Christine Vachon delivers the State of Cinema address at the San Francisco International on April 24, 9:00 pm.

On Producing Killer Films

Dennis Harvey April 18, 2011

In terms of artistic achievement, it's safe to say no producer has contributed to independent American cinema over the last two decades like Christine Vachon. Does anyone even come close? She started with a bang—Brown University classmate Todd Haynes's 1991 debut feature Poison, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, commercial success and target of right-wing attacks. She then contributed other notable titles like Swoon and Go Fish to the early ’90s "New Queer Cinema" movement, started her own production company, Killer Films, and embarked on a remarkable career of steering adventurous projects and filmmakers onto the screen.

In addition to her continued work with Haynes—including the Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven and I'm Not There, as well as new HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce—she's produced films by the likes of Todd Solondz, John Cameron Mitchell, Mary Harron, Robert Altman, John Waters, actors-turned-directors Helen Hunt, Ethan Hawke and Tim Blake Nelson,and more. Without her we likely wouldn't have Boys Don't Cry, Happiness, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kids, or several more among the most memorable Amerindies of the last 15 years. She's also somehow found time to write two excellent books, Shooting to Kill and A Killer Life, that offer more real insight into how movies actually get made than a shelf-full of similar tomes put together.

As busy as ever, the 49-year-old Vachon found a few minutes to speak to SF360 as she was about to board a flight to Dublin last week. She'll be here in San Francisco next week, as deliverer of this year's San Francisco International Film Festival State of Cinema address (Sunday, April 24, 9:00 pm).

SF360: As someone who reviews movies, I frequently am guessing blind why aspects of a film do or don't work, without knowing anything really about its production circumstances. One of the most harrowing and revealing accounts I've read on that score was in
Shooting to Kill , where you discussed how nerve-wracking Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine became when a third of the financing disappeared just before production started. That's an exceptional example, but you've repeatedly said ‘It's a frustrating business sometimes’ in terms of all the obstacles that can arise.

Christine Vachon: Yes. That said, though, the only way you can survive as indie producer is to be relentlessly, almost foolishly optimistic. ‘Oh, Julia Roberts passed...but she wasn't really right for the part anyway!’ It becomes a matter of, how do we take everything that's happened and still get this movie green-lit and off the ground?

SF360: Given your track record, has it gotten easier?

Vachon: No, it just gets different. There's always that movie you think you're going to be able to raise money for super-easily, then it turns out to be super-hard, and vice versa. We have managed to stay in business, which is in some ways the great achievement of my life—running the same business for 20 years when others have dissolved. We always say Killer Films is like cockroaches after the nuclear blast. We've learned to eat plaster.

SF360: To moviegoers who watch films beyond the Hollywood mainstream, it seems like there are still plenty of independent features being made, playing festivals and arthouses. Yet we've heard that securing funding and distribution has gotten much harder in recent years. What's happened?

Vachon: I think that we're in a time of great change. A big part of that is that simply theatrical [distribution] is still alive, but the ways in which we consume media are changing drastically day to day, having great impact on the kinds of stories we tell. There are so many ways for it to make up [a film's] budget now, there are more opportunities—video-on-demand for one—for distribution than ever before.

SF360: How do you choose projects?

Vachon: It's a mix. I have to feel like the script or idea is original, something exciting, something I haven't seen before. Indie film right now it's all about original voice, because that's what makes it an alternative. Audiences aren't stupid. If they're not going to a mainstream commercial film, they want something they haven't seen, with a genuine original vision—whether it's Blair Witch, Napoleon Dynamite or Poison. Then I look for the creative team—I want to make sure they can articulate their vision clearly and effectively, that we're all making the same movie. And I have to feel it's something I can sell. To me, what ‘commercial’ is, is a film that makes its money back. It doesn't have to make a hundred million.

SF360: You've produced over 40 features and shorts in two decades. The successes we've all heard about. Any notable disappointments?

Vachon: Velvet Goldmine is one of those to some degree. I love it, but it didn't do well theatrically. Yet more than any of our films, it has gone on to build a big following. Now there are dozens of fanbases devoted to it—not the usual Todd Haynes fans, who tend to be brainiacs, but teenage girls who write fan fiction.

SF360: If you had advice to give a young writer or director hoping to enter features at this point in time, what would it be?

Vachon: I'd tell them to really make their minds as open as possible to all the ways we're telling and saying stories. When I see young filmmakers now, they have means of production we never had—we had to shoot on film. It's a whole new day: You can shoot something small on your cell, post it on YouTube and have 20,000 viewers by the time you go to bed. One of the things that was fascinating for me at Sundance this year was sitting down with Ryan Higa, who's a huge (Internet) star, and one of the things he was talking about was finding and building a community on YouTube for his movies and the ones his friends were making. That made me really happy. They're building communities online the way we used to by going to Film Forum.

Mildred Pierce represents something of a new direction for you in that it's got talent behind and in front of the camera that are normally associated with features, yet it's a five-hour cable miniseries. You've also moved into producing some web content.

Vachon: Yes, we're doing more of that [web shorts], plus we started a management company. We're trying to find as many ways as possible to give our filmmakers ways to work. A few years ago I started noticing that young filmmakers who came to talk to me were as interested in working in TV as in film. I realized they'd grown up with great TV like the The Sopranos, The Wire—whereas I grew up with The Brady Bunch. So they didn't look down on the medium. I feel like now that pendulum is swinging toward the web. . .somebody soon is going to make something fantastic that will have the web in its DNA, and things will change once again.

SF360: One of my favorite quotes from
Shooting to Kill is ‘You cannot be a producer unless you understand that it's all your fault...That said, I yell at people all the time.’ Still true?

Vachon: Yup. Both of those things. But my bark is way worse than my bite. The hardest thing about producing is pushing something forward. It's a hard thing to describe and explain. Somehow you need every single movie you're working on to keep moving forward constantly. Not every successful producer is necessarily a forceful personality—but they all understand that.