The Godmother of Independent Cinema
CHRSTINE VACHON on HEROES
von Caroline Bernière-Gaillac
In Christine Vachons book A Killer Life, the director John Pierson describes her this way: “Frumpy. Blunt. Doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Unrepentant. Ruthless. A killer even“, while Todd Haynes says, "She is the kind of producer who will lay down in front of a train to get a film made“.
Christine Vachon like a heroine? In some ways, yes: the heroine of American independent cinema. More than twenty years now that she is on the film industry mapand over 100 controversial produced indie films. Among the most notorious, KIDS (1995, directed by Larry Clark), BOYS DON´T CRY (1999, Kimberly Pierce), I`M NOT THERE (2007), FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002, Todd Haynes), HAPPINES (1998, Todd Solondz), GO FISH (1994, Rose Troche) etc.
With her own company, Killer Films, and three loyal partners - Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel and, more recently, John Wells - she rocks the stage of independent film business and has produced the most singular and bold works of the last decade. Her own definition of hero - “Some determination, strength to succeed in something that seems impossible to anybody else” - could actually be applied either to a film character, either to what she has done as a working-behind the scene leader of independent cinema! By reminding her first steps in Berlin Film Festival years earlier, she laughs: “The Germans thought I was Shamus’ secretary since it was rare to see female producers. They had no category for me.” Christine Vachon like the Hollywood fighting woman? Indeed, and as John Pierson points it out, “If she hadn’t produced these films, would anyone else have been able to make them happen?”
However, she still claims that she never seeks to be controversial or provocative on purpose. And her fellow producer Katie Roumel confirms: “It is just where our instincts and proclivities lead us, to being attracted to that other way of telling stories and seeing the world. It’s probably why we’re all togetherin an office.” By launching into a project production, the only question Christine Vachon asks herself is: “Do we feel passionate enough regarding this script to go through such a hard process?” So far, passion leads her choice and she has never been afraid to produce newcomers. Even more, she especially enjoys the tremendous passion and urgency that get first time directors to tell the story they carry for years. When she started out with Todd Haynes, she reminds, “I wanted to take Todd’s ideas and make them happen, alone if I had to.” She still looks for innovative projects that have never been seen before, unconventional stories “in tune with the social and political realities of the times: the ravage of Aids, or the complexity of gender, social anomie, American style.”
Despite her movies are very characters’ driven, the American producer also notices that “The most dangerous movies Killer has made are the ones that reflected the real world back with the last amount of artifice” and stories definitely without clear heroes or redemptive arcs. They indeed keep challenging viewers and the usual idea of identification into films. As Christine Vachon says proudly, unlikely protagonist is not a problem to Killer Films and, by talking about her well protected director: “One of the great things that Todd Haynes always does in his movies is that he plays with where your sense of identity is and where lies are. I think that’s always his great challenge to see if he screws it to such a degree that you’re still able to find that identification and that satisfaction in the movie.”
This trick to challenge identification in the films she produced also applies to her in a funny way. In order to survive in the Hollywood business jungle and stay relevant, she fast understood how to become a “moving target”. That means continually challenge assumption as a producer, the same way an artist would do. By producing KIDS, she learned from Larry Clark to rethink every element of filmmaking and took the challenge to an entirely new level. At last, for the release of that risky film, Miramax even created an independent arm Shining Excalibur. Almost unseen before!
Known for doing “edgy”, dark material and for getting an aggressive political agenda, Christine Vachon has also been really fast branded “Gay producer”. Then, despite her wishes, she has a reputation to uphold! And she confesses quite amused that it finally gave her a reason for being. Unexpectedly it helps to become a target in this business, “Enemies can be your assets.” And, whatever happened, her statement belief remains the same years after: “I built my company on a rebellion against conventional taste, against the no-rough edges, film by consensus style, until that rebellion itself became part of Hollywood.”
How does it feel to be an independent producer in the US?
A lonely job and risky business, sporadic returns, more enemies than accountable people, but: “Who the hell wants to be a producer?” exclaims Christine Vachon.
However, while most of the indie companies that were on the map along with Killer Films have now disappeared (Shooting Gallery), absorbed into the studio system (GOOD MACHINE’s producers) or even gone out of the business (Cary Woods, KIDS’ producer and Scott Greenstein from USA Films), Killer films is still on the inside, as much independent as it was at its beginnings. “We've managed to stay in business and, at least, part of the reason is we have been very persistent and pragmatic about the way we do it. We haven't ever changed our formula” ensures Christine Vachon.
Persistence, without any doubt: SAVAGE GRACE (2007, Tom Kalin) was under development for 14 years, and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005, Mary Harron) for 13 years... But what’s about pragmatism? As a short reminder, independent US cinema runs without any crutch. Instead of European producers, American ones can’t take advantage of soft money and subsidies. Therefore Christine Vachon has to find the right balance between creative and commercial decisions to finance her films. Meaning, the films produced have to fit into the system in a way or another, no matter how art house they are. Her creed: “Let the budget be your stuck!“ and she first looks for something that she can sale, that she can get great actors attached themselves to and people interested in. Briefly, “To listen to the market place when they tell us how much is the real value of that movie and then try to fit into that box.” A pragmatic speech that is far away from the ones that we usually got in European independent cinemas.
