Twenty-five years ago, Christine Vachon was a young woman in New York City, syncing dailies on Bill Sherwood's seminal queer film "Parting Glances." Little did the 22-year-old rebel know she would go on to a career that is among the most distinguished in independent film: Producing all of Todd Haynes' features, from "Poison" to "Mildred Pierce," as well as seminal American films "Kids," "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Happiness," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Boys Don't Cry," and many others.
Recently celebrated at NewFest, New York's annual LGBT event, where she was given the festival's inaugural Visionary Award, Vachon spoke to an audience at Lincoln Center's new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center about her early years in the business, her collaborations with Todd Haynes, and how she's preparing for the future.
"I often get asked about the so-called queer cinema, and what it was and what it meant," said Vachon. "And what gets taken out of the equation," she explained, "is the sense of urgency. People were dying all around us and we were so young. I think that a lot of filmmakers went to that extra place to get their stories out there, because they felt, if they didn't, they would never be able to. And I think that informed a lot of those early movies."
While Vachon herself was surrounded by ACT UP activists, she said it was Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" - a 16mm experimental documentary filmed entirely with Barbie dolls - that really activated her approach to daring cinema. "It was a film that was a real catalyst for me," she said. "This is a movie that is provocative, it's entertaining, it's well done, it has something to say – and those are the kinds of movies I wanted to make. And once I realized that, it started me on a trajectory of making those movies."
At the time, Vachon felt that groundbreaking early gay films like "Parting Glances" and "Longtime Companion" soft-pedaled formal and thematic issues - she thought they were "bourgeois," as she writes in her book "A Killer Life." During the early '90s, Vachon's maverick attitude put her at odds with the queer establishment.
"We were never on the right side of the gay politically correct," she admitted. "When we made 'Swoon,' people got really upset. GLAAD got really upset. In fact, I have yet to go to a GLAAD event. And it was the same year as 'Basic Instinct,' which was being reviled. (But I'm like: 'it's about a rich gorgeous lesbian who murders horrible straight man - what's so bad about that? Why is that not a positive image?') But we were being tarred with the same brush, and it forced a discussion, and probably one that we're still having, about what makes an image gay positive or not gay positive?"
When Vachon made Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol," about murderous lesbian Valerie Solanas, it didn't help matters.
Still, Vachon remains known as the industry's preeminent gay producer. But she doesn't like being pigeonholed. "We really do a lot of women's films and we really do a lot of gay filmmakers' movies, but I don't put that in front of: Is the movie great?" she said. "But what makes a movie really gay? It's like that other question: What makes a movie independent? You can argue about it until the cow comes home."
As an example, she asked the crowd, "Is 'Mildred Pierce' gay? I produced it; Todd directed it; somebody described it to me as 'gay crack,' but there's not a gay storyline in there."
Reflecting back on her relationship with Todd Haynes over the years, Vachon spoke extensively on their collaboration, and how difficult it's been to make their movies over the years.
"Each movie was insanely difficult to get financed," she said. "We had to really be in the trenches together; you can only do that if you have absolute trust. That doesn't mean we don't disagree. We often do. And I'm not afraid to tell him that I disagree with something that he wants to do, and he's not afraid to tell me if I'm not seeing the forest through the trees, and vice versa. But at the end of the day, I think he's one of the best filmmakers of his generation and I'm just delighted that I get to go along for the ride."
"In film producing," continued Vachon, "there is an inherent tension between the director, the money and the producer, and that's what keeps it flowing and honest and accountable. Sometimes, when I work with financiers or a studio, they see my job as the one who has to tell the director he can't have something. And that's a drag. So I have to figure out ways to come up with creative solutions, before I tell him what we're up against, so it's not a state of crisis. And Todd knows because of our long working relationship and our trust, he knows if I come to him and say we're really up against it and we have to cut something, I'm not just saying this to save money."
Vachon also described Haynes's unique habit of alternating his features, "making one for the boys, and then one for the girls," she explained, from the "crazy, fractured often music-driven narratives," such as "Poison," "Velvet Goldmine" and "I'm Not There," to the more straight narratives that "don't deviate from Hollywood in form, but in content," such as "Safe," "Far from Heaven" and "Mildred Pierce."
As the independent film industry shifts and evolves, Vachon also spoke about her willingness to embrace such changes. "The real question right now is the way we're forming communities in different ways, the way filmmakers are finding and aggregating their audiences and the way we consume media is bound to have an effect on the kinds of stories we tell. All of those things, I grapple with those constantly," she said. "And for the most part, I think it's exciting. That kind of access is a lot more exciting than when I started out 25 years ago, and it was the rarefied few that could buy that can of film and rent that 16mm camera."
"There is no excuse not to make your own movie anymore," she said. "And when a director comes to see me now, I except them to have a short film, and I expect it to be good."
Vachon also noted the difficulties of the indie film business right now—working twice as hard for half the pay—and no longer having the "luxury" of simply being "a feature film producer." "Which is what I did for years," she said. "But what I tried to do when I realized our business was changing radically, I tried to change with it as quickly as possible."
So in addition to producing Ramin Bahrani's latest film, currently shooting in Iowa and Illinois with Zac Efron, and prepping Hilary Brougher's vampire film "Innocence" for the fall, Vachon's Killer Films is also busily operating its new management division, considering ways to harness new media and developing projects for television.
"The only way to sustain a career," added Vachon, "is to be as prolific as you can be, and open to opportunities."
[Editor's Note: indieWIRE co-hosted the event honoring Christine Vachon at NewFest, which took place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last weekend.]