What were your experiences of business like?
My first was during the ’80s bull market where all these corporate raiders were poaching on companies that had good values and stripping them down and getting rid of people. I guess
I was questioning whether this was the way business happened. Discovering Warren Buffett was one of those “ah-hah!” moments where you read something that is so counter to what was happening in the industry. He was this wholesome guy who many Americans knew, but not so many Australians. He was one of my business heroes.
And so we jump forward to your late thirties. You’ve been married, had children. You’ve had huge success in business.
I don’t know whether it was huge success. I came back from business school and helped set up a private investment management business. I guess it depends on how you value success. It was financially rewarding. I think we created a great franchise. I learnt an enormous amount personally. I had great enjoyment going over to Warren Buffett’s meeting every year, which doubled each time. By the time I made the film Woodstock for Capitalists there were probably 25,000 people attending.
Woodstock for Capitalists?
Yeah, that was an interesting turning point. Because when our youngest daughter was born, I was just in pre-production to start filming.
So hang on. We’ve got to go back. How did you find yourself in filmmaking?
I guess the storytelling bug was still there. I loved seeing lots of theatre and watching films and documentaries. And I thought, If I don’t make a film now I never will. But to make a film you need a good story. And after going to Warren’s meeting in Nebraska for all these years, I suddenly saw it right under my nose. I wanted to know what was taking people to the middle of America to see this guy in his 70s talk about business. In many ways I was also trying to examine my own behaviour because whenever we went over there, we’d eat at the same restaurant he did, order the same steak.
You were a groupie!
Absolutely. And it became quite obvious on that journey and especially during the making of the film that it was about shared values more than money. You could have gone to any meeting in New York. It didn’t have this broad church of people. They would line up for hours to get their autograph and photo taken. It was a joy! And I felt that was worth capturing on film. Warren Buffett once described it as “a really fun home movie.” And it was. Now it’s a home movie we share with millions of people around the world. The thing I love is how it impacted the family. The Buffetts would apparently screen it at Thanksgiving for years. And Warren’s wife, before she died, wrote me a letter. I felt the tears in her eyes saying, “Thank you for understanding Warren. And thank you for treating him with respect ‘cause he’s a great person.”
This feels quite defining. You’re a businessman and a father and all the things that were expected of you growing up. And then you put a toe in very different water.
Yeah. This bomb had gone off and it was one of the most joyous experiences. I remember having that difficult conversation with my dad. You know, at the ripe old age of 38. That’s how weak I am.
Why weak? I think that’s normal.
Well, there are different types of bravery, but feeling fearful about a conversation with my father—who was the gentlest, most understanding person—was weak. And it was a big moment saying to him, “I want to be a filmmaker more than I want to manage a funds management business.” Hearing myself say it made me realise that’s what I wanted to do.
What did he say?
He wasn’t comfortable with it. But I think he realised that if I was having that conversation then I’d thought it through very thoroughly. And after really questioning the whole notion, he never once dissuaded me from doing it ever again. I wasn’t absolving my responsibilities. We’d set in place an incredible investment company. There were people far more passionate and capable who were going to take the reins. One of the things my wife and I always dreamt of was giving our kids an extraordinary experience so we took them out of school at ages eight, six and four and drove across the States and Europe and home-schooled them. It helped me to make the physical shift from being a businessperson. It was a really empowering thing. It reminded me of that scene in The Motorcycle Diaries where young Che Guevara and his companion rode away on a mission, and there was this sense of freedom. There are very few times in life when you have that sense of freedom. One of them is after you leave school. Then usually after you leave a job, or university.
What was the response from people in the business world?
I did feel when I entered the documentary space, especially making a film about a businessperson, that I was looked upon with great suspicion. And I think equally there was this assumption that I’d go in, make this film, get it out of my system and go back. But I knew in my heart that it was a point of no return. In the film space I felt like an imposter for many years. I would hear comments like, “It’s alright for him. He’s come from the business world. He doesn’t have to struggle. What does he know about documentary filmmaking and the stories we’re telling?” I think that gave me the courage of my conviction—this is what I really wanted to do. Which helped in the hard times. It’s bloody hard making a film.
When you’re there for three years week in, week out, working with homeless kids or telling stories about child abuse, there’s no red carpet. And there’s a huge amount of sacrifice. When you’re out in the dark and the rain, and no one’s bearing witness to it. That’s where you realise that this is what you want to do. And you’re prepared to make those sacrifices. I think you realise in time that it doesn’t matter where your starting point is. But because I came from an incredibly privileged background—see I still have difficulty saying it!
I don’t know! I think there’s something associated with whether inherited wealth is a dirty word or fortune. I guess in some ways I feel it’s because of my fortunate upbringing that I’m driven and able to tell these stories. I’ve had a great education and I’ve had an incredible business background. I can harness those experiences.
Yeah. I want to talk about your time as chair of the Sydney Theatre Company, and why you suddenly stepped down.
I guess on one level people generally stay too long in positions of power. I think most CEOs and managing directors stay way too long. All politicians stay too long.
In some instances a day is perhaps too long. I had the great privilege of coming on at a time when my predecessor had set the ball rolling with Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s appointment. Which was so exciting. But it was a time where I’d made a decision not to go on any outside boards. I only wanted to create stuff that I had a direct influence on. So we just set up the Documentary Australia Foundation, which I was chairing. When James Strong, the STC’s chair, asked me, it was almost in slow motion ‘cause I had a sense that he might be asking me to rejoin and it was a “no, don’t do it!” sort of thing. But I accepted, and over those three years not only did
I have the privilege of appointing Cate and Andrew, but with them we made the whole company energy efficient, took on new sponsors and recreated a really dynamic and probably the most successful philanthropic department in any arts company. In many ways there wasn’t much point hanging around. I’d done three years, and David Gonski had made it public that he didn’t have any arts company involvement—he was sitting there waving his arms. So I felt it was time to move on, to actually appoint probably the best chair in Australia.
You closed that chapter.
At that same time I was really questioning whether or not I was prepared to make
a big complex film. And I was sitting in the stands one night watching a play and seeing the actors sweat. Seeing people laugh and fall asleep and feeling how these actors must be sensing the audience. And they were down there working their hearts out, at times having tomatoes thrown at them as well as getting the applause. But they were there in the arena.