Australia’s Greek tragedy

Interview with Mystify: Michael Hutchence Director, Richard Lowenstein

After premiering with a bang at Tribeca earlier this year, Mystify: Michael Hutchence is releasing in cinemas across Australia on 4 July.

In anticipation, we caught up with Director, Richard Lowenstein to hear about making a documentary about one of Australia’s most famous rock stars and close friend, how AIDC’s FACTory Pitching Forum helped the project get off the ground, and what audiences can expect from this intimate story of an artist.


Mystify: Michael Hutchence is an intimate look into the life of one of Australia’s most famous rock stars. What is it about Michael that has intrigued fans so much, and what was it that ultimately inspired you to create this personal documentary?

I think Michael appealed and intrigued across an extremely broad spectrum of audience demographic and gender boundaries because he combined extreme talent and charisma as a performer, with a refusal to put on a persona mask that so many contemporary pop and rock stars use – either as a marketing tool, or as a way of protecting themselves from the microscopic analysis and judgement that usually comes from being in the limelight. Michael was just himself on stage. There was no artifice, there was no pretension; he was just what you saw.

What inspired me was the mythological nature of his story. It was all there like a perfectly written and structured Greek tragedy, complete with its own Greek chorus of friends, collaborators and lovers. The psychological archetypes were there. It had yearning, it had villains, it had loyalty, it had both unrequited and unconditional love and a back story that psychologically steered and shaped our hero’s journey. All I had to do was to find the ‘Rosebud’.

You knew and worked with Michael for many years, including directing him in the feature, Dogs in Space. Did your relationship make it easier or harder to craft the documentary?

My relationship with Michael made it easier logistically to creature a documentary that had the level of intimacy that we felt was essential to an honest telling of the story. I needed the trust and support of those who had been close to Michael who had never spoken before. I also needed the tone of interview where the friends and collaborators felt like they were talking to a friend and not a stranger.

On the editing front, knowing and befriending the subject makes it harder because you are always in danger of eulogising or creating a hagiography, but that is where our ‘co-directors’, Lynn-Maree Milburn and Andrew de Groot, really bring an objective and creative eye to the telling of the story with a constant creation of material, refinement and constructive criticism of every minute detail.

The documentary includes many stories from Michael’s personal life and relationships, through interviews with those closest to him. How did you choose who to interview, and how have their stories shaped the story we see?

I interviewed everyone I could think of – PA’s, bodyguards, recording engineers, tour managers, personal trainers, the barman at the Sebel Townhouse. I wanted all the profound connections and experiences, even if they were only for a few months. People who would normally be overlooked, not just the obvious long-term close friends and collaborators. Sometimes Michael would share a very insightful profound moment with a complete stranger, but the moment would stay with them over years. An enormous amount of audio material and stories was collected too, showing a multitude of facets to Michael’s character. We went through it all with a fine tooth comb to find pieces that would help illuminate each part of the story – even if sometimes it was just one line.

The audio interviews that made it into the film and helped create the shape of the film just seemed to rise to the top in terms of both the interviewees’ level of understanding of what was being observed. I wanted authentic ‘eye-witnesses’ sympatico to what they were observing, narrating each part of the story with an intimate perspective gained from actually being there, which would then be passed on to the audience.

Did you uncover anything about Michael in the process of making the film that you didn’t know before?

I think we all discovered that the story was far more complex and emotional than we had initially thought. We discovered an Oedipal side of the story that was much more powerful than we had originally thought or known about, and we discovered some of the secrets he had been holding inside that he didn’t want the world to know about. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Michael had an open and genial character, with a desire to be liked by everybody, which made him very easy to manipulate and attracted an array of undesirable characters keen to exploit him for their own gain.

At the beginning of the film, Michael says words to the effect that it must be terrible to go through life and not find at least one love. At the end of the film, what will the audience think about that line and Michael’s relationship with love?

That is our premise. It is the theme that sets up our story. Is our hero going to find the love he yearns for? And the song at the end that he sings, ‘I wanna be loved by you...’ is perhaps the ‘Rosebud’. The answer is designed to make us question what ‘love’ means, and what it meant to Michael. Is it a yearning for the familiar? The happiness of youth, beauty and simpler times? The roar of the crowd? The love of an absent mother?

