caught up with a few SFS alumni who are plying their trade in L.A to check out what they are up to and get some insight into how to break into the Hollywood film scene.

2009 Sydney Film School Alumni, Agnes Baginska, won a full scholarship to the David Lynch MA film program at Maharishi University of Management and was mentored by the filmmaker in his studio in Los Angeles. She has continued to work there ever since. Agnes describes the town as the Mecca of filmmaking and a city that revolves around film as a business.

“Statistically speaking, there are approximately 650 movies produced per year in the USA, while in Australia it’s closer to 40…numbers say it all” Baginska says. “Because there are so many productions happening there, people are attracted to it…but it’s a catch 22 because there are thousands of filmmakers arriving in L.A. every year hoping to make it, so the competition is fierce”

Melanie Jayne, who graduated from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma in 2015, is currently working in Los Angeles after winning the 2016 Village Roadshow Entertainment Group and Animal Logic Entertainment Internship. Jayne agrees that there are far greater opportunities in LA than there are in Australia as it has a relatively small industry in comparison.

“Australia nurtures a lot of terrific talent, but unfortunately there aren’t always the opportunities to grow in the field there are here” she says.

But the size of the Australian filmmaking scene is also seen as beneficial to those Australians who are trying to break into the Hollywood glamour.

Lee Launay, graduated from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma in 2010 and now works part-time in the United States in Art Direction. Lee has found that his education and background in Australia and working in the Australian film industry gave him a head start when seeking work in the U.S.

“I started small by landing an Art Director roll on a short film produced by James Franco called City Bus. I felt intimidated at the prospect of working with Franco, but soon realized that everyone was really impressed with my level of dedication and professionalism” Launay explains. “I realised that the Australian work standard is extremely high and also highly valued due to the size and competitive nature of the job market here. That also made me realise that having an Australian training was indeed a privilege”.

Gracie Otto, who graduated from Sydney Film School in 2007 and has gone on to direct several short films as well as the critically acclaimed feature length documentary The Last Impresario, also believes that having worked in the Australian film industry and being educated here is a great positive when working in Los Angeles.

“As far as talent and crew go, Australia can match anything in the States” Otto says. “There are so many Australians doing great work in the States and I think they have a good reputation here”.

Sydney Film School has been recognised by many as one of the top film schools in the world and it will therefore come as no surprise that it has an impressive record of nurturing Australian filmmaking talent to take on the world. The education which students receive at Sydney Film School is a hands-on filmmaking experience with teachers who have worked in the industry. Upon completion of their Diploma or Advanced Diploma, students have been equipped with the right tools to be career ready and feel as though their filmmaking journey has already begun.

Kate Hickey graduated from Sydney Film School in 2006 and moved to the United States straight after to start her career in editing in New York and has since progressed to Los Angeles where she has just finished editing the documentary Roller Dreams and an episode of HBO’s “Girls”. Hickey says that Sydney Film School taught her to love and be passionate about the art form of editing and nurtured this love so that she was able to start her filmmaking journey in the United States straight after graduation. When asked advice for people beginning their filmmaking journey to the United States, she says “It’s easier to get lost in the backwaters if you don’t keep your wits about you. Use your instincts and do what you love”.

Melanie Jayne is also quick to agree that what she learnt at Sydney Film School has helped her make the most of her time in the United States.

“The Advanced Diploma program at Sydney Film School gave me a really great holistic view of the filmmaking process from the development to post-production of a film” she says. “While the work I have been doing at my internship has strictly been in development, it helped me to have such a well-rounded knowledge of the film process”.

When Gracie Otto was asked how Sydney Film School has helped her with her work in the United States, she says “I think the fact that I just hit the ground running at Sydney Film School. I was there only a couple of weeks and I had pitched to direct a film and then I was making it…the immediacy of working that way has given me confidence to tackle any job I am offered”.

