There’s no arguing that Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler’s New York-based production company Killer Films is synonymous with the indie film movement. Since breaking out onto the indie scene in a huge way by taking the 1991 Sundance Film Festival by storm with their Grand Jury Prize-winning stunner “Poison,” directed by a then up-and-coming Todd Haynes, Killer Films has made good on their breakout calling card by becoming one of the most influential indie production companies in the game (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Far From Heaven” and HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” are among their most high profile projects to date).
And by all accounts, their stature shows no signs of dwindling. This year alone, they have a staggering seven films either completed or nearing it, two of which are world premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend: “Magic Magic,” starring Michael Cera and directed by Sebastian Silva (“The Maid”), and the long-in-the-works beat poet biopic, “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Elizabeth Olsen and Ben Foster.
Indiewire caught up with Vachon and Koffler earlier this week in New York to discuss their Sundance slate, how the festival has evolved over the years, and their thoughts on the other Silva/Cera collaboration that just premiered last night, “Cystal Fairy.”
We’re less than two days away from Sundance. How are you two keeping up?
Vachon: You know, it’s been the curse of Sundance — and I say this with tremendous gratitude, of course. It’s after the holidays, which means that unless you’re that rare movie that’s finished way back in October, you’re usually finishing it over Christmas and New Years, which isn’t for the faint of heart.
When did you lock on both films?
Vachon: Oh (laughs), like last week. They were both mixing over the holidays.
Having seen your company grow in stature over the years in tandem with Sundance’s own growth, how has your relationship evolved since first breaking out with “Poison.”
Vachon: Actually the first time I went tot Sundance was with my own short film, and my short film was programmed by Alberto Garcia, who worked under Tony Safford…A long time a go (laughs).
The festival, when we brought “Poison” and “Swoon” there, it wasn’t really a place you went to sell films. There wasn’t a market there, not really. And then “Go Fish” sold there — that was the first film of mine to sell at the festival. But the thing is, look, we’ve had our fair share of disappointments at Sundance like anybody else. But I have to say what I’ve really seen over the years under Jeff’s guidance and now under Cooper’s, is that the festival has really managed to stick to its own guns.
Koffler: It’s always like this catalyst of thought. What does it mean? How do we take away what Sundance showed and how the business was and what movies were working, just on a creative level — and talk about it. It’s a reflection and a refraction at the same time.
How do you view the festival now? When you go with two films, as you are doing this year, what matters most: getting the film swiftly picked up, or garnering a positive critical reception that could help lead to a coveted future deal?
Vachon: Well they’re related you know what I mean? Look, when you go to Sundance, you want your movie to be one of those lightning rod movies that everybody’s talking about. The amazing film about a film festival is how the rest of the world falls away. Everything is just about the movies. And then of course all the business, what sold for what.
Was Sundance always on your minds when first conceiving “Kill Your Darlings” and “Magic Magic”?
Vachon: Well “Kill Your Darlings” absolutely. He’s a first time filmmaker and his short showed there. Also the subject matter — that kind of personal filmmaking is really right for Sundance.
And “Magic Magic,” Sebastian premiered “The Maid” there a few years ago and that put him on the map.
How early in the process of making a film do you start thinking of what festival would be the best fit?
Koffler: It’s really decided by when you think you’ll be done.
Have you two ever put a film on a shelf for an extended period of time in order to premiere at the festival you deemed a best fit?
Vachon: I don’t think so.
Koffler: I think there’s enough opportunity in festivals to really time when it’s done and ready. I can’t think of one where that was an advantage to say, “Let’s not go to Toronto. Better wait for Sundance.”
Beat poets seem to be all the rage right now in indie film, thanks to films like “On the Road,” “HOWL” and last year’s documentary “The Beat Hotel.” What do you account for this sudden interest in this world on film?
Vachon: I don’t know that it’s so sudden. The reason I feel the beats are always kind of with us in this way is because there’s something about the books, the poetry and the way they lived their lives that feels extremely young and full of possibility. I feel like because of that, it allows a new generation to discover them. I mean I remember…I sometimes tell this joke that a million years ago when we were making “Velvet Goldmine,” Jonathan Rhys Meyers came to set and was listening to “Blood on the Tracks,” and he said to me “Have you heard this, it’s so amazing!” And I was like “Everybody’s heard that!.” But he was 18-years-old. But Bob Dylan has that quality in a way — that timelessness that allows each generation to say, “That’s mine.”Did you cast someone like Daniel Radcliffe in an attempt to help a new generation discover the beats via your film?