What impact did Michael’s brain injury have on his career thereafter?

Untreated TBI on the level that Michael had creates cognitive issues, focusing issues, inability to navigate complex situations like the ever-changing pop music industry and troubled emotional landscapes, a tendency to paranoia, sporadic aggressive outbursts and bi-polar mood swings. The anosmia he suffered took away his sense of smell completely and 90% of his sense of taste which in turn increased his disconnection from his environment, creating a feeling of floating in outer space. It put him in a high risk group for suicide.

You’ve approached Michael’s story as a Greek tragedy – why did you decide to frame it like this and what effect does it have on the film overall?

I didn’t decide. It is just how it was, complete with powerful and flawed mother figures and vengeful gods throwing down bolts of lightning at us mere mortals. Michael from childhood had been set up to being vulnerable to the Oedipal myth where he had to kill his ‘father’ in order to sleep with his ‘mother’. And that was always going to end badly.

In 2016, the project was presented at AIDC’s FACTory Pitching Forum in Melbourne. How did this help the project gain momentum?

The AIDC’s FACTory Pitching Forum was an essential part of getting the project out into the financing environment. We had received development money from Film Victoria, Screen Australia and the ABC to create a pitching trailer to screen in front of the assembled buyers, distributors and broadcasters, which did most of the work. I pitched the trailer with the added passion and enthusiasm of a very enthused EP, Glenys Rowe, whose background at SBS Independent spoke to the assembled industry professionals.

Through that pitching forum we were able to gain the interest of Kate Townsend of the BBC, Mandy Chang of ABC Arts and Paul Wiegard of Madman Entertainment. Mandy and Kate then took the project to the multiple Oscar and BAFTA winning producer, John Battsek of Passion Pictures. John was able to convince an additional private investor to come on board and our finance plan was complete.

What are your hopes for the film’s distribution – locally and internationally?

I believe the film needs to be experienced in a cinema, so I hope that the film gets released theatrically in every territory possible before a long tail of DVD, SVOD, and Broadcast TV.

There has been a resurgence of interest in documentaries about musicians and singers – why do you think this is?

Audiences have always been interested in the lives of the cantors, travelling minstrels, musicians and singers because they expose themselves on stage in front of an audience and live brave, insecure, raw and sometimes tumultuous lives, whether they are successful or not. Their path is not always an easy one emotionally or physically and it is often very difficult to sustain a consistent and sustaining human connection through it all. The profession has a tendency to attract sycophants and leeches looking to feed off the attention being stirred up, which in its turn can create emotional and physical drama, all set against a background of appealing music.

Film Victoria has supported this project, both at development and production stages. What has the impact of this support been on the project, financially and otherwise?

Film Victoria’s support at development and production stages has been essential to getting this project off the ground. They are the quiet and stable high achievers of development and production funding. They understand the hurdles often placed in front of productions such as ours and stay steadfastly strapped to the mast while others tremble. Their documentary project officers are experienced producers who support your production with the knowledge and understanding of their own industry experience. They are firmly behind the filmmaker’s need to retain creative control and editorial independence and back you up when this is threatened.

Mystify Michael Hutchence is a significant project for Ghost Pictures – what does it mean for the company, and the kind of projects it produces, going forward?

Ghost is a boutique production company whose identity is based on creating unique and finely-crafted productions in both the narrative drama, series television and documentary worlds. The three principals of Ghost, Lynn-Maree Milburn, Andrew de Groot and Richard Lowenstein, are creatively involved at every level and stage of production to ensure that what we produce is of the highest quality possible. We have firmly resisted being turned into a sausage-making machine turning out product for the sake of turnover and spreading ourselves too thin. Hopefully Mystify will help enable us to continue in this field and achieve a level of self-sustainability without any reduction in passion and quality of production.

What will viewers take away from this film?

I hope the audience take away a celebration of the spirit of an artist and all that it entails. The film is a fable-like tale that takes you on an involving, intimate and dramatic journey no matter whether you aware of the artist’s work or not. It is also an authentic record of an important historical figure in the world of music. Overall, viewers will take away some insights and a greater understanding of the human condition.


Mystify: Michael Hutchence hits cinemas on 4 July. Watch the trailer here.


Image: Richard Lowenstein and Michael Hutchence