There’s no getting away from it, finding your feet in Hollywood is tough. As you step through those glass doors and into our fabulously vintage foyer for the first time, the bright lights of Hollywood may seem a million miles away. However, it may be reassuring to know that many of your predecessors have successfully trodden that exact path and that an SFS education, a supportive alumni group and entry via the Australian Film Industry can certainly provide you with a head start if that is your journey.

 

Meet the Filmmaker: Gracie Otto

In a special “life after film school” themed ‘session, SFS was lucky to play host to graduate Gracie Otto for this week’s ‘Meet the Filmmaker’. As a director, editor and actress –among other things (she’s also pretty good at indoor soccer) – Otto is one of Sydney Film School’s most successful graduates and was keen to share her work and experience with the students.

For the last three years, Otto could easily be considered a strong contender for “busiest person on earth” as she’s sprinted from one corner of the globe to another to put together her first feature documentary “The Last Impresario”. The documentary chronicles the life and work of esteemed theatre and film producer, Michael White (The Rocky Horror Show, Monty Python).

The film is produced by Nicole O’Donohue who has also been teaching a producing course at our school.

Labeled “the most famous man you’ve never heard of”, White’s tributes in the film have come from some of the biggest names in the biz, including (but not restricted to) Naomi Watts, Kate Moss, Yoko Ono and John Cleese.

Otto confessed that, upon meeting White in Cannes a few years ago, he struck her as ‘this very sophisticated old man who was, in the early hours of the morning, still holding court at the party’.  Having spent a little time with him, however, she was astonished at all the people he knew. This, she says, is what intrigued her enough to look closer and eventually, tell his story.
last-impresario-002

Above: A young Michael White

It hasn’t been an easy road for Otto. She has spent almost every dollar earned travelling the world for interviews (at one point visiting numerous countries in the space of a few days).  It’s not been all bad, though, with dinners with the who’s who of the film world, including spending the day at Jack Nicholson’s home (only for him to later decline an interview).

Otto claims that she never envisioned herself as a documentary filmmaker and it’s to her great credit that any one of these setbacks would surely be enough to dishearten the most intrepid of documentary filmmakers. Students also got to enjoy an entertaining “blooper reel” which highlighted some of the more humorous difficulties Otto had to take in her stride.

As stressful as the process undoubtedly was, Otto sounded as though she’s enjoyed the ride. There wasn’t the slightest hint of intimidation at the names she’s interviewed and it’s difficult to imagine that her enthusiasm for the film has ever dropped. It’s a great example for graduates to be setting: this is the sort of temperament that gets films over the line.

We were also fortunate enough to take a look at some of Otto’s work as a student, including a film she made in high school, “Kill Blondes” (starring another SFS graduate, Maya Newell), and her thesis film, “Tango Trois”.

Otto was also Sydney Film School’s first Advanced Diploma student. The film she made that year, “La Meme Nuit”, is a wonderfully choreographed dance of infidelity and is a great example of how a student’s work at SFS can provide a solid platform on which to build a career.

As always, there were good pieces of advice for our students as well. Otto says it’s easy to get caught up promoting a finished film – her advice is to move on to the next project as quickly as possible. She also had words of advice on the importance of networking. It’s important, she says, to “make friends” rather than contacts.

The common thread along this semester’s ‘Meet the Filmmaker’ lineup has been how approachable and down-to-earth each guest has been. That’s an important lesson in itself. It felt only right that we finish off the ‘Meet the Filmmaker’ semester with a filmmaker and graduate who embodies so much of the Sydney Film School ethos and exemplifies exactly how the traits borne of that ethos can drive a project over the line.
Congratulations to Gracie and the team for receiving post production investment from Screen Australia!

You can follow Gracie Otto at www.ralffilms.com, and keep up with ‘The Last Impresario’s progress at www.thelastimpresario.com. Also, make sure you check out Gracie’s SFS films on the Sydney Film School website. ‘La Meme Nuit’: http://www.sydneyfilmschool.com/films/film-database.aspx?film=10547 and ‘Tango Trois’: http://www.sydneyfilmschool.com/films/film-database.aspx?film=10730   

Twitter: @gracieotto @lastimpresario