Vachon: I wish we were that well thought through. I think Daniel really was great for this and it kind of all came together at the right moment. One thing that became really clear to me while we were shooting up at Columbia University and the students were going so insane, I realized they grew up with him. Hopefully his audience of those films will be curious enough to see this film.
So how long has “Kill Your Darlings” been in development? I feel like I’ve been reading about it for the better part of three years, dating back to when Chris Evans and Jesse Eisenberg were initially involved.
Koffler: 2007 I think is when I first read the script.
Give me the short reason why it’s taken so long to make it to the screen.
Vachon: Sometimes movies just have their moments. This year, a number of our movies did it. We made six movies since the beginning of 2012.
Koffler: In the time that transpired between reading the script and saying “Let’s go make this,” the way to make a movie like that evolved into being possible. There’s a certain type of investor that’s really material driven. Three million is the new five million trend really became true in terms of how physically to make this film. I feel like with all the films we did in 2012, that’s why they all got made in the same year. It was a real combination of entering into the business with the right kind of investor and the right kind of project we were looking for, combined with physical ability. Things all converged.
John Krokidas, the director, has some very well received shorts to his name, but was he a tough sell on you as a first time director to tackle a story this ambitious in scope?
Vachon: Well, first time directors are our thing. Look, first time directors tend to tell the story they’ve waited their whole lives to tell, and it very much felt that way with John and Austin’s script. It felt there was a level of passion and commitment that could make up for inexperience.
With talent like John, do you feel the need to nurture them while on set, or do you let them be?
Vachon: The train wreck of a low budget movie, what would you call it Pam…nurturing, triage?
Koffler: I think it’s more just sort of emotional triage — creative chaos management that masquerades as a creative producing. Because it’d be nice to be in a candy shop and say “I really think this choice is the best to tell your story, so let’s do that.” When in fact, there’s one thing and then you have to kind of task and sort of make it look like a whole. It’s keeping everyone in tact and focused and on task in a productive way to make that choice the best for the movie.
Vachon: The budgets we’re dealing with, we have a downward pressure, but the ambitions don’t go down. We don’t really want them to, as creative producers, but at the same time, it’s never been more challenging to get that 20-pound sausage into a two-pound bag.
Koffler: But what I’m finding interesting about that reality, about that work in progress, is that you have to really then adjust your focus to what really are this film’s strengths and guide the process towards supporting it. When it’s a really limited budget, it’s like is it the style of the film, is it the audacious way of telling it, is it that we have these amazing actors and it’s about the performance? So don’t worry about the size of the frame, the production value. Is that true, is that real? That your sort of justification about how to make this movie really well on a low budget; is it an experiment that’s succeeding?
I guess that’s what low budget filmmaking always has been. But I feel like it’s really extreme right now. Filmmakers are expected to do so much with so little. Like “Kill Your Darlings” and a number of films we’re doing now, they require a certain amount of brick and mortar production value. You got to dress these people in period clothes. They have to drive period cars. You have to have their hair in a certain style. That just takes work, time and money. So once you divide up the budget under such limitations, how do you still make it good? That’s the challenge. I think we’re doing it well, but the marketplace and the audiences will ultimately judge that.
Moving onto “Magic Magic.” Given the synopsis, the films seems like a huge departure for Sebastian. Would you say that’s the case?
Vachon: Yes and no. “The Maid” to me is like a domestic horror story. He has an ability to just kind of command the mis-en-scene, for a lack of a less pretentious word. In some ways “Magic Magic” reminds me of a Polanski film in that totally assured tone and tension building.
One of the biggest surprises when Sundance first announced their lineup, was that Sebastian had two movies playing, both starring Michael Cera.
Given that you’re not involved with “Crystal Fairy,” were you aware of the other film while making this one?
Vachon: Basically, Michael was in Chile with Sebastian and we were scrambling to pull the financing together. They were in Chile waiting for us to pull the financing together and they made a movie! They actually made it before we made “Magic Magic.”
At one point when we were finally arranging for everything, Sebastian was sort of like, “Oh you know, while we were waiting we made this movie. Maybe you would want to see it?” And I was like, “Wait, what?!”
Are you pleased with the fact that it’s also premiering this week, before “Magic Magic,” or does it create friction?
Vachon: I’m just happy for Sebastian. I can’t imagine there’s another filmmaker who’s had this experience: two feature films at Sundance. I mean it’s an extraordinary story. Look, I’m happy because I think everything he does is extraordinary and I want him to keep doing it.
One last question: “Kill Your Darlings” is rumored to be even racier than “On the Road.” True or false?
Vachon: You’re going to have to wait and see.