She also expects from a director that he makes compromises and she argues that you can’t just take the creative point of view away from the financial one in that business. Regarding Killer way of producing, John Cameron Mitchell declared, “I like the way they made movies: with no bullshit, no egos, grass roots, efficiency.” Remembering I`M NOT THERE, Vachon says, “We were in a constant situation trying to figure out how to make a movie like that with the money we had. “ However she admits that sometimes it is impossible… During the production of FAR FROM HEAVEN, the most expensive film Killer has made until now, she went over budget and lost control to the advantage of the completion bond company. To learn to deal with the chaos that is an independent production is also part of the producer job!
Christine Vachon collaborates with the best ones, from Fox Searchlight to Vantage and Warner Independent. They are partners and she shows them gratitude, reminding how Warner still went on to support INFAMOUS (2006, Douglas McGrath) and release it while CAPOTE (2005, Benett Miller) was around. This time, Warner gave Killer Films a precious confidence. Therefore there is no declaration of war to the studios from Christine Vachon. Though she is said to be “The Godmother of independent cinema”, she doesn’t fight the wrong battle. Because, anyway, what does independent cinema actually mean?
Initially, it’s to make a film independently financed and then to sale it. It was the way Killer used to do. But most of their films are presold to distributors long before now. Thus Christine Vachon points out how much the previous definition is meaningless and why, in such a context, the flavour of money has definitely to be put aside to define what is the independent cinema. All the more so as films, made outside the boundaries of mainstream, have slightly made their way to the studios – BLAIR WITCH PORJECT (1999), THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) – and also independent directors like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez became studio gigs. Since the 2000, studio specialty divisions and independent financiers have grown in number whereas there are fewer major studios.
What is left of independent cinema?
As Vachon says it straight, “Independent film” as a media brand, never interested her. What she cares about by staying in the independent business, is to protect a singular vision and make an author compelling and driven film, things that actually made her reputation and reflect Killer personality. Ultimately, she associates independent film with “the freedom of the vision behind it.” That is the only reason why it means so much to her to preserve her autonomy among the industry. Whereas most of them relentlessly try to go “inside” Hollywood, Christine Vachon remains fiercely wild. Given to her, “the only way inside is by doing the real work outside: do what you love, do it consistently, and everything will follow”. That’s precisely what she does and it pays off!
The success of BOYS DON`T CRY, a groundbreaking film made for 2 million dollar and sold for 5 million dollar has been the turning point that catapultedher and raised Killer’s profile in Hollywood. The director’s Kimberley Pierce docudrama about the Brendon Teena Story won the Academy award and its main actress, Hillary Swank, a Golden Globe award. A difficult and marathon production but with a tremendous end, as well as FAR FROM HEAVEN, another production like a war zone, that was in competition at Venice Film festival, won at last a grand price and got laudatory reviews. All the things that help Christine Vachon to forget right away the hell of production!
Going across twenty years of film business, her best advice to young producer keeps being: be flexible, adapt to the system and its changes. “We are rapidly changing the way we consume media, and traditional means of distribution just aren’t as relevant anymore.” She applies this rule to herself by launching into TV production and having an overhead deal with the TV Producer John Wells.Well aware that TV medium, far less risked than cinema, provides an unexpected market for storyteller with singular vision, she grabbed the opportunity and produced with Todd Haynes MILDRED PIERCE, a 5.5 hour HBO movie. These new mediums are to herthe future of independent cinema: “I feel like it is about to figure out these different methods of distribution and making them work for us. That’s what is gonna help the independence: make that market and say, “Yes ten million people download it”. It’s the way that came out and then the studio will follow.”
An another thing that John Pierson says about Christine Vachon: “She has another, little known side, which is that of a show tune queen.” Nothing surprising that she would be described this way given that her overall priority keeps being the audience and to know where goes people’s interest.Talking about her films, she says, “They should appeal the audience who they are being made for.” And concludes, “If that audience doesn’t want to see it, then I haven’t done my job well.”
At last, her inexhaustible enthusiasm and faith she still gets into the audience tastes and expectations is what keep her going on and struggling. “I try to work and make my life in left field. I´m convinced audiences will continue to meet me out there. Left field is where most of us live.” At the end of the nineties, Killer was the David to Majors’ Goliath. Do the parts switch now? Killer as being Goliath? Even though Christine Vachon made clear she has no intention to give up her independent filmmaking thought. Her golden rule remains: “Your ambition should be greater than your money”. Her commitment is: “I have no fear when it comes to movies, except mediocrity”. And her only goal so far: “To stay in the business”.
- Vachon, Christine with Austin Bunn: A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond, Limelight Editions, 2007.
- Vachon, Christine: Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter, Avon Books Inc., 1998
Interview with Christine Vachon by IndiVision (Independent Individual Visionary)
1. Low Budget Filmmaking
2. Money has a Personality
Interview with Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes about "I´m not there" during Film Festival (2007):
Interview with Christine Vachon during London Film Festival 2009 (Five US):
Interview with Christine Vachon during Provincetown Film Festival 2007 (WGBH Forum Network):
Interview with Christine Vachon by The Film Society of Lincoln Center (2006):